Any Abyss – after Baudelaire
I’ve avoided having an easel in my studio so far. It depends what kind of work you are doing, but when I first got the space, I wanted to be free to experiment, to make a mess, to be unrestricted. I like to be able to crouch beside the work, to move around it, to pin stuff up and take it down. Having floor space means space to work bigger and freer, to try out a combination of mediums.
I saw this same joy in the children this week when, by chance, the tables had been removed from the room we use for art and storytelling. This meant space to work bigger and bolder, to try out new ideas. It was entirely natural for them to spread out, alone or in small groups and begin creating with very little prompting from me. I am there to suggest, to oversee, to offer encouragement. To provide safe boundaries and make sure they have the materials. I try to say YES to their ideas, or if something isn’t possible, to find an alternative. We have our central story and characters to fall back on for ideas, but this has expanded into the children’s own stories in mini books they are illustrating.
One boy likes to stand on a chair and tell us an installment of his own story each week. Before the end of the session, everyone gets a chance to share with the group what they have been working on. Most of the group have come back term after term, and there is a comradeship, a familiarity they can fall into. Each term someone may leave, and someone new comes bringing fresh ideas and inspiration.
This week, one boy squeezed out paint combinations, and made these ‘portals’ by rotating a plate on top of the paint.
The premise was: work that explores dark desires, fears & ‘the
forbidden’. Work that investigates or references taboo subjects such as death,
phobias and socially excluded or marginalised groups and individuals is
I find that using exhibition call-outs and deadlines is a good way to get work made and often leads to unexpected results in response to the subject matter. When I started with this topic, I had a very different idea to what emerged. Sometimes, the work decides to go its own way.
As it happens, I didn’t enter this one, as I wasn’t quite happy enough with my final piece. There wasn’t enough time to develop it. But that’s ok. I’m really happy that I tried. Because nothing created is ever wasted. It always leads me somewhere. Even if that is in a whole new direction.
At first I tried to adapt work I was already making. But that didn’t quite work. Then I thought about doing a piece of writing, and that somehow led me to looking at medieval woodcuts of witches dancing with the devil, and how that whole hysteria about people (mainly women) as witches when all they were doing is healing and using their intuition, came from fear.
The monotype I made is based on one of those woodcuts, but I have updated it. I’ve been thinking recently about how choosing to follow the creative calling takes a lot of courage and willingness to take risks. Without that, art has no edge and says nothing new. So my piece perhaps represents choosing to dance with the muse; embracing the wild animus within. I’ve called it The Dance. I think some influences were Angela Carter’s tales and Paula Rego’s prints, and the red dress is also something that stood out for me in Helen Sear’s video piece ‘Company of Trees’.
The sessions that I am running at the lovely new mental health unit Hafan Y Coed have evolved into a combination of writing and art. As this is a new venture for me, it has been interesting to see how the planning of the course translates into practice.
We have taken a generic theme for each session, and this week was ‘weather’. As mindfulness is really useful in cultivating creativity, I’ve tried to incorporate it into the sessions. Learners initially used pictorial prompts as a focus, imagining themselves into various natural scenes, engaging all the senses through a short guided visualization. From this, they did some free-writing – jotting down anything that came to mind without worrying about punctuation or spelling or whether it seemed relevant – anything at all. This free-writing often leads to some unexpected story seeds and associations that can be developed later into a poem or short prose piece.
We read poems by some well known poets relating to the weather, and discussed how we felt about each piece. Then I presented a few examples of expressive art such as Frank Auerbach’s series of drawings he made after walking on Primrose Hill, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s watercolour, ‘Sunrise’.
As we had access to the resources in the art therapy room, there was a good variety of mediums for learners to choose from to create their own weather-inspired art works. Within the work, they could incorporate their favourite words or phrases from those they had written earlier.
Two wonderful landscapes with text, using acrylic paint and coloured pencils.
‘In my studio I work surrounded by things: wire which reminds me of hair, real hair and synthetic; horse- hair, sheep’s wool. Muslin, felt, rope paper: all sorts really. These are works in their early stages, works halfway made, works abandoned and left for a while. Very occasionally, in a cleaned-up space there is a final, finished work attached to a wall, or attached to the floor, or attached to the ceiling.’ – Lois Williams
Exhibition at BayArt by Lois William and Mary Husted. Both artists share an interest in the land and landscape, and a feeling for fragility, tonal range and layering as process and meaning. Mary Husted’s work is strongly located within drawing, while Lois Williams’ incorporates installation, sculpture, as well as drawing.
I particularly liked Lois’ wall of objects of a wabi sabi nature, seemingly rooted in the Welsh landscape. Some of the objects the artist has shaped into hive or nest-like structures, some being of a found quality. They are intriguing and totemic, each with a story, often with echoes of myth, yet also seeming to ‘speak’ to each other across the installation.
I was also drawn to Mary Husted’s boxes containing sometimes a single item such as a feather or collage, and mirrors that refracted them into different forms. The experience of having to peer into the enclosed space evoked a sense of the curiosity of childhood, contemplation of the nature of perception and reality/illusion in interior landscapes.
Below: Mary Husted’s triptych ‘But for a day’, with interior views.
Mary Husted’s Off the Page mixed media collection, and below: Winter book (Chinese folding book).
“My work on the Open Books project has brought me in touch with artists from very different traditions. From the Chinese I have learned a new understanding of positive and negative space and a reverence for the accidental mark. This has fed into my own work and helped me to develop what I call the calligraphy of the ‘found’ or ‘given’ mark. Many of these marks are rubbings from the natural environment. Fragments of these together with drawn ‘made’ marks are combined to roam across pages to hint at rather than to depict the world around me.” – Mary Husted
Lois William’s enigmatic collection of water colours on paper ‘The Dog, the rat’, brought to mind the chance markings of Rebecca Horn in her book ‘Tailleur du Coeur’, a body of etchings sometimes rendered in coffee and wine accompanied by sixteen short texts that seem to describe some sensual encounter between objects and/or body parts and the world beyond.
This weekend, I travelled to Wakefield to see Human Landscapes, the first UK retrospective of the work of the much-overlooked Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow (1926–1973). Powerful, innovative, disturbing, these pieces have dark undertones, which isn’t surprising when you discover that Szapocznikow survived several of the Nazi camps as a teenager, and bouts of severe illness. Her sculptures were born out of trauma, expressing it obliquely for those who could not, while at the same time being an extraordinary affirmation and expression of life and female experience.
She emerged as an artist from the Soviet sanctioning in 1950s Prague, educated originally as a classical sculptor in Paris, rapidly moving into semi-abstract, amorphous forms: huge, organic sculptures, such as ‘Bird’ and ‘Maria Magdalena’. Later, she began using her own body, and that of friends to make casts of body parts, including a particularly poignant full body cast of Pietr, her son. Long haired and naked he lies at a diagonal, suspended in space, recalling the dead Christ in Mary’s arms.
Semi-abstract sculptures from bronze, concrete and iron.
Through casts of the human body, I attempt to preserve in translucent polystyrene the ephemeral moments of life, its paradoxes and its absurdity. (…) I am convinced that among all manifestations of impermanence, the human body is the most fragile. It is the sole source of all joy, all pain and all truth, and this thanks to its ontological poverty, which is as inevitable as it is (at the conscious level) absolutely unacceptable.
Photographs set in polyester resin
Her work centres around the fragmented body; like many post-war artists, she has an acute awareness of the fragility of the body. Bowls of breasts recall Lee Miller’s critique of female objectification in Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy, the 1930 photograph she composed after observing a friend’s mastectomy. I was also reminded of the work of Eva Hesse, known for her pioneering work in materials such as latex, fiberglass, and plastics. Dynamic but mysterious erotic themes are an element shared with Louise Bourgeois for example in her Unconscious Landscape, 1967-68.
“Dessert III”, 1971, dyed polyester, porcelain vase.
Drawings and monotypes.
Sculptures using polyester resin and polyurethane.
The essence of Szapoczikow’s work seemed to lie in the search for completeness that she could only express through fragmentation and abstract juxtapositions. Her feeling that: “The fleeting moment, the trivial moment – these are the only symbols of our earthly existence”.
In the final room of the show, we see at close quarters Szapocznikow’s sculptural manifestations of her body’s invasion by cancerous tumours. Even in her final months, she continued to find innovative ways to express the reality of her experiences. “Recalling the broken statuary of fallen civilisations, Tumours Personified (1971) is the artist’s attempt to own the illness, with a scattering of head-size lumps, bearing her own face.” – Skye Sherwin
I produce awkward objects. This absurd and compulsive mania proves the existence of an unknown, secret gland, necessary for life. Yes, this mania can be reduced to a single gesture within reach of us all. But this gesture is sufficient unto itself , it is the confirmation of our human presence.
My work is difficult as sensation that is felt in a very immediate and diffuse way is often resistant to identification. Often everything is all mixed up, the situation is ambiguous, and sensory limits are erased.
Nothing is definitive in my work. If not the immediate pleasure of feeling the material, of touching and palpating the distinct material of the mud as children do on a riverbank.
_ Alina Szapocnikow, 1972