Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Daniel in the lion's den.

Stitched by Tom Hickman.

When I look at the stitching work I have achieved over two days it strikes me that a machine could have done it in a matter of seconds, given the right program with the corresponding image it could have stitched a perfect leopard far better than I could ever hope to achieve with my failing eyesight and fumbling fingers. So why do we bother doing anything by hand, what is it about the human hand, that human touch that values the handmade above the machine made?
Ever since man stood on two legs he’s been looking for a walking stick to make life easier; when he turned from tanning the hide to shearing the fleece it wasn’t long before he invented a machine to weave. Almost forty years ago I purchased at auction for the princely sum of seventy eight pounds five piece of framed embroidery, amongst them were two 19th century samplers, one early 18th century sampler, a religious embroidery on silk and a the framed front of a silk waistcoat encrusted with the finest of embroidery. On the backing paper of this frame was a text that stated this was the waistcoat of Sir Walter Raleigh. I sold it that same week for thirty eight pounds and since having studied work from this period am now convinced that someone got a bargain. Today it is hard for us to imagine how the human hand could have created certain pieces when spectacles were unknown and illumination was by candles or daylight.
During the heyday of stump-work a glass bowl similar to a goldfish bowl was placed on an adjustable wooden stand between the candle and the work so as to focus the available light.
For nearly three days I sat and unpicking an old remnant of Harris Tweed to get just the right tone of peach thread and reusing it for the leopard’s pelt. I overworked this with black and white to create those spots and watched the menacing image come to life.

According to The Bible Darius the King of Persia cast Daniel into the lion’s den but I decided right from the start to liven that image up to include a variety of big cat species.
The first rough composition sketch put a classical almost sculpted male lion in the centre foreground with the somewhat worried looking Daniel off to the left surrounded by cats, while top right a guardian angel floats unseen by the King who has come to inspect the fate of Daniel in his overnight accommodation. Even though the drawing onto the canvas is kept to a guide line minimum there is still a real sense of magic.
I’m often told that I stitch like I paint and that maybe so when considering mixing of colours and the use of contrast but wool certainly does not behave like paint and I find the slow progress is more like slow motion drawing that gives me the time to more easily access my inbuilt library of information.
I started stitching Daniel in the lion’s den in Western Australia, continuing in France and finally completing it during the summer months in the Outer Hebrides where I could source a more complete range of darker shades from my stock of Harris Tweed bobbins. To get enough detail and expression in the human face stitched in about a square inch is often a matter of chance but I was pleased to have achieved a degree of terror on Daniel’s face. 
As the separate pieces are assembled and stuffed with cotton wool the lay out of the picture changed and in order that the cats were well spaced I introduced an old tree for them to climb on, while pillared architecture was introduced to support the ceiling of the subterranean den and give the image more depth.

While waiting for my connecting flight at Doha airport the entire Qatar Airways on-board crew formed a half circle of admirers around me as I stitched. There is a fascination with textiles across all cultures and as soon as they had moved on two elderly Japanese women replaced them and even with very limited language I was able to explain how the raised work was done. It is very rewarding to be seen as someone special who is not playing on their I-pad but actually creating something with their own hands.
On a recent visit to a textile shop I spotted some sowing machines and their ability to stitch had been well illustrated by a small piece of perfect embroidery showing a beautiful young woman wearing a large hat full of flowers, alongside this was a second identical piece all done with a simple computer program and no human input. The age of the machines is with us but in the field of art it’s that hand-eye coordination via the brain that creates charm and guarantees that the handmade will always be superior to the machine simply because it is human.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Peaceable Kingdom and the loss of a thimble..

This was going to be fun as the image was to contain mainly animals in the foreground and my mind could run free as to what I might envisage as an idyllic peaceable kingdom. The image comes from the book of Isaiah chapter 11 and the verse most commonly and incorrectly known as “the lion will lie down with the lamb” is actually “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child will put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the water cover the sea.” This wonderful biblical image depicts a most bazaar scenario that illustrates the impossibility throughout history and even more so today of achieving a kingdom at peace. I associate this title with the na├»ve American artist Edward Hicks who around 1835 produced at least two oil paintings of The Peaceable Kingdom. He used the biblical text to produce a foreground of the animals mentioned while the historical event of Penn’s Treaty with the Indians is pushed to the background and seem just as unlikely to achieve peace as the juxtaposition of child and animals. Edward Hicks was a devout Quaker and saw Penn’s “holy experiment” which resulted in the establishment of religious freedom and self government in the colony of Pennsylvania as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy.
In my drawing up of this scene I have tried to capture some of Hicks’s vision of the ideal made real in the distinctive portrayal of the animals but to make sure that in these days of aspirations of independence I used the archetypal symbol of the Highland cow representing Scotland and supporting an equally Scottish golden eagle on its horns. The innocence of this ideal is represented by the central joyous dancing child and it was here that I started my stitching. The flesh tones were achieved using four different coloured wool's and it is the beauty of the yarn used in the manufacture of Harris Tweed that it is dyed before being blended and spun so the colour is never solid so allows me to create a graduation of colour that would be impossible using ordinary knitting wool's. From these subtle flesh tones I then turned to the vivid yellows and oranges of the leopard which is then over-stitched with black outlines and further filled with white and a rich rusty red spot. By the end of an 8 hour stitching day my right thumb is beginning to feel tender from the pressure of forcing the needle through several layers of stitched wool. 

There is a certain sense of urgency, even impatience when starting a major work to put in as much work as possible so as to see how the image in my head appears when transformed into wool. The raised stump-work effect is further complicated when two animals which require padding are set one in front of another and touching. In some cases it is better to stitch the two animals together where they touch as must be the case with the leopard and the goat. The days are long this far north and with an unseasonable cool summer I find myself sitting and stitching full of excitement to be creating my peaceable kingdom.

The foreground animals soon took shape as goat sat tucked in behind leopard and tight curled lamb comfortably before the wolf. The general appearance looked well balanced on paper but I was still unsure about what sort of bear it might be and am now drawn to perhaps a polar bear which would help to keep the general light feel. The large horned ox is very cheerful in bright oranges behind the child and the massive eagle with outspread protective wings should give a powerful feeling of the Kingdom being safe as well as at peace.

22nd July and just passed the hundred hours of stitching the Peaceable Kingdom. There is a certain obsessive compulsive element to the work much like that of a jigsaw puzzle that is hard to leave alone when the image is beginning to take shape, particularly if like me you prefer those puzzles where the finished picture does not appear on the front of the box. With most of the animals in place the background can begin and this is where usually it remains most fluid and free style. Changes from the original drawing are frequent and as the picture develops I can already see that to the right there will be at least one tree to help create the vista through to the distant view of the mountain on the left and that will help to maintain balance. It is now that the complexity of the image really starts and the choice of colour combinations and contrast allow each animal and object to find its place within the overall picture. 
On seemingly very rare occasions this summer I’ve been able to sit outside and enjoy the clarity of a Hebridean summers day.
Already the 20th of August the month has flown by with major works on the house but still I manage a couple of quiet hours stitching morning and evening. Having lit the fire I needed to put a bit more peat in the small stove but didn’t think to remove my thimble so much has it become a part of me. Having loaded the fire I returned to my needlework only to find my thimble had gone, I glanced around and then I realised it must have dropped from my finger as I pushed the blocks of peat in place. Opening the door resulted in clouds of smoke and no sign of a thimble and more frantic searching left me only with the confirmation that it had gone in the fire. If it had been plastic then I would have smelt the result but it was ivory and from my great aunt Flo’s sewing box and an avalanche of sadness descended with the thought of all the hours of work it had seen over the years. The "Peaceable Kingdom" will forever be linked in my mind to the final work of that ivory thimble.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Adam and Eve.

 My first stitching on the theme of Adam and Eve was based very much on the traditional sampler layout but now I wanted to make an image more from my own imagination that kept the same roots of a central tree of knowledge and snake but in which the figures of Adam and Eve were treated very differently. 
This was to show Adam and Eve their body’s snake-like entwined having had their first nibble of the fruit. In the tree many other forms of life are present and either are looking at the recumbent naked bodies or contemplating taking a bite of the nearest fruit. There is a general sense of curiosity or perhaps shock in the case of the swan that helps to focus attention on Adam and Eve. 
The work started during my mid-winter hibernation over in Brittany where I loaded up the wood burning stove each morning and kept the shutters closed against days of seemingly endless rain. Having as usual worked the image more or less out on paper I started the individual animals and mass of fruit. The two intertwined naked figures posed the greatest challenge as to how to obtain the three dimensional quality and a certain sense of modesty as well as to make it quite clear just what tasting the fruits of life meant. 
The serpent I chose was a python which allowed me to reproduce the fabulous patterns while the tree of knowledge with its mass of fruit helped to convey a certain sense of confusion within the image. Although God is out of the picture it is clear that he is on his way and none too pleased.

I have found that many people seeing this work for the first time will ask if they can touch it and I think that is a normal response to both subject matter in the case of animals and wool itself being a natural material that has been with us from day one. It is hard to imagine anyone wanting to touch such an image if it was executed in plastic and I find it shocking that we as human beings have become so closely wed to plastic simply because it is cheap, giving up all rational thought as to whether it is the appropriate material to be using for the job. We give our babies as their first tactile experience plastic to play with. Looking back to my own childhood I can remember only a hand full of toys and we made do with our imagination to transform a few twigs and baler twine into a fortress capable of keeping all manner of evil at bay. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

It takes time.

It takes time.
No one can know what our allotted time might be, some may have a rough idea what time is left, but the importance of time is what we choose to do with it. Today time is often seen as a currency, where the young are rich and the old are poor, however society’s demands and the pace of life leave many in their later years to wonder what it was all about while the pressures on the young to achieve often leaves them with little or no free time. Life is more than accumulating the symbols of success. Man has over the past century done the utmost to invent ways of saving time from doing the mundane or laborious. The washing machine and birth control liberated women so that now they can become as time poor as men. With two earning that means more to tax as well as increased spending power, and what will we buy with that extra cash? I would always advise converting that currency into time. If today having the time to do what you want is seen as a luxury then I am indeed fortunate, but time alone is of little use if you don’t know what to do with it. I have seldom been troubled by boredom as I’ve always seen that as a natural route to creativity. In those efforts to save time the tools of the trade have been abandoned for mechanical automation and handmade has become a thing of the past and yet the handmade still holds a charm that is human and we are more than ever fascinated by what the hand eye coordination is capable of.
The first time I saw a 17th century box covered with stump work I was transfixed by the fact that it had been executed by a girl of only 11 years and I marveled at just how impossible that seemed. One would certainly need very good eye sight for such fine work but also the time to do it. If schooling was not an option and the family was sufficiently rich then sowing was seen as a suitable gentile pastime before marriage and with time on ones hands creative excellence can flourish. Stump work is uniquely found in relatively wealthy households and was not something that would have been purchased or mass produced as with tapestry hangings.
While with age I become time poor so I find myself with more freedom to choose what I do with it. I have no patience when waiting at the supermarket checkout but when it comes to the creative I have it in abundance. After many years in the antique trade I realized I would never be able to afford to purchase an example of stump work but I could have a go at finding out just what it entailed to stitch such work and I soon discovered that all it takes is time.
My aim in exhibiting this stump work is to emphasize that in our computer generated age and mechanization the human hand is still capable of producing beauty.      

The exhibition at the Victoria Gallery in Bath has taken three years to put together and runs from Feb 25th to May 10th 2017. The choice of a biblical theme seemed quite natural given its place in the history of needlework although I myself have no religious belief. The display boxes when open show the relevant text from the bible both in English and Gaelic. The work is relatively easy to transport, and when travelling I often find myself stitching in public on train boat or plane and the reaction of people without exception is fascination and amazement.
I am working at present on a 17th century style box covered in stump work tapestry which I have estimated will take about six months to complete and will continue this work during the exhibition.