Finding Mojo – Creativity in Lockdown

Before we begin….I really hope you and your loved ones are safe and well, but if you are grieving for a loved one who lost their battle with Covid19, I am truly sorry for your loss, I can’t begin to imagine the pain of losing a loved one when you cannot be there to comfort them. Please don’t think for a moment that in this post I am comparing the anxiety many people are feeling and my own journey through this crisis in any way to the combination of grief and anxiety you are experiencing. My heart goes out to you.

Overwhelmed and impotent

We are just over 3 weeks into lockdown (in the UK) and the days have long since become indistinguishable from each other, some days drifting laboriously on, while for others (if I avoid the news) I can convince myself I am holiday and happily while away the day reading and pottering in the garden. I have lost all sense of time, what day of the week is this? Or what month!? Are you feeling the same?

Social media seems to be full of people enthusiastically telling us we need to use this time productively but, quite frankly, a lot of people, myself included, are just too exhausted from anxiety and worry to…. overhaul my website / clean the house from top to bottom / landscape the garden / make all my stock for Christmas *

*insert that overwhelming project that glares accusingly at you from your to-do list.

I know most of these people mean well but their posts really only serve to make me feel even more inadequate and impotent than this crisis already has. If this resonates with you, try to ignore them, mentally file these posts with the fake news and scam posts, they really aren’t worth your attention or energy.

I realised early on that my creative mojo was burrowing further and further into hiding the more my anxiety increased; the more anxious I felt (for myself, my loved ones and friends still working on the frontline), the harder it was to find that creative spark we all rely on. It took me a few days to realise this but just by limiting my access to the news to once a day and only grocery shopping once every 3 weeks I can (mostly) control my anxiety. Have you found a coping strategy? Did you lose your creative mojo too?

To begin with I couldn’t even face the prospect of starting a felt project, all the ideas usually overcrowding my tiny brain had flown away. So I set myself some quite mindless tasks, more to keep busy and distracted than with a goal in mind.

  • Tidying and organising the “wool room” (don’t be fooled by the name, like you, I have wool and other fibres stashed in EVERY room, but this room has almost nothing but wool and felting kit in it)
  • Painting colour charts for my watercolour paints (something I have wanted to do for a long time but never found time for)
  • Baking (if this keeps up, I will be too wide to fit through my front door by the time we are allowed out again)
A colour chart from my watercolour sketchbook

Then Fiona Duthie threw down a felting gauntlet…..

Those of you that have taken one of Fiona Duthie’s online classes will know about her “alumni” Facebook page, on there she posted a “coronavirus challenge” on the theme, “Separate Yet Connected”.

I have taken part in one of Fiona’s previous challenges (you can see the publication here) and really enjoyed it, especially reading about how everyone else had interpreted the same theme in such varied ways.

But I was filled with nagging doubts, could I come up with an idea and be inspired enough to see it through? I really wasn’t sure. I went back to baking…. and comfort eating…..

A little known piece of personal history for you… I studied coronaviruses for my PhD. It was a long time ago (early 2000’s) but I still feel personally connected to this virus despite the havoc and devastation it is inflicting on us all. This connection and a desire to turn the fear and anxiety into something positive, or at least constructive, kept bringing my thoughts back to Fiona’s challenge but what could I make?

The name corona-virus, comes from a very fuzzy electron micrograph image of crystalised coronavirus particles that show a crown (corona) of spike proteins protruding from the virus envelope.

Coronavirus - Wikipedia
Not as pretty as all the whizzy computer-generated images the media are bombarding us with today but I see a simple organic elegance in these decades old images

It was this micrograph that inspired a scruffy self portrait I drew a couple of years ago, where I applied the corona of spike particles to my portrait.

If you are wondering about my bizarre colour choices, they too were inspired by my PhD, I did a lot of confocal microscopy work that used fluorescent markers to highlight different cellular structures and virus proteins (even as a scientist colour was still a very important element in my work!).

Confocal micrographs from my thesis

Those who know me, know my favourite felt practice is sculpted, 3 dimensional wet-felting. It seemed like a natural step to translate the self portrait into a series of 3D faces.

This is the prototype of the “masks” being laid out
… and with the shaping begun but far from finished

I applied quite a lot of silk to the “spike proteins” expecting them to add a dash of colour but the fuzzy nature of Black Welsh wool has all but engulfed them

My plan is to make a series of “masks” with different ethnicities to reflect the global impact and arrange them as a wall hanging.

I will post an update as this project progresses but in the meantime please be kind to yourself as well as those around you, this situation and the feelings that accompany it is alien for almost all of us but we will get through it.

Stay safe, stay home.

Autumn is my favourite colour

I know I have said this before, but it is worth saying again :). Every year I am left in awe of the beautiful colours that mother nature brings us each October / November.

While the British deciduous woodlands make my heart sing with their beautiful yellows, oranges and chestnut browns, this year I was lucky enough to visit Japan for the first time and was blown away by the intensity of the golden yellows and crimson maples against the dark green conifers.

The FFS fourth quarter challenge is all about creating a colourscape (creating pleasing combinations of colours). It seemed an obvious step to use some of the photos from this trip as my inspiration, but what to make? Felt can be notoriously difficult to work with when you want to place complementary colours next to each other, by its very nature the fibres (and therefore colours) want to mix and mingle and of course that will lead to muddy browns and greys where the two colours meet.

A few months ago, Fiona Duthie posted a video on how to make a double-walled vessel on her course FB page (it is only open to former students of her online classes). I have been having lots of fun with this technique as it provides an excellent solution to the colour mixing problem.

This is one of the first vases I made following her video, the double-walled technique lends itself very well to placing complementary colours adjacent to each other.

Feeling inspired by the crimson and orange acers (Japanese maples), I set about planning my vessel…

First to choose the colours…. for the inner wall:

And the outer wall:

Laying out the silk and wools:

Silk hankies that will be seen on the inner layer
Wool layout for the inner layers
Wool layout for the outer layers

While felting I couldn’t help but adore the colour transitions from the inside to the outside wall:

I could have cut the leaf shapes from the outer wall free-hand but given how fiddly they are I decided to play it safe and made myself a stencil.

I used water soluble crayons to mark where I wanted to cut the felt (these are really convenient way to mark up damp felt and they wash out easily).

Once the leaf patterns had been cut away I continued to shape the vessel and heal the cut edges, et voila! It’s not quite dry yet but I think you can still get a feel for the colour combinations even though the sheen on the silk can’t be seen yet. What do you think?

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.

Image result for animal emotion

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.

Image result for jain temple

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!

Felting for Embroidery – Part 2

Several people have requested an update following this post that I wrote following a felt-making session I led for the Farnborough Embroiderer’s Guild. We met the following month with the intention of adding some stitching to the pieces we had made and these are the results. They are all work in progress so please don’t judge them too harshly (not that you would, I know 🙂 ).

What do you think? Do you have a favourite?

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