At the end of the ’80s I was in Accra Ghana; cooked food was sold on every street corner – for many, the space and wherewithal for home cooking was not necessarily easily affordable or available. Food was wrapped in a banana palm leaf, pinned with a little wooden spike, and when dinner was finished the leaf was thrown down and eaten straight away by the ubiquitous roaming goats – it seemed like the perfect cycle. Cutlery was not required as everyone skilfully ate with their fingers. Returning a couple of years later I was very depressed to see that ‘progress’ had occurred: the simple palm-leaves had been replaced by plastic, in the name of modern hygiene. Not only ugly and unaesthetic – who wants to eat rice and juicy stew out of a sticky polythene bag – but damaging to the goats and filthily clogging the culverts and drains: the habit of throwing the food container on the ground continued, the method of recycling could not. I wonder why all polythene, if it has to be used, isn’t made to be photo-bio-degradable – the sort that decays with bacteria in sunlight after a few months?
Most fabric disintegrates pretty quickly, so it’s rare to find textiles dated BC. The Scythian tribes roamed a vast swathe of land to the south of Siberia from about 900 to 200BC. In the recent exhibition about their culture and history at the British Museum there were some ancient fragments of cloth which had survived for centuries buried in their icy tombs. To live, and indeed flourish, in such inclement temperatures one must dress up warm, and these nomadic horsemen knew what was needed to keep cosy. Long thick pressed wool stockings with felt inlay patterned tops, something like this, were worn, together with intricately worked leather and skin trousers, fur-lined jackets and boots, decorated with pressed golden plaques and edgings.
Despite a harsh peripatetic life, it seems decoration and adornment were of the highest importance; and so was product development – Scythian tribesmen invented and perfected all sorts of tack and saddles to make their horseback prowess second to none, both in riding and harass management. For me the most moving piece was a tiny scrap of woollen fabric patterned with motifs similar to designs I’ve painted all my life – I felt an eerie tug back to my ancient patterny past. We humans love decoration.
It’s taken a while this year to get back in my stride; like a lot of other people I had a few weeks feeling poorly before and over christmas and since then my energy has only recently regained full throttle. So the prospect of new colours for the new year has given me some nourishment, and a longing to paint with fresh gestures, different brushes, on another scale has been helped by a Christmas present of a bundle of all sorts of different papers from smooth banana to rough rag.
Funnily enough (for a colour-monger) one of my first jobs this year was gathering together a bunch of neutral-toned fabrics for a customer who’d ordered one of our special black velvet cats wearing a bespoke soft browny-cream outfit (even beige was requested). Looking in the studio cupboard I found a small but lovely selection of florals in linens and silks, and then also got quite excited planning fresh smart spring outfits for some new plush felines to replenish our shop stock. The customer is very pleased with her pretty new puss – and so am I.
Searching led me on to want to find some ribbons and lace too, and down came the basket containing Granny Collier’s collars and trims. They were pretty grubby so into the hot soapy water they went. It was like washing cobwebs and I feared they’d all just disappear with my rather vigorous action. I put them to dry; then, with careful ironing, they came back to life. Amazingly only one little piece fell completely to pieces – even though so delicate they were strong enough.
I love these two images of fine threads travelling in the air – the lace weaver gathering her yarns and Noa Raviv’s fabulous fashion collection Hard Copy from 2017.
Yarns, threads, spinning, weaving – some of the words used for story-telling that emanate from the making of cloth. The Knee High Theatre Company ingeniously weaves and twirls its way through ‘The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk’, a story of the Russian-born painter Marc Chagall and his wife Bella. Bright threads of love, painting, colour, yiddish life are knitted together with the darker politics, pogroms and persecution through music, dance, and song. The company – two musicians and two actors – bring it all to magical fruition, transforming painting into a sinuous dance, inviting us all to their wonderful whirling wedding as well as to witness the pain of their many displacements. The production is on tour, currently at Wilton’s Music Hall until 10th February.
One morning I had separate interviews with two very different ‘making’ publications – there’s an ongoing interest in revisiting the artist-craftsman; it’s encouraging for me that the mark of the hand is being newly valued. These hand-painted ceramics for WestElm bear that out – a happy collaboration between me, the company and their artisan makers. They’re proving popular, though only available in the US at present…
I was reminded the other day of the many students who come to my courses with the express wish to leave their computer screens behind and get back to brush and paper. There are several opportunities for doing this with me this year; venues, dates and links are on my Events page. Next up is Super Sketchbooking for youngsters at The Fashion and Textile Museum in the February half term; I’ll also be running two new T-shirt painting workshops there (21st March,12th April) to coincide with their next exhibition, so prepare your slogans!
But never mind hand-painting – here are the artist Albert Irvin‘s feet!
I got sent home from the dentist recently with this gang of poky plaque-pickers – I’ve just got to remember to give them mouth room!