Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Somewhere Beyond the Sea

I have another one-of-a-kind commission to show you today. Although it is more straight forward than the heart talisman I showed you yesterday. This is a seahorse I was asked to make for a birthday present.

I haven’t made many sea-living creatures before (but I think I might have made a blue ceramic fish in my second year of secondary school). So, as ever, my starting point was with research. I gathered plenty of images of seahorses and decided what variety of species would best suit my design ideal.

My experience with the Threadbare Bug Collection really came into play here. Structurally, I just needed to work out the three dimensional form of the seahorse. When I was learning to draw, I had the typical lesson of learning how to break down objects into geometrical shapes in order to correctly and accurately capture them. For example, a glass wine bottle can be broken down into a cylinder for the main body of the bottle, half a sphere for the rounded part adjoining the neck and another smaller cylinder for the neck itself. Breaking down the object in this way can give you a solid starting point for your drawing. It allows you to have a firm foundation upon which your more detailed drawing can be worked upon.

The same goes for making a three dimensional object. If I remember correctly, the seahorse is made up of the following; spheres for the head and neck, a small cylindrical shape for the long distinctive nose, a large sphere for the upper body and a customised cylinder with a curved end to make the seahorses tail.

I made all of these geometric shapes out of felt. I love using this versatile material. It is great for sewing in to and provides a strong base for additional materials. I also like being able to create every part of the art piece, it gives me total creative control. I don’t have to rely on a manufacturer for different shapes and sizes of product, I can make my own to suit the scale and number I need.

With the foundation structure complete, I was able to move on to the decoration of the seahorse or the painting of my canvas, if you will. I was asked to use turquoise, green and a little red in the colour palette of the piece. As with working with the bugs, I have found it wonderful how the beads and sequins I use in my work made very convincing substitutes for exoskeletons and now scales. I sewed the beads on in stripes to show a regular and natural feeling pattern which gave a texture that I had observed in my research. Obviously there is always room for artistic licence and I don’t claim to be making an exact replica of any seahorse species. I wanted the piece to be an interpretation not an up-scaled model.

As with the heart yesterday, when this seahorse was complete, I suspended him in a glass jar. I have been doing this for years with my art work and I was glad to carry on the tradition with this piece because it very much seemed to suit the subject matter. An aspect of my work that I enjoy is creating these unexpected oddities that live and take part in a person’s home interior.

I imagine this seahorse sitting on a shelf or on a desk and I think that although it is a little strange to have a turquoise seahorse suspended in a jar in your house, I think how good it is to own something strange, something unusual. There is so much today that is global, hum-drum and ultra accessible. I like things that are a bit more difficult to incorporate, things that require a little space to be seen, things that require us to contemplate where we position them and how to display them, things that tell a story about who we are in a small way.  

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Let’s Get to the Heart of the Matter

The work I want to show you today is a unique, one-of-a-kind piece I was commissioned to make for a daughter from her father. The young girl in question had been celebrated on a very special day. Her relatives and loved-ones had each brought her a small token to remember this happy occasion.

Her father presented me with a bag of these precious treasures and asked me if I could create an art piece incorporating them into the design. As with a lot of my other work, I had a lengthy conversation with him about his daughter and asked him what he would like me to be thinking of when making the piece for her.

I spent a great deal of time reflecting and ruminating over the concept behind this work and what I wanted it to convey. I had to think about the objects I was given and how I could artfully include them. I wanted the tokens to feel like they were at the centre of the design and not just added in at the last minute. I wanted to create something that was to showcase them and their meaning.

I thought about maybe doing a version of the Threadbare Bugs. I thought the bug could be carrying the beads like an offering but it never felt quite right. I sat with the tokens in front of me, handling them and really trying to take them in. There was a shell, small fairy and firefly keepsakes, there were beads in different materials like stone and glass, there was a bead with the girl’s first initial on it and there were lots and lots of hearts.

I thought about all the girls father had said about her with such love and tenderness. It became so apparent that all that was before me was evidence of a great love. I wanted to create something that would be a talisman that represents the pure love for this girl and that she could use it as a resource for when the cruel world plays its tricks. I wanted to create something, that when she looked at it, she would be reminded of the deep feelings that were felt for her and how valuable she is to all that know her.

I decided I would use the classic symbol of the heart for this talisman of love. I made two strong pieces of hand-made felt and cut out a template of a heart shape to suit the scale I needed to hold these treasures. I decided I wanted to encrust this felt heart with beads, buttons and sequins in multi-shades and tones of vibrant red. I worked each side of the piece separately. I added a slender red ribbon to all the tokens and by sewing I secured them to the inside of one half of the heart. I then had to bring the two pieces together to create a whole. I decided I would use a turquoise coloured bead around the joining of the seam to bring another dimension to the overall look of the piece. I believe the colour has a strong positive energy to it and I wanted to add it to the talisman.

I wanted to give this girl a token from myself. I decided I would make a butterfly for her and attach it to the corner of the heart. The reason I chose the butterfly is because in Native American Medicine Cards, the butterfly symbolises transformation. Being so young, I felt this girl will probably go through many transformations in her life. I hoped this butterfly would be a charm for positive and healthy transformations. I made it partly from felt and partly from paper. I wanted to include the wisdom of books and education into the piece, with the added bonus of an extra texture, bringing something different to the look.

When this talisman was completed, it was heavy with embellishment and, hopefully, deep feelings of love and appreciation. What is not recorded in these photographs is that I suspended the heart in a large glass jar so the piece could be contained and displayed. I wrote a short piece to accompany the art work, further expressing the feelings that inspired this talisman.

I like how the photographs for this work turned out. The grey subdued concrete contrasts strongly with the vibrant detailed talisman. I feel talismans should be unique, nearly odd, talking points. I wanted it to feel other-worldly, a thing that brings magical messages from other realms. I want it to draw you in and make you ask the questions: What is this? What is it for?

The answer for me would have to be: Love. Its all for Love.  

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

A New Definition for a Family Tree

(This piece was already framed before I got to photograph it so there is some reflections visible in the images. I hope it doesn't distract too much.) 

In the post “An Art Process That Has Deep Roots” I discussed the research work I did for a special art piece that sits at the heart of my family. It does actually hang over the hearth in my family home. I promised that I would share with you the story of how this art work came to be.

My dad has been a youth and community worker for a very long time, as long as I have known him in fact. He is passionate about his job and has committed much of his time to the community he has worked with for the past thirty years.

A couple of years ago now, a celebration was organised for my dad by the people in his job to honour the contribution he has made. Our whole family was asked to be a part of this heart-felt and moving occasion but in secret, because it was being planned as a surprise.

It was a beautiful evening; what seemed like crowds of people came out to be there for dad. They sang him songs, they told stories and they made speeches about the man that he is. One of the speeches given by one of dads long-time co-workers spoke of him in such a way that conjured the image of this tree into my head. I can’t remember the speech exactly now but what I was left with was a strong, tall, deep-rooted force. It had a loving heart at the centre of it and far reaching branches that pushed out and touched other people’s lives. It felt like an organic and ever-changing life that was firm and rigid but also flexible and moving.

My dad, as I know him, is not a materialistic man. He does not place a high value on “things”. So to endeavour to make him some “thing” that was complicated and time-consuming was risky business for me. I truly felt though, that I wanted to try and capture something of that evening; to take in the special things that were said about a member of my family and create my own expression of it that we could hold on to and use to commemorate the work my dad had done in his life.

As I explained in my previous post, I set about researching and drawing trees of all varieties, trying to explore and encapsulate the image I wanted to convey. I decided I wanted to make the piece out of hand-made felt. I had learned felt-making techniques in college and had always been drawn to this active and hands-on process of fabric-making.

My dad loves everything Irish and so I decided I would have a clear yet sombre Irish spring sky in the background. I used a natural uncoloured fleece, wisps of a rich blue and strands of silk fibre that ripple and shine when worked into the felt. I made pieces of felt from various shades of green for the landscape around the tree. I also made and bought multi-shades of brown for the tree itself. I had bought some beautiful vibrant red fleece for another project and this did perfectly for the heart that beats at the centre of the tree.

After I had completed my research, I designed the finished piece on layout paper. I made a template from this design for the whole tree shape. I cut this shape out in felt and sewed it down onto the background. I then chose to make a more complicated template; every branch and every bit of bark texture had to be given colour and form. I chose to use light and dark tones of brown to define and shade the tree to give it a layered look that had dimension. I embroidered each sliver of brown felt into place and also used the embroidery thread to give extra detail. I added smaller and more delicate branches with tiny buds with tips of green. This was to signify the new phase, the next chapter in dads work. It symbolises springtime regeneration and natural cycles of life.

Some pieces of work stand out as an obvious step forward in your ability to communicate an idea and your skills develop to a whole other level. This is one such piece for me. I was very focused on the quality I wanted to deliver in this picture. I meticulously worked every detail and finished it to as high a standard as I was capable of at the time.

I attribute this to the force of feeling that was behind this piece. I was inspired by the creativity and positive energy of others. I was also much more experienced having worked on many different projects and I gave myself the space I needed to make something that would be meaningful to me in the long term.

I gave this art work to my dad for his birthday and I do feel he appreciated the gesture I was making to him. I have challenged my dad my whole life about his work and the time he spent there. We have a loud and combative relationship; always arguing, debating and joshing each other. But there is a strong love that binds us together through these stormy seas. We always try to find a way back to the safe harbour of our relationship.

What I attempted to do with this piece of art was to leave my complaints and child /parent disgruntlements to one side and honour the man who has worked so hard as to deserve such a special occasion to be created for him. I wanted to see the man not just as my father but a man who has dedicated his life to strong beliefs, relationship and walking his talk.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A Friend, a Family Member, a Muse

In going through my old notebooks and visual diaries, there is one familiar face that keeps appearing time and time again. This is Cascarino Lawlor, our beloved family pet from my very early teens to my mid-twenties. The story of his name is legend in our family.

If you know anything about Irish soccer, you will remember we had a bit of a golden period in the late eighties and early nineties. As I remember, it was the time between the Euro ’88 Championship and the Italia ’90 World Cup. When I think of it, it’s like a haze of holiday sunshine. It generated great community spirit and national pride. All of our neighbours watched the matches in each others houses. There was huge excitement because being the underdogs, we ourselves, never expect to win anything. We seemed to clock up one victory after another and the Irish nation reveled in its time in the sun (we still do to some extent).

Anyone who knows me now will be completely shocked to hear my glowing account of this time because at this point in my life I am a known sports hater. I have sports issues. I have sporting-father neglect syndrome. I have “Get out of the way, the match is on!” anger. My dad is a sportoholic and has passed his obsession on to my siblings. I’ve somewhat grown to appreciate that it is a genuine passion in his life and I do my best to accept it. I’ll admit I don’t always succeed. I mostly do my best to just stay away and try not to annoy anyone.

Anyway, I’ve slightly moved away from my point. Tony Cascarino was a striker for the international Irish team at this time (no Grainne, I didn’t have to Google it!). My lovely sister Grainne LOVED him. Yes my dear, I am outing you. She LOVED him so much we named our dog after him. We always called him Casco for short.

Casco was the runt of the litter, a true under-dog, which made him irresistible to me and my sister. His siblings were fat and fluffy while he was skinny and a little sad looking. We wanted him. We wanted to choose him in part because we were worried he wouldn’t be the choice of other people. That’s probably a little condescending but I do think our young hearts were in the right place. He came home with us and has been part of our family ever since.

I always wanted to draw Casco. I wanted to capture his expressions, his pink nose and his tufty soft ears. I drew him from photographs and from real life (if he could sit still for long enough). I learned so much from trying to draw his face. I learned how light falls on fur and how hard it is to accurately draw a muzzle. I think I mostly drew him because I loved him.

He was noisy, he bit my ankles when we went for a walk, he followed me to the shops and when I was out with my friends. He was a good listener and always always got up on my lap and licked away my tears when I was upset. He was a good dog. When he passed away we grieved him. We all have “Casco stories” and he is cemented in our family history.

I feel when I look at the pictures I have drawn of him that I have a special artifact, a personal record of his existence. I examined every detail of his face and when I trace the lines with my eyes I remember unique details about him. I remember his mottled fur and the way his ears crimped when they were wet. Sometimes I am really glad I am an artist and when I’m looking at pictures I have drawn of Casco that is the gladdest I can be.  

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A Sampling of my Samples

Since I wrote last week about my mother sitting up with me until three o’clock in the morning supporting me to get my work done, I have been thinking about all those “samples” I used to have to make for college. If any of you have been to college or any form of third level education I am sure you are aware of the pressure surrounding due dates for assignments. For art school I feel it has its own kind of unique pressure in the form of the sheer volume of work that has to be produced for any or all assignments.

When I was in college, I wasn’t an out-all-night-drinking kind of student. I took my course extremely seriously (sometimes too seriously I’ll admit) but I wanted to make art my career and I have a very strong work ethic inherited from my parents. Also I think I had just come from school were 70% of the curriculum were subjects I didn’t want to pursue and the excitement of making different kinds of art every day never really wore off, I was working with my passion.

Assignments could consist of research work, visual diary development, 10-15 samples of work to support your finished piece (A3 recommended) and then 5-10 actual finished pieces of well executed art work. In my experience, if I created work during the day in college, my tutors wanted to see something new and different in the final presentation. Everything was about the development of our ideas and the ability to produce something cohesive at the end of it.

If I had five different modules and five different assignments consisting of the aforementioned course load, the pressure to produce was immense. I feel if you followed me and my classmates around our college, all you would hear emanating from our group was “Samples, Samples Samples, Samples, Samples”.

The concept for the piece I am showing you the samples from today were taken from an assignment called “Ceremonial Passage”. Our tutors would give us a heading like this and then we would have to develop and personalise the theme into expressive pieces of art.

As I have always been an avid reader, I chose to centre my project around the journey I took from early childhood picture books, to books with pictures and words combined and then finally, to the pure written word of my late childhood and beyond. I always read at night and I wanted to communicate the warm enclosed sanctuary of being wrapped in my bed clothes and disappearing into a fictional world of characters and places I had never been before. The idea was to create a shroud that could be wrapped around me while reading with images and words from the books I loved growing up and helped me develop as a person.

I wanted the top of the piece to be very colourful with lots of illustrations and rounded characters from books like “The Bad Tempered Ladybird” by Eric Carle. I then wanted it to progress into more detailed drawings, for example, the drawings from a very special book my mam brought back from a trip to America called “Make Way for the Ducklings” by Robert McCloskey. I then wanted the piece to be drained of colour as I moved into the black and white pages of “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I wanted the piece to celebrate my progression as person and reader in this large ceremonial shawl.

I still like the concept I came up with for this assignment. The samples are re-worked images and illustrations from these and other books. I used pencils, chalk & oil pastels and paint to try to communicate them in my own may. I also used mixed media techniques by preparing grounds and drawing on top of them with various materials.

With 20/20 hindsight I can see by the finished piece that I was a bit ambitious with this whole thing though. There wasn’t nearly enough time to execute the shawl with the finish I wanted and on the scale I wanted. If I could go back I would make it smaller and maybe use an existing shawl rather than make everything from scratch. I was and am a perfectionist. I do like to think I am in recovery now but other people might say I am kidding myself.

I was quite often frustrated in college by not having enough time to finish things the way I wanted to. I even resented having to make the “samples” because they took so much focus away from the finished piece, the thing I would have to exhibit. I like them now as I look at them though and they do show a process. The reason we were asked to do things in college wasn’t always clear to me when I was there. I could put it down to poor or mis-communication or even just that the “institute of college” doesn’t feel the need to explain WHY you do something- just do it! Or maybe they were trying to tell me and I just didn’t get it! Anyway it makes more sense to me now and I elect to make samples myself these days even if I do twitch a little every time I start.


Wednesday, 6 March 2013

An Art Process That Has Deep Roots

Today I thought I would show you some research drawings I did for an art piece that sits in the heart of my family. It is a framed felt picture made mostly from felt I hand-worked myself and a lot of embroidery. I will share more about the background of it when I show you photographs of the actual finished piece.

On Monday, I had one drawing that accompanied the post I had written. It is some of the design work I did for this picture. I used this image because the concept behind this work is about strong family ties.

These drawings are the work I did before starting the “real” work. I have discussed here before about the importance of notebooks and acquainting myself with my subject matter before beginning a piece in earnest.

I had a strong image in my head of a singular tree standing right in the centre of my composition. So the next step was to go on a tree hunt to find the perfect specimen to match the imaginings in my head. Gary and I have garnered quite a collection of photographic resource books over the years to help with this exact process.

The three main books I used in this instance are; “Meetings with Remarkable Trees” by Thomas Pakenham, published by Cassell Paperbacks, “Remarkable Trees of the World” also by Thomas Pakenham, first published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and lastly, “Mythic Woods, the worlds most remarkable forests” by Jonathan Roberts, also published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

I scoured these books for hours, absorbing all the different images and all the different possibilities. I got out my sketchpad and pencils and started drawing the images that most appealed to me. I know it might seem odd to spend so much time drawing when in the end I will be using fabrics and threads to make the final piece of art. But for me, I find it very helpful to observe the subject matter, in this case trees, to get to know the lines and the curves in great detail. I find it allows me to have confidence when it comes to making the first cut in the fabric, to sew the first line of stitches or indeed how to sew the marks that are to represent the bark of a tree. I know what I am looking to achieve because my hand has already traced the familiar lines before.

From drawing in detail, you can find out how you think in your own mind about drawing trees and then the difference in how you actually draw a tree. The forms can often be different to how you imagine them and it challenges your technical skill to get beyond what you think you see and to then draw what you actually see.

As you can perceive, I favour a high contrast style of tonal work. I like dense dark tones and light white tones at the other end of the spectrum. I was actually talking with my uncle at the weekend about our mutual love of 5B pencils. They are soft and dark and beautiful to work with.

I always like seeing the behind-the-scene work of different artists so I hope you enjoy these early process drawings and that they will give you some insight into the finished piece when I post it. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

I Will Not Admit to Being a Damsel in Distress (but I will admit I am having an identity crisis)

A friend of my sisters had become a godfather and he asked me if I would make something special for his new goddaughter. I do have to say that I am a total sucker for a project like this, especially if I am fond of the person doing the asking. I want everyone to be able to have a piece of art to mark the new and important times in their lives. I can see the struggle for people when they would like to get something distinctive for someone they love but are often left with little choice except for the same old gift options that have been given time and time again. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is anything appalling about traditional gifts. But I can understand that when you are looking for something different or unique to celebrate a new role, a special birthday or a once off event (hopefully!) like a wedding, the market is flooded with items that can lack imagination.

For me, this has meant that I have found myself in the position of filling this niche in the market. I have created very unusual handmade gifts that I never would have imagined I would be making when I started work as an artist. I have discussed this before in regards to the coffee cosy, the lighthouse and sweat lodge tea cosies that I have shown on this blog. I think I must be missing a view into parts of my personality and I can miss things that other people see in me that I am not connected to.

Let me try to explain. I don’t drink alcohol and never really have because of an allergy that sends me to sleep within about fourteen minutes of me consuming it. When I am out socializing, I generally would drink tea or soft drinks, but due to this, I have developed a reputation as a bit of a “tea lady” I think.

I do a lot of my own baking and I bake for any family birthdays, anniversaries or special occasions that come up. This of course adds to the appearance of the “tea lady” thing, but now I’m the “baking tea lady”. Because of my ever expanding creativity I think I am also quite house proud; meaning my home has now become an extension of my creativity. I do lots of DIY projects around the house; painting chevrons on my bathroom walls, updating old lamp stands and wooden frames and appliquéing cushions to add colour and textures to our work rooms. Gary and I started growing our own vegetables last year and we have just planted our seed trays for this coming summer.

I am starting to sound like a 1950’s housewife and as a feminist from about the time my parents were able to read to me “Fairytales for Feminists”, I begin to feel like I strongly object to myself.

I somehow don’t see myself as a tea drinking baker who knits dolls and tea cosies, who embroiders cushions and is “growing her own”. But that is what I do so I’m obviously having an identity crisis. The point I am trying to make is, sometimes, I don’t know how I end up making the things that I do.

When I started making the knitted tea cosies it snowballed into the vast array of Snugs that are documented here, they are something that I have continuously gotten paid for and so that is a really good motivating factor for making more. I have bills to pay and the Snugs have paid them. When I started knitting more often I got better and better at it. I challenged myself with more complicated projects and continued to improve. So now I am a knitter and it just sort of happened organically. I don’t think I set out to be one. So I think it can be really odd for me to be identified as a knitter now because I always just think of myself as an artist.

This knitted doll was taken from the “Dream Toys” book by Claire Garland I have written about before.  I added lots of my own details to finish off this beautiful lady and hopefully make her into a treasured keepsake for many years to come. I try to bring my artistry to everything I undertake and for some reason I can’t always see it until years after I have completed the project.

When I look at her now I can see that her stitches are even and finished to a high standard. I have embroidered and stitched with confidence to ensure years of endurance. I have made her truly one of a kind to mirror the uniqueness of the little girl for whom she was created. I think when I see something so complete, so common-place and yet, so special, another knitted doll in a long tradition of knitted dolls; I think I get afraid that I will be pigeon- holed as a doll-maker or a knitter or an old-fashioned woman. I fear being trapped by labels and the limitations of a singular genre.

I feel I want to make everything. I want to try everything. I want to use all the materials. I want to be free to choose without someone else deciding what I am or what I should be. I think that is what true feminism or true artistry is about; the freedom to choose to be a “baking tea lady” or to knit to make art, not to just have to use paint to be legitimate. The “having” to be something or someone is often the thing that destroys the experience. I want to be all facets of my personality and share it all without fear of being called a cliché or without being put in a box, labelled and filed away.