Art of Remembrance

Commemorating 100 years since the end of the Great War has given me the opportunity to work on two wonderful projects with two very different groups.

‘Remember Their Stories’ was a very special project for Chillingham Road Primary School in Newcastle. The school is still in its original Victorian building and has its very own museum looking back at the life and times of the school and it’s pupils. Included in the museum is information about the 66 ‘ old boys’ who went to fight in the Great War and never came home. Their names are recorded on a special plaque, now prominently displayed in the museum.

An earlier local history project records the stories of these boys and maps where they lived.

To reflect the ethos of the school, this art project needed to involve all the children in the school, from playgroup to year 6, and also their families. I had to come up with a proposal that would get everyone thinking about the centenary of Armistice and would let all the school help make the artwork.

The idea

The location of the artwork was chosen by the school, it needed to fit on a tall, narrow wall (approximately 3m x 0.4m) and could wrap around the surrounding walls. This space made me decide to include a figure, a soldier, and poppies- the iconic symbol of remembrance. I wanted to make links between the local area and the soldier and thought this could be shown by postcards written as if from the war to someone back home in Heaton. Then I thought that the postcards could be carried by doves- symbolising peace. Initially I included the dates of the Great War but school asked for this to be changed to the centenary dates. As part of my research I found a clip of an interview with Michael Morpurgo, author of ‘Private Peaceful’ and ‘War Horse’. In the film he visited the war graves and said that he wrote his books because ‘we must remember their stories’. Immediately, I could see how perfectly this line captured the essence of our art project.

So, with the composition planned, and agreed by school, I needed to work out how the piece could be made and who would do what. I made a list of the tasks, discussed them with school and suggested what might be appropriate for each year. School then devised a timetable for me to work with and we were off!

Straight after the half term holiday we began a week of workshops. An initial assembly saw me introduced to the whole school and then we were off!

I had prepared a life size painting of the soldier and an outline of the soldier on the pelmet vilene that was to be the substrate of the artwork

My first workshop guests were the youngest children in school- playgroup, nursery and reception. I explained to each group that we had the very important job of preparing all the colours of fabric so we could make the plain white picture as colourful as the painting.

I had set up 3 work stations, one each to make ‘mud’, ‘khaki uniform and blue sky. We used the squeezy bottle dye method as it is the least messy and as the dyes are made up in advance there’s very little risk of dye powders getting spread about.

(It did get a little messy – apologies if you had blue hands afterwards!)

Next was a change of task as the tinies were replaced by years 5 & 6.

I asked these groups to make doves. They used templates to cut the shapes from white felt and then they customised them with sequins for eyes and beaks.

Tuesday brought workshops for years 1 & 2 and also for families. It was our Poppy Day. The poppies were made by wet felting merino wool fibres.

We used bubble wrap grated soap and warm water to felt the poppies, with some groups using swim ‘noodle’ rolling pins to add pressure to the fibres. After felting the fibres were ‘shocked’ in hot and cold water then left to dry.

Our next sessions were on Thursday. Years 3 & 4 has the task of starting to assemble the artwork, and writing their own postcards from the Front. There were different work stations so groups could take turns at all the tasks. One group was tearing the dyed fabric into small pieces, another was using these pieces to collage the picture and a third group were printing and writing their postcards.

The postcards were made from pelmet vilene cut to size. The children chose a ‘postcard’ stamp another ‘postage’ stamp and then thought about what a soldier might want to write home- lots of ideas about the noise and squalor, rats, trench foot and injuries.

On Friday, years 5 & 6 came back to print their postcards and help with the collage.

We also cut out the letters and numbers for the title and dates.

Also on Friday, Year 6 gave their Assembly on Conflict, including a section where they interviewed me about the project and my work as an artist!

Then the Head teacher led the school outside to the yard where a very moving Remembrance act took place. With the school gathered in a circle, teachers read out the names of all the young men from the school who had died, the Head Teacher read The Exhortation, a two minute silence was observed and the Last Post was played.

Over the weekend, the doves and postcards were attached to the sky and then the poppies were stitched onto the muddy soil

Finally, on Monday we were ready for installation- with help from the head teacher and the business manager our ‘Tommy’ was up in the school museum and the doves were flying over the streets of Heaton, carrying their heartfelt messages to families and friends.

It was fantastic to be able to involve the whole school in this project. Now the work is on display and its location means that the children will be able to see what they achieved every time they walk through the school to the dining hall. I hope they will remember working together in order to make art to remember those young men from a hundred years ago who gave their lives for our future.

A Sense of Place

Saturday is workshop day. This time in Hartlepool with the local Embroiderers’ Guild.

The project involves participants choosing a place or scene that is special to them – a favourite walk, holiday destination, or family home for example. I ask them to bring visual reminders of the place – sketches, photos or similar, and to consider how the location makes them feel.

This group had heard my talk ‘Critical for Creativity’ the previous week so they were primed with ideas on how to emphasise a mood or feeling in art.

After a talk through the process everyone quickly got busy. With scenes from Devon to Dumfries, North America to the Psychedelic lands of the imagination – each piece was unique to the maker (!).

Compositions were adjusted to enhance the form of the work, leading the eye towards the focal point. Scale was considered, in subject matter and stitch size, to create a sense of space and depth in the work.

Working to a small scale and aiming to create a textile piece that would wrap around a miniature canvas. We used bondaweb and needle felting techniques to put together the images before adding hand stitched details. I intersperse talking to participants individually about to develop their work with short demonstrations of relevant processes. My aim is always to encourage people and offer new approaches that might spark motivation for further development

This is a day workshop, the tricky bit is always thinking what to pack – there are the essentials, tracing paper, bondaweb (& ironing equipment!) threads…but as I never know what scene people will choose I have to guess what colours and textures might be useful- this time we could have done with some sheers or metallics to create watery surfaces.

This time the needle felting kit was invaluable/ used to create clouds, mountains and trees in various scenes.

This is the second time I’ve run a workshop at the Athenaeum in Hartlepool- an amazing Victorian building with very high ceilings and rambling corridors. Last time I got to use the chair lift to carry equipment upstairs and this time everything was set out on the (covered) pool table!

The view outside reflects the changes taking place in the area -from one window the peeling paint surfaces of abandoned buildings, from others, the impressive new art school and the old bus station that is now a film studio.

I will soon be updating my workshop list so take a look and see if there’s anything that you’d like to do – or if there’s something I do that is not listed let me know !

Anniversary Celebrations

Creative Workshop preparation on the table today- turns out the Angel and I have both been in the North East for 20 years! That’s got to be worth celebrating 😊

I was actually on the hill in Gateshead on the day the Angel was installed, seeing it rise up was amazing- I think our tribute pose even got us on Look North that evening 🤣

So it seems fitting that I’ll be running this workshop to make a mini Angel in September, celebrating 20 years of the iconic North East sculpture- more details to follow 😄

South Charlton

I’m working with the WhichCraft group to make Textile panels for their renovated Village Hall here in South Charlton.

The panels will be in appliqué and stitch and will feature the local landscape, flora and fauna. To make them unique to the venue the group had the task of dyeing a range of natural fabrics with colours appropriate to the locality.

I love doing this dye workshop- it’s so exciting to see how quickly fabrics can be transformed and, in this gorgeous rural setting it was important that there would be no dye waste to get rid of as they are not on mains water or drainage.

So what did we do? I prepped the dyes and auxiliaries in my workshop so I just had to add the washing soda and chemical water to the powder- this means there’s no noxious chemicals for participants to breathe and the dye is really strong and fresh.

Everyone was kitted our with protective gloves and aprons. We wetted out the fabric in a washing soda solution to ensure good colour take up. The dye bottles were given a good shake to ensure all the powder dissolved in the liquids.

The wetted out fabric was scrunched up (#technical term!) and placed in the plastic tub. Then we added the dye a few drops at a time, building up layers of different colours.

Because the fabric is wet, the colours blend into one another making luscious patterns on the surface.

We used different types of fabrics- cotton velvet, sheeting, lace and silk. The velvet took quite a lot of dye and needed to be flipped over to ensure dye went right through the fabric.

There is very little waste dye liquid with this method- any remaining in the bowl can be soaked up with another piece of fabric giving interesting tertiary colours.

Once we were happy with the colours added the fabric was wrapped in a plastic bag ready to take back to my workshop. The best colours are achieved if the fabric cures in the bag for at least 24 hours. This keeps the fabric damp and lets the dye really soak into the fibres.

There were one or two dyed digits but overall very little mess !

These fabrics were left for a couple of days, then rinsed in several changes of cold water until no more dye came out. To save water as I do this, I try to wash out like colours together.

(there were all the plastic bags to rinse out too so they can be reused next time!)

Then everything gets hung out to dry!

So now we have our fabrics- I will finalise the designs and draw them out to scale so that when we next meet we can begin the appliqué – we’ll be using free machine embroidery to piece the images together. In the next workshop we will get the sewing machines whirring and see what we can create.

Make a weekend of it.

A weekend in Durham? Running a workshop for a group? That would be lovely!

Miniature Scenes was the theme for the weekend. The aim – to make a small textile artwork as a memento of a favourite place. Something like the icons or portrait miniatures that travellers might have carried with them on the past. In our case, the stitched scene would be a way to keep favourite places close to us, when we are home.

With any workshop I run, my intention is always that, whilst participants may learn something from me, the work that they produce would be personal- not simply reproducing my style.

So whilst I take a range of my work to display these are to illustrate methods and ideas rather than to replicate.

This weekend I was working with Embroidery 15 a lovely group of textile aficionados based in the North East. Twelve people took part- a nice number to work with – not so many that I feel I’m spread too thinly but enough to spark ideas off each other share resources!

The group had been prepped with a materials list and the task of choosing their location inspiration. I wanted them to use their sketchbooks to plan composition and sample processes before tackling the actual piece.

The first task for the weekend was to dye some cotton fabric and vintage lace in colours that would suit their individual projects. With a limited palette of just 6 Procion dyes a wide range of beautiful fabrics were produced.

This is a quick activity that gives me chance to get to know participants and gives them unique fabrics to use in their work. I set up a Dyeing work station with surfaces protected and gloves provided so that hopefully the dye only coloured the fabrics (though I do always seem to end up with dye splodges on me somewhere!) Fabric is wetted out then twisted into a spiral and placed in a tray. The dyes are premixed (#health&safety😊) and applied from bottles so that colours blend to give secondary and tertiary colour mixes.

At the end of the session everyone had little packages of dyed fabrics to take away with them. The fabrics were rinsed out the next day after a good long ‘cure’ and then dried off ready to cut up and use.

So with ideas and resources in place we could start work. I asked everyone to consider four things whilst planning and developing their piece –

Place- where, why, what does it look like

Images – what comes to mind when you think of that place

Memories- about the place; who do you go there with? What do you do/eat/see/hear for example?

Words – are there words or phrases that encapsulate the place for you?

All this helps to personalise this project. I have lots of scribbled notes in sketchbooks – especially if there wasn’t time to do many drawings. I also find my reading helps – I read a LOT. Currently I’m enjoying the new (& old) nature writers. And I will often use etymology and a thesaurus to find the right words to inspire titles for work.

It’s quite a process to take an idea and develop it into a textile artwork. You may want to include a tree, but how should that tree be constructed? If you want to add text what and where should it be? This is why I think it’s so important to sample ideas – and to keep them in sketchbooks for future reference.

I talked through my miniature scenes sketchbook and used it as a reference throughout the weekend. I also shared various processes that I use in my work:

Needle felted clouds- I think they add a touch of humour and realism to beach hut scenes- all those British Summers of ‘mackerel skies- not long wet not long dry’!

Lettering – I love to add text to embellish the ‘story’ of a piece. Sometimes it’s free machine embroidery, often I’ll use appliqué or reverse appliqué. Usually the text is obvious and a part of the composition. Occasionally it might be hidden; becoming part of the texture of a piece.

Although, this weekend, we were mostly using mini canvases to support our work, I also demonstrated how I treat the surface of tins that I use to ‘frame’ some of my miniature pieces.

In between these ‘demo’s’ there was lots of time for one to one discussion on developing the project. That’s when it’s handy for me to have my samples and sketchbook to support suggestions- ‘I tried it like this’ and ‘have you considered that’ seem to be frequent use phrases!

Everyone put so much effort into their work. It was a delight to see ideas progress over the course of the weekend and to talk with people about their special places. And I now have several new holiday destinations to explore!

We put in the hours over the weekend but were well fed by the catering team at St Chad’s – I’m missing those cooked breakfasts AND not doing any washing up for a whole weekend 😊

By the time we got to Sunday afternoon everyone had created something unique and personal, with artwork to treasure and, I hope, ideas to develop further.

Well done Embroidery15. It was a pleasure to meet and work with you all and I hope we can do it again soon!

A Community Commission

South Charlton is a beautiful village in Northumberland, surrounded by farmland. I have been invited to work on a new community project there.

The WhichCraft group want to create some textile panels to decorate the entrance of their Village Hall

WhichCraft is a group of women, meeting twice a month to get creative. They have various skills and interests that we can tap into for this project.

I went to meet them at one of their sessions (fortunately before the #beastfromtheeast arrived! A bit further up the A1 this happened!)

Their Village Hall,once the school, is a well loved and well used community hub. They have received some funding to improve facilities and this includes a budget for art.

At the meeting I took along samples of my previous work with community groups and we discussed what might be possible- luckily they liked what they saw!

We got on to discussing the theme for the project and measuring up the spaces we might use.

The area is rich with wildlife and beautiful scenery so as we chatted I made notes listing the flora, fauna and local landmarks.

Ideas soon started whizzing about, with enough subject matter for a dozen artworks!

We agreed on 3 possible panels, using seasonal changes as the theme to enable inclusion of as many of the local treasures as possible.

I will go back to help the group dye fabric to use in the project in April. This will be carefully managed as there’s no mains water or drainage so I will be using my repurposed cat litter trays again (don’t worry they’re clean!) and all rinsing will be done back in my studio.

In the meantime I’ll be developing compositions for the panels based on the landscape and finding ways to include as much of the local flora and fauna as possible.

So I’ll be recording project progress over the coming weeks and months. Let me know what you think!

Meandering on Arran

A few days by the beach at Kildonan, known as Seal Shore.

Silver grey in the morning light and, after a few days of strong southerly winds, a tranquil sea ripples onto the shingle.

Looking to the west, long low fingers of rock reach out into the sea. These rocks are the seals’ basking platforms. From a distance it is hard to spot these Common Seals but then a crescent shaped ‘rock’ will turn and another seal will slip into the water. It is not uncommon to see a dozen seals reclining on the rocks.

The rocks themselves are geological superstars- known as the Arran Dyke Swarm, they’re possible the best exposed example of this geology in the world. Composed of basalt and dolerite, they were formed by volcanic action 60 million years ago. This tough rock forms reefs around the south of Arran. The bays between them forming as the sea and wind eroded softer sandstone between them.

(The seals just find them a convenient spot to lounge on.)

At low tide there are rock pools and sandy beaches. Oystercatchers and Curlews patrol this littoral looking for their lunch.

At high tide what remains of the beach is a tapestry of shingle, rock and seaweed.

Walking along the shore stimulates all the senses. The sounds; waves breaking on rocks and pebbles, wind tickling your ears, birds calling, sheep on the shore meadow. Touch; the feel of basalt as you scramble between the bays, grasses and wildflowers softening the surface, pebbles crunching into gritty sand, water shiveringly cold across fingers (and toes!). The scents; saltwater tang is on the air but face the wrong way and all you get is that seaweed stench. And sight; the light as sun dances off the water, colours so rich and varied,surface patterns etch detail onto the cliffs, the rocks and the sea .

So now I’m back in Newcastle remembering this beautiful beach. The long journey home gave time for reflection, ideas are noted and sketches roughed out. There is an Arran collection to develop as these ideas evolve and mature.