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It’s been so long since I last posted to this blog I’ve forgotten how to begin a new post. I know where I want to end up and part of the journey of getting there, but how to start is turning out trickier than it seemed.

Art is a bit like that. For me at least it’s largely instinctive. When students or journalists ask ‘where did the idea come from?’ I usually have some kind of answer to keep them happy. But the real answer is usually a lot more complicated and involved than that.

Ideas – inspiration if you like – is an ongoing process and one that probably started at birth. There are things you remember from various parts of your life that you recall or associate with places, sounds, smells, concepts, emotions. Sometimes they may feel quite random or spurious in their association at the time. But that’s just the way your brain works. To the extent that when someone inevitably asks ‘what’s the piece about?’ the answer is rarely straightforward either. In fact Ive recently decided to put a time scale on answering that. Three years minimum. That’s about as long as it takes to absorb the work and start to understand what it was really about.

Of course, art doesn’t have to be about anything at all. Francis Bacon was famously quoted as saying “The purpose of art is to deepen the mystery”.


Presence‘ – an album by Zed Zeppelin, has cover artwork featuring an obsessive hole. The nostalgic images from the 40s and 50s appear to show everyday people obsessed by an ever present mysterious void.

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Art directed by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgesson – the premise was to put an object from the future into the past. In true Thorgesson style rather than use archive images from the 40s and 50s, the cover images were shot for real on the basis that ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’. There’s something unsettling about a familiar setting disrupted by something that is clearly not meant to be there. Yet in these images the ‘thing‘ appears not only to be accepted, but hold a real presence in all the situations. The irony being the ‘thing‘ is not even a ‘thing’ but a hole. The ‘presence’ is actually an ‘absence’. When the concept was first pitched to the band, Robert Plant’s response was “Who the hell needs to understand everything anyway?”.

The mysterious black object motif is also drawn in part to the monoliths in Kubrick’s film  version of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey‘.

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In the film we see three large, black monoliths  – the first in prehistoric earth that appears to mark a turning point in evolution, the second one on the moon and the third orbiting Jupiter. The monoliths are a key marker in the plot of the movie – in many respects they are what the film is all about, yet they are also a source of endless discussion and conjecture about what they are. In Arthur C Clarke’s original books, the monoliths – and there are more than just those three – have a presence but no substance, only that their shape is in the proportion of 1:4:9 (the first three squared numbers). In the books it is also suggested they have dimensions beyond the physical three with ever increasing proportions (…16:25:36…). Of course their meaning and purpose could be very simple. They just are. What are they? – something else… where did they come from? – somewhere else… when did they appear?… they’ve always been there.

In short, they’re follies. Objects designed to be mostly there to just be there. I’ve written before about the Chinese tradition of placing man made objects in landscapes to make sense of the scale, form and colour of the vastness of their environment. As a kid I was always a little obsessed by the presence of follies. I remember seeing Horton Tower in Dorset and asking my grandparents  what it was for. “It’s just a tower. It’s not for anything” was their reply. Grandparents never lie. So it must have been true. Weird, maybe. But true.

Through my teens I learnt to appreciate the surreal-ness (is that a word?) of follies. The Belvedere Tower at Claremont Gardens was always tantalisingly behind gates, locked out of reach.

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‘Belvedere Tower’, Claremont Gardens, Surrey. A low-resolution scan from an infrared negative, but you get the gist…

There was always something Alice in Wonderland about its inaccessibility. Those clipped hedges framing the view up the lawn. It must have been a great view from the tower across the gardens and lake, only the windows aren’t real. They’re painted on. Part of Capability Brown’s masterpiece in landscape design. The tower was there for its presence. To look over the landscape, and while it obviously couldn’t actually look over the garden, it reinforced the idea that the landscaped garden was designed to be looked over. That looking was fundamental to what the garden was about.

Another favourite was Leith Hill Tower. A wonderful piece of gothic architecture built in 1765 to enhance the countryside. No more, no less. There’s stairs up to the roof which is (at just over 1000ft above sea-level) the highest point in southern England. However, the steps weren’t built until 100 years after the rest of the building. So for a century it was just a tower for tower’s sake.


This summer I built ‘Keep’ – a 10m high folly for the Lake District. OK, so I didn’t actually build it – Debbie in Manchester did the hard work with the sewing machine. Originally it was going to be a bouncy castle inside, but a number of design issues and some disastrous fabrication decisions put pay to that idea, so it was redesigned as just a folly. It was commissioned by the Lake District National Park as part of their Lakes Alive Festival. The original brief was around the theme of Cultural Landscapes to celebrate the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing for the Lake District. The English Lake District has it’s very own and important history in the world of landscape appreciation. Unlike most of the rest of England, Follies are not part of that tradition. However, I wanted to look at the role the Lakes played in the wider English Landscape Tradition and put a folly in that landscape.

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Original mock-up of ‘Keep’ on Latrigg, above Keswick, Cumbria.

‘Keep’ was designed to be a very light touch in a protected environment. As an inflatable artwork it was easy to get onto site and install. It could be installed and taken down again the same day which meant in theory it could be taken to quite isolated spots and places where a more permanent folly would never be allowed.

However, as mostly made from air, it is very susceptible to weather conditions.  On the location I’d originally intended it to go – being around 2000ft above sea level and very exposed, the weather was prone to sudden changes. On the best day of the pre festival week, the conditions looked like they would be right to get the tower up for a few hours. However, during inflation the wind suddenly picked up to more than twice the safe maximum and the install had to be quickly abandoned.

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

The following weekend was the festival itself. Confined to Kendal, the piece was installed on Castle Howe – the site of the original castle in Kendal, but with a line of sight to the latter and existing castle ruin on the other side of the town. For a day the weather played ball and the piece did its job as being a tower.

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For the Kendal installation, I chose Castle Howe partly so that there would be some kind of dialogue between ‘Keep’ in red and the existing castle in white – rather like rooks on a chessboard – maybe another Alice through the Looking-glass reference. It was also partly about the vibrance of the colour with the ‘Auld Grey Town’, as evidenced in Tony’s drone shots.

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Drone view from above Kendal Castle looking back to ‘Keep’ on Castle Howe. Photo © Tony Watson.

The install on a fell in the Lake District will happen at some point. I’ll keep a look out for the right conditions, both in terms of windspeed and in the colour and light quality of the surrounding landscape. When it’s right it’ll be stunning and ‘enhance the landscape’, whatever that means.

Two months on and I’m starting to understand what the piece is about. Having seen the piece working in Kendal, I’m getting a better idea what the piece is and how it works. It’s also something I’m keen to continue in the future. That may be taking ‘Keep’ out on the road for a series of installs, or it may be more involved than that. Who knows, maybe a whole series of follies in different landscapes.

More importantly, I’m happy not really understanding what the project means yet. All good art has at least ten different meanings. I’m quite sure using temporary follies to interrogate the landscape has at least that, but it may take me a while to discover what they all are.

There’s something about follies that seems to fit with the work I’ve been doing for the past few years.  I still don’t know what that something is, except it’s probably something else. But I do know it’s always been there.

 

 

 

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Maybe it’s that new year thing when you start out with good intentions – bold ideas, long-term plans, fresh start or whatever, but I guess every new thing has to start somewhere, at sometime. It seems that the winter months are when I look ahead to the coming year and finally get to start working on new projects. There’s still some gaps in the overall view of the year, but from what’s already there I’m getting a feel for the overarching themes. While last year was more about textures and moments, this year looks like being one of spaces and voids. Strange how things find their own threads.

Last year I really got to know some of the river where I live. I spent large chunks of time watching it, filming it, photographing it, editing the results and creating the major piece of the year – ‘Waterfall‘. I’ll probably do a more in-depth post about that at some point, but for those new to the game, ‘Waterfall’ saw three white-washed field barns wrapped in slow-motion film footage of the three main waterfalls of the River Tees. Each barn became a visual cube of slow moving water in the night sky. It was big and awesome and probably the best thing I’d done in a long long time.

Since that piece I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with the river. I used to go down there almost every day, but the daily photographing and research has probably made me over familiar now and some of its magic is somehow lost. I kind of know how it does all its tricks now.

So I needed to find a way to re-engage with the river. There are new things I need to discover. I need to find another story in it.

Then last week I caught up with Andy Carters ‘270’ project on his Calling All Station YouTube channel. Over the next 52 weeks Andy  is aiming to visit all 270 stations on the London Underground. To make it more interesting he has to pass through the ticket barriers at least once at every station – either coming or going through them, not just passing through on a train. It’s this slowing down of the travel that makes you stop, look, think and examine the familiar. About 40 stations in (starting with the boring bits of the  Jubilee Line) and I’m already hooked. Each station is documented on his blog as he goes along too, creating a comprehensive gazetteer of architectural gems and subterranean secrets beneath the capital.

Inspired by his journey, I’ve decided on mine – to visit and cross* every crossing of the River Tees from source to sea.

Bridges are fascinating things. I’ve had my own experiences in constructing them. Essentially they are practical engineering – a way of traversing in this case water. Yet as purely man made structures in what is on this route, mostly open countryside, they have a very distinctive presence within the landscape to manage.

Today I made a start. The purist in me wanted to start at the source and work progressively downstream. However, it’s still very much winter and as the Tees starts just below the summit of Cross Fell – the highest peak on the Pennines – and very much buried under snow for the next few weeks I’ve decided to scrap that and not be precious about the order in which I visit the bridges.

My first crossing then wasn’t even a bridge. It was also one of the biggest structures on the river – the dam wall at Cow Green Reservoir.

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Between 1969 and 1971, a section of the Upper Tees was flooded to create the 2-mile long Cow Green Reservoir as a part of of a series of interventions to regulate the flow of water down the river for abstraction purposes. The 1/4 mile long concrete reinforced embankment holds back 40,000,000,000 litres of water (count those zeros!) while the entire river flow is regulated by sluices on the southern bank. So technically the River Tees flows beneath it, so the dam wall is a crossing.

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The reservoir sits in a natural basin of pasture land high in the North Pennines. The landscape here is a unique blend of very specific geology and rare botanical habitat. Widdybank Fell which sits along the Durham side of the water is home to the rare Blue Gentian  and the only place in the UK where alpine plants have survived since the last great ice age. The land here is fertile and remains of bronze age summer farms lie beneath the reservoir – themselves an indicator of how climate changes over time. Back then temperatures in these upper fells were around three degrees warmer. It might not sound much but the weather here is now too cold for most wading birds to breed on the reservoir. On a fairly bright day like today it felt relatively mild a few miles downstream, yet up here the shaded bays on the water are still iced over and pockets of snow lie in the heather.

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Today the reservoir sits in the Moorhouse National Nature Reserve – the largest nature reserve in the UK taking in the highest fells in the Pennine chain and the upper catchments of the River Tees.

The wall is an immense brutal slab of industrial infrastructure. Its scale and construction means it’s never going to blend in (whatever that means) and makes a bold statement within the landscape. Yet, the sparsity and relative bleakness of this part of the dale tolerates its monolithic brutality. The scale of the landscape seems to just swallow it up. As the river rushes quickly away from the wall thinly over bedrock, there is a greyness and roughness, that is almost alien in spirit and the concrete meets the bedrock as an ancient ancestor and the family resemblance is still there.

Within yards of the wall, the river passes beneath Birkdale Footbridge. This is the first of the bridges in County Durham and is still a border crossing between Durham and Cumbria. Built in 1966 – and just predating the dam wall – it’s made from a concrete span sitting on two reinforced stone pillars in the river. Like the dam, it’s a very utilitarian structure and supports a private access road and the Pennine way.

Downstream of the bridge the river disappears down a series of dramatic cataracts between basaltic columns of winsill. At a total of over 200ft, Cauldron Snout is one of the main waterfalls of the River Tees and shows how fast the water develops its wild character from the man-made sluices of the reservoir.

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So this is where my journey this year begins. I’ll back track when it’s warmer to find the source of the river and the only bridge beyond the reservoir, but I’m looking forward to discovering the journey of the water from the sluices as it cuts its way through the landscape towards the sea, and how people have built ways of traversing it.

It’s a long a winding story and I’m looking forward to discovering the stories and narratives of those crossing places. it’s a rich history and along the way I’m going to find Romans and Saxons, and JMW Turner and Lewis Carroll and railways and steel and plutonium. Lots of landscape and lots of engineering. And lots of walking.

 

*ok. so I won’t walk over the railway bridges,or motorway one and will probably give the pipe bridges a miss too

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The middle of winter is certainly feeling like it this year. It’s not particularly wintery in the weather, but it certainly feels darker and more gloomy. Anyway, we’ve past the shortest, darkest day, technically. Now the days are getting longer again we can look to the future and think about the year ahead. But it’s also that time of year where we look back at the past year and take stock.

For me 2016 has felt like a particularly busy year. The tail end in particular was a bit hectic at times. But it’s been a productive one. Lots of new things – new people, new works and new places to work with.

‘Lotus Souvenir’ – large origami lotus flower installation at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire. UK. in February.

Lumb Mill Viaduct

Lumb Mill Viaduct

‘The Scenic Route’ was a short research residency walking two former railway lines in Lancashire.

‘PaperBridge’ had a variety of outings over the year – includig being featured on a TV show on the Discovery Channel, being in a book on micro architecture and being presented to the King and Queen of Lesotho. A smaller working model was shown in an exhibition of paper design in Chicago, while drawings and a short documentary was shown in Nova Scotia and Montreal.

September saw the start of a series of back-to-back installations right across the North of England, starting with ‘Tower’ – an architectural intervention at the Festival of Thrift in Kirkleatham.

From September to November I did a series of installations across Lancashire for a commission. ‘When the Red Rose…’ saw temporary interventions in Preston, Blackpool and Lancaster. A fourth on the canal at Blackburn sadly didn’t happen, but I’ll keep that one back for another day.

The major piece of the year however, was just three fields away from where I live.

Three barns were wrapped in slow-motion projections of waterfalls from the nearby River Tees. Over six short nights over 2,000 people ventured to see the work, in the dark in a quiet, remote corner of County Durham. Blessed by a harvest moon the first weekend and by clear skies with resident milky way the second, no number of photos or videos can ever capture the experience those lucky 2000 had.

While it was a good year for interesting and ambitious new works, for me ‘Waterfall’ stood out as probably the best piece I’ve done so far. And to do it on my own doorstep, in front of my own local community was a particularly special thing to do.

Just as good as being able to do all those installations, exhibitions and workshops was all the wonderful people I got to work with. None of these can happen without teams of people dedicated to making them happen – from those commissioning the work and those fabricating some of the pieces to those who work tirelessly to promote the work or organise the epic tasks they can sometime become. So hopefully I haven’t missed anyone off but here goes:

Nancy Kryzanowski, Gemma Jackman, Sally-Anne Blaise, Caroline Ruddick, Paul Gray, Phil Carr and Alan Carr Print & Design, Premier Papers in Gateshead, Nick Hunt, Melanie Diggle, Diana Hamilton, Roy Halliday, Nick Lund, Julie Tomlinson and James Cropper plc, Lexi Gerry, Jon Stynes, David Metcalf and October Films, Aleta Florentin, Vianna Newman, Harvey Lev, Judith Bauer, Diane Spark and all at UTASS, Ian Hunter, Paul Chaney, Alex Murdin, Henk Keiser, Brenda Vrieling, Jan Hartold, Vicky Holbrough, Nicola Golightly, Stella Hall, Trevor at Kirkleatham Old Hall, Christina Hesford, Janet Rogers, Paul Murray, Becky Nicholson, Kirsty Childs, Jill Bennison, Karen Marshall, Kate Percival, Lowri Bond, Sara Cooper,  Jane Shaw, Fiona Goh and Holmfirth Arts Festival, Sarah Branson, Jamie Frost, Thomas Charveriat, Sarah Gent, Sarah Mayhew-Craddock, Lucy Jenkins, Rebecca Turner, Harry and Kate Vane, Ewan Alinson, Jill Cole, Malcolm Walton, William Burton, Chris Woodley-Stewart, Nicki Cullens, Shane Harris, Mark Tyler, Ryan May and Hightlights, DCC events team,  Lyndsey Waters, Tim Joel, Richard Baxter, Rita Whitlock, Ella Byford, Justina Ma, Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, Anna Izza, Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Keri Sparkes, Jen Morgan, Catherine Shaw, Philippe Handford, Jamima Latimer, Louise Miller, Mike Neale, Stacey Walker, Julie Brown, Sandra Blue, Brent Lees, Friends of the Storey Garden, Rebecca Johnson, Laurie Peake, Sarah Steele and Preston Methodist Chapel, Alex Rinsler, Mykey Young, Richard and the Lightpool team, Zoe Dawes, Jenny Needham, Flossie Mainwaring-Taylor, Trevor Brookes, Martin Paul, John Gillmore, Heather Fox, Jennie Collingwood, David Turner, Andrew Barton, Paul Kingston…

I hope I haven’t missed too many off. That’s quite a team and a huge thanks to everyone on the list – I seriously could not have done all I have this year without each and everyone of you.

So, that’s it for this year now. Next year is another year. It’s going to be an interesting one for so many reasons, but I hope it’s more in a positive way.

Onwards and upwards…

 

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The idea of building a bridge out of paper goes back a little while for me. It’s been one of those projects that’s been sat on the back burner so long it was in danger of completely drying out. And if it wasn’t for a random DM on twitter one Sunday evening, it might still be there.

It was some years earlier that a discussion with some of the lovely folk over at James Cropper – a paper manufacturer based in the Lake District – turned to thinking “what could be made out of paper?” At the time they were interested in pushing their brand values of bespoke production, colour and environmental credentials. We’d done some pieces for trade fairs and I’d started doing some small-scale temporary pieces in the landscape for photographs. The thing about brainstorming is that you can come up with ideas and not worry about how practical or realistic they are. I think I said it would be great to do something structural – like a wall, or a building, or a bridge.. or something along those lines, and that’s often how so many of my pieces start life. I open my mouth without thinking, and as soon as I’ve uttered the words they somehow echo and linger. And I start to dwell on them. Yes, a bridge. That would be amazing if we could do that. Obviously I had no idea how to do it, but the idea seemed to stick.

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red paper boxes on Ullswater. 2010.

Of course, when I started to look at it and do the research I discovered it wasn’t as left field as I thought. Building a bridge out of paper was a standard year one exercise in architecture courses all over the world. An exercise in creating strength from lightweight materials. These however were just models even though some could take the weight of people.

Then there’s the work of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. In 2007 Ban built a full-sized paper bridge over the River Gard at Remoulin in France. Ban had gotten over the structural and scale issues by using paper tubes. Paper tubes are an inherently strong but lightweight form and work well in both compression and tension along their length. Fabricated steel joints hold everything in place.

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Paper Bridge by Shigeru Ban. image © Mikaël Pors

However, I wanted to do something in just paper. I wanted the purity of a single material. This idea that something as seemingly fragile as a single sheet of paper could be the building blocks of something substantial.Something of real structural integrity. Capable of withstanding the Cumbrian weather and strong enough to function as a footbridge. The solution lay in some of the earliest bridges in the Lake District – packhorse bridges.

packhorse bridge Watendlath Cumbria

In the days before roads trading goods were moved across the country by packhorse – loading up horses and trekking them in convoy across the land. With no wheels to get stuck in mud it was a very versatile way to move things across difficult terrain – as in the case of the Lake District. Where rivers ran too fast to safely ford, simple stone arch bridges were built. Originally these were very basic, using local found stone and built over a wooden formwork, using lime mortar to cement the stone together. Once constructed the formwork was knocked down or burnt leaving a simple arch. There was no wall on either side of the pathway as this would restrict the size of the packs on the horses. The bridges were also used by drovers moving sheep to and from markets. Only when the tracks were upgraded and carts and waggons started to use them were sides added to the bridges to stop them from falling off. Carts also meant bridges had to be wider and more substantial with easy gradients up to the top, whereas the original packhorse bridges were frequently steep arches and only three-foot wide.

I found a great book – ‘An Illustrated Guide to The Packhorse Bridges of the Lake District‘ by Michael Hartwell, and set off to familiarise with bridges in the Lake District landscape.

book cover

The construction of a stone arch is very simple and dates back thousands of years.  Wedge-shaped stones – or voussoirs – are laid over a former. The final, topmost stone – the keystone – effectively holds it all together. In a paper bridge, all the stones are just pieces of paper. Structurally, the internal angles of the wedge shapes result in the vertical force (the load on the arch) being transferred to lateral tension (sideways force where it meets the ground).

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basic calculations for the final bridge

I could calculate how to build it on paper by simple geometry. If I knew the size of the blocks of paper and the radius of the arc I could determine how many ‘sides’ a polygon of those blocks it would take to go across the arc. Knowing the number of sides I could also work out the angle between them that I needed to fill with wedges. As I knew the dimensions of those wedges from the paper size I could work out the size of stacks of different sized pieces it would take to bridge that angle. I needed sufficient different sizes to brace across the gap evenly and also get small enough pieces to get as close to the upper edge as possible. The strength in the arc comes from ensuring the blocks are tight on the bottom edge and are wedged tight across the top edge. It’s also important not to make the mid-sized blocks in the wedge too big as, under load, the bridge would have a tendency to pivot on those points and make it rock. When it came to the bigger models and the final piece, those small packs of 10 or 11 sheets were critical. One too many small pieces of paper in one of the wedge sections might not seem much in the 20,000 pieces of paper scheme of things, but an extra sheet in one block equates to 150 sheets over the whole arch – approximately 40mm – and the whole bridge becomes very unstable.

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drawing of stacks making up a single block and wedge

I think I built the first paper model bridge in 2011. It was very haphazard but it worked and held a fair weight. It was quite a shallow arc made by stacking small pieces of paper over a former and then wedging other sheets in a various intervals until it stayed up. The next model was more refined. I knew then how it worked. Using small pieces of paper left over from a project years before it easily held more than its own weight.

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the first model paperbridge. May 2011

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the first sketch of a paper bridge

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Second model. 2012

By this time it was looking like this just might be possible. I’d even found a location where I thought it would look right – with big Lakeland fells around it, a fast flowing beck underneath and footpaths on either side. There was no point building a bridge that didn’t go anywhere.

But, could I build one that would take the weight of a person? And how would it work outside? What would happen when it rains? Only one way to find out. Build a bigger one.

Croppers kindly supplied me with a quantity of paper cut to approximately A4 size. From these I trimmed smaller sizes to make wedge-shaped stacks. I built this first decent-sized bridge one evening in my front garden. I left markers at intervals so I could take it apart again and keep the paper in blocks. It was March when I built that, so it was getting dark early. I got it all assembled to a certain point and left it until the morning to fine tune it.

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first A4 model

Overnight the cloud came down and it was a bit misty in the morning. I just needed to move some of the blocks and add a few more wedges I thought to make a better arc. It was then I discovered what happens when the paper gets wet. The bridge was rock-solid. There was no way I could easily take sections out. When the paper got wet, the fibres swelled. As all the paper was in compression all the swelling pressure went against the abutments as it had nowhere else to go. I left that test bridge up outside the house for nearly three months in rain, snow and occasional sunshine. It didn’t go anywhere.

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The next test build was in the Howgill Fells overlooking the M6 Tebay Gorge. This was the first one over running water. It was a blistering hot day and there wasn’t much water coming down the beck, but I wanted to see how it worked in a more real landscape environment.

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test model in the Howgill Fells. 2012

The colour was a bit cold against the foliage and the bridge seemed to flatten out at the top, but this is what test are for – to find all the problems so they can be solved before you go for the big piece.

From this point on the project hung around for a few years. Both the paper manufacturer and the Lake District National Park were keen to help realise the bridge, for one reason or another things never quite came together at the same time to make it happen.

I’d been showing mock-ups of the PaperBridge in presentations and lectures around the world for a few years. It was always something I used to show my working methods and the potential for public / private enterprise. It aways went down well too – there was something about it that caught people’s imagination. Whether that was the bold use of colour in the landscape, or the ambition, or the engineering.

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visual for paperBridge at Greenside, Glenridding. 2012

Earlier this year I was surveying my growing list of unrealised projects and looking to see which ones I could look to finally get done this year. Looking at how progressed the idea was and what was needed to actually bring it to fruition. The PaperBridge seemed to be pretty much there. It was all designed, engineered, tested, materials sourced, legal and health & safety implications sorted. It even had a location and permissions. I’d even gone through the PaperBridge as an example project when I met with Wolfgang Volz over the winter. All it needed was some money for materials and build costs. Although that doesn’t sound like much, finding funding is always more work than you think, so I pencilled it into my diary as something to start working on in the summer. A standard delay tactic.

So when that random twitter message came through asking if I was interested in doing something in the Lakes, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Here was a client looking for something high-profile and ambitious in the Lake District landscape, and I just happened to have something all ready to go. Just as well as the proposal would need costing up and presenting in 10 days, and if successful, delivered in just 10 weeks. Under any normal circumstances that would be just impossible for a project of this scale. I don’t normally put proposals forward to open calls – coming up with project concepts, working out all the logistics and drafting up a budget alone can be a huge amount of work with no guarantee of anything coming off it. In fact I’ve never had any commission come off this way, so I stopped doing it. However, I had everything just sitting there, ready to go – although I had no idea how much it would cost, but sure I could do it within their budget. If only just. it was worth a shot.

On the 22nd February I got an email inviting me to realise PaperBridge as part of a new cultural event in Cumbria and the Lake District – Lakes Ignite. The lead-in time for the paper production and my other work commitments meant there was just a 10 day window it could be done in during May. So that was it. Ten weeks to deliver a full-sized bridge out of paper.

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working drawings for a bridge – not the final one though..

Of course things never go smoothly. The tight timetable meant the National Park people couldn’t re-jig their busy rotas to provide the build help I was hoping for. Due to a locally controversial planning application near the original Greenside location, it was thought best not to do anything on that site this year. That meant looking for an alternative location, obtaining permissions, surveying, re-designing the bridge and re-calculating the engineering.

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redesigning the bridge in the studio

Lots of long days in the studio and late nights with my note-book, bits of paper, cosine calculators, building and rebuilding scale models, revisiting the site as it slowly greened up through the early spring, taking photos, generating visuals and eventually it started to come back together again.

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early mock-up of the bridge in Grisedale

A couple of years or so ago, when we were looking at a 16 – 21 day installation period at the original location a short walk from a car park, we were looking at visitor figures in the region of 10 – 16,000. The Lake District is a great place to do this kind of work – there’s so much quality landscape environment to bounce off. It’s a well-known area and comes with its own unique sense of international branding. THere’s also plenty of other things to offer visitors so an artwork can make part of a great day out or weekend away.One of the challenges however can be the number of visitors to the area – much more than you would expect in most rural locations. While I knew the paper would easily support the weight of people on it – we even looked at the idea of taking a horse over it for a photo opportunity – I had no way of knowing what the effect of 16,000 pairs of muddy boots would do to the surface of the bridge. With that kind of visitor figure we’d need to put invigillators there to avoid bottlenecks of visitors and make sure everyone was safe on it. However, at this new, much more remote location – remember it’s a good 5 mile round walk from a car park – crowds were not going to be a problem. It was going to be something that passing walkers would just happen across. Maybe up to 100 people a day on busy sunny weekends.

I quite liked that aspect of it – a piece so remote and temporary that it became something special for the few who saw it….

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“What do artists do?”

I looked over the sea of hands suddenly shot up from the hundred or so gathered five and six year-olds. Feeling all teachery standing up there at the front of the assembly hall, the choice was mine to make – pick one. Any one. I was pretty sure they all had the same answer. I don’t remember which and I picked in the end, but the response was like a punchline

“They paint things”

It’s not just small people even. I doubt I’m alone among artists either – that response when people ask what you do, you say ‘Artist’, they say “what do you paint?”.

My standard response is “skirting boards. Occasionally”.

There’s a general assumption that art is something you put on your wall. At best it’s something other people put on gallery walls. And don’t get me started on “art in unusual places”… what’s THAT supposed to mean?…

The flip side of this of course is that I obviously have walls at home and I like art. So what do artists have on their walls? I clearly don’t do wall stuff, and even if I did I doubt I’d have any of my own work at home. It’d be like an accountant having spreadsheets on the wall, or plumbers having their best soldered joints in frames.

I remember going to one artists house and seeing a small Dali on the wall – apparently a swap with Dali himself. I’d love to have one like that. Even just a Dali would be nice…

The other week, quite by chance, I got a signed print by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgerson. Actually I’ve not really thought of him as a hero until recently. I guess he’s probably most known for his iconic album covers for Pink Floyd – that prism for ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, and the flying pig over Battersea Power Station for ‘Animals’.

animals cover

‘Animals’ Pink Floyd – design by Storm Thorgerson / Hypgnosis

Back in my youth album cover design was a big thing. Factory Records had Peter Saville,

blue monday cover.

‘Blue Monday’ by New Order. Design by Peter Saville. Die-cut sleeve to look like a floppy disk (big old one)

'Technique' - New Order. Design by Peter Saville & Trevor Key. 1989

‘Technique’ – New Order. Design by Peter Saville & Trevor Key. 1989

4AD had (and still have) Vaughan Oliver

'The Moon and the Melodies' - Harold Budd, Elizabeth Frazer, Robin Guthrie & Simon Raymonde. Design by  Vaughan Oliver. Photograhy by Nigel Grierson. 1986

‘The Moon and the Melodies’ – Harold Budd, Elizabeth Frazer, Robin Guthrie & Simon Raymonde. Design by Vaughan Oliver. Photograhy by Nigel Grierson. 1986

'Filligree & Shadow' - This Mortal Coil. Design by Vaughan Oliver. Photography by Nigel Grierson. 1986

‘Filligree & Shadow’ – This Mortal Coil. Design by Vaughan Oliver. Photography by Nigel Grierson. 1986

and almost everyone else had Rob O’Connor at Stylorouge.

Juju album cover

‘Juju’ – Siouxsie and the Banshees. Design & Art Direction by Rob O’Connor. Photo artwork by Thomi Wroblewski. 1981

what kind of fool cover

‘What Kind of Fool’ – All About Eve. Design & Art Direction by Rob O’Connor. Photography by David Scheinmann. 1988

At the time I looked to record covers as where the exciting photography was and what I ultimately wanted to do. Peter Saville was pushing record sleeve design as works of art in their own right – most of the Factory records never featured the name of the band, or even album on the front and created a strong visual identity for the artists. Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson as 23envelope in contrast exerted their very individual style on every band that came on the 4AD label – unifying the label visually while transcending the style and nature of the individual bands (and not without a bit of a marmite split of support from the bands themselves). While many labels still chose to put pictures of the bands and singers on the records, these studios were turning product into a work of art.

The Factory / 4AD aesthetic (and particularly Grierson’s photography) was certainly in evidence in my early forays into record sleeves:

found

‘Found’ – EP. Waterglass. 1995

That strong visual element within certain streams of music I think shaped my musical tastes. I’m still guilty of judging a book by its cover. There are so many great bits of music and books I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for some brilliant photography on the cover.

But long before all that was Storm Thorgerson – the father of album cover art. Beyond every Pink Floyd album, his first studio – Hipgnosis – then subsequently Storm Studios – created some of most striking and downright surreal images of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s:

houses of the holy cover

‘Houses of the Holy’ – Led Zeppelin. 1973

deceptive bends cover

‘Deceptive Bends’ – 10cc. 1977

momentary lapse of reason cover

‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’ – Pink Floyd. 1987

wish you were here cover

‘Wish You Were Here’ – Pink Floyd. 1975

All classics in their own right, so I suppose were part of the cannon of music design and consequently part of the collective consciousness of artists working in that arena. Still, by the late 80’s, early nineties they all seemed a bit.. well, prog-rock and so dropped out of what I considered to be cool and relevant.

Yet, somehow bits must have stayed put in my psyche and could occasionally be seen subconsciously in bits and pieces, like this shoot for a theatre company where a man wakes up in a subway station at rush-hour:

sleepyhead

promo shoot for Vanishing Point theatre company in Glasgow. I’m guessing it’s about 1995. Looks like Kelvingrove subway station. Really was rush hour and had to wait for two trains to come in at the same time.

In the intervening years I’ve sought to find my own voice and visual path, and finally split from my music industry trajectory when I moved to Cumbria. Being out in the sticks has immersed my work with a whole new world of inspiration  and learning together with a whole different culture. The music industry has changed loads too – the downsizing of scale from 12″ vinyl to 6″ CD covers took away some of the visual emphasis. Since then iTunes and digital downloads have removed music from its packaging entirely. Around the same time MTV moved away from non-stop music videos and that great music design industry has largely slipped away.

 

Storm Thorgerson died in April last year. As with any passing of a great cultural figure there’s a period of reflection on that person’s achievements and a rediscovery of their forgotten genius. Storm Thorgerson, like Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville, comes from an era before digital manipulation. Oliver’s textural creations were created through a deep understanding of the reprographic processes and print technology to build up layers upon layers of image, graphics and text. Thorgerson on the other hand took a much more direct approach – to create the images for real and photograph them. Thorgerson’s images become more than just fantasies – they really happened. A product of immense prop building and researching the best landscape in the world to make it happen.

What I found most fascinating was now I saw another artist creating vastly ambitious temporary installations in vast open landscapes.

audioslave

‘Audioslave’. 2002

Coming at them from completely different places, the themes are so familiar

watercolour cover

‘Watercolour’ – Pendulum. Design by Storm Studios. 2010

red boxes

compare to ‘red boxes’ – installation on Ullswater for James Cropper Speciality Papers. ©stevemessam2009

smell the coffee

‘Wake Up and Smell the Coffee’ – The Cranberries. ©Stormstudios 2001

'Fairhaven Bubbles'. Probably my most Thorgersonesque piece to date. ©stevemessam 2012

‘Fairhaven Bubbles’. Probably my most Thorgersonesque piece to date. ©stevemessam 2012

As a commercial artist there’s a lot of output. Thorgerson seemed to publish books of his designs every few years. Sure the quality varies, and if I’m going to be particularly critical, I think a lot of the styling in the more recent work feels very dated and less contemporary – less aware of its time and place.

But then there are still gems.

The cover of ‘Only Revolutions’ by Biffy Clyro is Thorgerson at his best.

only revolutions

‘Only Revolutions’ – Biffy Clyro. Design by Storm Studios 2009

The theme of Revolution has a narrative of struggle and conflict – the figures face each other in a blindfolded dual. Each concealing heir weapon behind their back – a rolling pin and a knife. The resolutions having broken down, the peace table in flames. The huge flags rise in the air catching the wind, their colours reminding us of the French Revolution and Delacroix’s Marianne in ‘La Liberté’

'La Liberté' by Delacroix

‘La Liberté’ by Delacroix

This is where great album cover art works for me. Here is an image that’s more than a pretty design. It has depth and narrative like a Rennaissance painting. As a photograph it has authenticity, yet it has a real mystery and fiction too.

I’m glad I rediscovered Storm Thorgerson’s work. It’s a shame I came back too it too late and never got to meet him.

There are those influential people you look up to and aspire to become, and there are those that speak to you in a way that deeply affects how you think and work, or you connect with in such a way you follow their every output. Then there are those who you may or may not know about who just happen to think the same way or do things the same way – those are the people you share a path with.And then sometimes when you’re walking along your path and by chance you find someone who’s already managed to get to where you were heading. Those are your heroes.

…..

I’ve not gotten round to putting my print up yet. It’s all framed and standing on the kitchen table. But that’s the kind of thing I put on my wall.

print 006

 

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Now I’m all settled, I need to get back to doing some work.

At the start of every project there’s usually a long period of research and development where I immerse myself in finding out about things and getting really lost in lots of new stuff. At the moment I’m working on a number of future projects at various stages in their development.
It’s quite possible that one or more of these projects never makes it off the page and becomes a final piece. It happens. Quite a lot sometimes. Sometimes the ideas carry on and inspire another piece. Sometimes projects just take a really long time to happen.

This piece for a hi-end luggage brand never paid off:

cases in a circle

Although this piece proposed for Brockholes Nature Reserve near Preston didn’t happen (huge shame), it did lead to a similar piece in nearby Lytham:

bubbles at Brockholes

and this piece for the Forest of Bowland is far more complicated than expected and is still a few years away from happening:

tangled in the trough of bowland

Recently I’ve been doing some research at the Lancashire County Archives for a couple of projects. It’s an amazing place. It’s not a library nor is it a museum, but contains millions of documents relating to just about everything that’s ever been written down in or about Lancashire. From elaborate illuminated manuscripts on vellum to folders of stapled typewritten council memos.

The building itself is a very considered bit of 70’s local authority brutalism.

archives building

There are boxes of files there which chart the history of the designing and building this purpose-built archive building – memos about materials, sketches of the custom furniture, salaries and running costs.

chair sketches

In the centre of the main building is a square courtyard. The architects proposed a sculpture and water feature in the middle, which never came to anything, but there’s a whole presentation document about it.

sculpture proposal

It’s not a great piece of art proposed, and the design of the presentation isn’t ground breaking either, but what struck me was the thought and care that went into proposing the project.

The master of the proposal presentation though was Humphry Repton. A self-taught landscape designer he sought to develop the ideas of Capability Brown and a had a clear vision of how the parks around the great houses could be greater experiences and encapsulate the new ideas of the beautiful view. He also developed a very unique business model. He would visit the great houses and spend a few days sketching the various views, looking to see how changes to the parks and gardens would affect the overall impression and experience of the house. He would then present a bound book of his ideas to the owners as a pitch for work. The books would be around 20 or so pages long with beautifully written descriptions of the house and land. The highlight of the books were the fold-out pen and ink drawings with flaps and pop-ups showing before and after visuals.

before after

The pitches were mostly unsolicited – he relied on some of the ideas to be taken up in order to make a living. For him the presentation of the ideas was key to that. As bound objects, Repton’s ‘Red Books’ have mostly survived – being absorbed into the estate libraries. Surprisingly few of his ideas were actually fully realised. If he was lucky then maybe one or two ideas at each site would take shape – but for Repton that law of averages was all part of the plan.

The Lancashire Archives have an original Red Book for Lathom House. As a public archive anyone can request most items. However, the Repton Red Book as a one-off hand written and illustrated book is a bit fragile for repeated handling, so the conservation department made an amazing facsimile for anyone to explore. It has the same binding, paperweight and everything so you get to experience Repton’s charm-offensive in all its glory.

copy of repton red book

I don’t think any of Repton’s ideas for Lathom House ever came to fruition, but as a work of art – of ideas as well as visuals – it’s just as valid.

This got me thinking of the value of proposals. They are ideas in the raw state. The great vision. At the idea stage they’re often uncompromised by logistics or money or technology. There are far more things that never happened than have. In that light the archives hold a fascinating document of what if..

Some are visually things of beauty –

This is a proposal for decoration of the hallway in Lytham Hall (never happened). I love the way it’s presented as the 3D space folded flat.

IMG_7128 - Version 2 IMG_7130 - Version 2

Less visually arresting is this proposed railway through the Forest of Bowland. Built partly for local transport for people and agriculture, the financial sustainability case was built on tourist use – years before the creation of National Parks but they still anticipated summer tourism passengers of over 30,000 every year. Had this been built it is possible the Forest of Bowland would have been as busy as the Peak District and with a developed tourism industry as a result would have strengthened its case for National Park status.

bowland railway

There are thousands of architectural drawings in the archive – from railway cottages and Cooperative Society buildings to canals and service stations. But by far the most impressive is that for the Morcambe Tower.

IMG_7148 - Version 2

In the early 1890’s there was a bit of a tower fever. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower opened in 1888, entrepreneurs around the country saw building iconic landmark towers as the key to building tourism with the new concept of disposable income. In 1890 both Blackpool and Morcambe revealed their plans for seaside towers. Blackpool’s at 158 metres unashamedly ripped off was directly inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Morcambe’s was far more ambitious…

morecambe tower

At the base was an intricately decorated Moorish-designed Bazaar featuring shops, restaurants and grand theatre. Above that sat a second auditorium for a circus. Rising above all this was a tower more inspired by the Tower of Babel than anything else. A spiral roadway wound itself around the spire with an illuminated tramway carrying people to the viewing lantern on the top.

Just stop for a moment. That’s like a railway running around the outside to the top of Blackpool Tower…

These drawings from the architects – by W.H & A Sugden of Keighley, Yorkshire, are incredible in their level of detail. These are not a decorative proposal – they’re working drawings to actually build this thing. There’s even a detailed drawing of one of the hinges on one of the ground floor bars.

hinge

The depth of detailing is mind-blowing. Bearing in mind that at the time this would have been the tallest building ever built – that Tower of Babel inspiration is not quite so kitsch.

decor detail

Sadly, like so many great ideas, it didn’t really go to plan. The money didn’t materialise and the buildings were scaled back. The Tower never got beyond its steel work sub-structure.

morecambe bay C1900

Morecambe Bay C. 1900. The tower as built can just be seen in the distance on the left. Image © Lancashire Libraries

 

The tower was dismantled for the 1st World War effort. No doubt the ironwork melted down and turned into guns and shells. From pleasure to pain in one easy line. The buildings were finally demolished in the early ’60’s.

Compromise is the enemy of inspiration and some ideas should never have got beyond the proposal stage – not because they were bad, but precisely because they were perfect as they were. The act of realising them inevitably opens up the risk of things going wrong, or worse – tweaked for budgetary constraints.

Of course I always set out with the ambition to realise every one of my proposals, but realising that the proposal presentation may be as far as any idea gets I’m enjoying working on all the details for these pieces.

The art of ideas.

 

 

 

 

 

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One of my favourite blogs at the moment is a podcast from the editor of LensWork – a photography publication from the States. I don’t subscribe to the magazine itself – I rarely keep up with periodicals anyway, but the weekly podcast has become a most eagerly awaited event each week. The editor, Brooks Jensen has a wonderful speaking voice which just exudes considered wisdom. Although each week his thoughts are centered on photography they are as much about approaches to art in general and a great source of contemplation. In the week when Grayson Perry’s much regarded Reith Lectures questioned ‘What is Art?’, Jensen recalls the opening paragraph from an early 20th Century book by Robert Henri – The Art Spirit:

“Art, when really understood, is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things – anything – well. It is not an outside, extra thing”

What is art? It’s doing something really well. I like that.

In another post he talks about the Isaac Newton idea of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – learning from the greats that go before you. But more than that, he talks about finding the artists who are trading the same path as you – your fellow travellers. The idea that as artists we are not alone in our direction and that there are others going the same way – and instead of looking at them as competitors they should be seen as companions.

gasometer oberhausen

THis week I found myself in the presence of my giants. I went to Germany to see a work by Christo and earlier today I played in my all time favourite piece of orchestral music – Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. To most this probably doesn’t seem as much a deal as it was to me. I can’t express how significant both are to where I am now.

First up I travelled to Oberhausen in the Ruhr Valley in Germany (armed with my trusty Leica and virtual rolls of Ilford HP5plus) to see ‘Big Air Package’-. This piece is unusual for a Christo piece as it is inside, and also it’s been up since May. However, despite admiring all his work for years and all the apparent similarities between his and my work, I’d never actually seen any in real life.

big air package by christo

The Gasometer in Oberhausen, at around 100m tall, is now the largest space dedicated to showing art in Europe – bigger than both the Tate’s Turbine Hall, and Paris’ Grande Palais. Within that huge, post industrial space, Christo has created one of the largest single works of art. Standing at over 90m high, ‘Big Air Package’ does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a big parcel of air wrapped up in PU-coated nylon (the same material I used for my Paviljong in Sweden last month) and bound with rope. The entire piece is kept up purely by a volume of air pumped in by constant fans.

It’s not a new idea – he made a number of ‘Air Packages’ back in the 60’s – the largest at Documenta ’68 took two large cranes to install and three abortive attempts to get the engineering right.

air package at documenta4

Christo and Jeanne-Claude 5,600 Cubicmeter Package, documenta IV, Kassel, 1967-68 Photo: Klaus Baum © 1968 Christo

The piece in Oberhausen is over 30 time the volume of that previous package. To me the interesting bit was how the piece filled the entire volume of the space in the Gasometer. I’ve been looking to do a piece that works on a similar level for a few years now, but so far none have managed to happen yet. The first was for a castle in Lancashire, the second for a victorian greenhouse in the southwest. For now they’re both on my ‘to be realised’ list and sure they will happen so long as I keep thinking they’re a good idea.

orangey visual

visual for a large inflatable piece inside a victorian orangery – now resigned to the ‘unrealised’ file

So it was good to see a piece like that realised. Of course, this was much much larger than any I’d planned to do. How many artworks have you been to recently where you can go up the side of it in a lift?

lift beside big air package

The volume inside was just as impressive. A vast white cathedral space. Very Kubrick. Very Turrel. But the whole experience bit was all very Christo.

inside the big air package

inside big air package

Down the road in the Ludwiggalerie at Oberhausen Schloss, there was a small exhibition of the original drawings and models of the ‘Big Air Package’. Uniquely, Christo funds all his large works entirely through the sale of preparatory drawings and models. It’s an elegant business model which I think I’ve written about before. Again, I’d seen pictures of these works on paper in books and on video but I’d never seen the real things. THere’s a real simplicity in his mark-making and incredible vision for how the final piece will look. The way the light works within that vast white space inside the package was so strikingly predicted in his drawings. THey’re both illustrations of engineering and things of great beauty in themselves. And so covetable – I could really see how his business plan works.

big air package drawings by Christo

detail of big air package drawing by christo

It’s the detail you get from a great work of classical music when you get to play in it. Listening to a performance or a recording is one thing. There’s that whole audio experience and where that takes you. But playing in one you get to see how it’s all made – the engineering bits that hold it together.

When I was doing my ‘O’ level music, the only thing I learnt, that I didn’t know before, was that Tchaikovsky was a raving queen who married an nymphomaniac. Emotional torment doesn’t even come close. It’s funny considering the current political stance in Russia that the writer of so much patriotic Russian music was gay. Don’t tell Putin. Shhh!

score cover

For me personally, Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. First performed just nine days before his death, it’s the pinnacle of his musical career. Although still in a traditional four movements, Tchaikovsky starts to twist the order of things. Before then the last movement was the big rousing finale – think Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th, or the big tunes in Dvorak’s 9th. But for Tchaikovsky, the big rousing finale march comes in the third movement. He follows that up with one of the most incredible emotional bits of scoring in the forth. A big epic sweeping strings thing that just tears at the heart. The end, just a rumbling fade that leaves you exhausted.

Playing in the piece you get to see how he did it all. Tchaikovsky uses a lot of doubling up on tunes – with a number of different instruments playing the same thing, which detracts from the distinctiveness of individual instruments and creates entirely new palettes. Within these he plays around with the mix passing melodies and phrases across the mix, so as a listener you’re not entirely sure what instruments are playing what, it’s just a complete sound.

However, the bit that’s long fascinated me is the very start of that final movement. It starts with a soaring, emotional melody – the kind of thing that inspired a million film soundtracks.

However, no one actually plays the notes you hear. The first and second violins have slow, leaping  parts but your ear picks out a distinct melody from the two.

score of finale theme

How he ever worked out how that happens, I’ll never know. For me it’s just the epitome of his genius.

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony and his last performance.

I’m a big fan of Christo’s work and Tchaikovsky, although in many circles there’s a bit of snobbery that dismisses them both. For Christo he’s often dismissed as just pure spectacle with no substance. To many Tchaikovsky is ‘just ballet music’. Maybe it’s because of their accessibility that gets viewed as populist (as if that’s a bad thing anyway). What they both have in common is a desire for creating things of beauty. The art-world seems to have a problem with aesthetics – that things can be made just to be beautiful. Tchaikovsky was unapologetic in his desire to make music that was elegant, emotional and beautiful. ‘Big Air Package’, like all of Christo’s other work, doesn’t do anything else – it doesn’t move, or change colour or say anything about the place or materials, or the artists even. It’s just a thing of beauty – and that’s it.

But it’s beauty done really well.

And that’s art.

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