Archive for November, 2011

The other week I finished installing a number of pieces at a school in Cumbria. Three pieces were linked in a linear way through a part of the school to explore the path of learning. The line started with a giant mirror polished into the bank of lockers and ends with a display theatre made from 3,000 red pencils. It was as always, good fun to do stuff like this. However, the biggest challenge was the permanence of the pieces. A school is not the most conducive of venues for art installations at the best of times, and especially challenging for me as most of my work relies on being temporary.


As I’ve written about in previous posts, most of my large-scale pieces are only ever up for 16 days or less. The benefits of this are both logistical – they don’t need planning permission for a start – but also allow me to make pieces with the  delicacy and fragility you can’t get in permanent pieces.

The downside to working with short-term projects is what to do with stuff afterwards. These can be enormous pieces – some measured in miles. Were they just to lounge around in my studio afterwards I ‘d very rapidly run out of room to make new pieces.

There’s also the issue I’m uncomfortable with creating more stuff for the sake of art. The world’s resources are finite, and I’m not sure that artists creating stuff is really helping.

So, when designing new pieces I build in a plan of what to do with it when it’s all over.

Back in the winter of 2009 / 2010, I created one of my favourite pieces to date: ‘Clad’. A derelict 18th century Welsh cottage was covered in the fleeces of two of the local sheep breeds to recreate the black and white timber frame so typical of the area. Around 300 raw fleeces were used in the piece. A chunk was provided by the Wool Marketing Board, whose main Welsh depot was just across the river from the piece. Others were supplied by local farmers, interested in how it could raise the profile of what they do.

As with a lot of my larger pieces, there was a lot of media interest. In particular the farming press and media. There was a nice feature on Ffermio on S4C – a bit like a Welsh language Countryfile – and a good programme on Radio 4’s ‘On your Farm’ – the longer Sunday version of Farming Today. As a rural artist I feel really flattered when my work features in the farming section rather than the arts bit. Although it was nice to get a glowing review in the Guardian too.

Farmers being good practical people, typically wanted to know if there was a practical benefit to the piece. I guess the cottage inside would have een warmer, but as it was structurally unsafe you’d never know. But it did get me thinking to what would happen to all the fleece afterwards.

detail of Clad fleeces

It was all raw, greasy fleece, in some cases straight off the sheep’s back. Being upland sheep breeds, the fleece was really good at repelling water – if it didn’t sheep would be squashed with all the weight every time it rained. The winter was one of those particularly snowy ones, so the fleece had a lot to cope with and I had no idea how well it would survive.

A chance conversation with Sue Blacker at the Natural Fibre Company led to the possibility of at least scouring (cleaning) the fleeces with a view to spinning some yarn. As it happened, the fleeces were still in a good condition when the piece was finally taken down, and a few months down the line still showed little sign of rot. So the bags of fleece were bundled into the back of my car – as many as I could fit – and I took them down to Cornwall.

sacks of fleece for scouring

The Natural Fibre Company specialises in scouring small quantities of fleece and spinning in to yarn. In doing so they have been instrumental in making it possible for smallholders and rare-breeds farmers to create woollen yarns and in turn raising the profile of small sheep farming in the UK.

All the fleece was scoured without bleaching to retain its natural colour, and spun into yarn for weaving into blankets.

From this point I could have sent the yarn to any number of commercial weavers o make the blankets. However, there was a story behind the original installation, and the subsequent fleece, so it was important to continue that with the blankets.

cladthrow detail

The yarn was then sent to Melin Teifi – a weaving company at the National Museum of Wool in Wales where the owner Raymond worked from a pile of photos of the installation to create a one-off pattern which matched the proportions of the original timber frame architecture. More importantly, the weaving style was the same as that which made the town of Newtown all those years ago.

In May of this year, the Port House – the little thatched cottage underneath Clad, was burnt down. The owners, while sad that a part of their family history is now gone, are proud of its moment of glory as an artwork.

Clad in the snow - photo by Mark Thomas

I also wonder – can the recycling of artworks help sustain the creation of new pieces?

I now have these beautiful throws which were once an artwork, and are now a work of the art of spinning and weaving. I’ve also got something I’ve never had before – something to sell. It’s all new ground to me, and it’ll be interesting to see how that works out.  I’ve decided to put all the money made from the throw sales directly into making new work in the hope this will lead to some kind of sustainable model for creating large-scale works in the landscape in due course.

The throws are available on my website here, and will also be sold through the Oriel Davies gallery shop in Newtown. More stockists are to come and I’ll update this as we go along. The ‘Beyond Pattern’ exhibition for which Clad was commissioned, ends its tour at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in Scunthorpe from 3rd December until February next year. Details here.


Another common enquiry I have is for more information about past pieces. From time to time students at all levels seem to come across pieces and want to know a little but more – how things were built, where the ideas came from and so on. I’ve always been bad about keeping my website up to date, but I’ve finally made a start on cataloguing everything. I now have an archive covering the bigger pieces over the past five years. I’ve completed about  a third of those so far with a bit of background detail and a gallery of pics including initial ideas, scrapped ideas, research stuff and how pieces were made. Still a way to go – with over 50 big pieces since 2005 alone, it’s a fairly major task, but the start has been made…

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There’s a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool at the moment – Alice in Wonderland. I’m not a big fan of Tate Liverpool, I have to admit, even less of the city itself, however it looks like being an interesting show. I’ve seen a few exhibitions relating to Alice in Wonderland, including an amazing one at the Barbican in the ’80’s when they discovered the original engravings of Tenniel’s classic illustrations in an old bank vault in Lndon, and made a new set of prints form thses 150 year old plates.

I’ve been collecting the illustrations of the Alice books and other Lewis Carroll works for years. I remember being eight or nine at my grandparents’ house in Dorset in the summer holidays and finding a beautiful copy of Alice through the Looking Glass in a bedside cabinet. It had all the usual Tenniel illustrations, and some were in colour too. I remember reading it and being bowled over by the whole dream-like imagery – the way things became comepletely unrelated other things. And the lushness of the chessboard landscape with the little brooks running through it. The image of the Red Queen in particular is one which stays with me today.

I remember it being a little red book too…

Those childhood memories came back when I was at art school (briefly), when I discovered the pre-raphaelite photographers and found that Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) was one of the really early photographers. Coming from a little village in North Yorkshire, Carroll found that his knowledge  of this new technology could open doors into the world of his heroes. One of his earliest portraits was of the Tennysons while they were staying at Monk Coniston in the Lakes. It was through inviting himself to the Tennysons that he was introduced to Ruskin, and subsequently the families of Millais, Holman Hunt and  Rosetti. In great Pre-Raphaelite style he would get his subjects – admittedly, mostly the kids – to dress up as some romantic hero character.

Hallam Tennyson (aged 5) at Monk Coniston, 1857

To put things into context, photography was invented around 1840. Two competing formats – the Daguerrotype invented in France, and the Calotype by Fox Talbot were both protected under patents. It wasn’t until the ‘wet colodian’ process was finally made available in 1855 that anyone else was allowed to start taking photos. Dodgson really was one of the early pioneers. Most early amateurs (they all were – professional photographers hadn’t been invented) concentrated on landscapes as they didn’t move around as much for the 10 minute exposure times. Dodgson, however, not only pursued portraiture, but the ultimate challenge of fidgety kids.His story-telling abilities kept them still and focussed. A prolific photographer, Dodgson took some 6,000 known portraits of people of all ages in his lifetime.

Rather like the central character in Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita‘, Dodgson used his reputation for family portraiture to enter what he saw as the glamourous world of artists and poets – hanging around with the contemporary artists of the day.

He gave up photography when the technology became simpler and more people started to do it. (Also, he was never as good as Julia Margaret Cameron).

Julia Margaret Cameron - 'the parting of Lancelot'

It was only then that he started his literary career. As ‘Lewis Carroll’, he had an incredible talent for words – exploring language and creating words of his own. After Shakespeare, Carroll has contributed more words to the English language than anyone else.

Above all, what draws me to his works is the strength in imagery. It’s the creation of these impossibly imagined worlds that has continued to influence artists ever since.

I have a fair collection of various illustrated versions of Alice in Wonderland – from the tame and mundane, to the weird and frankly twisted.

Arthur Rackham's illustrations for Alice in Wonderland (1907)

Arthur Rackham – one of my personal favourites (and evidently a huge influence on Tim Burton’s film) was the first artist to tackle the story after it came out of copyright. Since then, over 500 artists have illustrated Alice in Wonderand alone.

rare photographic cover image given away with Sugar Puffs in the '70's

Rene Cloke (1943)

photographic montage illustrations by Hugh Gee (1948)

Fiona Fullerton as Alice in the 1973 British film

Alain Gauthier (1991)

from the 'Scary tales' version...

However, it’s the second Alice book – Through the Looking Glass, which continues to inspire me. A while ago I started reading it to my young kids as a bedtime story. One chapter a night, each night a different illustrator. Even now I’m blown away with some of the visual ideas. The ticket inspector looking at Alice through binocuars, then through a microscope, then through a telescope. This was 50 years before surrealism! Or the shop where everything moves to a shelf above the one you look at. Where everything is on the fringe of your vision. Surely the stuff Dr Who nightmares are made of.

another of my favourites - Maraja (1949)

Henry Morin

the incredible Mervyn Peak (1946)

Philip Gough (1949)

In fact Alice’s adventures in Carroll’s headspace became hugely influential in the 20th Century. The imagery and logic became key texts for hundreds of artists, designers, mathematicians and philosophers – from Bretton and Magritte to Freud, Einstein, Lennon, and hell, yes even Gwen Stefani:

About fifteen years ago, I made a – probably half-hearted – attempt to do my own version of Through the Looking Glass. It involved making lots of models and playing around with liquid photographic emulsions and stuff. I didn’t get very far, and having just dug out some of the stuff, it was probably just as well, but it’s still there. Tucked away in the back of my mind as something on the eternal to-do list.

Nowadays, it’s the playfulness with scale and perception in my work that you can attribute to my passion for Carroll’s work. And the chance encounter aspect. Oh, and the multi-layered bit. Well, that and the photography obviously….

Probably the most influential artist of all time?

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