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.
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.
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.
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.
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…