Thinking about photography

I’ve recently been reviewing the photos I took during my final Newlyn School of Art Defining Practice weekend. I didn’t have a laptop with me during the course so I was only able to view my pictures on the back of the camera before sharing them with the rest of the group and I wasn’t happy with the selection I made. I also found the brief we were given quite confusing and I felt I might get more out of it if I gave the matter some extra thought. It’s been useful and has made me reflect on the part photography plays in my creative practice. I’ve now put together a short statement:

I take photos mainly for their own sake rather than as source material for future work. I use photography to record the world around me and as a way of developing my powers of observation. I’m motivated by curiosity and the desire to tell a story, and by a love of shape, texture and colour. I generally aim to celebrate what I find rather than creating a deliberate set-up. I’m interested in cameraless photography and would like to learn to use a scanner and to be able to modify images during processing.

I expect I’ll want to amend this as time goes on but I’m happy with it as a starting point.

On the Newlyn School of Art website, the Defining Practice course is described as a one-year, part-time course which combines ‘practical sessions on each of the weekends alongside one-to-one tuition and group tutorials’ and offers participants ‘the opportunity to cover multi-media practice including painting, printmaking, collage and photography among other media’. This sounded exactly what I was looking for and when I heard in October 2016 that I’d been accepted for a place I was thrilled. I won’t go into detail regarding the glitches and disappointments that have occurred since then, but the end result is that I’ve decided not to continue. I found the first weekend enjoyable and productive but the second one, which was dedicated to printmaking, was a frustrating experience for me even though (or possibly because) the process of making prints is something I’ve always enjoyed. The discovery afterwards that the sessions were never intended to be ‘about’ printmaking but were designed to provide us with material to work up into paintings later in the course helped to explain this. Painting doesn’t play a central role in my creative practice and when I do paint I work mainly from direct observation.

Unfortunately the photography weekend employed the same approach and the pictures I came home with are in almost direct opposition to the brief we were given. As I understood it the aim was to avoid taking straightforward photos of the place we were in and to concentrate instead on using props and found objects to set up outdoor still lifes and ‘interventions’. The location was a stretch of shoreline adjacent to Newlyn Harbour known as Bowjey/ Breakwater beach. An online guide describes Bowjey as a mix of ‘grey sand, stone and shingle’ and ‘not the most attractive’, which sounded off-putting, and our trips were planned to take place during late morning when the tide was high and the light was unlikely to be interesting. 

Bowjey was inaccessible during our initial visit due to a gig racing event but on the second day it was empty and I explored the whole of it without seeing anything I wanted to photograph. Breakwater Beach had more to offer, with a small area of wet woodland tucked under a low cliff on the landward side and tumbled rocks and rusting metal above the beach, but the greenery soon petered out and gave way to a concrete bunker and a long retaining wall, both of which were covered with graffiti. I did my best to find pictures amongst all this but I wasn’t happy with the results and eventually I decided that sitting quietly and watching the waves would be a better way to occupy the remaining time. The pictures posted here were all taken after I’d declared myself done for the day and were prompted by boredom and a certain degree of indifference to results.

Boredom has proved productive for me on previous occasions, but it’s easy to forget this and helpful to be reminded of it. In addition, the weekend made me aware of how much I love taking photos and how important photography is to me as a creative medium. These are important things to recognise and despite my decision to quit the course I’m confident that I’ve made the most of what was on offer and have gained a deeper understanding of what my practice is about and the directions in which I would like to take it.

Text and images © Angela Williams 2017

Abstract art workshop

Yesterday I attended another one-day workshop at Green Hill Arts in Moretonhampstead (see Bookbinding class for an account of the previous one). Advertised as ‘a day of conversation and hands-on activity’ it was led by Mark Jessett, Robert Manners and Seamus Staunton; three artists whose current exhibition at the gallery entitled ‘Fathoms Fragments Fieldwork’ continues until 3 June. A morning of illustrated talks was followed by an afternoon of practical experimenting, with each artist taking a turn at sharing some aspect of their current practice.

The morning talks were interestingly varied in content and questions were encouraged and answered in depth. The time passed quickly and when we came back from lunch tables had been set out and promising-looking piles of materials were starting to emerge.

The afternoon began with a session led by Seamus StauntonSeamus is a sculptor who works with colour as well as shape and he’d explained earlier how carrying out a commission to create a wall installation for a hospital had led him to experiment with applying coloured vinyl sheeting onto his customary wooden or metal forms as an alternative to paint. The pieces that he’s currently exhibiting in the gallery also feature flat unbroken areas of colour and under his direction we set about assembling collages from thin card and double-sided tape. It’s easy to overlook the ways in which simple working methods can generate ideas for further investigation and the exercise was a reminder that taking time out to experiment can be more productive than labouring single-mindedly towards a carefully pre-planned outcome.

Robert Manners led the next session which took us back to monochrome and a concentration on building form and depth through multiple layers of Indian ink. We’d been asked to bring something with us to work from and I’d chosen a chunky but unidentifiable object from my rusty metal collection. Robert’s work combines simplicity of outline and elements of transparency with a feeling of solid presence, and during the morning he had described his fascination with marine debris such as stranded buoys and motifs of submarines and ships. His normal working method involves leaving each application of ink to dry overnight but we were able to get around this by using hairdryers to speed things up. Working on two paintings alternately I managed to complete several layers during the time available and felt I’d understood enough of the process to be able to continue working on this at home.

The practical part of the day was rounded off by Mark Jessett, who began with a a short talk on paint labelling with regard to transparency, translucency and opacity. Mark had spoken earlier about how we can sometimes find it difficult to allow ourselves to embrace the idea of beauty in our practice as artists and his current work has a folkloric feel with multiple applications of many different colours onto textured paper. He showed us how to do this by using old credit cards with notches cut into them and provided us with paints, paper and masking tape so we could try out the technique for ourselves. This led to the energetic application of a wide selection of fast-drying acrylic colours by everyone in the group which was a lot of fun and produced gratifyingly quick results.

All in all it was a very successful day and I’m grateful to Mark, Rob and Seamus and the team at Green Hill Arts for the work they put into making it happen. The generous provision of materials was a bonus and the experience has provided me with plenty of new ideas for future work along with some useful insights into the working methods of three very different artists.

Text and images © Angela Williams 2017

Landscape to Studio Workshops

Towards the end of last year I attended a series of four workshops run by Anita Reynolds. The aim of the workshops was to look at ways of creating ‘finished pieces’ in the studio over a period of weeks without losing the spontaneity and enthusiasm of notes and sketches originally made on site. On the first day of the course our group met up at Haytor Quarry on Dartmoor, where we spent several hours sketching, painting, taking photos and collecting found materials to use as colour samples.

Sessions two, three and four were held in the studio at Harbour House Gallery in Kingsbridge where we had a chance to experiment freely with a variety of media and techniques.

We used collage and simple monoprinting and Anita showed us an ingenious way of making small books from a single sheet of paper which sparked an energetic burst of creativity and led to a queue forming at the glueing table.

I found the course inspiring enough that once it ended I wanted to continue developing my work at home. By this time my memories of our sunny October morning at the quarry were fading and my final pieces took on a more wintery feel and focused mainly on images of birch trees and granite.

Things got put on hold over Christmas and I didn’t take up the project again until a couple of weeks ago, when I finally managed to assemble the accordion book that I’d got part-way through making.

I’m pleased with the result, particularly as I have a habit of leaving work unfinished in the rush to move on to something new. I don’t feel that the final piece captures the complexity of the actual day that we spent at the quarry, but it does have a sort of stony bleakness to it that I think works well enough. I also wrote a haiku after our trip (see sketchbook photo above) so all in all it was a very worthwhile course. Anita and Tim put a lot of work into making it a success and I’m grateful to them for organising everything so well.

Text and images © Angela Williams 2017
Vimeo video © Anita Reynolds 2016

Accordion books

Accordion book with expressive calligraphy on white paper using oak twig and homemade iron gall ink. Additional marks made with watercolours. Board covers and supporting pages made from heavyweight brown paper painted with iron gall ink, watercolours and gouache.

Measures 170mm high x 133mm wide x approx 20mm deep when folded. Fastens with cream cotton tape tie.

Accordion book with calligraphic script:

‘I am here to speak for the ones who have lost their names,
whose bones are translating daily into leaf bud and bird song’

Lettering on white paper using dip pen and brown acrylic ink. Board cover and supporting pages made with layers of black sugar paper and cartridge paper, overlayed with black tissue paper and card.

Measures 149mm high x 135mm wide by approx 20mm deep when folded. Fastens with black cotton tape tie.

Accordion book made from heavyweight cartridge paper. Read text of poem here.

Pages painted with iron gall ink, watercolours and acrylics. Text printed separately onto cartridge paper and tipped in. Board and cartridge paper cover painted with iron gall ink, acrylics and soluble graphite pencil.

Measures 136mm high x 184mm wide by approx 6mm deep when folded.

All books made during January/February 2017 from papers created during the 2017 Defining Practice course at Newlyn School of Art. Part of an ongoing project – see earlier posts for more on this.

All text and images © Angela Williams 2017

Teachers of the Heart

At the end of last year I was lucky enough to be accepted for a place on the 2017 Defining Practice course at Newlyn School of Art. Hopefully recording aspects of my practice on this blog will play a useful part in developing my work over the coming months.

Choosing five artists to write about from the many who’ve inspired and influenced me wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. From a starting point of identifying the major influences on the finished pieces I feel most happy with, I’ve been able to arrive at a deeper understanding of the ways in which my practice so far has been sustained by admiration and respect for the work of the following individuals. This post is dedicated to them, as well as to the many others I haven’t been able to include but whose generosity in sharing their work has encouraged my efforts along the way.

 

JOSEPH CORNELL  (1903 – 1972)

Cornell’s imaginative transformation of everyday things, his love of the past and his addiction to the thrill of the hunt are part of his appeal for me, and the sense of connection that I felt when I first read Deborah Solomon’s biography, ‘Utopia Parkway’, came from recognising a kindred spirit. I’m uncomfortably aware that the impossibility/undesirability of copying his pieces can’t be overstated, but as someone who’s relentlessly curious and who gathers ideas and materials together slowly from sometimes unexpected sources, I’m unwilling to turn away from the inspiration that he offers. I find it interesting to speculate on what Cornell would have done if he’d had access to the internet and the opportunity to create a website. He might well have found eBay a useful resource on a practical level as I do, but the magical atmosphere of his beloved city streets and the parks and cafes that he visited as part of his shopping excursions would be lacking, and overall I think he would have found life in the 21st Century distinctly uninspiring.

Click here and here for more information on the life and work of Joseph Cornell


A collection of material for a possible future project on Edward James. For more on this theme see also my ‘digital dossier’ on the poet Robert Stephen Hawker 

 

EDWIN SMITH  (1912 – 1971)

Edwin Smith’s photos of buildings, interiors and landscapes are haunting and atmospheric and I’m often struck by the way in which he composes foregrounds, which are something I’ve struggled with. In addition to a career as an internationally acclaimed photographer, Smith also drew, painted or engraved every day. Looking at his beautiful images leaves me feeling nourished and refreshed and makes me determined to work harder at my own pictures and to achieve better results.

Click here for more information on the life and work of Edwin Smith


Angela Williams, St Nectan’s, Welcombe, Devon, 2011


Angela Williams, Snowy Morning, St Gregory’s, Dawlish, 2010

 

ALICE FOX

Alice Fox is a textile artist who uses paper and found materials as well as cloth. She frequently works out of doors and her sensitivity to the particularities of her chosen places, combined with her scientific training as geographer, makes her an inspirational person for me. Reading about her residency at Spurn Head and looking at images of the work she produced there stimulated ideas that I’m still exploring today, and her contribution to The Sketchbook Project inspired me to create a similar book (see below). I’m deeply impressed by the generosity and thoroughness with which she has documented her creative processes over the past seven years and I highly recommend spending some time browsing her extensive website.

Click here to visit Alice Fox’s website and here to read her post on The Sketchbook Project


Angela Williams, experimental sketchbook : oak gall ink, india ink and collage, 2013


Angela Williams, experimental sketchbook: tea, soluble graphite and collage, 2013

 

ALISA GOLDEN

Before I discovered Alisa Golden’s books I purchased a number of other works on the same topic and ended up giving all of them to charity shops without ever having completed a single project. What discouraged me, apart from the complexity and mechanical-looking perfection of the examples illustrated, was the fact that few of the books in the photos included any original content. Discovering Alisa’s work has made it possible for me to begin to express myself in ways that match my own instincts. Her found poems, technical wizardry and thoughtful and precise instructions make her an inspiring role model and teacher. It’s sobering to reflect on how much I’ve been able to learn from her, and still hope to learn, especially as despite much searching I haven’t yet come across another bookbinder who operates the way she does.

Click here to find out more about the work of Alisa Golden


Angela Williams, eco printed books and fabric, 2013


Angela Williams, winged book with pockets, 2016

 

LEONARD COHEN  (1934 – 2016)

I’ve saved Leonard Cohen until last because the debt I owe him is almost impossible to express in words. I love his willingness to take risks; the range of his sympathies; his generosity; the physicality of his art; his grace under pressure; his refusal to settle for less than the best result; his commitment to beauty. Also his work ethic, his sense of humour and his seriousness. I was fifteen when his songs first started weaving themselves into the fabric of my life and they’ve been helping me to hold things together ever since. How do you measure the gratitude that comes from the simple fact of knowing that somewhere on the planet for all those years he was going about his business, being and doing, blackening pages, making art?

VARIATION
by Federico García Lorca

Beneath the bough of the echo
only air.

Beneath a stem of stars
only water.

Beneath a thicket of kisses
your mouth.

 

Click here for the home page of The Leonard Cohen Files website. Allan Showalter’s excellent Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Considered is also well worth a visit.

 

IN CONCLUSION

Writing this post has drawn my attention to similarities between these five artists which weren’t immediately apparent to me before. All of them are hard-working individuals with a clear sense of purpose in regard to their art. Much of what they create carries with it an awareness of life’s fragility and, in some cases, a powerful sense of loss. They are makers and craftspeople rather than fine artists, and writing and photography tend to play an important part in their work. Surrealism crops up surprisingly frequently and Cohen’s comments on Lorca, which I discovered while I was writing this, have an unexpected echo in my own remarks above:

‘I was fifteen when I began to read Federico Garcia Lorca. His poems perhaps have had the greatest influence on my texts. He summoned up a world where I felt at home. His images were sensual and mysterious: “throw a fist full of ants to the sun.” I wanted to be able to write something like that as well.’

Although Joseph Cornell was never truly a member of any Surrealist group, Surrealism had a powerful influence on his work, and he too was an admirer of Lorca. Alisa Golden’s found poems utilise a well-known Surrealist technique and Alice Fox’s stitched acorns and sea shells have an offbeat strangeness about them. At their lyrical best, Surrealist methods of working offer us a way of seeking out the unexpected and operating beyond our accustomed limits. These are fruitful tactics for any artist to employ and I look forward to exploring them in my work over the coming months.

 

Note: The version of Federico García Lorca’s poem, ‘Variacion’, shown above, was translated from the Spanish by Angela Williams in 2008 and was originally posted in the Leonard Cohen Flickr Group

All text and images © Angela Williams 2017

Bookbinding class

I recently had a chance to attend a bookbinding class with Claire Gladstone at Green Hill Arts in Moretonhampstead. Claire turned out to be a very patient and generous tutor and under her guidance we each managed to produce three books during the course of the day. We began by making a simple stitched pamphlet which produced satisfyingly quick results and then moved on to a Japanese stab binding with a leather front cover and a back made from bookcloth glued onto greyboard. I’d never worked with bookcloth before and found it tricky to stick down, so my corners didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped they would. Prodding holes through both covers plus a thickish pad of paper also turned out to be a challenge and I wound up feeling less than happy with my finished piece.

I didn’t have time to linger over this as Claire was already explaining what we needed to do for our third book. She’d chosen to show us how to stitch a Coptic binding, which is ideal for making sketchbooks as it allows the pages to open flat and lends itself to some inventive interpretations in experienced hands. Everything we needed was provided, including a curved needle, and the afternoon passed in a blur, with requests for help coming from all sides of the room and a determinedly suspended disbelief on my part that any undertaking this complicated could possibly result in a satisfactory outcome.

Magically, and with only a few glitches along the way, I found myself with a finished book in my hands well before clearing-up time and was able to come home with a feeling of achievement and plenty of inspiration for future work. This was very much down to Claire’s thoughtful provision and the patience with which she answered our seemingly endless queries while offering lots of inspiring advice and encouragement and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity of working with her.

Text and images © Angela Williams 2017

Oak

OAK

At the back of the churchyard
an oak has rooted beside a grave;
each year the lichened slab is covered with galls.

Searching among tussocks of wet grass
I find celandines, primroses, violets,
last year’s foxgloves
springing again from the base of a plinth;

Reginald William Hobhouse,
Son of . . . Died Oct 27th 1854,
‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven’.

I draw the headstone, yew bark, a rusted gate.
Birdsong contradicts the keen wind.
Nothing is missing, everything is complete.
I draw the oak.

Angela Williams
10 January 2017

Text and images © Angela Williams 2017

Rust prints and ink lettering

Following on from my previous iron gall ink making post, here’s a quick update on what I did next.

After removing the dyed linen cloth I used the rusty metal to make several prints. For the darker one on the left I placed it onto heavy cartridge paper and applied tea using a pipette. The lighter version on the right was done afterwards – I used the same technique but in this case I filled the pipette with water instead of tea.

Here’s what happened when I omitted the white vinegar in the hope of simplifying my ink recipe! Skimming off the mould and boiling up the ink with added vinegar seems to have corrected the problem, though I’m now storing the bulk of my supply in the fridge to be on the safe side.

Trying out the new ink. Expressive calligraphy written with one of the oak twigs that I picked up while I was collecting the galls.

 

Text and images © Angela Williams 2017

Dawlish Churchyard Yew

The Common Yew growing beside the tower of St Gregory’s Church, Dawlish, has recently been added to the online gazetteer maintained by the Ancient Yew Group. The entry is divided into two sections: the first supplies info on the location while the second provides details of the tree itself.

The girth of the tree at the narrowest point is 11 feet 4 inches (345cm) which means it doesn’t qualify as a veteran – that category is reserved for trees known to be over 300 years old or with a girth of over 12 feet – but it’s been included in the Unclassified section as it’s a very fine specimen and there are currently no other records for Dawlish.

I hadn’t attempted to establish a planting date because I’d assumed this information would be lost, but apparently plantings were sometimes recorded in the churchwarden’s notes, so finding out if these survive has now been added to my ‘to do’ list.

Text and image © Angela Williams 2017