Initial Research – St Fagans

Last Tuesday we made a trip to St Fagans National Museum of History just outside Cardiff – an open air museum which contains buildings from different historical eras from all over Wales. We were asked to identify the five things below as a starting point for making.

  1. Functional artefact that intrigues you: Tiny windows

Surprisingly for me, the artefacts that I found most captivating were the buildings’ tiny windows. Lots of the houses at St Fagans where built at a time when glass was expensive or even when windows were uncovered and protected only by cloth or animal hide. As a result most are tiny squares that you have to make a conscious effort to interact with, looking in or out of. To us today, used to big windows that let in lots of light, the tiny windows appear almost prison-like.

I began thinking of how windows are interesting metaphors and remember discussing how in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights they are an important symbol of the division between nature and society, the threshold between the outside and inside world. Looking out of a window you can only see so far, you have a narrow viewpoint. Thinking about today’s ‘Collections’ presentation and how some of the images I chose were linked by the theme of ‘journeys’ ( a journey through life, travel, a walk…) it strikes me that in films looking out of windows often prefigures a long, soul searching journey, or at least the decision that something needs to change.
While researching windows in popular culture I then came across this short but fascinating article called ‘The importance of staring out the window’ which says

The point of staring out of a window isparadoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds’.

The article goes on to suggest that in a better society people would not have to feel guilty for daydreaming while staring out of windows, it would be seen as time well spent and reminded me of words from a poem called Leisure by WH Davies:
‘What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.’

As a result of this train of through, I want to consider ways people could interact with objects I make by looking inside them through openings or ‘windows’ of sorts. I want to explore the spaces inside objects. 

Playing around making tall forms on the wheel last week one of my pots got twisted and resulted in a beautiful swirling form inside the vessel. I love the throwing lines that are visible, they have a rhythm to them like a pulse or heartbeat. Could this interior form reference blood vessels, or the concentric rings of a tree trunk? Thinking about the power of repetition relating to collections, what if I had lots of forms similar to this, growing together?

2. Decorative artefact that complements its environment: Hanging objects

Not exactly decorative objects, but the way kitchen utensils were displayed by being hung, especially in the castle’s kitchen interested me. Although they’re useful artefacts they almost become a form of decoration. The rhythm of the vertical lines put me in mind of soundwave graphics as well as the first piece of work I ever saw by Anne Gibbs – a collection of hanging slip-cast forms.

3. Restful space: The Castle gardens

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I came to the castle gardens toward the end of our day, looking for somewhere peaceful to sit down for a break. Thinking about working in this kind of environment I thought back to throwing at La Perdrix in France and how I enjoyed the peacefulness of working outside in nature. I decided if I was asked to create an outdoor sculpture to be situated at St Fagans it would be growing out of the lake like the lily pads.

4. Disturbing space: Bedroom at Abernodwydd Farmhouse

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Carved into the headboard of the large sturdy four-poster bed was the word ‘death’ and a stick man holding what looks like a bow and arrow. It made me think of how much history the bed had, generations of families must have been born and died in the very same one. This farmhouse and the other ‘long-house’ Cilewent Farmhouse were dark, smoky and claustrophobic spaces even in the brightness of mid-day and would have only been lit by dim rushlights.

5. A building with an interesting human narrative: Prefab house ‘Tin palace’

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Image: www.peoplescollection.wales

This aluminium bungalow is an example of the prefab houses that appeared after the second world war to house people who had lost their homes in the bombings. With so many refugee crises in the world today, the housing crisis and people losing their homes due to rising water levels, it felt relevant to today’s world. These bungalows were manufactured by factories that produced aircraft during the war. Rather madly, a factory which, during the war created war machines to destroy homes, in peace time became a factory to rebuilt homes.

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On the roundness of things

On Friday we spent the morning with Jon Clarkson in the ceramics archive room discussing the relationship between art and ceramics before having a chance to explore the archive documents ourselves. I came across an inspiring article in ‘Australian Ceramics’ magazine (47, #2) dating from July 2008. Written by Phil Elson it discusses ‘the roundness of things’ 

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The article raises some interesting philosophical ideas

‘This is what pots can do for us: take us to places that otherwise may be inaccessible – places that remind us of the roundness of life.’

When explaining what he means by this metaphor he quotes Mr Curly (a Michael Leunig character): ‘what seems vital is whether or not the day is spacious, in which case the roundness of the day is perhaps the most important factor. After all a round day holds happiness most successfully  – happiness itself being a rounded shape… it is the roundness of life which matters. A round life is surely a happy life – and I dare say – it is a good life’. 

I was struck by how beautiful this idea is, and it speaks to me of how simple pots are often the most wholesome and honest. There’s a stillness to Elson’s work that suggests the ‘presence’ he feels while working ‘in the moment’ with clay.

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He describes how you lose yourself in the moment while working with clay as: ‘We allow ourselves to be still, to be lost, to be in our own skin‘. This reminded me of a concept called ‘flow’ described in Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s eponymous book about the psychology of happiness. In a state of flow you focus so much on something e.g. a particular activity that you feel a special kind of stillness and contentment. I definitely feel this is true of the throwing process for me.

Elson also mentions coming to a point of unease about the work he was making three years previously and even considering giving up making pots altogether until a friend told him “The greatest contribution you can make is to be as close to yourself as you can possibly be.” This is a profound sentence and can be applied to everything in life. Surely to understand ourselves, what motivates us, what our fears are and to be honest with ourselves about our feelings is the first step to understanding what we are going to make. It feels sometimes as if the shapes are making themselves, pushing themselves out from our actions into existence.

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Quoting Bernard Leach he further suggests the pots we make are us : ‘The pot is the man: his virtues and vices are shown therein…no disguise is possible’. As someone who constantly and painfully compares myself to others, to be reminded that everything I make is unique and only I could have created it in that exact way, is a reassuring thought that my place here is somehow valuable.

I created a monster

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Here we are, right at the end of the year, and I finally feel I’ve found a process which really excites me. Combining throwing and hand-building I get the benefit of enjoying two very different techniques – the throwing is cathartic, a quick way of making lots of forms that hold space, then the hand-building is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, intuitive, taking careful consideration of the balance and weight of the piece.

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Work in progress

I want to see how far I can push this technique, how big I can build. The individual sections can be thrown fairly quickly, the slow process is the controlled drying and fitting together. Considering pieces were falling off even on this scale, it will be a challenge to create large scale work but I’m eager to try it. I might get hold of a heat gun to have more control over drying, secure joints with extra clay and use foam to prop up the structure as I’m working on it. The final centrepiece above feels organic, like a piece of driftwood or seaweed, but at the same time the even throwing lines and geometry of the form reference the industrial. I had some trouble with sections falling off before firing and during the raku as I tried to pull them out of the sawdust. Fortunately I could get them to stick back together with some epoxy. If building one large sculpture this way is too much trouble I can always fire lots of pieces separately then glue them together afterwards.

The glaze I made was intended to be blue, the same duck egg raku glaze I’ve used before (see recipe here) (with the omission of about 10% of the Tin oxide because it ran out). To get in the awkward nooks and crannies of the concave and convex forms I decided it would be easiest to use the spray gun. I’ll be using the spray booth a lot more often now I realise how easy it is.

I was surprised when the glaze came out of the sawdust a dark pink/purple but I expect it’s to do with ferric chloride left over in the kiln lining from previous firings. I’m pleased with the unexpected results – where the flame has licked the work it’s turned metallic silver and the surface has character and variation with patches of yellow, white, black and texture among the pink and purple. It reminds me a bit of an octopus or a squid reaching its suckers out to grasp its prey, or a homemade robot from Robot Wars. There’s something hostile and dangerous about it, perhaps because of the dark colour. The shadows created with the light from above in the photos give the sculpture a gravity defying look, as if parts are floating. Duncan suggested I should experiment with placing lights inside to see how different shadows can be cast.

This project has definitely been more process driven than idea orientated. Because of the raku there’s something dirty-looking, perhaps ugly about the piece. In the context of a centrepiece this links back to ideas I had at the beginning about dirty dishes. It’s not something that would put your mind at ease during a meal, for me it conjures up anger or a raging storm. I began by calling it a monster but maybe a storm would be more appropriate. It interests me that it looks very different depending on where you sit at the table. It’s dynamic, like the conversation at a good dinner table should be or it might also reference broken crockery. I’ve moved very far away from my original ideas of an interactive, functional object. I hope it would be an inspiring conversation starter.

 

Narrative and Metaphor

This week’s subject based field focus was on narrative and metaphor in drawing.

We drew inspiration from last week’s exercise of drawing our individual pathways through the university and the way these lines crossed and intersected when laid on top of one another. This, we thought, was symbolic of the way our lives are woven together like individual threads in a messy ball of yarn. The pathways through the building could be metaphors for our journeys through life, full of twists, turns and unexpected encounters. We considered how all of us group members were like converging lines at this point in time, although for some of us, our lines had crossed previously, sometimes with us being aware and sometimes without.

Originally we wanted to use tracing paper to layer line journeys in different colours but decided the effect would work just as well by drawing them all together on a large sheet of paper using different colour sharpies. It was a really fun activity to do because we found ourselves trying to devise storylines for the characters whose ‘life lines’ we drew. A black line for a reclusive character who’s only interaction is with the shopkeeper on the corner street who he meets on the rare occasions he leaves the house. A complicated tangle of lines for a couple having an affair. The parallel lines of two siblings growing up together then gradually going their separate ways. The undulating lines suggest the ups and downs of life. The physical activity of drawing on such a large sheet of paper required us to climb over it and lean in awkward positions a bit like when playing Twister – the game itself a kind of metaphor for entanglement and the crossing of lives.

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