Journeys

‘The Road to Lumsden’ has been selected for this year’s Society of Scottish Artists annual exhibition, I’m very pleased. It is a coiled and stitched piece made from more than 10 different plant species. I took it to Edinburgh last Sunday and when I unwrapped it from its tissue and bubblewrap, the fragrance from the plants was still strong. It’s a record of a journey.

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It has been a summer of important journeys. Perthshire in August for my son James’s wedding to Catherine, Cumbria in September for my son Calum’s wedding to Gemma. My daughter Rose and her partner Ian were at both weddings too, it was wonderful to see them all together. Here’s a photo taken at Bendrigg Lodge on 24th September…


I’m very proud of all of them ❤️

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In between, I had a small expedition to the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Lumsden, Aberdeenshire. I’ve wanted to go there ever since hearing about it at art college but I wasn’t sure my ‘soft’ sculpture would fit SSW’s interests. However, Rose sent me the open call for their Open Doors Weekend and I liked the look of the event – iron pourings and paperkilns, local walks with artists and community projects. SSW were enthusiastic about my suggestion for workshops using plant materials collected on my journey from Fife and I was scheduled in for the mornings of 27th and 28th August.

I stayed at my friend Leslie’s in Dundee on the Thursday night and collected some plants from her garden before driving to Lumsden on the Friday. The van floor was already covered in reedmace leaves from Fife and we added some iris, oregano, poppies and other mixed garden plants to the heap. All tested for strength and flexibility as usual.


I collected wild plants from four other places on the way to Lumsden: Clattering Bridge,  Pronie Loch, The Cabrach and Rhynie. The plants included soft rushes, heather, moor grasses, blaeberry, sphagnum moss, broom and sycamore stalks. Polytrichum moss joined the collection after a visit to the Lumsden birch woods on Saturday, the forest floor was a thick moss carpet and I decided it could easily spare a handful of the wiry stalks.

The edge of the Highlands at Clattering Bridge

The Cabrach


I took a detour into Rhynie cemetery, remembering there are Pictish stones in a little shelter by the visitors’ car park. The gravestone angels are impressive too. I picked sycamore leaves for their red stalks from the graveyard trees.

View from the van door – Tap o’ Noth catches the last of the sun
Saturday morning set-up
Four generations in one workshop


I caught up with the clay-and-paper-kiln and raku ceramics later on Saturday and Sunday, very exciting to watch…



Theo’s glass-knapping and reading group was thought-provoking and deliciously dangerous…

Before
After
My knapped glass


The Open Doors Weekend was very nicely structured and freeform at the same time. There was plenty of time to talk to other people about their work and see the exciting processes in the workshops. I watched red-hot ceramics being extracted from kilns, heard about international collaborations between Lumsden, Portugal and Brazil, joined in with artists’ walks, talked to local people about local stories, enthused with other artists about materials and processes and showed a lot of people how to make string.

Many thanks to Yvonne Billimore and the rest of the Scottish Sculpture Workshop team for a very good weekend.


I made ‘Road to Lumsden’ from the materials collected on 26th August. At the centre, Fife reedmace from the roadside at Letham Loch, spiralling out via Leslie’s garden in Dundee into the Grampians and Aberdeenshire. Rushes from The Cabrach finish the outside rim with the Lumsden woodland moss trapped in its layers.

The plant colours and scents will change with time but the materials will stay true to their places, in the order they were found.

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The SSA Annual Exhibition is open from 31st Oct -24th Nov in the RSA Building, The Mound, Edinburgh.

See the SSA website for details:

http://www.s-s-a.org/ssa-annual-exhibition-2016/

Lunch on an island


We paddled down the Earn on a beautiful August day, with low water and a gentle west wind. The canoe went into the river at Dalreoch Bridge and came out at Bridge of Earn. In between we had the company of kingfishers, swans, thousands of tiny fish, some larger ones, sand martins and sandpipers getting ready to fly south, noisy buzzards, an osprey, a peregrine falcon teaching its child to fly. 


The evidence of last winter’s floods is still very clear. River debris is trapped high in the trees along the banks: clumps of dry vegetation, big branches, tree roots, even a wooden gate suspended at least ten feet above our heads. We stopped for lunch on a flood-carved gravel island, a nice open space free of the stinking Himalayan balsam that lines so much of the river bank. 

I like gravel islands. You can find interesting plants among the stones, like this wild pansy.


The plants seem to enjoy the lack of competition on this year’s new land-surface and grow into lovely shapes.

I did a bit of island ‘archaeology’ while Alan brewed the coffee…


Bottle glass, crockery, bits of pan-tile and roofing slates, a lager can, ceramic tiles… I left it all for someone else to find – or for the next flood.

Willow and ivy

Back in April I posted photos of willow withies harvested from a friend’s garden for a particular summer project (‘Basket for Adele’, April 17th) and said that I would write more about that later.

What was the project? Last winter my son and his partner asked me if I’d like to make them a willow arch for their summer wedding. Not something I’d done before but I said yes and went off to do the internet research!

Here’s the result, maybe more of a bower than an arch. It stood up to two nights of torrential rain last week without disintegrating so we were happy with our design. We made it up ourselves in the end, we didn’t like any of the internet examples.


= 12 willow withies c/o Adele,  a car boot-full of ivy c/o Lorraine’s garden and Fingask Castle, assorted artificial orchids and unidentified silk flowers, some green garden twine and the ubiquitous waxed linen thread. This photo was taken the day after the wedding. With James and Catherine’s permission, I’ll post a photo later of them under the arch in full wedding dress 🙂

prototyping the arch in the garden
arch on site, morning after the rain

Lipiec


Today I took over the Craft Hub at the Centre for Stewardship for a ‘mini-residency’, a whole day to make whatever I wanted while chatting to visitors. I decided what I was going to make on my way in from the car park. The lime trees were covered in blossom and buzzing with bees. They reminded me of an experiment I’d been wanting to do for a while – to make a bee skep, an old-fashioned beehive. 

Cultures all over the world have designed homes and shelters for honeybees for thousands of years. The little domed hives made from straw have become familiar as a symbol for  honey and hard work, appearing on stamps, labels and logos. 

In the mid-1990’s I worked as a ceramic painter for the Griselda Hill Pottery in Ceres and was trained to paint many traditional Wemyssware designs. I loved the beehive design. At its centre is a straw skep on its table, surrounded by long grass and birch trees. A random number of bees are painted flying round the hive. We would draw them lightly in pencil on the plate or pot then follow a set procedure for painting the bees – body, head, wings, legs, antennae, stripes. I had a special brush I kept for bee wings, it was old and worn and allowed me to paint each wing in one stroke of dilute brown. When done well, the wings looked smoky and transparent and the bees looked alive. More like bumblebees than honeybees, but definitely bees.


The hard-workers in the Falkland limes today were bumblebees. While trying to get a photograph of one bee I was immersed in a wonderful sweet scent. I looked for more information about lime trees when I got home and found out that the blossoms can be used to make a calming and reviving tea. I found this and much more fascinating lime tree information on a good blog post: https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/the-intoxicating-scent-of-lime-trees/


There is a little bee skep in the Fife Folk Museum in Ceres, on a high shelf on the way to the toilets. It is made of straw and cane, and decorated with hand-made bees! The label says “Handmade by Police Sergeant Harry Strathie of Dairsie on his retiral in 1980s. Donor: Miss Provan, Dura Den”. I’d love to know more.


There were plenty of reedmace leaves and soft rushes left from last week’s Summer Baskets workshop, a suitable substitute for straw for my mini-skep prototype. Linen thread, beeswax and blunt needle for stitching as usual. My aim was to reproduce the skep shape using the stitching method I’ve been teaching in workshops, to see if it would work and look at all skep-like. 

Marek came in to see me at this point and stayed for a while to talk about all things basket. He took part in one of my workshops last year and since then has taken his researches much further than me. He showed me photos on his phone of woven baskets he has made recently using spruce roots. They are very beautiful, I hope he chooses to exhibit them at the Centre in future.

We also talked about trees, lime in particular. Marek told me that in Poland this month is named after the lime tree. ‘July’ is ‘Lipiec’, named for the month when the lime trees blossom. 


Back to work on the mini-skep. At this point it was difficult to stop the coils from turning in, making the base narrower than the sides. I wanted a more conical shape, like the Fife Folk Museum skep. I unpicked three or four coils here and re-stitched them but I couldn’t persuade the materials to open out any further, so went with vertical sides.

It is difficult to see in the old illustrations how the bee hole is made. This method might be a bit coarse but I think it would work well enough at a larger scale too. When I looked up skeps on the internet this evening, I was amazed at how many shapes and sizes have been used in the past. Cones, cylinders, bells, balls, holes at the base or half way up, made of straw, grass, willow, stitched with cane or split brambles, some even coated with mud. Room for further experiment and on a larger scale…

Basket dialogue

One of the things I like best about teaching creative workshops is the diversity of the end results. We start off with the same basic processes, a limited selection of tools and materials and finish with a set of unique hand-made objects. 

On Sunday six people came to my ‘Summer Baskets’ workshop at the Centre for Stewardship, my last workshop for the Living Lomonds Crafts of the Hills project. Over the last three years we have explored local heritage crafts in workshops and drop-ins, finding out a lot about local materials on the way. For ‘Summer Baskets’ I provided reedmace leaves, soft rushes and grasses, with some scented herbs for extra interest. 

We started by splitting some of the reedmace leaves into strands to let them dry out a little and, after a bit of discussion, we decided to use a ‘fast start’ coiling technique. I’ve been using two starting methods for coiled baskets, the ‘button’ and the one I’m now calling the ‘sausage’!  The group spent an hour or so on the first stage of the process, stitching the basket base.

At these workshops everyone decides for themselves what size of basket they want to make. When they feel the base is big enough they can start to build the sides, straight up or in a curve, controlled by placement of the coils of plant material. I encourage people to try introducing other stuff into the structure at this point and let their imaginations take off. I love to see people experimenting with the materials, making decisions about shape and colour, deciding whether to go plain or add decoration. Sometimes the baskets seem to make their own decisions. People say later “It just came out neat” or “It just ended up that shape!”

This question of control is interesting. I ask myself – how much do I or should I control the making process in a workshop? How much do the basket-makers control their materials? There is a fine balance between too much control and too little. I want to teach craft skills and encourage creative freedom, how do you do both? In workshops I have learned the value of dialogue, amongst ourselves as a group and between us and our materials. We observe and listen with respect, nothing is forced, not an opinion or a stitch. That’s my aim anyway. I try to notice when people are having difficulty with a process and encourage them to notice when their materials are struggling. “If they won’t bend into the shape you want, then consider another shape…”

On Sunday, one person found that rolling the reedmace strands while stitching helped keep them together and the stitched coils also looked good. Others in the group tried it out and liked the result. Dialogue in action.

Basket catch-up

Two basket workshops over the last couple of weeks, both very interesting. The first one was for a team from Scottish Natural Heritage at the Centre for Stewardship, Falkland. This was the biggest and fastest basket workshop I’ve ever run! The second was for a smaller group in the fantastic Portmoak Village Hall in Kinross-shire.

The SNH group had meetings and presentations in the morning and a choice of activities for the afternoon. The weather was dreich, the Big Dig on the Estate was rained off so I accepted a group of 20 for ‘Fast Baskets’, a two-hour introductory session of birch coiling and stitching. The atmosphere was relaxed, the concentration was intense, the results were very impressive…

 

I had prepared and tied bundles of birch twigs to speed up the materials selection process, knowing we would be short of time. I liked the creative use of the raffia binding in this piece.

Lovely use of beachcombed polyprop rope for extra texture and colour.

Alternative function for a tiny basket!

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The Portmoak basket workshop was funded by the Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership for the Portmoak Community Woodland team. They have been doing great work since the mid-1990s on Portmoak Moss, restoring the rare raised bog and surrounding woodland. More info about that on their excellent website: http://www.portmoakcw.org.uk

With permission (of course), I visited the Moss to collect materials to supplement my store of birch twiggage weeded out of the Lochore Meadows Country Park coppice woodland. Portmoak Moss is another undiscovered treasure close to home, I’m very glad this workshop gave me the incentive to explore it. It’s a surreal place. To get onto the Moss you have to climb a well-built flight of steps, taking you up a vertical face of dark dripping peat. At the top you look out over a landscape of grasses, rushes and mosses that could be Highland peat bog – with Bishop Hill in the background to remind you that you’re still in the Lowlands.


Can you see the deer in this photograph? I was bent over collecting willow twigs when I felt as if I was being watched. I looked up to see a deer looking at me.


It came closer and stopped. I stood still, phone ready to take a photo.


It looked straight at me, sniffed the air and came a bit closer


I don’t know if it identified me at that point but it moved off slowly to the north, grazing as it went


I think it must have caught my scent eventually. It barked and started to run further onto the bog, then stopped again to graze! Very relaxed. Is it used to seeing kind conservationists with well-controlled dogs? Or is it ill? I thought it looked a bit thin, especially around its back-end. Perhaps an elderly roe deer with poor eyesight and failing sense of smell? It ran fast enough though when it decided to go. 

Back to the workshop. The materials I collected from the Moss were mostly young trees self-seeded into the peat. Removing these is an on-going battle for the Community Woodland team (hint of irony there), so my plan with the basket workshop was to offer a creative use for the little trees and their roots. It was a bit weird to be pulling up and cutting small native trees, but I looked out over the Moss with its bog cottons and red sphagnums and appreciated the need for tree control. I reassured myself with the thought “all conservation practice is a choice anyway, nowhere is ‘natural’…”


A good day’s work. 

Paint and draw like a Pict!

Here’s a visual record of the Pictish art workshop I ran at the Centre for Stewardship, Falkland on Saturday 30th May. I’m absolutely sure that Liz, Marek, Ali, Sophie and Sarah would be accepted as scribes and banner-makers by any self-respecting Pictish tribe…



We used illustrations of Pictish stone carvings for reference and made notebooks for storing tracings and drawings

Everyone created their own designs and tranferred them onto calico to make banners – some larger than others!

Natural mineral pigments (ochres) from the Fife coast provided rich colour for the banner designs




The beautiful finished banners (Ali has taken pigments home to finish the colourwork on his). The Pictish carved stones found the length of eastern Scotland may have been this colourful. Who knows? 


There’s a glimpse of East Lomond hill behind Sarah in this photo. Dr. Oliver O’Grady supervised a successful community dig on the east side of this hill in 2014 for the Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership and he thinks it was a very significant place during Pictish times. More about that on the Living Lomonds website: http://www.livinglomonds.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Big-Dig-East-Lomond-Hill-Fort.pdf

Illustrator Bob Marshall has created an amazing reconstruction of the hill fort in collaboration with Oliver. Spot the banners outside the ‘great hall’ at the top of the hill: http://www.bobmarshall.co.uk/portfolio/illustrations/east_lomond_fort.asp

And if you’d like to see (and buy) contemporary interpretations of Pictish art: http://www.ancientstoneart.co.uk/


The last word goes to Sophie’s Pictish archer.

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This workshop was funded by the Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership and hosted by the Centre for Stewardship, Falkland: http://www.centreforstewardship.org.uk/

Spring greens


Today I completed my first homework session for week 3 of the ‘Couch to 5km’ running course and was so pleased to manage the 3 minute run bits without stopping. I finished the 30 minute walk/run/walk feeling lighter on my feet and stronger in my head. Looking up at the forest roof I smiled and thanked the beech trees for the oxygen I’d been straining for 10 minutes earlier. I like running in the forest.