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.

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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.

 

Ancient Honesty

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I’ve been slowly working my way through a fairly comprehensive book all about Valle Crucis which Roger the custodian lent me. The Cistercian’s relationship with ornamentation really intrigues me and having dipped into the architecture chapter I’ve now really begun to notice the strange extent of simplicity and decorative stonework around the site.

A few nice quotes from the book, Valle Crucis Abbey, by G. Vernon Price, providing food for thought this week:

“The 1134 statutes also relate to sculpture and painting in the following terms, “That there may not be any sculpture nor picture in our churches nor in any parts of a monastery, we hereby issue interdict: for so long as attention is given to such things, the good utility of meditation, or the religious discipline of gravity, is often neglected; we have however some painted crosses which are of wood.”

“Notable superfluities and curiosities in sculptures, pictures, edifices, pavements and other such objects, which deformed the ancient honesty of the Order, and are incongruous with our poverty, we hereby order shall not exist in abbey, granges or store rooms, nor shall any picture save an Image of the Saviour (which are attached on a board to the alters, and are only painted in one colour).”

Of course, then there is “ample evidence to show that they [architects and builders] attempted to produce imposing and magnificent edifices, venturing to disregard the original spirit of the Order as far as they possibly could.”

“It has been recognised that this disregard of rules has resulted in a peculiar sense of architectural insincerity, combining a style of ostentatious display and strained Puritanism.”

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