Concealed paths

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At my last crit I had received mixed feedback about the piece Mysterious Paths, which I had taken on the chin, putting the piece to the back of a pile in my studio. Since then, I had worked furiously to produce other pieces, turning my emotions into energy which I had used in a positive way. However, all the while I had felt dissatisfied, having to conform by disregarding this piece, which sickened me every time I cast my eyes on it.

I was thinking about how to sum up what I had been doing with all of my other pieces…poetry, walking, using natural materials, trapping some of these in ice and wax…concealing layers and fragments…and then I had a thought about a way that I might be able to salvage this piece, making it less “obvious”, as had been mentioned in the crit. After all, I had nothing to lose, and didn’t want to be precious about leaving the piece as it stood.

I began by trying a few experiments to conceal various natural materials in layers of tissue paper; soil, ashes, a thistle and some Usnea lichen. My first few attempts failed…I had wet my brush before using Pva, and the tissue broke each time. Slowly I got the knack of the technique, brushing the glue on very slowly, and using a hairdryer to speed up the drying process.

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Concealing Usnea lichen between layers of tissue paper

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The same piece with Usnea lichen, held up to the window

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A jagged, painted thistle trapped between tissue

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The results were interesting; the PVA coating had giving the tissue more translucence, and this was especially apparent when held up to the light. Having become more confident in using the tissue and glue, I took the decision to cover over the found objects in the piece – on each of 16 square canvas boards.

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I began with the easier ones- the small stones and pebbles, then worked up to the more complicated pieces…which will remain a secret! I used a hairdryer each time, and not only did this speed up the drying process, but it actually seemed to make the tissue stretch tightly, so that it resembled a kind of skin, with foreign bodies pushing hard against it in an attempt to break through.

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I felt this was quite apt, as I was trying to show the present and the absent; the invisible landscape, the hidden paths, the concealed layers of nature and events which shaped the site, the clues waiting to be unearthed…

I really feel much more content with this piece now, and feel that covering the objects has made it stronger conceptually, and more interesting (and less obvious) aesthetically. It gives me a calm serene feeling, yet begs the viewer to touch it (gently!) and to enquire just what is underneath the “skin”.

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Hoof prints

Having experimented recently with painting from mud, soils and ash, I wanted to try making marks which involved walking, and I came up with the idea of attaching paper to the soles of my shoes, hoping that it would capture some traces and impressions of my walk.

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I used an old pair of sandals with thick soles, and found a pack of Khadi paper, and set about fixing it to the shoes using drawing pins.

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It seemed like perfect weather to try this, wet and rainy, so there would be plenty of mud I reckoned. I drove to Birnam, and headed up the Inchewan path, one of my favourite places to walk.

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I took a few photos of the rain on the delicate foliage on the way up…

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The wall on the way up the path is like a mossy carpet…in fact the whole walk is probably the mossiest I have every been on.

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Delicate young ferns covered in raindrops

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     A really wet, lush, green environment…with the sound of a fast flowing stream and lots of very fresh air…just beautiful

I walked up the path until I reached a decent patch of mud, and proceeded to swap my crocs for the paper-soled sandals, which I wore to squelch through very wet mud.

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My first attempt was a bit over zealous…I completely ruined the paper, tearing a big hole into it, and realised that I had walked too far for the paper to survive. My next attempt was a bit better, the paper had a slight rip in it, but was still useable. Some of the mud that I stepped in was so wet that the prints showed very little colour, although the patterns on the soles of my sandal created a nice embossing on the paper. I also tried walking over moss a few times, but it barely showed, instead I seemed to gather fragments of leaves and bark.

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A few walkers passed me on route, stopping to watch what I was doing. I felt like I was doing a performance, and realised that I should have “killed two birds with one stone”.

Further up the path, there was slate from the nearby hill which had slid down and was lying in piles in reddish looking puddles. The soil here seemed different, in colour certainly, and this might have something to do with the minerals I am guessing.  The soil here printed a very different colour, a light red/brown, and I felt excited about the contrast that this would give against the previous prints.

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A strong result…and a much lighter, redder soil

I also walked down toward the stream, where the terrain was gravel and sand, and this also gave a similar red/brown colour.

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As I changed the papers on my shoes, the removed papers were left at the side of the path, to be collected on my way down. I met a few walkers on the way, and told them that the papers weren’t litter, just incase they felt it their duty to remove them.

I made my way down the hill, and luckily all of the prints were still where I left them. On my walk back to the car, I came across some fallen tree trunks, and noticed the same black, wiry fibres I had seen growing inside a piece of bark a few months ago. I stopped to peel a few from the trunk, sure that I might be able to use them for something interesting.

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Interesting string-like fibres attached to the fallen bark of a tree…what I now know to be rhizomorphs of Armillaria, a type of fungus.

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I’m already seeing mapping possibilities in this amazing natural fibre…

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I headed home to dry them (and myself) off, apprehensive to see the results of my walking/prints.

Once back in the studio, I used the hairdryer to dry the papers, and also removed some of the larger chunks of soil which has been stuck next to the drawing pins.

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Some of the marks are really quite beautiful, although they are a bit paler since they have dried. I am still considering how best to use these, although I have a feeling that they will end up as a book.

I’m also keen to try a few experiments with the Armillaria, and am especially excited by the fact that it might have bioluminescent qualities!

Painting with Natural Pigments

I wanted to experiment with something a bit more messy and natural, and using soil seemed an appropriate medium in terms of mapping the landscape. I have come across a few contemporary art cartographers who use earthy pigments in the creation of their maps; Chris Drury and Sally Darlison. I emailed them, sending them a questionnaire to answer for research for my essay, and was delighted to receive replies very promptly.

Chris is an environmental artist who works in a variety of media, from small paper based- works to large site specific installations. I came across him in an excellent book by Katherine Harmon; The Map as Art, which has been my bible of late for the work that I have been doing and researching.

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Tumulus and Dew-pond (2012)

His maps Tumulus and Dew-pond (2012), are beautiful, intriguing geometric patterns which have been woven from existing maps of locations that he wished to “marry” together as he felt they had something in common. They were pushed into concave and convex bowls to give them a 3-dimensional quality. I was interested by the fact that Chris stains his maps with soils, and natural materials found at sites, which have even included sheep droppings! To me, these maps have the sophistication and beauty of an oriental surface pattern, and at a first glance I could picture these on the robes of a Chinese emperor. I love the fact that he thinks three–dimensionally, acknowledging the raised Tumulus and the hollow of the Dew pond, yet the latter is almost an optical illusion, which could be either concave or convex, as a floating bubble.

Sally Darlison’s maps are quite different; they are bright, scorching records of her journey to the north of Australia. She mixes a variety of media, using fabric and thread dyed with the soil on the journey in the making of many of these pieces.41-e1308802417856

In Alice Colours (above) you can almost feel the burning heat of this dry Australian landscape. Her compositions are bold and attractive, the choice of colour palette apt for the areas she is illustrating.

Wanting to have a go at using pigments myself, I gathered a few jars of soils from different locations, and also some ashes from the open fire.

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I had looked online to try to find out how to make natural pigments, and firstly I noticed that many artists had used PVA as a binder. I began to mix soil into the PVA, which I have to say was horrible…texturally it was almost impossible to stir, worse than overcooked porridge!

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I began by loosely copying a map which I had made into an artists book – inspired by a walk up Inchewan Path. I was actually quite impressed with the difference in colours, even though I hadn’t prepared the pigment “properly” by using a pessel and mortar.

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Mud map Experiment 1

From different angles, I could see the raised texture of the soils, which the PVA had encouraged. These looked like views of an imaginary landscape or a path that was beckoning to be followed.

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This one (above) looks like an aerial view of barren, rugged mountains

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After more internet research, I came across the website of Sabine Brosche, who mentions other binders, such as Gum arabic, egg and linseed oil. Having some linseed oil in the studio, I decided to give this a go. It felt much more natural to use, and allowed the pigments to flow more smoothly. I played around by painting a series of overlapping abstract landscape details to create this Soilscape piece, which was just an experiment really..

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This was just an experiment, but I like the way the linseed oil made the flow of soil painting easier. One more piece I mad was a combination of soil painting and drawing, inspired by the poetry sculpture I had made a while ago… I painted  it from different angles using the soil pigments and also Quink ink, as I wanted to create a darker contrast. IMG_6581IMG_6584I then drew some details of the sculpture in pencil, over the looser painted lines. I wanted to create a small tight ball at the top which was unravelling as it tumbled down to Earth.

These pieces are all just experiments; playing with a medium which is too often overlooked, which we walk upon each day, and never give a second thought until it annoys us by dirtying our floors or clothes.

It is something I will try more in future, but with more patience. I think I will invest in a pessel and mortar, and also have ago at other binders, as suggested by Sabine Brosche. In terms of mapping, I think it is probably the most apt and relevant medium that any artist could use, as it gives a real sense of the environment and the site in question.

Weeping Words

A few months back, I was discussing my photos of ice with Angela and I mentioned that I wanted to experiment with it more as a medium, by freezing fragments of found objects within it.

Recently I have been exploring ways of presenting some poetry that I have written, and I thought that it would be an opportunity to combine the two by freezing poetry with fragments of nature that I have collected.

I have some spherical ice moulds into which I placed small pieces of moss, lichen, ashes, soil, stones etc., along with poetry which had been cut into strips. I made 10 of these and popped them into the freezer, placing thread inside them before sealing them up.

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Filled up and ready to freeze

When they were all frozen, I waited for sun to come out, and headed off to a small copse of trees not to far from home. I needed to work quickly, as I knew they would begin to melt soon.

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After finding a few suitable branches, I tied them up fairly close to each other at varying heights, so that I could photograph them as a cluster.

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As the sunlight streamed through the trees at them they began to drip slowly…

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The frozen balls resemble marbles, or even miniature planets…which kind of tie in with my interest in topography…a wee bit

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I left my ephemeral installation to melt away, and will return later to remove any string or paper which might harm the local inhabitants.

Before I left, I took some footage of the ice balls swaying in the wind, like miniature planets in orbit. You can see it below at this link:

Tumulus

The words ‘cairn’ and ‘tumulus’ refer to mounds of earth or stones which cover over prehistoric burial grounds or tombs. Whilst a cairn is a pile of loose rocks and stones, which tends to cover over a single burial, a tumulus is more of an earthwork- a larger scale grassy mound which can often contain large tombs or multiple burials, and can date as far back as the late Neolithic period.

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On the OS map of Comrie, around the River Ruchil area where I had been walking, I saw markings of a couple of tumuli, and they aroused my curiosity. I wondered who (or what) might be buried there, and I began to think of artefacts and bones which might be buried deep below these mounds.

This is another hidden layer of the landscape- without the aid of markings on a map, and a bit of knowledge about burial mounds, an earthwork such as this would be easily overlooked, despite the fact that it had been constructed as a monument to mark the importance of someone’s life.

I was thinking of layers, and burying, and wondering how I could bury fragments or words yet still allow them to be partly visible. I had a bag of wax beads in the studio, and decided to try a little experiment with them. When melted, I poured the hot wax onto paper, playing with it by allowing it to dry a little, then adding more on top. I love the semi-translucence of the wax – it allows you to see a glimpse of what is inside, yet obscures at the same time.

I had some earth which I dug up in Comrie, and small stones from the banks of the Ruchil. I decided to put these into the melting pot, and mix them in to the molten wax.

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I also mixed in some of the river gravel which I had collected 

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 The mixture was then poured onto canvas, left to dry, before more layers were poured on topIMG_5556

I was trying to create my own little burial mound on canvas

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The wax feels gorgeous to touch…a really beautiful medium to work with

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It now resembles the contours of an earthwork, although not quite as precise as those of Charles Jencks!

I left the wax mound for a few days, but realised that it would not be a piece which would last long, as the wax had cracked on one of the edges. Wanting to retain the translucent qualities of the wax, yet preserve the contours that it had created, I covered the piece with one layer of tissue paper and PVA glue.

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When dried, the wax was still visible through the tissue, as were the contours.

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The background was painted white, to give a contrast between the opacity of the canvas and the glassy appearance of the mound.  I think that the result is interesting, and I like the fact that the earth and stones are buried inside the wax, sealed in but still visible through the layers of this translucent tumulus.

Playing with shadows (Lichen)

Following on from my last experiment with shadows and fictitious wire maps, I decided to make a map from lichen – this time in the shape of the Braan path and the Hermitage at Dunkeld, where I gathered all the windfall lichen a few months back.

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When the map was complete, I hung it from the ceiling in my studio and tried a few different types of lighting on it.

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Above and below : Soft lighting using an anglepoise lamp 

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Using the torch on the iPhone

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Beautifully dark lacy shadows, but jagged and a bit sinister too

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Huge shadows which swamp the wall…would make a very dramatic installation if I had the right space for it

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These shadows are very powerful, although they don’t have the 3-Dimensional effect that the wire shadows have.  I will also have a go at videoing the map rotating, as it would be interesting to see how the shadows work with movement.

Playing with Shadows (Wire)

I’ve been experimenting lately with the use of shadows in my work, using “drawings” that i have made from wire and lichen – materials which allow light to stream through their negative spaces to create interesting effects.

Traditionally, the shadow can symbolise many things…darkness, evil, a ghost, a doppelgänger, an alter ego, or a false sense of reality.

In Plato’s Allegory of the cave, the people who are chained up and are forced to look at the wall, away from the light, perceive shadows to represent reality; as they have never seen the objects which cause the shadows.  To the viewer of the wall, all of reality is represented by shadows – a very skewed sense of reality.

Plato likens himself (as a philosopher) to a freed prisoner, who has “seen the light” of reality. He speaks of being blinded by the sun when he leaves the cave – this refers to the reaction of some when their beliefs are challenged or proved wrong…preferring instead to retreat back to their “prison” of what they knew before rather than to accept their new found knowledge or enlightenment.

Personally, this story raises mixed emotions – when wandering through familiar landscapes memories come flooding back. I think of how sometimes I would like to retreat back into the past…to happy, carefree times with no responsibilities, when my parents were younger and healthier, when I felt attractive and excited about what the future might hold. But the flip-side to this is the reality, the enlightenment, the ageing process, and the realisation of mortality.  For this reason, I feel that working with shadows is important to my practice – their ephemeral qualities also relates to some (but not all) of the materials I use, such as the lichen, ice and plants.

The first experiment of shadow maps I made was using the wire drawings of details in the landscape, which were grouped together and hung up before a torch was shone at them.

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One of the wire drawings which made up my part of my fictitious map

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First attempt at illuminating the wire using a small torch

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 Using the torch on an iphone…the shadows become much stronger

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   The shadows seem like they are engulfing the small space, blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality

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The shadows are definitely more dominant than the wire and when the torch is moved they seem as if they are a living and breathing entity

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The ephemerality of the shadows also resounds with the fact that these maps are purely fictional, although they have been created from existing features on the walks that I sketched. They echo the landscape which is transient and ever evolving through erosion, development, the forces of nature and the events which have shaped it and are continuing to do so.