In February I had my second solo show: Finding the Goddess. Sounds very impressive until I have to justify the huge CV gap between 1996 and 2018! And now it is June, what have I been doing? Lots of fragments, ideas, reading, myriad blog drafts, worrying about money, a trip to Sardinia and a short course in Rhino – a very fluid 3D drafting program which might have potential for different ways of producing sculptures if I can discipline myself to practice.
I made this piece for the exhibition – its current title is Renascence. It is a “glade” of sleeping figures in shades of yellow. I was thinking of dense woodland; the way light creates shades of green according to textures and angles. Leaves which are matt, shiny, soft, brittle or furry make colours on a spectrum of greens from silvery to almost black, with tangents into giddy lime and glaucous blue. I wanted to make a group of flowering figures to represent something hopeful in grey dead February.
My first yellow flowering woman was made in early 2017, in Jan/Feb, a time of year when I often slump into gloom. I have learned to recognise these periods of creative stony ground as part of the process, not to be despaired over but a sign that I need matinee trips to the cinema, flaneuring city walks, shallow pleasures, frivolous spends, lots of socializing. Although, knowing that creative disconnectedness is part of the process doesn't make it any easier to live through.
The bleak season after Christmas is ameliorated by purchases of cheap cut flowers, especially chaste daffodil bundles which quickly abandon modesty and become “jocund company” throughout the house. Narcissi have so many varieties: each week my vase held different shades and shapes, acid, egg yolk or pinky white yellows. Coronas and corollas homogenized or contrasting, with frills or without. Flowering woman was a celebration of daffodil yellow and the hope and knowledge that spring will come (emotionally and seasonally), as well as making an object alternative to my defeated Abject Woman. Renascence (the title comes from an Edna St Vincent Millay poem) attempts to take it further.
Each figure culminates in a trumpet flower lined with tender orificial satin. A mid-wife visitor said they looked like fallopian tubes. Some of the trumpet coronas flop, others brandish. The upper part of the figures are made variously from cotton, linen, velvet, felt and each has a stretchy sagging jersey underbelly. Some of the fabrics
were bought yellow, others dyed to my preferred shades.
Although at times I despaired of the enormity and boringness of the sewing task, it was also a meditation. I initially machine sewed longer seams but found the edges insufficiently "pinched", so had to overstitch by hand. There is no cutting corners! The experience was very sensory: texturally varied, primitive... Some fabrics are a delight to hand sew; a linen weave submits gladly to penetration by needle, whereas peachy velvet rebuffs - requiring a thimble and brute force. I love velvet - something about its capacity to reflect light or shadow according to the angle of its pile, but many people loathe it, it even has its own phobia name "haptodysphoria". The coarse texture of hessian results in bigger, clumsier stitches, and sewing it is accompanied by that distinctive scent of jute: part grass part chemical - vague memories of school in the 70s. Weaveless felt requires a different approach: I gently secure those seams with stitches sent parallel to its surfaces. And pliant calico is so haptically familiar I can't even describe the experience of knowing how to sew it.
Renascence is resistant to being a commodity – the root figures are filled with sand, and horribly heavy, their postures infinitely fluid. They have to "played" back into shape and the group are differently configured each time. I find their sagginess very satisfying, although it can be overwhelming to lift them, there is a risk that the weight of dangling limbs will rip them apart. In my mind were Eva Hesse’s “absurd” groups, and more vividly Barry Flanagan’s late 60s hessian sandbags: inert sausagey piles with titles like “Heap”.
I had to stitch at speed, only 2 months to complete the seven figures I had determined upon. Seven feels like a real gang. Six you can count at a glance. Seven is a prime, an odd number. When I finally put the show up I discovered that sevens predominated – Snake Woman has seven skins, and there are seven parts to the felt piece Falling.
While I make I try not to think too much, not wanting to tie ideas down or take a route determined by logic. The thing is to try and execute without deviating too much from the first imagined shape. But various ideas were circling as I stitched.
I kept recalling the soporific red poppies in the Wizard of Oz: an association triggered perhaps by the yellowness of the making experience: great golden roads of cloth. Journey, transformation, return to where you started.
I had a strange anxiety that they might flower and never wake up. That I might flower and never properly awaken?
Sleep is succumbing to the unconscious, dreams – a daily death. Apparently those short Tudor beds are not due to the diminutive size of their occupants; the Tudors were afraid to sleep lying down because that was the posture of death and adopting it was tempting the grim reaper to snatch them during the night.
Sleeping Beauty: her death curse by modified by the patient twelfth fairy - ameliorated to a century of sleep which contaminates all around her.
Snow White: vitrified sleep, death without decay. Seven dwarfs! Remembering the imagery of the goddess retreat.
Persephone: picked narcissi before being snatched by Hades. Spring flowers and maidenhood. Ovid's Narcissus – gazing at himself in the mirror surface, Powerless Echo his witness, without words of her own.
Yellow is sun. Egg yolk. Honey. Gold.
Yellow is the colour of madness: yellow wallpaper.
Things yellow in age.
Cowards are “yellow”.
I have always been very attracted to images from alchemy – the alembic, the egg, the hermaphrodite king/queen. When I try to "understand" I never get very far but the images have rooted. Black, white, red are the primary colours and sequence. Yellowing is the often ignored penultimate/third stage in the alchemy of Jungian psychology. Melanosis, Leukosis, Xanthosis, Iosis. Shadow, Anima, Animus, Self. James Hillman writes "The yellow brings the pain of knowledge itself. The soul suffers its own understanding.”
This stage seems to be something about remaining in the body, the material world, on the ground - tolerating paradox and not floating off into an ethereal certainty?
The theme of rebirth in Renascence was amplified unconsciously in my selection of other pieces for the show.
Snake woman: her outgrown skin selves sloughed as she ascends. I initially made her as a floor piece and was disappointed, banishing her to the attic until an unfilled wall in The Stone Space recalled her. I had filled her with light polystyrene beads instead of the customary sand: clearly the work wanted to be vertical and I hadn't recognized it. Gravity distorts the hanging skins, transforming the shapes beyond my control.
I showed Mourning Pod too, which embodies another kind of rebirth. In that piece I processed the grief, humiliation and anger of loss. From the ashes of a shattered identity came liberation from stale patterns of making, allowing a merry transgression into new forms.
I read the Sue Monk Kidd's The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and really identified with her connection with the grove - a circle of trees - as a sacred space: Vesta temple in nature.
So am currently working on “Grove” – a piece which is intended to be a destination rather than an object. I tried a green machine embroidered version which was awful and had to be abandoned. Ideally I want it to be big with a canopy to stand under and figures to be surrounded by. But without having a space to show it or the support to realize it (yet!) I am making maquette versions, and playing with geometry.
I have been listening to an audible version of Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees - I find it very difficult to retain facts from just listening but it is very moving to learn about how ancient forests communicate and co-operate - wordlessly but profoundly. In a woodland grove one stands not only under a canopy of branches and leaves, surrounded by pillar trunks, but also above a majestic intercommunicating weave of murmuring roots and fungal networks. I cycle to work now through the avenues of plane trees in Victoria Park and know that I am contained by a living tunnel.