A Natural Curiosity

I am starting to work on a new theme of ‘cabinets of curiosities’ with my fibre arts group.
I have been interested in the original meaning of ‘cabinet’ which was a small room containing favourite people who would advise and fund kings and leaders. These cabinets were not welcomed by ordinary people or by those who were not part of the ‘in crowd’ but we now associate cabinets positively with our treasures and prized possessions.

I have realised that I have a few little cabinets around my home which I cherish, not only for the things in side but for the cabinet itself.  They are all wood, and all have a little story to tell.  This one is my grandfather’s tobacco cabinet:

A few thoughts started to come together recently when contemplating what constitutes a room. I now live in a small area called Hall Bower, and the word ‘bower’ means ‘a pleasant, shady place under trees’. Could a bower be a room? The original hall and trees have long since disappeared – I still have access to some nice walks through trees although most of the land is now fields. Then there is the rather amusing and very hard-working bower bird, who has a burning desire to attract his girl by building a lovely ‘room’ with a treasure inside which is usually a brightly coloured curiosity. She is very fussy and often rejects his efforts. As if that was not enough, he also has to put up with other suitors regularly stealing his treasure.
These musings have led me to start developing ideas for small bower houses which will act as ‘rooms’ to shelter various natural curiosities, celebrating my enduring love of trees and woods.
I have imagined these little houses all lined up in a hazy vision of wonderfulness but know that a lot of mess, hard work and wondering about what is lying in front of me on the table will be the reality. I have enough trust in the process to know that something will occur though, and me and mess, well that’s a match made in heaven…

Walking down the lane at home, I looked at a few silver birch trees one late afternoon. They stand in front of the distant Pennines where the sun sets. This day, the sky was a watery grey with the sun just a haze behind them. On the ground, a line of bright yellow daffodils contrasted with these silhouetted shapes. I still have the picture in my head, and I decided this would be the inspiration for my first bower house. I sketched out the image and thought I’d look at using the trunks as strong lines of design. I realised that my little bits of sari strips, edge-dyed for a previous project, would be fun to play with. I also wanted to capture the yellow and green so I painted some calico as an experiment. Whilst the resulting trial had some potential, it was too literal. It takes me a long time and several goes at something to sufficiently abstract inspiration to a pleasing level.

I decided that the texture of the bark would be better – to come in closer. I planned to reference the yellow inside the cabinet, possibly on the floor of the bower house. Whilst I wanted it there as part of the memory, it didn’t need to be prominent, it could be somewhere else. Repositioned.  

So then I got me a pile of papers, inks, stringy bits and glue. The dining room table disappeared, along with the floor. I wet the muslin base and painted a bit of black. Probably not the best move. It smudged everywhere when I layered things on top. Some white, more glue, more paper, more mess…

I was certain that this was going to be a disaster. It was so soggy I thought it would all fall off the towel rail it was lolloped over. But I also know sometimes a pile of yuk can be salvaged….

I just had to have a little test of it when I stepped out to the loo in the early morning. As you do. Still there, waiting for a new day’s rescue mission.

Him Indoors bears with all this terribly well. I held my bit of stuff up and turned it round. I could tell it was going to be alright. I showed him in my delight. The look said ‘Very nice, dear’ in the same tone of voice my grandma used when she was called to admire my bits of childhood faffings. I’d show him, he would recognise this as silver birch bark sooner or later.

I rolled some white acrylic over it all resulting in marked indifference on my part. So, I burnt it. I singed it with a heat gun which gave it it uneven brown patches where the paper took. Much happier. Then I applied little bits of tissue which had been soaked in sepia ink over night. These were added to represent bits of peeling bark. I slashed some areas of white and opened up the slits to add some black ink. A few long hand stitches were added before using machine stitch to highlight contrasting areas. The free motion stitching in dark brown picked out the the texture of the bark. Ta dah! I took it to Him Indoors with a look signalling the requisite praise expected. Let’s just say he is still alive and well.

At this point, I was working in a holiday let. It was an old Victorian house on Anglesey and it had a coal fire. On a daily basis, jackdaws would pop a few twigs down the chimney, hopeful they would start a nest. I found the twigs quite interesting. All a similar type, width and length, and all quite wiggly in nature. Him Indoors wanted them for kindling but I have other plans for them. I amused myself thinking that both I and the jackdaws were bringing the trees into a house to make another tiny house with the trees. Something here about nests within nests, shelters within shelters, which will hopefully become another little bower house.

I haven’t used sepia ink before and I think I prefer walnut ink for its colour and translucency.  This sepia ink was thick and cloudy.  I took it along to try some calligraphic mark making which was the usual disaster and re-confirmed that this was not for me.  It did colour the paper and muslin well though, and leaves materials softer than when paint.  Ink comes from such unusual sources; I’m having a go at making oak gall ink at the moment.  But sepia, well we have the secretions of the common cuttlefish to thank for that one.  I’m now  picturing trying to squeeze or constantly taunt a cephalopod.  Actually, the ink sacs are collected when the animal is killed, so that’s a bit unsettling.   However, many are collected by fishermen who use squid as bait.  The ink sacs are dried and sent off to be processed.  Sepia ink is a form of melanin and scientists have found fossilised ink dating back millions of years.  It can still be used as an effective pigment.   The things you learn!

I also tried a bit of monoprinting by smooshing some black acrylic on an old OHP and adding a plop of PVA. The tissues just sucked it up but made nice backgrounds, the calico was great for drawing on so I had a go at leaf shapes and other things. Cotton organdie was also nice, a bit sucky uppy though so it needed a light touch.

I left them to dry and then painted over with Kohinoor. The leaves had some potential when placed on the green tissue and the organdie was a revelation – the reverse was lovely, giving a bit of a see-through effect but it’s a bit hard to show that in a photo. I decided to stitch it a bit. I need to spend some time practicing this more…

I thought about being sheltered under trees and looking up though them to the sky. I think trees are at their most beautiful when set against a blue sky. But when it came to playing with a bit of blue, I was taken with the idea of the blue of the sea and driftwood catching all the beach items, like shells and seaweed and netting etc. I think I may try something with a plain exterior and something more fancy on the inside. I love these marks that some wet muslin left behind. I kept the paper and discarded the fabric!

I now have a few things to take a bit further all being well, and a bag of sooty jackdaw twigs to cherish like a mad woman.

This time has allowed me to think about shelter in new ways: the shelter of a holiday, of a house, a mother’s arms, watching the sheep shelter against rocks and walls, swallows and jackdaws building nests and a moment to contemplate those for whom shelter is lacking or where their bower is a cardboard box for the night.

I wonder, too, where our cabinets of curiosities really exist? In posting this, I feel one more curiosity has found its place into ‘folioandfibre’ which is definitely one of mine.
Could the memories in our heads be one?  The glove compartment in the car or the ubiquitous ‘man-drawer’?  I will leave you to think about some more.

And I recently finished my birch bower house.  I found a pleasing resolution to the yellow I wanted:

Finally, if you would like to see Hillstone’s ‘Noticeable Edges’ exhibition, please use this link:

Noticeable Edges

9 thoughts on “ A Natural Curiosity

  1. Oh how I look forward to your posts, this one has made my Sunday. I like hearing and seeing your thought processes and it gives me lots of inspiration. I would have loved to have seen your first exhibition if I’d have known about it and my husband was very taken with it. He said he would have driven up to Harrogate to see it as yesterday I dragged him into Birmingham in order to see the Prism exhibition at RBSA and he was not impressed! but from what he could see of your exhibition it would have been worth the miles to see it. I look forward to further exhibitions and will certainly make an effort to get to them, please pass on my good wishes to the group.

  2. I loved reading this so much I am going to share it on FB with my Australian textile artist friends. Thank you and go girl!

Leave a Reply to Rachael Singleton Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s