Friday, September 27, 2019

NAÏVE ART (a creation of “paradise regained”).




Any attempt to define naïve painting seems only to add to the confusion so don’t be surprised if you are none the wiser after these few words.
Untutored a true naïve painter can never be “professionally” trained, however there are professional painters amongst the Naïves. The true naïve also have a talent that separates them from those who paint as a pastime or merely for fun. There are artist who could be said to paint in a pseudo-naive manner and in France they are referred to as “Les Pompiers”, not as firemen but in stylistic terms as being pretentious or pompous.
All naïve painter have their own vision of the world which in some way is uniquely different from that of any other. As children attempt to interoperate their surroundings for the first time their viewpoint can be regarded as uniquely theirs, and it is that very naivety which the mature viewer finds so appealing.  Naïve art cannot be taught and as such is a reflection on our own years of innocence.
The necessity to express is much stronger than the artist himself or as Rouseau put it “Ce n’est pas moi qui dessiner c’est ce truc au bout de ma main”. (It is not I that am drawing, it’s the thing at the end of my hand”.) The naïve painter could be said to be like a person possessed in the grip of a “thing” the nature of which he cannot “logically” understand. Naïve painting is timeless, the artist being continuously in search of “paradise lost”, a reconfiguration of all that life has robbed them of, a creation of “paradise regained”. It has been said that naïve painting is that painted with the “eyes of the soul”, a term used by Shakespeare and of biblical origin; “I have pondered upon all things with the eyes of my soul”
As folk art and traditional craftsmanship gave way to industrial methods of production so man ventured into the unknown. It is hardly surprising that from the melting pot of races that went into creating America came a long history of naïve art. The strength and charm of the naïve image is often one that transposes well into the stitched form and with that in mind this week I ran a short evening introductory stitching workshop for the Tolsta Youth Club. We started with a game of head body and tail to produce a wonderful array of strange beasts and then transferred these to calico either reproducing the entire image or simply the head. Although stitching can be seen a process of travelling up and down with a needle it is never easy to start with and a tangled and knotted mess can ensue which in itself can still be regarded as stitching. In order not to stifle creativity it is important that child don’t take on the adult trait of thinking they might get some wrong. The children were aged from 7 to 11 and learnt fast and managed to produce some delightful images. 

 

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

THE ETIQUETTE OF SMARTPHONE PHOTOGRAPHY.



In the not so distant past it would have been unheard of to take photographs of an artist’s work during an exhibition and one could have been sure of a negative response from the gallery owner however polite the request. If you couldn’t afford the original or a print then there would surely be a small reproduction in the catalogue or book. We have long since passed the period of being politely requested not to take photographs by museums and galleries as everyone carries their mobile phone at the ready. That old concept of politeness still abounds within the walls of my studio where visitors would not dream of taking photographs without first asking permission. All that changes when those same images are freely displayed in public because now they are public and free. So do I now assume that all art should be freely available and if so how am I the artist to make a living? This past week I ran two paid workshops and have another this coming week plus two talks, however that alone won’t cover expenses. And between exhibitions where am I supposed to store it all. The words of a friends daughter spring to mind when after my first ever exhibition she said “Stop now Tom before it’s too late”. Is the overcrowded studio crammed with past work what all artists have to contend with in later life? Our own physical abilities become restricted in harmony with the shrinking studio space as insulating layers of stacked canvases encroach and the only way out is to start repainting. Those lustful nudes of yester years will soon become the passion of pastures new.
 While sitting in on my exhibition in An Lanntair art centre I have been asked only a couple of times if it is OK to take photographs but that it usually to take a photo of me the artist, a man, stitching. So do they now want my sole as well? What is on the walls is widely assumed to be free for the taking. The taking of a photo is a process of possessing that image with no recompense to the artist. Once the excellent free image has been made using that smartphone there is no need to possess the original. If that image is then posted or shared on line then who is the owner. It would seem that just like music the visual arts are to be freely consumed. I imagine those happy snappers would consider that I should be flattered that they wish to point their phone in the general direction of my labours but unsurprisingly to me at least their image collecting leaves me cold. It could be said that I like those happy snappers am simply making images, but that is to oversimplify the process, painting a picture not only takes longer than pressing the button but also takes considerably more skill.
There is no way that the average person could afford to pay me for a year’s labour in stitching a stumpwork casket so in this hyper-connected world why shouldn’t they take a photo? Do they think to possibly share these images with friends? Maybe, but does that make it any more likely that I will have a sale? No, I have never sold any of my artwork over the internet or by photograph and what on earth is the purpose of a like? To me likes are just another loneliness indicator, used in the hopes that others may join in and confirm that you are not the only sad bastard on this planet who enjoys wandering around galleries with a smart phone.
       

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 naïve 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.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

PLAYING ON A TABLE LOOM.



During a visit last week from all 21 of the North Tolsta School children I described the studio as my playroom. Unlike most artist studios it contains a very wide range of mediums of creation from shells, pebbles and drift wood to feathers, paint and tweed yarn. Although there is a constant stream of cars and camper vans on sunny days heading to our two local beaches visitors to the studio are few and far between, averaging perhaps five a week throughout the past month. Those interested in the creative arts and who do make the effort find themselves suitably rewarded judging by the compliments I receive. When the school minivan arrived to pick up the youngest group of children several asked to stay on so taken were they with my playroom.     
 My most recent toy has been my table loom on which I’ve been having considerable experimental fun over the past fortnight. Having spent a considerable time in selecting a graduation of rainbow colours to set out on the warping board I once again ran into serious difficulties when getting this onto the beam. There is no easy way of doing this single handed and I can see that in the future I would be better to ask a neighbour to crank the beam while I keep the tied on warp wool under tension. Again I had only a very rough idea of what length of warp I had managed to get onto the beam but at least the tedious operation of tying in had gone more smoothly this time. My aim was to weave the full range of rainbow colours within the warp and in each case to create a band of twill and basket weave separated by a narrow solid weave.
It soon became evident that the twill weave would effectively blank out the appearance of the rainbow. I was however delighted to discover that on the reverse side, all the colours remained more or less visible. After approximately 2m of weaving I wound on the warp to start a second scarf. This was to be a thicker two ply weave and literally anything goes as far as weft colour and combination of weaving pattern. The aim here was to experiment, play and discover to the point where I even ventured into double weaving one section leaving the ends open for a short distance then crossing the weft wools over to seal what would be a pocket within the scarf.
Once the scarf was removed it again proved to be much longer than I had expected which I suppose showed how much fun I had been having. Yesterday I popped in to see one of the Harris Tweed weavers in the village to collect some more unused bobbins and decided to be brave and show him what I’d been doing. I had prepared myself for a critical appraisal so was delighted when he was full of praise for the complexity of what I had achieved. My random sequence of weaving in these scarfs seems to be their charm but the shear riot of colours is the result of a much wider selection of modern colours within today’s tweed.


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

THE RECYCLED BLUE BIRD.


My aunt Flo central, promenading in Brighton with my mother and grandmother 1935 

I recently discovered amongst an assortment of old sowing things of my aunt Flo’s a rolled up bundle of cloth which turned out to be an unfinished needlework of mallard ducks along with some of the embroidery cotton thread. They bore the familiar trademarks of Anchor and J Harris & Son, proudly proclaiming to be made in Britain. Probably dating from around the Second World War when great was still an acceptable adjective that helped to demonstrate that Britain although small was not insignificant. While I had no desire to complete the mallards I liked the idea of using the thread, so when I found a photograph of a pair of naïve antique needlework pictures that I had sold a few years back the idea of stitching something similar looked likely. Finding a suitable background cloth was not a problem as I remembered the old red velvet curtains from my childhood that now hang on my half tester bed and the fabric that I had saved when relining them. It took a little longer to discover just where I’d put that lining fabric, but my little exercise would be a process of total recycling as I remembered a small rather over the top gilt frame that would complete the blue bird picture. 
As I cut the glass my eye was drawn to the label on the back indicating that this was a frame with history “Gaston de Foix, the original by Giorgione in Lord Carlisle’s collection”. It is strange how the mind works but as I sat stitching those cottons I could feel the presence of Flo standing behind me her broad smile and sparkling eyes as clear today as they were sixty years ago.    

Saturday, May 25, 2019

FIRST WEAVING.


When I look at my first attempt at weaving on the little Harris table loom I am reminded of the piano playing of Lez Dawson; full of faults but still somehow fascinating. While Lez’s piano playing had genuine skill, able to hold one in gleeful suspense of the next wrong note, my weaving is simply full of errors and due to the repetitive nature of weaving these faults persist on a regular basis. The interest comes in the way these faults register within the various combinations of yarn colours. 
My next project will be to produce these errors in as random a fashion as possible. As I progressed in weaving this length of tweed wool cloth I wondered what it might eventually be used for and a scarf seemed the only logical conclusion. So at what I thought might turn out to be the halfway point I treated the warp as two independent weavings effectively splitting the warp in two so as to produce within the scarf a head hole that would prevent it being blown away in the blustery Hebridean winds. The choice of warp colours was to a greater extent made by way of the colours that I had the most of and the choice of simple basket weave meant that with the changes in weft colours a tartan effect would result. Far from the dark neutral colours of the Black Watch mine is more a colourful tartan travesty and at times more reminiscent of the old caorig wool blankets than any form of tartan. In the 19th century Queen Victoria’s admiration set Braemar reblooming in a veritable rainbow of colours. However during the first quarter of the 20th century there was possibly more philabegs worn in London than in Glasgow but out on the islands it was really only the older women who still wore a tartan shawl or headscarf, while today the new light weight colourful tweed has become the height of fashion.        

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

PEAT CUTTING SOLO IN 2019.



              On the Islands May is considered the month for peat cutting. Although it is often possible to cut earlier if those peats cut in April do not dry enough to be set vertical and instead receive a lot of rain while lying flat then they will be the poorer for it. So when fine weather arrived in mid-April I put the tarasgeir to soak and head out to my banks above Traigh Ghearadha.
              The east facing cut already looked dry and as I started the de-turfing I could feel the spade slice into a sod far less saturated than normal. This is the worst and heaviest part of cutting ask any local, and although it reveals the fresh peat beneath it adds nothing to the actual peat stack for burning. I have made many mistakes over a dozen years of cutting and number one is not to have attempted a too wider strip only to discover that space to throw the cut peat onto becomes a real problem. I usually stick to between six or seven wide as most of the bank is three cuts deep with a short forth level section. Traditionally the harvest of peat is a collective activity; family, neighbours, children young and old alike would lend a hand to the work that would provide fuel for the hearth about which their lives revolved. Only one during my years of cutting was that team work there although often there have been friends visiting who are more than happy to help out or simply sample the experience. It is in any event a two person job with one cutting while the other throws. This usually meant that the men cut while the women did the more strenuous job of throwing. You may say typical for the men to get the easy part but in my experience women are simple better at this job having a lower centre of gravity. An Amazonian of a woman was much admired in times past but today the lack of physical exercise does little for the figure of men or women.
              Having removed a section of sod that is placed down in the gap left by the previous year I set myself a maximum limit of cutting no more than 300 peats at any one time which in turn meant counting as I cut and also keep a running total. From previous years this should run out at around 2000 peats to complete the cut. Within the first week I was a good third of the way down and with a strong drying easterly was able to set up the first batch, which in turn created more throwing space. By the end of the second week I was on the homeward stretch. I normally get visitors in May and June and can count on their help but this year it looked like I would achieve a solo cut and be done and dusted well before their arrival.
              Last year I was the only one cutting from New Tolsta and it looks like being the same this year. From the track beyond “The Bridge to Nowhere” people walk their dogs and occasionally they will look seaward to see me labouring 100 yards below, but never do they venture closer. On occasions I have heard it said “Oh that must be wonderful to get free fuel. There is nothing free about it simply a back breaking slog that only old fools like me still persist in doing. I have often thought that a notice up in the Stornoway hostel promoting a peat cutting experience in exchange for board and lodging might be interesting but I fear there would be very few if any takers.
             
Tuesday 7th of May and the cutting is complete apart from some tidying up with the spade. My body aches, left hip twinging and right wrist very painful but at least I know the reason why. There is no question that when younger this would have seemed a lot easier but now having reached retirement age there is a stubborn power of persistence in me to see it through. This work is not for the impatient young or faint hearted, and while millions are happy to watch a ball being repeatedly kicked into a net I prefer to slice away with the peat iron knowing at the end I will have something to show for it. The saying, “he who chops the wood gets warm twice” works equally well for peat cutting but today most are content to stay at home and switch on the heating of whatever form with the flick of a switch. The electric home is with us and for many that may well be a clean source of energy but few would think to reduce that consumption. I pay £11 per month. I can see in years to come that burning any form of fuel within the home will be outlawed. The traditional cutting of peat will end and the smell of peat fires remain a distant childhood memory while the peat banks degrade into the lazy-beds of tomorrow; more strange ruled lines crumbling beneath heather, proof of man’s existence and the passing of times.      

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Looking from a safe distance.


Such is the clarity of a beautiful sun filled day out on the Hebrides that I feel the veiled cataracts of any normal day have been lifted to reveal a sharper in focus world. Today with the arrival and constant calling of the cuckoo since dawn a walk and the peace of the moor seemed in order. I threw fruit and a cheese sandwich in the back pack along with binoculars, camera and sketch pad. There is so much choice in walking that I try not to give too much thought as to what direction I will take. Today I wanted both moor and beach so I turned right at the gate setting off past the quarry and up the track. Taking what was an old peat exploitation path I gained the high ground able to look north across the vast expanse of moor still clothed in the dead bleached grass of winter. 
To the east the mainland was shrouded in hazy cloud while to the west the familiar mound of Muirneag seemed deceptively close to the human eye but not the camera. The trudge north gave a good indication of just how dry the moor was, unusually so for this time of year. Lichen white and moss black with the only sign of fresh growth the flash of King cup yellow in the trickling burn. The pessimists amongst us now worrying that this might be it for our summer and that bad weather will surely follow.
From high up above Traigh Ghearadha beach I stopped to eat and watch the comings and goings of the tiny people below. It feels so easy to cut yourself off form humanity and observe as if an alien. Homo sapiens appear to be a decidedly odd species with little or no rational reasoning to their behaviour. The extra ordinary reliance on the four wheel vehicles is remarkable and while some use this as a convenient means of transport others never actually leave the vehicle, driving until the road runs out beyond the “Bridge to nowhere” at which point they do a three point turn and head back the way they came. Some will stand several meter apart on the sand and repeatedly throw a ball to each other, which they apparently find enjoyable, while others will throw a blanket on the ground and lie out flat as if pretending to be dead. Many are accompanied by a dog and when this animal defecates the human picks it up in a small plastic bag. One might be forgiven for thinking that the human thinks this dog excrement has some intrinsic value perhaps for drying as with peat for fuel but no, the bag is either removed to a larger plastic container or simply abandoned in its wrapped and preserved state. The dogs themselves seem to take no interest in this strange human ritual of pooh preservation.
I descend down past my peat bank where things are crisping up at a record rate and then on down across the beach to the loch where for a second year a single Bewick Swan has decided to stay awhile. Mating for life it seems likely that this sad sole has lost its partner. On the machair there is no subtlety of natural colour in the family who have chosen to spread themselves out for a Sunday afternoon snooze. 
I wonder if they know or even care that the mound behind which they shelter was once an Iron Age habitation and what would those distant ancestors think of these strange aliens. Why do people drive all the way to the end of the road and finding themselves in such beautiful surroundings simply choose to close their eyes? It is a depressing walk back along the road as I pick up litter and note that out of the ten cars that pass three managed their visit in under five minutes. I imagine in the future legs will become little more than another shriveled vestige of an unused appendage along with the human brain.            

Sunday, April 21, 2019

To print or not to print?


To print or not to print, that is a question.


20 years ago I made the mistake of allowing my art to be used on a calendar to raise money for a millennium project in Central Finistere. The project was a great success but while the calendars sold well and I became a well-known name locally I discovered that many potential customers had cut the images out and framed them. In this way they believed they were supporting me as an artist perhaps falsely assuming that I had already been paid for the use of those images. It took me fifteen years to sell nine of the originals and I still have the remaining three, but since that time my sales fell dramatically and for several years I held no exhibitions and sold nothing. Far from doing nothing I continued to paint through a period that I like to call my stock piling years. After 30 years of painting I know of no other professional artist who is selling his work for the same price and often for no more than a ghastly mass produced photo on canvas. Maybe it is time for me to add some initials of royalty to my signature and add another zero to my prices. Or should I start producing more calendars, prints, key rings, jigsaw puzzles, fridge magnets, cards, book markers and place mats to be considered a success? No. Consumers the world over have enough rubbish to choose from without me adding to it. The millennium project was a success in my eyes even if there was no official word of thanks from the local community. The statues can are displayed permanently in the Chapel of St Salomon in the commune of Plouye in Central Finistere. 
 
      

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Back on the Isle of Lewis.

Passengers raised their mobile phones to record our arrival and who could blame them for wanting to capture an apparently perfect summer sunset as the evening ferry from Ullapool sailed into Stornoway harbour. An oversized orange orb seen through the sullen heat haze of spring or was it something else smokier, more sinister.
Driving through the town I caught site of a familiar face and waved but Michael in a daze standing at the kerbside outside the supermarket showed no sign of recognition. It was only then that it dawned on me that there were no street lights at dusk and that no sign of life emanated from any home. That could only mean one thing, a power cut. As I drove north through the villages to Tolsta I was surprised to see people still outside, the old walking dogs while the youngsters just hung out driven outside by lack of power to capture what remained of the evening light. I was glad to have candles readily available on my arrival but hadn’t counted on the matches being damp. The following day I learnt that there had been a serious heath fire down on Harris close to the power lines and so the entire island had been shut down. That morning I had questioned why the power cut remained until it dawned on me that the electric in the house was still turned off. Time to trip the switches, light the fires and air the place through. The swollen back doors of both house and barn would remain jammed shut for a while yet.
I return to an island dominated by the Vandyke brown and Burnt Umbers of winter’s heath. The dead wind-blown ochre grasses hug the landscape, sponge soft mounds of bleached moss interlace with pale green lichen and although the fresh growth of grass is showing on the crofts the lush greens of spring are yet to surface. Even within the relative shelter of Stornoway those tree buds although swollen with potential remain firmly enclosed. April will however bring with it miraculous changes as the earth seems to slow to allow the sun to linger longer and higher on its daily arch. Hibernation is well and truly over and lambing is in full swing. There is soil to turn, seed potatoes to plant, and while a bitter east winds bring a dry spell there is a spades depth of turf to remove before the peat cutting can start.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Apt to be deemed asocial.



In an age when regimentation seems increasingly necessary in order to make life possible in those large conurbations seething with people I revel in my simple solitude. During my ramblings in the valley of the Ellez, Central Finistere can at times feels like a landlocked island where complexities of the city or urban existence have little relevance. A heady scent of primroses hangs in the lane while the glossy yellow carpet of celandines at my feet, before returning I will gather fresh sheep’s sorrel for salad. Such ethereal ramblings may sound idyllic but while the wren busies itself around root stump and leaf litter all is not well on the other side of the hedge. Out of the valleys the easily cultivatable land has for decades now been transformed by monstrous machines into a production area that specialises in monoculture. The early spring stubble growth that would once have been grazed by sheep before cultivation commenced is now turned orange with Round Up ahead of the plough. Maize, cereal and oil seed rape are the favoured rotation and at times living in the countryside can become dangerous with the amount of chemical treatment being sprayed. Bacon said that man conquers Nature only by obeying her, and to that end our arrogance is leading in a merry dance of disaster.
While some find truth within the embracing hug of humanity I find it in wilderness. A solitary existence is not for everyone and I feel humanity spoils when in compression and it is then that I find myself moving to the fringes searching a simplicity that brings me freedom. Today that very freedom seems to be playing a losing battle and one must be vigilant on all fronts for there is much that would seduce us to sign up to an alternative virtual world.
Once again I pack the van tightly with my winter’s artwork, starting the long journey northward to the Isle of Lewis ahead of the swallows and a second chance at spring. You may be forgiven for thinking it is frustration with the noise of modern existence that makes me seek the silence of an island life but I see it as a refusal to be frustrated. Where I am heading there is seldom silence but at least it can be said to be natural with the rhythmic crashing of waves down on Traigh Mhor beach accompanied by the constant island breeze, mewing of buzzards and the melody of bird’s song. 
You’ve been lucky I hear it said, I should like to live on an island free from all care as you seem to be. It is possible that I didn’t arrived at this point simply by saying I would like to. As F. Fraser Darling says in his Island Years, “minds that neither seeks nor finds solitude soon becomes afraid of it”.             

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Returning to Pont Morvan


Pont Morvan and its mill became a favourite spot for me to paint during the early 1990’s. No matter what the season the old double arched bridge always presented a rustic charm along with the mill which at that time was still in working condition although no longer used. I only saw its massive mechanism in action once and there was a brief period when we hoped that an English enthusiastic might purchase it and start up a milling business. Then an expert pronounced the bridge unsafe and a vast amount of European funds were secured to totally rebuild it. As always with these things it lost all charm; the stone vaulting was replaced with cast concrete and the contrast of local schist stone and granite was replaced with a uniform modern cut granite, while the road over was flattened out and a cumbersome slab topped parapet wall was added. The only thing left of the old bridge was the original granite buttresses. I stopped drawing the bridge and when the mill was eventually sold its workings were promptly gutted and abandoned. The old weir was removed apparently to prevent flooding and the deeper waters beyond where locals had once learnt to swim became shallows.

Quarter of a century has passed and my eye has once again been taken by the old Pont Morvan mill but this time I’ve stayed away from the river finding a spot further on where from beneath the roadside trees the mill buildings are seen nestling within the winter woods. The sun streams across the shadow filled field while a lone Normandy house cow looks on. Now a rarity these cows have been replaced by the standard black and white Friesians.
There is one further thing that has changed and that is my prices. While those early pictures sold from between £250 to £450 this latest and larger work 92cm x 64cm is for sale at £2250. During all these years I have somehow managed to survive as an artist never having sold a picture from my website or even had an inquiry to buy on line. I don’t expect that to change any time soon.