An Arts Council England and Lottery funded project
I wanted to record the project that kept me busy last year and I’m going to start by saying you will hear a lot about line. It’s the title of the piece and the spine of my project, so with that, let’s begin.
Back in 2020 as the pandemic was in full swing, I came across the opportunity to apply for the Developing Your Creative Practice Arts Council grant. As soon as I read about the possibility, I knew it might be for me and I went to bed that day and woke up in the morning with a proposal fully hatched. I was very excited to be accepted just before Christmas 2021. Whether at work or home, personal and professional practice development is a strong driver for me – I have enjoyed teaching and coaching others in their development for many years and writing and reflecting about my own art practice.
The project had two aims, 1) to develop my construction skills, with a focus on translating a textile surface to a new discipline of bronze casting 2) to provide a step change and time to apply learning which would support a future exhibition.
I already have existing relationships with Kim Thittichai and Krystyna Pomeroy, two well-known artists living on the Loop Head peninsula, County Clare, Ireland and Krystyna has particular connections to Kilbaha Foundry as she is also a sculptor. Kilbaha Foundry where I worked with Seamus Connolly and Adam Pomeroy; it is also physically close to my friends, making a residency in Ireland good use of travel funds. As well as creating the bronze, I received mentoring in plastics, willow and card as part of my skills development.
The pandemic meant that all my usual workshops and talks as well as other social engagements ceased and I had time as never before. I could receive early mentoring as effectively via on-line platforms and over the phone as face-to-face, although this was harder towards the end. So despite distressing and difficult times, the pandemic provided a perfect opportunity for personal learning, and like many others, creativity and the goal of having such a project to work towards was like throwing a lifeline. The week’s residency came at the end, the culmination of working alone for 10 months.
I initially thought I would create a pair of small sculptures – I like creating pieces that can offer some interaction and I was interested in the idea of different sides, yin and yang, male and female. I spent time researching and these are some of the very first hasty sketches I did to send to Seamus.
Here you can see early ideas for textiles to be applied on the outside and inside of two shapes, and the working title of the project was ‘Cast Aside’. I needed to know from the outset how big a sculpture could be for the funds I had, and this depended in part on the complexity of the shapes and moulds needed.
I gradually became interested in the pas de deux as a way to express some of the ‘two sides’ of things. I find dancing difficult if I’m honest, and I naively thought it would be a good way to explore a sense freedom in dance through artistic expression. Of course, ballet is the complete opposite – the constraint, rules and rigour of the dance are overwhelming and men and women have traditionally not been allowed to dance each other’s steps although this is changing. The thing that struck me most was the lack of women choreographers in the world of ballet. I wanted to ‘choreograph’ my pieces and even more so now as a protest to this lack of equity. I also wanted a piece where the male and female elements had equal presence – a balance of power.
During mentoring conversations, I also came to consider the marrying of stitch – even now viewed as domestic and lowly in the hierarchy of arts – with bronze sculpture, a discipline towards the top. Perhaps the very act of casting stitch was also a protest?
As I worked with ideas, the discipline of sculptural design started to shape my thinking and I left behind the idea of choreography as this began to take centre stage: sculptures that I find most arresting are simple but exquisite forms, the eye is drawn to this first then seeks further detail. So the questions became, ‘How to abstract some of these ideas to create a piece that is visually pleasing in form, then draws the eye in with the stitched detail?’ And at the same time ‘What of my initial ideas to I want to remain?’
I kept working with the notion of the pas de deux, but now the search for echos of the ballet holds alongside finding a graceful line took hold – I wanted a sense of movement and sweep of the arms. Iterations took a long time – lots of sketches, thinking and plastic clay maquettes, until one little sketch spoke to me. It was an abstraction of the male and female in a pose with arms sweeping gracefully backwards as I saw it, and it was one piece made of two elements.
This spoke of body-line, simplicity of form, movement, two sides and contrast; form first, then stitch detail supporting the design. In the end, the two elements were of unequal size but without each, the sculpture would not have been as successful and in that sense, although different in size, they balance each other and each carries their own voice. I recognise both voice and dualism as fundamental parts of my personality and it was interesting to reflect on this throughout the project.
Running parallel to design, I needed to understand more about what types and sizes of stitch could be translated into bronze. I worked on small samples which were glued to heavy interfacings so that I could see which stood proud as they would when applied to a surface. These were sent to Ireland for advice. One of the main considerations was not creating stitch where the wax would run beneath in any way, as it would pull away and break. This was quite a challenge, and I asked specifically about French knots as I love to use these – more about how they came out later.
So you can see already, that finding the line was at the centre of the early stages.
Next came holding the line.
Krystyna was instrumental in helping me understand what materials might be possible to use and in working out a trial form. As the idea was to apply fabric to a form I needed a way to construct the sides which could be covered, and it needed to be a certain thickness for casting. The solution was to use grey board with small pieces of corrugated card sandwiched between them.
The board was quite difficult to work with in that it needed to be fairly thick when scaled to size. Having said that, paper and card can be stroked into shape and a combination of many sessions coaxing it slowing into a twisted from eventually paid off. I found I could spritz the board with a little water to help it bend, but had to be really careful as too much makes it lose its strength and integrity as the card pulp expands. It was also susceptible to creasing and I wanted a smooth line. I spent many hours holding and turning the card and leaving it wedged against things to persuade it to hold its twist.
Once the basic form started taking shape, I turned my attention to stitch. I sketched all sorts of patterns that could be stitched arising from thoughts about twisting, turning, stepping and travelling etc. I also sketched many versions of lines onto the stitched areas and/or filling these with different stitches. Originally I had thought the stitch would be really varied, but nothing looked right. I looked back at my small model which had some raised wallpaper on sections denoting where stitch would be applied. The wallpaper pattern was very much simpler, and I could see that the stitched surface wanted something that complimented the lines of the sculpture and didn’t fight with them. In the end, I only used a type of satin stitch and French knots to create texture. Long broken lines travelled down the two sections with additional patches of texture from the French knots.
The sculpture kept demanding simplicity – of form, of design and of stitch. I look back at the long process of finding the ‘spine’ of it all and everything that went into ideas which were regularly shed so that I ended up with a simple abstracted form echoing my intentions.
After such a long period of trialling and testing, I was quite nervous about committing to the final piece. It was towards the end that virtual mentoring became more difficult. I needed to ask a range of questions and I am truly grateful for all the conversations and liaison that Krystyna did between the foundry and myself.
When I stitched the final fabric, there was definitely an element of discipline, repetition and rhythm. I found it pleasing to notice similar aspects to the discipline of dance and was aware of the sense of labour in both. I had to make pencil marks across and down the fabric as a grid guideline so the stitching would travel in the right direction on the piece – having a twist in the piece made this curvature more challenging. Having a twist in it made everything more challenging!
The shape of board which went on the inside was slightly different to the one on the outside due to the twist, and when I eventually applied the fabric, I had to fill in little areas of stitch where the twist meant that that, too, twisted as it was applied. This was wrapped around both sides and glued under. I had tested a sample and realised that where thread was left between areas, it showed up as the calico was firmly glued onto card. So immediately before gluing, I turned the fabric over and snipped off the main joining threads between patches to lessen this effect, knowing that the glue would hold everything in place.
Once the sides were completed, there was a gap between the two when secured and I used plaster of Paris to fill this. I also used it to cover the foot area which I had built up following advice from the Foundry as a metal spike would be needed to go into any base. Layers of glued greyboard were given a few coats which was then sanded.
All through this process, I had to manhandle the sides into shape, hold them together and constantly re-assess the twist and angle so that when plastered they would be correct. I had to literally hold the line repeatedly to ensure it was as I wanted, balanced as much as possible on its foot and that it would be pleasing.
So now to casting my line.
What excitement to be able to cast something! Mind you, I was so anxious to actually fly to Ireland given the pandemic situation but all was well, My sculpture was packed into the middle of my case covered in copious bubble-wrap between my clothes. I had the delight of being shown around the foundry and hearing about the process, then being there for an afternoon as the silicon was applied.
A ‘lost wax’ method was used for casting. This involves coating the form in silicon and then in plaster, cutting apart, removing the form and re-filling with wax. This wax from becomes the positive mould that has tubes for venting attached. Imperfections are sorted out at this point and a maker’s mark added. This is again encased and goes in the furnace for the wax to be ‘lost’. Finally, the plaster mould is filled with the molten bronze.
Once cool, ‘chasing’ take place to remove imperfections, sort out any joins and ensure the final product matches the artist’s original.
Lastly a patina is applied – the bronze quickly dulls to a somewhat nondescript colour so various patinas can be applied to give particular colours.
Mine has an iron oxide patina applied and the areas of raised stitched have been rubbed back to showcase the stitched texture.
Adam and Krystyna graciously allowed me time to play with a small sculpture from and the direct wax method. This is where layers of wax are built up and sculpted directly to then be lost in the furnace. I made a small wren. You can see the drips of wax on the surface. It’s a completely different skill and was quite hard to build them up but this little bird will find a home in my garden.
If I had my time again, I would know so much more and might make different choices. But I will forever look back on this as a time where I grew so much, had an opportunity of a lifetime and positive memories in very difficult times. I have much new knowledge and sense of being able to surmount creative problems with the help of others. I continue to work on creative problem-solving as I make single or small series works but I have a sense of being able to do much more than I thought before, and I am grateful to all who helped me and Arts Council England and the Lottery funding that made this possible.
With particular thanks to Krystyna Pomeroy, and also to Kim Thittichai, Adam Pomeroy, Seamus Connolly and Dave Sykes