Archive for March, 2011


After a hectic few days, ‘Boxed’ is now complete and sitting in a trade show in the Shanghai Exhibition Centre.

It’s been a frantic couple of days, pulling together a piece which I had originally planned to piece together in 5 days. So it may lack the finesse and minute detail I had originally wanted, but given its final destination it’s working just fine.

So. Boxed. It’s 44 black cardboard boxes from which a papercut tree appears to be encased. The brief was to create an installation made from paper for a trade show in Shanghai. The stand was very small and the show gets very busy, so the piece had to be visible, but not in the way. The get in and out times were very short, so it had to be simple in its construction. The client – James Cropper Speciality Papers – are based in the Lake District, and the association with that landscape is key for them and their environmental messages. As a specialistmanufacturer they pride themselves on their ability to make bespoke products, which is where the artists come in.

For me, this brief was also about selling paper to the Chinese and exploring the cultural ties and differences between rural Cumbria and über-urban Shanghai.

It was also a great opportunity to visit my friends at Island6 gallery in the city where I had done large installations before. So they kindly lent me a little pod-studio above the gallery.

The boxes were pre-cut in Kirkby Stephen by my friendly picture framer Martin. A range of modular sizes were designed so that I could play with the size and shape to my hearts content in the studio in China. The boxes were also pre-scored to ensure a quality feel to the final pieces. The trade show was about luxury packaging after-all, so these things matter.

The papercut was originally to be free-drawn. However, with the timescale shifting I decided to base it on an actual hawthorn tree about a mile from my house in Cumbria. The trunk of the tree and the hill were drawn freehand with scissors once the paper panels were fitted. The papercut itself took 6 hours using a scalpel for the little holes and scissors for the rest to remain true to the tradition of papercutting.

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So, eventually, this afternoon, my materials arrived by courier. I can’t tell you how much of a relief that was to see the big black shiny car arrive with them.

I had all the boxes pre-cut and scored back in the UK, I actually got them cut by my local picture framer – keeping things rural – so all that was required for them was to fold and glue. I think I got up to about 10 an hour in the end. Just as well – there’s a total of 84 if I did them all. Fortunately I over ordered so I could pick and chose the sizes as I went along.


The final piece is drawn from both the Cumbrian vernacular style of building and dry stone walling, and the modern off-the-peg architecture of rapid growth in Shanghai.

Cumbrian stone walling – or to be more precise, Lakeland walling, is distinctive in its relatively ordered lines of rough stone. Dry stone walls are traditionally built from field stones – loose stones cleared from the land for agriculture. In upland areas this is an abundant source of free, ready material. The shape of the stones, and the consequent build style of the wall is dictated by the local geology. Lakeland walls are made from fairly flat rectangular stones whereas walls to the east of the county in limestone country the stones are much chunkier and warmer in colour.

Lakeland walling

Pennine walling

Drystone walls are built without mortar and stand up by being cinstructed of two sides leaning against each other. Wallers will start with a pile of stones and piece them together like a jigsaw. Traditionally once a waller has picked up a stone, he must find the right place to put it before taking another. You never put a stone back on the pile.

In contrast, there is nothing natural about the high-rise conurbations in Shanghai. As one of the fastest growing cities on the planet, the authority and developers are under increasing pressure to build somewhere for everyone to live. his has resulted in off-the-peg designs for entire neighbourhoods. The designs not only feature the tower blocks themselves, but are a modular plan for micro communities so each plan factors in sufficient green space, parking, convenience shopping, laundrettes, restaurants per head of occupant. They may be identikit, but they are sustainable identikits. Looking out at the assortment of blocks at night is a little like  Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ – without the murder I hope. A mass of little coloured boxes, each containing an individual, with individual stories. Boxes with a hint of what’s inside.

So, now I have a big stack of varios size boxes, all that remains for them is to piece them together in a sturdy way. I think I’ll start with a box at a time and find a place for it before picking up the next one. Sounds like a plan for the morning.

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My prepared paper from the UK has finally cleared customs. All that is needed is for the packages to be x-rayed to make sure I’m not smuggling any facebook apps into the country, and then it can be delivered. So, just to get my eye in I tootled downtown to get some Chinese paper for making some test cuts.

Chinese art shops are lovely places. There’s no consumer grade watercolours or painting by number kits. Only wonderful, high quality brushes, paints and bizarre selections of paper. There’s no set weights to the paper. It’s either thin, medium or card. All with deckle edges. I got some thin red and some black card.

OK. I cheated a little bit. Proper papercuts are made just with scissors. I tried, but tiny holes are so much easier with a scalpel. Just call it progress.

I wanted to see how a more delicate tree looked and if it worked extending the cut through the box. Oh. The box! I’m so glad my pre-cut boxes are arriving in the morning. This one took nearly an hour to build to make it look smart – and even then the card isn’t really heavy enough and it leans a bit. I’ve got 64 boxes in total in the final piece, and at that rate I just couldn’t build them all in time from scratch.

Still, I think the escaping branches works in principle. Originally I was to have 5 or 6 days to build the piece for net week. I’m now down to just 2 1/2 days. I hope I’ve got enough time to get this level of delicacy. On a much bigger piece it could look really beautiful.

I’ll see how it goes in the morning.

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paper trees

While I wait for bureaucracy to release the materials I need from customs here in China, here’s some trees I’m looking at for the ‘Boxed’ installation next week:

In the 1930’s, Chinese artist Chiang Yee visited the Lake District, armed with one pair of shoes his brushes, ink and paper – he ventured over the fells in solitude. He recorded his daily walks with paintings and poems in his own Chinese style. The landscapes of mountains and lakes was a familiar one to Chiang and fulfilled his longing for the Chinese landscape while in the UK. Chiangs trees are full of traditional chinese styling – with ‘welcome’ arms and add colour and texture to the grey, rainy lakes.

Arthur Rackham’s trees are full of life and character and often became self-portraits. His trees twist and turn, wriggling out of the earth to embrace and guide those who come across them. His thorny briars on the other hand knot their way across the pages enveloping and binding anything and everything in their path.

A paper cut tree at Shanghai gallery Island6 with interactive LED elements.

So pulling all those ideas together – here’s where the ‘Boxed’ tree is going at the moment:

needs work to be more windswept and twisted, but getting there I hope. Back-up materials arrive in the morning, so we’ll see where it all goes…

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Nines and Tens

At last the weather decided to play ball with me and it’s a fabulous day up here perched atop Nine Standards Rigg. The rigg itself is named after the nine huge cairns straddling this ridge overlooking, well pretty much overlooking the entire Eden Valley, the Eastern Lake District Fells and on a clearer day, the Solway Firth and Scotland. Behind me, a few yards away is the North Yorkshire border and to my right County Durham and beyond. It’s no wonder then that centuries ago people decided it would be good to mark this point.

One of the reasons for coming up here today was to see if I could see my house from the top. This may sound a silly thing, but the Nine Standards are such a feature on the  skyline around Kirkby Stephen and always wondered why I couldn’t see them from my studio. The cairns are over 20ft high (some are at least) and one theory of their origin is that they were built to scare off invading vikings / scots / romans ( take your pick, they all came ) by appearing as giant soldiers keeping guard.

Yep. Can definitely see my house from here.

The other nice bit about the Standards is their movement. They are of unknown origin and date, but what is clear from the site, and stories, is that there has always been nine of them. If one falls down another is built from its remains next to it. So over time they have moved back and forth across the ridge.

I like this.

A few years ago some of the cairns were in a realy bad state and in real danger of collapse. There was a great deal of local debate as to whether, and how they should be restored. In the end, a small team of champion dry stone wallers did an amazing job of rebuilding four of them and securing the others. Today is the first time I’ve seen them in their new glory.

As I reached the top I had a great chat with a couple from Darlington about the stones. Being on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk, there’s a lot of traffic up here. The land erosion by millions of booted footsteps is really taking its toll in places. With no more than a mention on the OS map, these walkers – and probably loads more – presumed they were a work of art by some land artist. It’s no wonder they look a bit like an Andy Goldsworthy at the moment. They were rebuilt by some of the same wallers who work with Goldsworthy on his pieces. In fact, the Nine Standards are responsible for much of his work. As a young artist straight out of art school, Goldsworthy worked as a gardener at a local estate. You can just about see their sillhouettes from the house he worked at, and would regularly walk up to them. As part of his sheepfolds project across Cumbria, Goldsworthy paid tribute to his roots with a proposed nine pin-cones within view of the rigg. Sadly only four were finished.

Raisbeck Pin Cone by Andy Goldsworthy. From a photography project I did with Barrow Deaf Club for the Sheepfolds Project. Shot with a disposable camera on Ilford XP2 film. Lith-printed on Kentmere paper and gold-toned.

Today is a beautiful day – clear blue skies and hardly a breeze, even on the top. Definitely spring.

So vey different from when I last came up here 10 years ago. To the very day.

I remember it well. It was freezing cold. there was a thick hoar-frost on the north faces of the cairns, and on the way back down to town it started to snow.

I remember it well. 1st March 2001.

The very next day everything changed.

On 2nd March 2001, the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in Cumbria was rising fast and as a precautionary measure to stop the spread, MAFF (now DEFRA) closed the countryside. All footpaths across land where animals were farmed were closed to the public. Thousands – hundreds of thousands, of cows, sheep and more besides would be culled across the region over the next year or so in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. My next door neighbour, who was in his eighties had his entire stock killed for precautionary measures one morning. He was a broken man. Generations of stock breeding wiped out in an hour or two. Too old to start again from scratch he more or less gave up on everything. He didn’t know what else to do with himself. He thought about retraining with computers, but as he struggled to come to terms with phones without cords, it really wasn’t likely. He died within a couple of years.

On the 2nd March 2001, I remember driving towards Penrith and seeing a dotted line of black smoke billows reaching from the direction of Carlisle, spreading down a line which seemed to follow the A6 towards Shap. Thick black smoke. Really black. These were the unforgettable pyres burning the carcasses of culled stock. Piles of old tyres kept the temperature of the fire high enough to incinerate everything. Walking through the streets of Penrith the air was thick with the smell of burnt rubber and meat.

photo by Murdo Macloud

At one stage, at the gallery I ran, we contemplated an installation about the culling. We toyed with one  idea of representing every animal culled with a sheet of toilet paper. Until we realised we didn’t have enough room in the gallery for that many rolls.

It was a dark time. Not just for farmers. It affected every single person in our sheep-farming town. Once I had a chat with friends to see who was the remostest from farming to have their work affected. The water bailff on the River Eden lost his job as there was no access to the river banks, therfore no fishing and no fising permits. Every B&B and hotel in Kirkby Stephen, bar one, is now under different ownership than before foot and mouth. In a town which survives on walking-based tourism and sheep farming, everything was decimated. I lost a lot of the work I had lined up too with everything around me out of bounds.

It was just before my photography went digital, so everything was still on film. With work cut, I had to ration my film use – I was so broke – so sadly I didn’t really document what was going on. I wish I had now. I wish I had photographed the ‘dip and go’ pads outside every shop which not only disinfected your boots but slowly dissolved them. I wish I had photographed the check-points on every road outside every village where your car tyres and chassis was sprayed by people in space-age bio suits. I wish I had photographed the endless lines of brand new red wagons with sealed roofs on the tippers carting away hundreds of carcasses to disposal sites, once they decided that the pyres were just too awful. Busses for the rotting.  I wish too I had photographed the Yorkshire Dales, empty of all animals, and the brightness of the buttercups that took over the landscape – becoming a vibrant yellow instead of the usual lush greens.

For 18 months, the nine standards looked over the town – lonely and unvisited. Kirkby Stephen had the last recorded case of Foot and Mouth in Cumbria and consequently the countryside round the town was the last to re-open to the public.

A great deal of money was invested into rural areas following the outbreak. Regeneration money to get everything back on its feet. 2003 – 2006 was a boom time for rural England. Much went on. Much new stuff started. Tourism took a real boost.

That money is long gone now. Some stuff remains, which is good. Farming has changed – for the better in many respects. DEFRA have completely re-written the procedure for handling any future outbreak of foot and mouth, so that agriculture won’t be as badly affected. That’s good news for farmers if it works. However, the reliance on tourism as the new saviour of upland communities is a fragile one. The fact remains that access restrictions to the countryside would still happen, just as before. My, and many many others besides, fear that should it all happen again, despite all the well intentioned regeneration programmes, we’ll be no better off next time round.

Ten years on, the world has changed. It’s changing lots it seems at the moment. Through all this, the Nine Standards will remain, looking over the valley (and my house too). Maybe moving a bit as the centuries pass, but it’s good to keep moving.

Best get down the hill before sunset.

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