Equinox exhibition

After the intense physicality of the willow basketry module at City Lit just before Christmas, it was a relief to have a break and think about something else.

The submission deadline for the next South London Women Artists exhibition was 6 January, so this provided the perfect opportunity. The theme for the exhibition is “Equinox”, and my original idea was to make some random weave eggs containing felt “yolks”, representing spring. However, an email then arrived saying that all works had to be 2D. So it was back to the drawing board.

An equinox occurs twice a year, around 21 March and 21 September. The March equinox is generally regarded as the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, while the September one is the beginning of autumn. It is so named because the length of the day and night are approximately equal on those dates.

I started thinking about the lengthening days and the warmth of the sun’s rays returning after the dark winter, and had the idea of making a stitched piece representing this. I found a piece of indigo shibori cotton that was roughly half dark, half light, to resemble the Earth, and pinned it to a piece of cream linen.

Then I started stitching.

equinox wip

I decided to use simple kantha (running stitch) to represent the sun’s rays, in differing shades ranging from cream to dark orange.

equinox wip

Kantha stitch also produces a slightly rippled effect, which evokes the oceans.

Kim Winter - And the World Turns detail 1

I left the edges raw, expecting (hoping) they would fray slightly, but in fact they frayed very little.

It was very restful, after wrestling with willow rods, to be able to sit and stitch quietly, even if it took rather a long time! 🙂

Once it was finished, I had the tricky job of mounting it. I didn’t really want to put it behind glass, as I think it deadens it and I didn’t want to lose the texture. So I stitched it to a heavier piece of cotton before stretching it over some stretcher bars and adding backing. This successfully removed the wrinkles without flattening the ripples too much.

And the World Turns by Kim Winter
And the World Turns by Kim Winter

Equinox runs from 3 to 22 March at St Marylebone Parish Church, 17 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LT. The private view is on 4 March, 6-8pm – everyone welcome.

 

Ruth Asawa at David Zwirner

Ruth asawa sculpture

“An artist is not special. An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special.”

Ruth Asawa is best known for her hanging wire sculptures, a technique she learnt on a trip to Mexico in 1947. Her elevation of this method of making functional baskets into creating elemental transparent forms enclosing other forms makes me think of Haeckel drawings brought to life.

She did not have an easy beginning. As a Japanese American, at the age of 16 she was interned by the US government along with the rest of her family after the outbreak of the Second World War. Luckily, after 18 months, a Quaker scholarship allowed her to study to be an art teacher in Milaukee.

ruth asawa sculpture

However, unable to teach due to continued hostility to the Japanese, Asawa travelled to Black Mountain College in North Carolina to study art. Here, among luminaries including Josef and Anni Albers and Buckminster Fuller, she gained the courage to become an artist and to do what she wanted to do. She also met her future husband, architectural student Albert Lanier, with whom she had six children.

Living with Lanier in San Francisco, Asawa managed to carry on working around family life, often at night or in the early morning. It paid off, as she began to get recognition for her sculptures, and was asked to explain them.

“My curiosity was aroused by the idea of giving structural form to the images in my drawings. These forms come from observing plants, the spiral shell of a snail, seeing light through insect wings, watching spiders repair their webs in the early morning, and seeing the sun through the droplets of water suspended from the tips of pine needles while watering my garden.”

ruth asawa sculpture

As well as looping, she also experimented with tied wire to create branching forms.

ruth asawa tied sculptureruth asawa tied sculpture

In the late 1960s, Asawa moved into arts activism, cofounding the Alvarado School Arts Workshop to give schoolchildren the chance to work directly with professional artists. She was later instrumental in building a public high school for the arts in San Francisco in 1982.

“A child can learn something about colour, about design, and about observing objects in nature. If you do that, you grow into a greater awareness of things around you. Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.”

Ruth Asawa died in 2013, five years after her husband.

The exhibition at David Zwirner in London, A Line Can Go Anywhere, includes work spanning more than five decades of Asawa’s career, including drawings as well as sculpture. The exhibition runs until 22 February 2020.

If you miss it, there is another Ruth Asawa exhibition coming up at Modern Art Oxford, from 30 May to 6 September 2020.

Crop at Sarah Myerscough Gallery

Happy new year! My first exhibition visit this year was CROP at the Sarah Myerscough Gallery in south London – a great start.

The exhibition focuses on artists who work with natural materials and traditional craft skills, combined with concern for the environment.

I was initially attracted by the inclusion of work by Tim Johnson, whose exhibition Lines and Fragments I have previously reviewed. More of his fabulous Keeping Time vessels were on show here.

keeping time by tim johnson keeping time by tim johnson

There were other familiar names too. Laura Ellen Bacon’s buff willow bench took pride of place in the window.

muscle memory by laura ellen bacon

Diana Scherer grows textiles from plant roots – her work was featured in the V&A’s Fashioned from Nature exhibition a couple of years ago.

interwoven no 4 by diana scherer

Of the artists that were new to me,  Naoko Serino stood out for her ethereal felted jute sculptures.

rooted by naoko sorinodetail of rooted by naoko sorinoomoi by naoko sorino detail of omoi by naoko sorino

Soojin Kang uses jute too, along with silk and linen, in her wrapped, bound and knotted work.

Pod by soojin kanguntitled by soojin kang

I also loved Caroline Sharp’s delicate pods  made from willow and birch retaining the catkins.

seed capsule by caroline sharp

Not technically part of the exhibition but certainly worth a look are a couple of ceramic vessels by Luke Fuller, who makes layered moulds which burn away during firing, leaving textured pieces reminiscent of rock fractures and geological faults.

luke fuller

CROP runs at the Sarah Myerscough Gallery, The Old Boathouse, 1 White Hart Lane, London SW13 0PX until 31 January 2020.

My first willow baskets

The first term of the two-year City Lit basketry course is over, and I’ve had my first experience of making willow baskets.

Our tutor was Annemarie O’Sullivan, an acclaimed basketmaker who trained at City Lit herself. She has a studio in East Sussex where she grows her own willow.

We started off by making round bases. As most of us were complete beginners we were all fingers and thumbs, but Annemarie was very patient, demonstrating several times and emphasising the placement of the willow and the position of the hands.

willow basket base

The base is supposed to be slightly domed (like an upturned saucer) because when the stakes are put in they will tend to push the base down. So if the base is flat to start with you could end up with a rounded base, which will wobble.

By the end of the first session we had all managed to make at least one base – only to be told that we had to make another three bases for homework! Practice makes perfect I suppose. 🙂

willow bases

Most of these are brown willow (willow with bark on), but the top one is buff willow (willow without bark). All willow needs to be soaked before use, but buff willow takes much less time to soak (a few hours) than brown willow (a few days). And if it’s over- or undersoaked the results are not good. So I had to plan ahead, especially if I wanted a bath!

soaking willow in bath

Next we moved on to staking up – adding the side stakes around which the basket is woven. This involves a sharp knife and requires rather a lot of room if you have 32 stakes protruding from the base like a willow sunray! It becomes more manageable once they are tied up.

staked up

The next stage is upsetting – no jokes please! In fact seeing Annemarie demonstrate this was far from upsetting – it made it seem very easy. Upsetting creates a strong ridge at the edge for the basket to sit on and holds all the stakes in position. It’s usually done with a type of weave called waling, which has a rope-like appearance.

For weaving the sides we used English randing, which is woven with one willow rod per round and produces a slight spiral pattern.

English randing

We were also shown French randing, where all the weaving rods (24 or 32) are inserted at the same time. Again, this requires a lot of room, so I stuck to English randing for practicality!

After two sets of randing we wove a few rounds of waling to strengthen the rim and then added a border by bending the stakes. This is where I discovered that some of the stakes I had used in my early baskets were far too thick, which made them difficult to manouevre without kinking (a cardinal sin) and certainly made the basket seem over-engineered!

basket border

It was much easier when the stakes were not as chunky.

basket border

Finally, it was time to have a go at making handles. This was definitely my least favourite part of the process – it involves a technique called cranking, as demonstrated here by a basketmaker in Ireland, Hanna Van Aelst.

I did finally get the hang of the twisting technique, but my handles still look a bit like afterthoughts. Luckily they can easily be cut off. So don’t expect any of my baskets to have handles! 😉

basket handle

So these were my first three completed baskets.

willow basketwillow basketwillow basket

Willow work is hard on the hands, so I was looking forward to giving them a rest in December.

But as some of you may know, I am a trustee of a local charity, the Friends of Windmill Gardens, which runs tours of Brixton Windmill and other events in the surrounding park. Every year they organise a Santa’s grotto in the windmill and have a festive bake off to encourage people to bake items made with Brixton Windmill flour. The winners get a prize hamper.

You can see what’s coming, can’t you! The chair of the trustees asked if I could make a couple of baskets which could be filled with festive goodies as the prizes. I said I couldn’t do square baskets (apparently they are very difficult), but I thought that making another couple of round baskets would be good practice and help to consolidate what I had learnt. So I agreed to make two baskets, one with a base diameter of 30cm and one of 40cm.

The 40cm basket was by far the biggest I have attempted. Luckily, Annemarie used the size as an example in class of how to work out how many stakes and base sticks you need, and what lengths of willow would be required. So I had some help with the planning.

But making it seemed to go on for ever – it’s big enough to hold a small dog! And it also demonstrated the limits of the size of pieces that can be soaked in the bath. 😉 It’s not a perfect circle, but I’m pretty pleased with it. And I can see a vast improvement in the quality of my bases.

willow basket

After such a mammoth piece I couldn’t face making another base so for the 30cm basket I used a practice base I’d made previously. It wasn’t brilliant, but once the basket has been filled nobody will see it! Here are the two baskets together.

two willow baskets

Plaited basketry at City Lit

Last week we finished the first module of the two-year basketry course at City Lit. The subject was plaiting, and the tutor was Polly Pollock. I missed the first week because I was on holiday in Uzbekistan, so as soon as I got back it was straight into a marathon strip-cutting session!

We started off with watercolour paper, as it is strong but flexible. However, we were encouraged to experiment with other materials and also to add overlays (extra elements threaded through after weaving the main basked) to add colour and texture.

The three main techniques we covered were bias plaiting, straight plaiting and skewed forms. We combined these with different borders – zigzag, flat and sandwich and sew.

Here are some of my practice samples made with bias plaiting using khadi paper, an old map, newspaper cordage and vinyl wallpaper.

bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl bias plaited bowl

Here’s a straight plaited vessel made with watercolour paper.

straight plait vessel

And here’s a skewed vessel, also made with watercolour paper.

skewed vessel

For our final module assignment we had to make a series of three related pieces using some or all of these techniques, inspired by the modern architecture of Rotterdam.

I have to admit that this was a bit of a challenge for me, as my inspiration usually comes from natural rather than human-made forms. But even I got drawn in by the weird and wacky architecture of this Dutch city.

Here are the results, all made with watercolour paper, damp proof membrane and flattened corrugated cardboard.

plaited basket plaited basket plaited basket

I have to admit that the third piece, of a vessel within a vessel, was actually inspired by another building in London, and its spiky “haircut” was just a piece of whimsy on my part (though I could argue it’s supposed to be a roof garden 😉 ). It’s also not really tall enough, but I ran out of paper and time as it had to be finished for evaluation last week.

I really enjoyed this first module. It was quite intense – and hard work cutting all the strips! – and moved me out of my comfort zone.

This week we move on to willow, which I suspect will also be challenging!

Suzanis of Uzbekistan

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Uzbekistan visiting cities of the former Silk Road, including Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

The Islamic architecture was stunning. But this is a textile blog, so I am going to focus here on suzanis, which are large embroidered panels originally made by nomadic tribes in central Asia.

Traditionally, every girl had to produce 10 suzanis as part of her dowry – not an insignificant task. To make it easier, the base fabric was made up of narrow strips, which were sewn loosely together and the pattern drawn on them. Then they were taken apart again so that family and friends could each work on individual strips. When they were joined together at the end the pattern didn’t always match perfectly, as you can see in some of the photos.

The main stitches used were basma (also known as Bukhara couching) and tambour (chain stitch done with a small hook). Basma was used to cover surprisingly large areas – from a distance it can look like fabric appliqué and you only realise it’s actually stitched when up close.

According to the Museum of Applied Arts in Tashkent, there were 11 different schools of embroidery across Uzbekistan, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. Each had their own style and motifs. Flowers and star medallions are particularly popular, along with fruit (especially pomegranates) and vines.

At the beginning of the 20th century the process of tambour stitch was mechanised, replacing a lot of hand embroidery. Sellers of modern suzani are usually happy to say whether a piece is machine embroidered.

The natural dyes of indigo, madder, cochineal, pomegranate and walnut were also replaced by synthetic dyes in the 20th century, though some workshops are now returning to natural dyes, which are considered to give more intense hues.

Suzanis were used in yurts to protect belongings, or as seating, sheets or prayer mats, so not many old ones survive. The oldest examples are from the late 18th century, but they were almost certainly in use before then.

However, there are lots of colourful modern pieces wherever you go in Uzbekistan, so there is no shortage!

Finally, to finish, just a few pics of Samarkand – a very special place.

Wandsworth Artists’ Open House 2019

I’m delighted to be taking part in Wandsworth Artists’ Open House for the first time this year with my friend Emma Gibson. The event runs over the first two weekends in October.

Emma makes beautiful handmade contemporary jewellery.

She works mainly in silver, combining traditional and experimental techniques to produce bold pieces, which often retain the texture of the hammers used to forge them.

Emma allows for an element of chance in her work so that even if a design is repeated each piece remains individual.

I will be showing and selling some of my basketry work – another first for me!

I will also have my latest batch of upcycled indigo and ecoprinted accessories and clothing.

When: 5-6 October and 12-13 October, 11am-6pm
Where: 46 Drakefield Road, London SW17 8RP

Hope to see you there!

First Time Felting review

There are many craft books around these days that are project-led, showing pretty things that you can make once you’ve mastered a particular technique. These are great for inspiration and showing beginners what they can aspire to – but they can also be frustrating if they skimp on technique in favour of result.

first time felting by ruth lane

So it’s refreshing that First Time Felting: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide by Ruth Lane prioritises technique above all else. I think this is particularly important with felting, where even the apparently simple process of pulling off a small piece of fibre from wool tops can be tricky.

I should declare an interest here. I’ve never met Ruth Lane in person, but we follow each other’s blogs and I have written guest posts for the Felting and Fiber Studio, for which she is one of the co-ordinators. But the review below is my honest opinion.

The book is divided into needle felting and wet felting – sensible, as they are completely different techniques. Each process is broken down step by step with accompanying photos, making it very easy to follow.

Throughout the book Ruth also gives extra tips on technique, highlighted in tinted boxes. These cover everything from how to remember which way you turn the felt to blocking the finished piece so that it holds its shape.

It starts with an overview of different types of wool and embellishments, which is very helpful, though perhaps a photo showing the difference between wool batting and wool tops might have been useful for beginners (there is an extensive glossary at the back that explains all the terms used).

first time felting

I would also like to have seen a mention of Bergschaf wool, which is popular in Europe (and increasingly popular in the UK), but maybe this is difficult to source in the US.

There is essential health and safety advice – not just on how to avoid stabbing yourself with a felting needle, but on posture (avoiding hunching) and working on the correct height of table when wet felting. Many felters suffer from back problems, so it’s important to try to develop good habits from the outset.

I’m obviously not an absolute beginner when it comes to wet felting, but the book starts with needle felting, a technique that I use only occasionally, usually for covering a wool core. And then I usually wet felt it afterwards. 😉

So I learnt a lot from this section, from how to make a flat shape to deep needling attachment techniques and how to make bendable joints. For more advanced shaping Ruth also covers felting around a wire armature and string jointing, using a teddy bear as an example.

The section on wet felting is equally comprehensive, covering the basics like laying out, wetting down, the pinch test and rolling. I also learnt for the first time about palming – so even experienced felters can get something out of it!

There is also advice on special techniques for nuno felting, dealing with edges and seams, and mosaic or collage felting.

In short, this is a book that offers beginners a solid grounding in felting techniques – and even more experienced felters may learn a thing or two!

First Time Felting is published by Quarto Books and costs £12.99. But if you’re quick they’re running a giveaway over on Felting and Fiber Studio, so you could win your own copy!