Blinging

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Bit of a hectic week with work on the larger pieces very much under way, plus a school visit and a local community evening too. My research into Valle Crucis and the lessons learnt here so far have settled and I am creating work responding to specific alcoves and spaces around the Abbey. Spaces that vary in scale, intimacy and security.

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I am drawing inspiration from the Cistercian relationship with ornamentation, and in fact, our relationship with the decorative and the gilt today. Using brass, coloured glass, ornamental carving and figurative forms I want to create compositions in the empty spaces which mimic and play with the Cistercian’s guilty relationship with the ornate. This need for elaborate objects and materials speak both of the authorship and taste which is recorded across the Abbey’s building, destruction and repair.

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Pupil work at Bryn Collen as part of the Llangollen Fringe art workshops

I’ve also been involved with the Llangollen Fringe art program, led by local artist Jan Murray, and have visited local schools this week and last to talk about my work. Jan’s workshops explore sense of place and both Gwernant and Bryn Collen primary schools took part in a found media workshop in local woodland which had obvious links to my previous work. Their perception of my work, the objects and how to bring them together using binding wire was pretty inspirational; their work, alongside the other school groups will be on exhibition in Llangollen as part of Llangollen Fringe Festival from 18-28th July. More about that here.

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Chance

 

FragmentedMy camera has been up to it’s old tricks again. The ghost in the machine has been reordering the images I’ve collected of the Abbey and of my work in progress, I have no idea why it occasionally does it but I like the chance element of it.

I use making because it let’s me invoke a chance element in my work. I can combine control of materials with their chaos too  – a piece of slate that breaks away and becomes two fragments of the original carving, or a big dent in an otherwise perfect sheet of metal. I respond to this and find value in their power to record process. I think these say much more about the history of materials, objects and place than the anonymity of high skill and crafts’ traditional quest for perfection and function.

When things go wrong in making and repair human fallibility is recorded. We have palpable evidence of interaction, just like the broken walls and bodged repairs in the Abbey dormitory.

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Fragmented13A large piece is now up at Valle Crucis, two more are in progress and should be making their appearance alongside the smaller interventions over the next week or so.

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Meddling and Destruction

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When I returned after a busy Bank Holiday at the Abbey Roger told me that some of the work I had left around the site were missing so I went to investigate. I found that six pieces were missing from the original 16. A few more than I had anticipated, but then I had wanted to know the limitations before I started installing everything in the securer spaces and now I had a fairly good idea what I could get away with and how I can work here without having extensive pieces go walk abouts.

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I began to look for evidence. Fearing destruction I looked for bits of broken wax or stone, coloured threads. Passing the South Transept I spotted the flash of white wax and discovered a carefully assembled collection of my objects: one piece had been taken apart and then grouped with another one of my pieces that was missing from the dormitory stairs. There was also a piece of ornate terracotta pottery here that was completely new. Strange. The total lost was now down to 4 pieces, but I had gained a new fragment too.
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A long thread of blue silk tangled on the Chapter House floor confirmed that at least one of the whittled figurines left within the Sacristy has been unfurled and the small wax figure detached and I stand over it, wondering which piece they wanted: the stick or the figure? I find someone else has placed a clump of cut grass under one of the wax heads on the dormitory stairs. After photographing the evidence I return to the Summer House. Upon turning the corner I see that one of the other whittled figures has been stabbed into the ground by the fish pond intact. Apparently Roger thought I had moved it when he found it there on Saturday morning, I hadn’t but had originally planned to install them like this and in fact, in that spot. Pieces lost: 3, not too bad.

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The pieces were intended to be temporary and whilst the research and idea development that led to them was extensive, the making of them was relatively quick. The process was not what made them precious, it was the ideas behind them and the reaction they received from viewers. If people interacted with them then this is just as valid a reaction. Of course, removing them all together is useless, unless I now receive ransom notes about them.

I hid my work and then someone else hid it from me, meddled with it and didn’t worry about handling it. Some of the future interventions here will be secured and some will not, I think we can be playful with this.

Micro architecture, taste and vastness

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So last week’s main activity was casting my collection of objects in wax and this week I have mainly been carving Welsh stone on a rotary motor. I have been inspired by the “micro-architecture” behind the carved stone alter screens, niches and fonts which may have once inhabited Valle Crucis during it’s working life as an Abbey. Drilling into the stone and boring into it the silhouettes I have collected around the site has made me realise once again the mishmash of styles and craftsmanship here.

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There’s two types of arched window, if not more, for a start but when you look much closer you realise that every subsequent repair or rebuild was a stamping of the then Abbot’s, or contractor’s, authorship and taste. Even much later ‘interventions’ by Cadw, such as the grills within the dormitory windows speak of the particular tastes and preferences of decision makers. (Clearly in this case someone has chosen to opt for the Gothic style arch rather than the rounded Romanesque, Medieval arch. Sorry, getting geeky now.)

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My favourite inconsistency at present is the cylindrical chimney atop the later farm house fireplaces, it looks semi-industrial. The thing that interests me most in representing the Abbey to visitors today is the interpretation of the intended life of the building, as a communal place of worship and monastic life, and whether, the story of people across its entire history should be represented too? As someone who loves to kick function to the curb I am interested to explore the appropriated uses of the building.

Anyway, those are ideas which I will be exploring in the coming weeks.

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There are currently 14 tiny pieces installed across Valle Crucis and frankly I was surprised by the vastness of the building against the minute details of my pieces when I installed them. This is probably a surprise to no-one else and clearly I needed to pull myself back from the jeweller’s bench and look around me once more. This realisation made me consider space more than I have previously and since I have walked around the Abbey with fresh eyes, noticing intimate spaces which force us to inspect inconsistencies and detailing; spaces with vast uniformity which invites the viewer to search for points of interest; and ornate detailing on a large scale. I know I can work with the first two types of spaces but I am really challenging the scale of my work to take on things like the Book Cupboard or Chapter House windows. I am want to take this challenge on regardless, but again, more on that later.

The Monk

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The Llangollen Museum came to collect the Monk from the Summer House this morning with the aid of a motorised wheel barrow.

I’m heading back to Manchester for some urgent business this evening so unfortunately there will be no open studio tomorrow, apologies if you  had planned to come out to visit the studio. There are now three, small artworks installed onsite and several more to follow next week. The next open studio event will be Thursday 2nd May, and then every Thursday and second Saturday until August 2013.

You can read about what’s happening over in Wrexham this weekend over on Steffan Jones-Hughes blog which also includes details of my small showcase of existing works at Oriel Wrexham and plenty more.

A Plumb-Line

Work in Progress April 2013

Valle Crucis offers so much to inspire artists that it’s difficult to narrow down but my focus here is the craftsmanship in the building and the repair, or interaction with the site visible or in some way palpable today. I am finding ways to explore and represent the unknown craftsmen and inhabitants of the Abbey through my own making.

Working my way through ‘Builders & Decorators, Medieval Craftsmanship in Wales’ yesterday I found myself wondering about angles and straight walls – how did you know what 90⁰ looked like in 1201? I remember my dad’s plumb-line and then I turn the page and find: “For this he used a plumb line – a ball of lead attached to a piece of string – which was amongst his personal processions.” Wonderful, simple, timeless technology.

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Onsite the Medieval master mason created templates from wood, metal, or sometimes canvas (if you needed to transport it around with you of course), for the other stone masons to trace onto stone before carving. Simple technology.

My work often mimics the processes and techniques behind craft trades and disciplines and here I am interested in taking the plumb-lines and templates away from their intended functions. Without the need for a straight line a plumb-line is an object suspended from a piece of string, and without the need for uniformity a template is just a silhouette. As purely intriguing objects they can be appreciated for their narrative content alone, which is very similar to the way in which a museum presents its artefacts. Here, rather than their educational content ruling their purpose I am interested in mimicking these forms for their more ambiguous and poetic symbolism.

Votive Offerings

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I have been casting the tiny Frozen Charlotte dolls in wax this week. All this stems from my usual interest in ‘power objects’, things like Holy relics or lucky charms, but even including the keepsakes we have in our own lives which represent another person or an idea to us.

I am bringing to the residency some recent research from further afield, from a recent trip to the Volkeskundemuseum in Brugge, Belgium, where I saw their wax votive collection and the plaster and metal moulds from which they were cast. Instantly fascinating to me because of their scale, which like so much of my collection, fit in the hand and invite close inspection. But they also interest me because of their inherent figurative quality and their strangeness: tiny white bodies, or limbs, or organs, or even teeth.

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Votive offerings are placed within places of worship to gain favour or give thanks; often the wax and metal casts commemorate spiritual help with a particular issue – failing eyesight, fertility, arthritic limbs. I can only assume the Volkeskunde Museum acquired this collection in part from someone with very bad teeth from the amount of wax teeth and mouths.

A combination of thinking about the colour white and the materials that were in use in the working Abbey originally led me to wax. Faced with wanting to create copies of the objects from my collections so that I could make lots and leave at the mercy of the elements I thought I might try casting them in this lesser material to see where it might lead. In trying out materials and creating samples I ended up with a series of tiny wax figures in my hand which reminded me of something quite powerful and something I had felt excited by fairly recently. The idea that I might be leaving small sculptures around a former Abbey somehow seemed a little votive, although not in a religious sense in my case.

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I read last year in a book called ‘Supersense’ by Bruce Hood, how the human mind constantly creates these connections and that in artists this is heightened. Within my work, these connections are key in the making, and within the finished work too so that the viewer can recognise aspects and unravel some of these ideas. Sometimes it is difficult to articulate why something makes us feel a certain way and I think these subtle connections are the best. And sometimes, discovering these connections can be as simple as having a go at casting wax and remembering something from your holidays.

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Incidentally, I read that throwing pennies into lucky wells is considered the contemporary equivalent to votive offerings. I can confirm that there is at least 25p in the well at Valle Crucis and I wonder if the people who plopped those coins there genuinely believed they were exchanging money for luck.

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The Resonance of Things

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Back on site this week as the snow started to thaw and I have now moved in my collections of found objects, my work bench and tools so the Summer House now feels a lot more like my studio.

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Collection is the main driving force behind my work, I am interested in how objects carry narrative and how I can manipulate them to present particular ideas. I mostly collect fragments or objects that show signs of age or previous human interaction as they have the timeless, dreamy quality that indulges our desire for the fantastic. I use objects that have a certain kind of unwritten symbolism: the broken cup handle that silently communicates use or the steel blade that could still pierce skin, the doll’s leg which reminds us of several things and the animal hair paintbrush that is still soft to the touch. We reflect all of our unique resources of memories and knowledge upon objects so when you start to pair them with other ‘things’ we project ourselves upon them, weaving unspoken interpretations and stories.

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So this week I’ve been taking out the objects from my collection of ‘stuff’ which now seem to have a particular resonance with the Abbey, the Frozen Charlotte dolls hint at ideas of white figures, glass evokes the speculated coloured and painted shards said to have been found on the site from the latter years of the Abbey’s working life, decorative print on broken ceramic jars reflects the ornamental stonework around the remains of the building. They are also all fragments albeit on a much smaller scale than the fragments of Valle Crucis.

White Out

Photo courtesy of Cadw

I’ve been snowed out of Llangollen so far this week and Valle Crucis has been closed to the  public, you can follow Cadw on twitter for updates. The Abbey looks particularly resplendent in it’s white coat, which is quite pertinent as far as my residency research is concerned. I’ve been thinking about the “White Monks” of Valle Crucis. White can be ghostly and ethereal or it can be symbolic of purity, it’s an absence of colour and I suppose a blank canvas begging for inscription.
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During my first weeks onsite I’ve been thinking about the figurative carvings across the site, ornamentation which would have been bending the original rules of the Cistercian order and now mark the human interaction with the site in the most direct way. To mark the building with faces and figures, symbols of humanity, says “we were here”. I’ve been whittling figures in wood and returning to some of the tiny Frozen Charlotte dolls I’ve collected and recast in porcelain, not sure where they’re going yet but will start playing with one or two installation ideas at the Abbey next week (weather willing).

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Rebuild

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I have no idea how this picture ended up like this after transferring it from my phone to my laptop but somehow it fits the idea of breaking up space into components and rebuilding.

Mostly this week I have been whittling wood with a new carving knife and shaping Welsh stone with a rotary motor. It’s quite repetitive work but let’s the mind wander. I’m moving the rest of my equipment into the Summer House on Monday, it has been nice to be away from the trappings of my ‘normal’ working practice but now it’s time to bring them over.