Monday, September 9, 2019

LOOKING IS A CHOICE.


Looking is a choice but seeing requires the brain to engage.
It is generally assumed that we see with our eyes however these are simply receptors of light and it is the brain that is interpreting what is projected onto the retina. Unless the brain engages when the eyes are open and looking at an object then we will register very little detail. A casual glace, a quick peep or taking a butchers can be the starting point to seeing but in itself results in no lasting image that can be recalled at a later date. So when asked what was your favourite thing in the exhibition, and nothing springs to mind then you can be sure that while you ticked the box that said you had been there with your eyes open your brain was elsewhere. I can imagine in a few rare cases this could have occurred with my own “All that I do” exhibition. There is however so much to see that it is hard to imagine anyone not finding something that triggered their brain into making a closer inspection.
Although the space is very generous I soon discovered that even before the hanging began the nude and portrait paintings would not find a place, and that the other diverse images would need to be hung two or in some cases three high, more on the style of the mass hung Royal Academy Show. Hanging some pictures at a lower level meant that on Saturdays, when there are a lot of children in the art centre, there was also a level of excited delight as they eagerly pointed out pictures of animals before peering through the windows of the dolls houses. In some respects the younger children are the easiest to engage as they pounce on every new image with a freshness of spirit that us older seen it all folk find hard to rekindle. However during my Saturday attendance there were many who on realising that all that they were seeing came from the hands of just one man simply had to tell me how wonderful they thought it all was. I stopped counting the number of times people said it was one of the best exhibitions they had seen in An Lanntair and even as I popped out to get some lunch people who recognised me came up to congratulate me on the show. So I would say that was success enough. Red dots can also be a regarded as a measure of success and I am pleased to say there are a few even in these uncertain times. With most items in the £200-400 price bracket and ranging from under £40 up to £2800 there could be said to something for everyone. I was however still asked if I had postcards for sale, which rather shocked me as everyone seemed to be snapping away with their wonderfully silent smart phones. I suggested to one man that if he bought the picture he liked that he could make the postcards and in selling them by the thousand recouping his outlay and have the original plus a profit. I don’t do prints key rings or fridge magnets and will never be a commercial successful commodity arts like Jolomo.  
Just before leaving for home I spotted two young girls sitting beneath the six biblical stump work tapestries and it made me realise that there at their fingertips lay the irresistible seductive gateway to a world I will never be able to compete with. No going viral for me unless they happened to have photographed those needlework’s and uploaded them onto Snap Chat. Weird to think that images of my work are being shared on little hand held screens around the world, and even these words might be read by people I’ve never met or likely to meet.          

Monday, September 2, 2019

Saturday in Stornoway.


An interesting day at An Lanntair with plenty of people through. All sorts from the genuinely astounded through the intrigued and close looking to the handbag over the shoulder out shopping and casting an eye around but seeing nothing. From this last category thankfully I found only one; a well-dressed but rather arrogant looking woman with a timid mousy female friend in toe. They managed the full tour of the gallery and the arrogant taller of the two stood out immediately by the way she sauntered past the bulk of the exhibits without a second glance. They drew my attention initially as they came in laughing about some private joke or was that a reaction to seeing me sat in the old green painted tree trunk chair in the process of stitching. The feather bird pictures they simply did not see which to be fare has been the case for quite a few. Within most exhibitions there is usually a dead space which can often depend on which way you approach it and as the birds are place to the right of the first entrance people tend to turn left and are certainly drawn by the large centrally hung New Tolsta tweed map. So the birds are often side-lined or only appreciated when approached from the opposite direction. Even then many people don’t question why they look three dimensional and fail to look closely enough to detect that they are in fact made from real feathers, consequently we have yet to make a sale from that wall.

I told myself to calm down as the arrogant woman walk past the stumpwork embroidered box that had taken an entire year to create without a sideways glance. It simply didn’t register although the large shell overmantel mirror did merit a look, or was that her simply admiring her own reflection. I turned away to concentrate on my embroidery and told myself not to be so stupid to allow anyone so shallow to irritate me. This is only a tiny part of the price one pays for sitting in on your own exhibition. Thankfully the major part has been a total delight with an interested audience hold interesting conversations.
Towards the end of the afternoon I got into conversation with a group of young students and I was reminded how stimulating young adults can be when further education has triggered the enquiring mind and they’ve momentarily forgotten about their smart phones. They were full of insightful questions about art which pushed my thinking into new areas and approaches that made for excellent banter and a jovial exchange of reasoning. It made me realise how uplifting young people can be and how in my rather solitary existence I miss that interaction. Is this a sign of growing old?
The evening was rounded off perfectly when a friend bought me one of the last tickets to a full house performance of Stornoway Way. Three young women on stage the entire time depicted a stirringly witty and often profoundly sad display of what dangers there are for the young people raised on these islands. From their apparently idyllic upbringing they are thrust into a world that they are ill prepared for, where education has left them unqualified, religion represents the shackles and rigidity of parental failures, job prospects are limited and alcohol and drugs provides solace if not answers. A grim picture which can touch all of us even if it’s simply the fact that we somehow managed to escape that trap into adulthood. The laughter from the audience and myself was at times tinged with a sense of recognition, “that could so easily have been me”.               

Friday, August 30, 2019

DEEMED OFFENSIVE.



I certainly had never imagined when embroidering an image of Adam and Eve that it could be deemed offensive to anyone. I was however taken aback somewhat by the comment from my aunt, one of the first people to see the finished image. “Oh Tom it’s horrible” she exclaimed.
To have solicited such a strong reaction made me look at it in a slightly different light, and I soon realised that stump work if executed in the sumptuous 17th century fashion could indeed be bordering on the grotesque. Throughout the 18th and 19th century young girls stitched na├»ve samplers often depicting Adam and Eve either side of the tree bearing the forbidden fruit, with the serpent coiled around its trunk. I don’t suppose for one minute those young girls thought that their delicate work could be seen as offensive but to our strict Scottish Presbyterians there are no such acceptable illustrations of bible stories. As a child who did not start to read until 9 years old illustrations were my only hope of finding faith. Now I am thankful for the failure of those picture less pages.
When I was sent a copy of the intended poster for the “All that I do” exhibition I was delighted to see that they had chosen the image of Adam and Eve, even though it had been sold back in 2017 and would not be on display it remained a strong eye-catching image. The first inkling that there might be a problem came when I asked one of the shops in Stornoway if they could display a poster. They were quite happy to do so but on seeing the poster they thought there shop assistant might not be so keen. I advised the young assistant to stay well clear of the exhibition as there were other images that I considered could be even more offensive such as the naked baby Jesus, shock horror!

I was keen to get a poster up in North Tolsta village shop and post office but by now had serious doubts. Sure enough it was given the thumbs down so I have selected a more neutral image to entice them through the doors of the gallery and then hit them with some hard biblical porn. So far there has been only positive admiration for what those visiting rightly see as extra ordinary work.

I have never been too sure exactly what the roll of a minister is but certainly one of the results of their ministration on these islands is to use the so called word of God to strike fear within his flock so as to exert total control. My ideal God would be one who requires no ministers and I suppose my own belief is one that is self-administered and as such benign. I believe in this living world and the record of time held within our earth’s crust. Sooner or later time will get the better of the human race and we also will join the growing list of fossilized dinosaurs. The evidence is non-existent for God having created our universe, and while a believer is willing to accept all other discoveries and advancements of science, Darwin and the theory of evolution is a no go area.
 Maybe Adam did name the animals that he discovered around him but surely we are doing that today. Just as some life forms becoming extinct others are being discovered. Does that unshakable faith render us so arrogant that we think extinction is only for lesser forms of life than ourselves? There have been times when walking in remote regions I’ve stumbled on a quiet dell where crystal clear waters cascade over moss covered rocks and the sun finger through a fresh green canopy into cool rippling pools, a Disney World image of heaven that requires no God. Unfortunately with the present population levels there seems to be an ever increasing need of Gods to offer a different form of control beyond that of governmental.  
So what does this God look like, surely nothing like the kindly old white haired gentleman in my needle work who holds out a python for Adam to name? He would be only too easy for children to confuse with the gift bearing St Nick. And which God should I chose, there are so many on offer. I’ve learnt from experience that it’s not always advisable to pick the cheapest and I think I’ve left it too late to become a follower of football, so maybe a smartphone is the answer to my prayers.
Here ends the second lesson according to doubting Thomas.            

Monday, August 19, 2019

FAITHLESS FREEDOM.

Detail from Adam naming the animals.


Those of us who stitch will know that one of its more convenient sides is that it is transportable and in many cases can be done anytime anywhere. Having grown used to people seeing me stitch in public and on public transport it felt only natural to continue creating during an exhibition of my stump work embroidery (Feb 2017) at the Victoria Gallery in Bath. I spoke with a wide variety of people but it was a London taxi driver who simply could not believe that I was without faith and yet produced such work. To him God’s hand had to be guiding me at some level. I explained that not being a believer in God did not render me helpless and on the contrary it left me free to colour my own world, even on a Sunday.
Detail from Adam and Eve.
 
I never questioned the logic of adding stump work embroidery to the growing list of my skills, thinking only of all the creative possibilities that would open up. I stitched my first stump work sampler as my own way of celebrating sixty years on earth. The depiction of a Hebridean crofter’s paradise surrounded by Scottish thistles. I continued the sampler theme with the very traditional subject of Adam and Eve and found myself reveling in the insect and animal life. My method of working is heavily influenced from years spent painting in oils to now drawing and painting in wool where often little more than a rudimentary composition forms the starting point. The rhythmical nature of the work is not only therapeutic but allows me to surrender myself into a world that is focused in and around the point of the needle, there is no preformed pattern, no question of getting it wrong, simply a question of following the thread.
Detail from Noah's ark.

Having started on a biblical theme I then looked for more images within the bible that contained animals and so started the series of six stump work embroideries. Each images took a minimum of three months to complete. Much of Noah’s ark was stitched in Western Australia even during the flight home and as I sat on the cool marble floor of Doha airport the entire cabin crew looked on with admiration and almost disbelief that such a thing could be done by the human hand. My persistence rather than patience saw me continued stitching through a Hebridean summer and into the darker winter months with power cuts and no prayers offered I remained close to the wood burning stove in Brittany. It is often said that an artist must suffer for his or her art and in sitting down for that length of time certainly aggravated my back problem to the point or having a second MRI scan. Now I have learnt to vary my work pattern and make sure I move from studio to garden, get out to the peat bank or walk up onto the moor or down to the sea.
Detail from Daniel in the lions den. 

My first encounter with stump work was at Cotehele House in Cornwall where in a bedroom whose sumptuous walls hung heavy with tapestries and an oak four poster draped with crewelwork seemed the most deliciously peaceful place to slumber. There opposite the bed hung a 17th century stump work decorated mirror with impossibly fine stitching. Later during my years as an art and antique dealer I lusted over the possibility of acquiring a casket the mecca in terms of stump work but none came remotely near to my price range. So now, having perfected my own technique seemed the right time to produce my own stump work casket. This project took an entire year to complete and by then stitching had become such a way of life and a means or relaxation that I continued for a further six months to produce a second casket.
Detail from The peaceable kingdom. 

One of the most often asked question is where did you learn to do this work and so I felt I should at least look at a book or these days a U-tube video of how to do stump work. I was transfixed by the beautiful demonstrations, “So that’s how it’s done”. Oh well if I’d know that I doubt I would’ve even attempted such intricacy and I don’t suppose I would have ever discovered my own method of working. Discovery, often through play is an important part of creativity, the odd suggestion from those more knowledgeable can provoke further inspiration but I have always felt that to read the instructions should carry a spoiler alert. I work from observation followed by trial and error, where the errors can often prove equally interesting. So I encourage all those who find themselves laboriously working their way through a cross stitch kitten kit to put it away, buy some canvas and start playing. Putting it simply stitching is all a question of up and down, and the rest depends on what you do between that action, be it moving the needle or twiddling the thread. There may be skill to be admired in that faithful complex copy but time spent in playing someone else’s repetitive games will never see your unique soul step into the light and find the freedom of creativity. 
Detail from The birth of Christ.
            


Saturday, August 17, 2019

ALL IS SAFELY GATHERED IN.



After an exceptionally dry spring and a warmer than usual summer the peat dried quickly and by mid-July was ready to bring in. A working peat bank should be kept in order even during the drying months when there is seemingly nothing to do. The peat is thrown from the cutting face onto the upper and lower level to dry but being more exposed to the breeze the upper level is preferable. So once sufficient on the upper level are dry I raise them into hollow cones. I first noticed this method on a friends peat banks and he said it was traditional when they used to cut peat on the Somerset levels. Although this is not traditional getting the peat up into the air with as few making contact with the ground is the most efficient method of drying. It also has the added bonus of creating more space to bring all the peat onto the higher level ready for transporting. A few in the village had already brought in the peat and proudly displayed their skill in traditional stacking, while others had simply tipped them into the dry of the byre.

As usual the weather broke before I got the peat home but once dry the odd days of rain, even intense doesn’t cause problems as when hard it remains dry. I’d spoken with Murry and due to a wedding on the mainland it wouldn’t be fixing the double tyres on the tractor until early August. We made a provisional date of this Saturday but when the forecast wasn’t that good he popped by again on Thursday morning when the skies were blue and a stiff breeze meant no midges. We would go for it later that afternoon. I picked George up at five and as we rounded the corner on the coast road we could see the tractor and trailer already in place. The three of us worked well together with no great rush and as the peat rose above the trailer sides the wall building was better than the previous year when two up top had a job keeping pace with the arrival of peat. Between the two loads George and I remained at the peat bank and I was thankful of the light breeze to keep the midges at bay. The second load was half bags of crumbling peat and by half seven all was safely gather in.

I’ve been cutting peat for ten years now and although the work stretches me to the limit I still see it as an important part of the rhythm of Hebridean life. My next art project will be to bring people into my landscapes, not as tourist but as people working and having a reason for being there. There are few points of contact today that don’t involve some massive piece of machinery so cutting peat on the moor and working with sheep on the croft are the areas I have already started looking at.
 
 



Friday, July 19, 2019

TWAS NOT I WHO KILLED THE CARPET PYTHON.




Twas not I who killed the carpet python although I did skin it. Back in January 2006 I was on one of my walk about on the south coast of Western Australia. I had spent three glorious day roaming around Hammer Head and Little Wharton beach and was on my way back to Esperance when I caught sight of a very large snake at the side of the dirt road. I pulled over and reversed back to take a closer look. It was seriously dead having been run over about a foot from the head but it was also a seriously large carpet python with the remaining two meters untouched and with the most beautifully marked skin. WA has a lot of road kill, little of which you’d want to eat due to the heat factor, although my best find would have to be the Cape Barron goose………………delicious. I seemed to have lost my only sharp knife so resorted to a pair of scissors to cut around the snake and simply peal back the skin. I then snipped the full length of the yellow underside and placing it on the bonnet of the Land Rover proceeded to scrape any remaining fat. I gave it a wash down and popped it into a plastic bag with the aim of doing a better job of it as soon as I could find a sharp knife. About ten miles up the road at the Condinup crossroads there was a filling station and store. Having topped up with diesel I ask the woman behind the counter if she sold sharp knives. The reply came “What d’you want it for. I suppose it was just simple curiosity but I found myself hesitating to reply. As soon as I admitted it was to skin a snake her eyes twinkled and excitedly she said, “So was it the carpet python on the way up from Wharton?” she’d seen it on the way into work that morning. Having bought the knife she told me if I had any problems with being caught in possession of a snake skin I tell them to phone her at the Condinup shop and she voucher that she’d seen it dead before I came upon it, and although they would most likely take the skin off me there would be no fine.
In the baking heat of Australia it doesn’t take long for a skin to dry and I posted it back to myself in a box full of shells and weather wood. Most tourists go for the Koala cuddly toy or an aboriginal dot painted T shirt but I prefer some natural detritus that I can do something creative with. The following year I was making a series of small octagonal sailor’s valentine boxes to display a range of smaller shells and while most of them I veneered with Australian woods the one I made for myself was covered with the carpet python skin. This will be just one of many objects with a story amongst a vast variety of work on show at my upcoming exhibition, entitled “All that I do” at An Lanntair Art Centre in Stornoway throughout this coming September.          
 

Monday, July 8, 2019

I WAS TOLD IT COULDN'T BE DONE.


Warning this block contains technical terminology which may render it partially unreadable for those not familiar with loom weaving.

 Not on a normal four shaft loom I was told since the caorig blankets have a repeat lozenge pattern spreading over twelve warps. This may sound rather technical and as a total beginner I was prepared to believe those more experienced weavers. But having played around with all sorts of combinations of weaves and different heddle threading I felt sure there must be a way. So I started to draw out a simple lozenge weave and after an hour thought I had the code cracked. They would be proud of me in Bletchley Park. On paper it worked but in reality would it be possible on my little table loom? The only way I was going to find out was to have a go. I decided to keep the warp all the same colour so as not to complicate things even further which speeded up the time taken on the warping board. Threading the heddles was somewhat complex but there was a repeated sequence which soon started to make sense. I finished at half ten that evening having beamed the warp and tied onto the cloth beam rod. I was heading into Stornoway the following morning but could not resist just trying a few runs of weft. For a blanket this can be five or six strands of different coloured wool at a time so as to give a good thickness. I soon found that my rise and fall sequence of shaft lifting from 1 to 4 and over 12 warps was going to be a slow affair since the sheds opened up were not sufficiently deep simply to pass the shuttle through. Instead I needed each time to insert a batten and twist it to make enough room for the shuttle. I am well acquainted with time consuming work so this didn’t put me off and within a few rows I could see it was going to work, it could be done.