Trash-in’ The Ocean

Photograph by Jordi Chias

Last year I joined the Wey Valley Workshop, an exhibiting textile group based in west Surrey (UK). The theme for this year’s exhibition will be “re-use, recycle, re-purpose” and titled, “Adapt, Adjust, Amend”.

I have long considered myself (and most felt-makers) to be a Womble at heart, making this an ideal exhibition theme. For those who do not have childhood memories of these fictional furry beasties from the 1970’s, they were among the original recyclers, decades ahead of their time, collecting rubbish left by others and finding new uses for it. As I write this post the theme tune is running through my mind….

Underground, overground Wombling free, Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we….

Making good use of the things that we find, things that the everyday folk leave behind.

By our very nature, using wool (a waste product of sheep husbandry) as our principal material we felt-makers are already up-cycling other people’s “rubbish” but many of us also scour charity shops for unwanted fabrics and felting tools (AKA children’s toys, massage tools and kitchen equipment), old rubber mats, plastic shelf liner… the list is endless, in our pursuit of textile happiness.

For my exhibition piece I wanted to highlight the growing issue of plastic detritus in our oceans. The impact of human activity on the wildlife in our oceans is truly horrific, I have been reduced to tears time and again by they photos and videos I encountered while researching this project. The impact of plastic affects all ocean-dwelling species, from the the larger pelagic species and seabirds found dead or dying from gut obstructions (caused by swallowing plastic carrier bags) or intestinal perforations (caused by ingesting shards of plastic), to turtles and fish entangled in the plastic rings from multi-packs of drinks and discarded fishing nets, down to the tiniest crustaceans ingesting micro-plastics.

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Terrapin trapped in plastic packaging; before someone feels the need to comment I know these are fresh-water inhabitants, it serves to illustrate how rubbish in our rivers flows downstream to our oceans.

I knew I wanted to upcycle some waste plastics into my exhibition piece and that it would have an aquatic theme so I put a call out for mesh plastics on local social media sites and to the Wey Valley Workshop members, I was inundated with donations, this is just a fraction of the plastic netting I received….

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Many, many thanks to all the wonderful people who donated to this project, I will make sure they are put to good use and don’t end up in landfill.

My initial thoughts were that the netting would look like fish scales when felted into the surface but the more I pondered this exhibition piece the more I started to see possibilities in all manner of items that would normally go in the recycling bin and a few items I could rescue from the horrors of landfill. So I started collecting all manner of “rubbish” much to my other half’s bemusement. 🙂

Unusually for me, I refrained from immediately making the most complicated fish imaginable, instead sampling a wide selection of plastics, including food netting, carrier bags, drinks bottles, sweet wrappers, bread bags and the trays soft fruits are often sold in.

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The sweet wrappers were a surprise, they feel like plastic but once they were wet with warm soapy water it became apparent that they were organic in origin; they became slimy and slowly disintegrated while I was fulling the felt.

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Already impatient to stop sampling and start making, I started experimenting with different resist shapes for the fish, of course I had to start with my most complicated idea first…. 🙂 This is a yellow box fish, made using a book-resist and strips of deep purple carrier bag between the layers of wool. He is a bit of a disaster but with a lot more work he might still make it into the exhibition.

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My next two “water babies” were a little more successful, this time using plastic mesh for surface decoration.

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I plan to add some plastic pectoral fins to this little chap.
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Close up of the plastic netting

Plastic bottles and food trays have proved useful in my attempts to replicate coral (employing a fair amount of artistic licence of course).

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I plan to colour the plastic and entwine it more evenly amongst the felt but I am mesmerised by how the shiny plastic and matt felt augment each other’s qualities.

Some of my other plastic bottles have the potential to be become jelly-fish, what do you think? Try to imagine this piece upside down with slubby yarn tentacles….

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This just the beginning for this piece of work; looking forward, I hope to incorporate crisp packets (which invariably end up in landfill) into some fish and I envisage all of these elements (and lots more, yet to be made) forming a 3D coral outcrop that could be hung from the ceiling.

Has this post struck a cord with you? Would you like to do more to lessen your personal impact on the oceans? This link contains several helpful suggestions, some of which I expect you are already doing but there may be one or two you haven’t considered yet. Please add a comment your thoughts on this topic and any novel steps you are taking to minimise your “footprint”.

Do Animals Have Emotions?

This may seem like a rather philosophical title for a textile art blog but please bear with me, I wanted to share a new direction and body of work with you.

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These thoughts and ideas have been slowly percolating through the recesses of my mind for about 20 years, since a fairly heated debate with a psychology teacher on whether humans are the only animals who possess cognitive abilities (perception, attention, memory, motor skills, language/communication and visual/spatial processing). She quite vehemently argued that only humans possess all of these skills, I was a veterinary nurse at the time and forcefully argued the opposite, taking it further and arguing that animals also feel emotions too.

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This debate was recalled during a trip to India in January 2018 and a visit to a Jain temple. The Jains have an intriguing philosophy and what struck me most about the monks was the extreme lengths they go to in order to preserve and protect all life, they believe every animal is sentient and as such, must not be harmed by their actions (either directly or indirectly). Their vows of non-violence make them the ultimate pacifists, a stance which I thoroughly admire but have to admit have no hope of ever attaining. They are strict vegetarians and do not eat after sunset for fear of accidentally eating an insect on their food, and the monks pluck out all their head hair rather than shaving it so as not to harm any lice that might be residing there.

While sentience is essentially another word for consciousness and it is relatively easy to argue that most animals, even the smallest, are “conscious” on at least some level, even if it is just awareness of food sources and potential mates. The idea that all creatures are sentient rekindled my thoughts about the cognitive processes and expression of emotions in animals.

Paramecia – are they conscious?

I knew I wanted to explore this idea from a creative perspective but was unsure where to start. Researching colour theory revealed a wealth of information about our emotional responses to different colours and this led me to play a game of “abstract word-association”; starting with a one or two words that described an emotion I worked on small squares of water colour paper, trying to express that emotion with just colour and mark making, these are some of the results:

Joy / happy
Eager / enthusiastic
Calm / relaxed
Jealousy
Isolation
Vulnerable / intimidated
Afraid / Scared
Anixious
Despair
Grief

These little sketches were surprisingly cathartic to make, if you or someone you know is going through a challenging time and finding it difficult to talk about how they are feeling, asking them to illustrate, in an abstract way, a series of emotions (both positive and negative) from a list of words may be helpful.

Taking Gladys Paulus’ mask workshop earlier this year has given this topic and my approach to it, a whole new lease of life, no longer confined to 2D work, I have been having a ball making various animal sculptures, each expressing their own emotion. As each new personality takes shape on my work bench I am finding myself creating whole backstories for them.

I am thrilled to introduce you to 2 new, very special friends:

“Laughing Lionel”

While the king of the beasts has a fearsome reputation, Lionel is really a very gentle, affable soul who likes nothing more than a good chortle at the ridiculous things humans do.

“Indignant Margo”

She isn’t quite finished, but will be a wall-mounted sculpture like Lionel when she is.

Margo is an old soul in a young body, she takes offence at almost everything and wears a permanent look of indignation on her face. She believes her purple spots are a sign that she is descended from aristocracy and therefore everyone is beneath her; if anyone is going to look down their nose at you, it should be the tallest of the beasts!

These two sculptures (and hopefully one or two more if can finish them in time) will be on display at the Art Box exhibition, at Denbies Wine Estate, Dorking RH5 6AA, UK, between September 23rd and 29th. If you are in the area please pop in and say hello, it is a beautiful place to visit and entry to the exhibition (with artworks in a range of media from 8 independent artists) is free.

Which animal and emotion would you like to see paired together?

Do you think I am anthropomorphising (applying human characteristics) the animal kingdom, or do you agree, animals do feel and express emotions, and perhaps some humans are too ignorant to understand when the animals around us try to communicate these emotions?

Introducing Petunia and Friends

I first saw the masks of Gladys Paulus 4 or 5 years ago and was instantly mesmerised, to me, the photo below is iconic of her work, stunning felt, photographed in curious and inspiring ways.

When I started to see photos of her students’ work appearing online I KNEW this was a workshop I HAD TO take. Gladys has a young family so understandably limits her teaching schedule to only a handful of events each year, she also teaches internationally, this means there are typically only 1 or 2 dates each year when she is teaching in the UK. Not surprisingly, her workshops sell out pretty quickly, having been pipped to the post on 2 previous occasions I wasted no time when she announced there would be a fantasy mask workshop at the beginning of April. Cheerfully glossing over the health warnings and assertions that it would be very hard work that came with the sign-up form, I suspect I was the first person to book a place! 🙂

In preparation for the workshop, Gladys asked us to collect photos / create drawings from different angles of what we would like to make. I knew I wanted to make something based on a leafy sea-dragon, a very flamboyant relative of the seahorse, and found lots of photos from the front, a few from the side but none from behind. I attempted to sketch what I thought it might look like but found that almost impossible.

In a moment of epiphany I remembered I had a bag of clay left over from my diploma in art and design course. Would it have dried out and be unworkable?

It was perfect! Still soft and malleable, it was a delight to work with and it was strangely cathartic to see my leafy sea-dragon evolve as I worked the clay.

Until finally, a flowery-sea-dragon was born…

And of course, the all important view from behind 🙂

I went back to sketching based on on the model, as you can see I was already brainstorming possible names; one of my instagram followers suggested with a nose so large, she should be a perfumer.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one who made a clay model before the workshop, Suzie did too, only she went a few steps further, glazing and firing her work:

Carolyn also made a super-cute needle-felted model of her gargoyle.

Gladys commented that we were the first group to make models in preparation for the class making it all the more interesting that the 3 of us had done so independently of each other. Great minds eh? 🙂

With nervous anticipation (I had waited over 3 years to take this workshop) I filled the car with as much wool and felting paraphernalia as I could cram in, carefully perching my fragile clay model on the pile in the front seat, and made the 2.5 hour drive to Felt in the Factory on the Welsh border.

There were 7 students on the course, all lovely, very experienced felt-makers. Two had flown over from Canada (they did not know each other before the workshop), now that is dedication! The first day started with introductions and how to design and plan your mask template before creating the template.

Templates made, we started laying out the wool by the end of day 1 and this continued for the next two days interspersed with making prefelts and some rubbing. I am so glad most of us were staying at Felt in the Factory or nearby as we worked until 10pm most evenings and coming in an hour or 2 before class officially started again to work on our creations. Did I mention that the sign up form included a health warning regarding the level of fitness required? I thought it was exaggerated but we really did end up spending 12+ hours each day on our feet, only stopping to eat and sleep. The ever-helpful Nina provided a constant supply of tea, coffee and cake while we worked, ensuring the meal breaks were kept to a minimum.

I think most of us went through quite an emotional journey with our masks, starting with excitement and a little trepidation at the scale of the task to despair that it would always be a twisted misshapen mess to finally the joy and fulfilment as it finally started to resemble the sketches and photos it was created from. For some of us even even the animal that we thought we were working on morphed into something else, when I bumped into Nickie at the Contemporary Textiles Fair she said she would make a dragon, by the end of the week it was a griffin, I will let you decide which it is….

At the end of our 5 days together everyone left with sore hands, a mask they could be proud of and a big smile on their face. I think all of us have continued working on our masterpieces since we departed.

I think I am the only one to name my new pet, perhaps you can help suggest some names? Introducing…..

Carolyn’s gargoyle
I’m sure gargoyles should be frightening but I think he is gorgeously huggable 🙂
Nickie’s dragoniffin
Suzie’s Ram’s Head – Work in Progress
Finished!
Suzie Gutteridge

www.suziegutteridge.com
Petunia – my Flowery Sea-Dragon

If you are interested in taking this workshop I recommend signing up to Gladys’ newsletter on her webpage so you are notified as soon as the next class dates are released.

Happy felting!