Category Archives: experimenting

Experimenting

As an artist who uses cloth I am very interested in how it is used in the landscape that I am trying to evoke. I take great inspiration from sails and tarpaulins that can be found everywhere here on the coast and recently I have been researching traditional ways of preserving and waterproofing them.

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Nowadays, sails are made from highly technical synthetic materials that won’t shrink, rot or stretch out of shape when battered by the wind and weather. But before these fabrics were in common use, sails were made of canvas and linen – fabrics that will degenerate quickly if they are not treated with a preservative. I often use canvas and linen in my work and so it is appropriate to look at traditional ways of preserving these types of cloth.

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There are several traditional ways that sailors and fishermen would preserve sails, ropes and nets. Tanning or barking is a process of boiling sailcloth in a solution of cutch, an extract of the plant Acacia Catechu that is very high in natural tannins. This process turns the sail a reddish/brown and gives protection from the elements, but the sail remains absorbent and becomes heavy in wet weather.

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I find the process of ‘dressing’ sails with linseed oil, wax and ochre more intriguing. The mixture is spread on both sides of the sail and penetrates the cloth to create a barrier that protects it from the wet. Despite the fear that the linseed oil coated cloth would spontaneously combust (!), I have made some samples and hung them up in a well ventilated room to dry.

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Since using chalk that I had collected, hand ground and turned into distemper in a recent piece of work, I have been keen to use other natural materials collected from the environment. I thought that I could easily replace ochre in the dressing mixture with another material and for the past couple of weeks I have been looking for a substitute on my walks along the beach. Red clay from Cley beach and sea-coal from the East Hills in Wells have proved to be worthy alternatives.

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When I first made these samples I was disappointed. I thought they looked like dirty scraps of cloth with no aesthetic appeal. However, I looked at them again a couple of days ago and the drying process has greatly improved their appearance and touch and I think there could be some potential.

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Now the linseed oil is less sticky and smelly, the yellow/brown oil, wax, and coarsely ground red clay turns the cloth a wonderful, translucent terracotta and similarly coarse-ground sea-coal gives texture. I’ve also mixed some of my previously ground chalk with oil and wax and the mixture gives a dense, creamy coating that gently cracks when manipulated.

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These are my first experimental samples. They need a lot of refining and I should spend longer processing the clay and sea-coal and trying out different proportions of oil and wax.  But I have ideas …… I’ll keep you updated!

Chalk

Chalk is the bedrock of the physical landscape of East Anglia and it forms a ‘chalk belt’ that runs from the Chilterns to the North Norfolk coast. It has shaped the economic and cultural development of this region and forms some of its most beautiful and spectacular landscapes.

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Hunstanton chalk samples

Although chalk is not as apparent in Norfolk as in other areas of Britain such as the South Downs, at Seven Sisters and the White Cliffs of Dover, it embraces the North Norfolk coast with chalk cliffs to the West at Hunstanton and to the East at West Runton. There are chalk pits and quarries all over the county, including just up the road from here in Wells, and sub-terranean Norwich is riddled with tunnels where chalk was formerly mined.

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West Runton chalk samples

I am using chalk in my next piece of work and decided to collect the material from two different sites that mark the outer boundaries of my ‘place’: Hunstanton, where there are red and white cliffs, and the beach at West Runton where a vein of chalk emerges on the beach and at the bottom of the cliffs. The chalk I find at both sites has broken off from the cliffs, probably from wave action and the force of the tides, and lies scattered across the beach. Huge great lumps, too big to pick up and take home, lie at the top of both beaches under the cliffs, but smaller pieces have been distributed across the sand by the sea. I collect lumps about the size of my fist and smaller pebbles from both places. My intention is to grind them down to a powder and combine the resulting white pigment with a binder to stiffen and colour cloth.

Immediately I can see that the chalk collected from each site is different. The pieces of Hunstanton chalk are rounded and they don’t mark my skin or clothes as I pick them up. They are hard, dry and cold.

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The West Runton chalk, on the other hand, is soft and buttery and the greasy surface of each piece has attracted a light covering of sand. It is damp and soft and marks everything it touches. By the time I get home my hands, clothes, bags and the car are covered with a film of white dust.

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Before I even try to break it up I know that the properties of each sample is very different; the West Runton chalk will definitely be easier to process than the fragments from Hunstanton. I don goggles and a dust mask and whack a small piece of Hunstanton chalk with a hammer. Nothing happens. I try again, and again it doesn’t break. I get a bigger, heavier hammer. This time it cracks in two, but I can sense that using this material will be a battle. I try the West Runton chalk. One firm tap with a hammer and it breaks into four or five small pieces. It is so soft and breaks very easily. I continue tapping and soon I have a coarse powder.

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I take a hard Hunstanton lump and start to grind the softer particles with it. It works well as a pestle and the powder gradually becomes finer. I take more of the softer lumps and continue crushing and grinding until I have quite a large heap. Fine powder rises up with the grinding action and I can feel it drying the skin on my hands and face – I’m glad of the dust mask.

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The ground West Runton chalk is the colour of double cream. I suppose it has been yellowed by sand and I wonder whether covering it with water would purify it. I place it in a large bowl of water and wait. Bubbles rise to the surface as air is expelled from between each grain and after a few minutes the chalk has fallen to the bottom and the water has cleared.

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I put my hands into the chalky soup and can feel hard lumps. I can squish them between my fingers and they disintegrate. I keep squishing, but there are too many to get a fine powder this way.

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I pour off the clear water and realise that, of course, all the large sand and chalk particles  are still combined. I place the creamy, chalk mixture on a tray and leave to dry. Soon I’ll be able to mix it with a binder and make a form of coarse gesso to form the foundation of my next piece of work.

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Sand and salt bags

I’ve had some little pieces drying in the beach hut and they are now done. These are experiments. I don’t know yet if they will be developed into something else but they have several properties that are quite promising.

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The pieces have been filled with a mixture of sand and salt and soaked in the sea until wet through and then left. They have taken between three and four weeks to dry out fully.

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The smaller pieces were inspired by heaving lines – a lightweight line with a weight at the end, made to be thrown between a ship and the shore, or from one ship to another, and used to pull a heavier line across. The weight in them is really pleasing. I often feel that 3-D textile work lacks heft so I am really pleased with their heaviness.

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The longer piece was made simply to see how much sand/salt could be stuffed into a small work before it became too heavy…… it’s not too heavy to hang! Again I really like the feeling of gravity – you can see the weight of the sand/salt pulling the cloth down towards the ground.

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Food for thought …..

Holed cloth

It occurred to me after my last post that I hadn’t written about the things I have been making recently. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been doing anything. I have been working on a new set of ideas and the work is still at an early stage – embryonic and unformed. I’m still don’t quite know where I’m going with it …. I have an idea of what it could be, but I’m not there yet. It’s an exciting time and I enjoy the experimentation. These two cloths are hole-y investigations (not finished pieces). I’m thinking about rhythm and metre, counting, space and silence, flow and disruption. As always the materials I use are important to relating the work to place. Therefore these cloths have been soaked in the sea and this afternoon I photographed them after they had been drying overnight in the beach hut. I want the stitching on the eyelets (especially on the black cloth) to become really crusty and dark. I’ve dipped both of them again so hopefully the rust will stain the stitching even more. The cloth has become stiffer with the seawater and I really like the handle of it. P1010645   P1010648 P1010650 I’ve got a couple of other things drying in the hut …. I’ll show you when they’re cooked!

Notations – seeing sound

Is it possible for music and sound to be a visual art as well as a hearing one? This is a question that I have been mulling over for some time and one that lies at the heart of the work I am doing at the moment. I am interested in a synthesis of sound, landscape and music notation and whether drawing sound could be a way of creating an aural landscape where sound is visualised and landscape is heard. I am exploring this by looking at various forms of notation.

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Notation is a recognised system of symbols (essentially marks on paper) that visually represent a music or sound idea. Standard notations are well-known, clearly defined structures that are able to communicate sound information in a functional and precise manner. I consider the characteristics of three notations that are able to articulate sound: text, Western musical notation and graphic scores.

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Text and words are the visual form of speech. Indeed, as you are reading this you are probably also hearing my words in your head. The traditional Western musical notation of a score is read by a musician who has the skill to interpret and hear a composer’s thoughts.

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Both these types of notation can be understood aurally when the written language has been learnt. Furthermore a musician can also realise music notation by playing them on a musical instrument as the notational elements of a musical score are there to fulfil a purpose which is to ‘sound out’ a composers’ ideas. A musical score is normally thought of as silent and would generally be deemed redundant if it weren’t to be played by musicians, however, we don’t question the functionality of a script if we don’t read it out aloud.  Thus, we are able to learn the symbols of script or score, understand their meanings and consequently ‘hear’ those meanings in our heads – our eyes are able to see the sounds inferred.

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However, both these notations create boundaries and an artist can only take their ideas as far as the conventional limits of the system will allow. Formal notations can constrain an artist who wants to be able to communicate a suggestive or poetic sound idea that falls outside of the standard structure of known marks.

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From the 1950s composers such as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Earle Brown moved away from the restrictions of conventional musical notation to find new solutions. The reasons for this were various: to create a greater artistic freedom with a new range of sounds and sound relationships, to enable creative improvisation and interpretive freedom in performance. Graphic scores were the medium through which composers were able to articulate their ground breaking new ideas.

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Graphic scores are a way of communicating musical or sound ideas through drawing. Although some composers only used drawing alongside modifications of conventional musical notation others invented a completely different approach.  Experimental marks and pictures represented sounds and became the alternative means of expressing creativity and the boundaries between notation as music and notation as art became blurred. The marks made on a graphic score are not the learnt mark of a standard script or musical score, they are imagined marks that come from the creator’s mind – there are no set rules for creation or interpretation attached to them. The creator will have had an idea but the final interpretation is only constrained by the reader’s imagination.

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I believe that a graphic score is able to blur the boundaries between cognition and performance or put another way, notation as art and notation as music. By using abstract drawn, painted or constructed marks that are not a traditional recognised sound notation the work becomes a hybrid, a mixture of sound notation and visual and tactile marks that leave enormous scope for the imaginative interpretation of the reader. Art exists to enhance human understanding and the method of inferring aural, visual and even tactile experience through the medium of a graphic score gives the creator the freedom to express more than standardised notations are able to offer.

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I want to draw attention to the way in which we experience our surroundings using the visual, aural and tactile senses. In these photographs I am creating visual and tactile marks that represent sound but leave us with the paradox of a silent score – a score that is not meant to be performed but one that is to be looked at, touched and consequently heard.