On the Nature of Weirdness…

Conversations with certain people “bring me on”. By asking the right questions and not being afraid that they are difficult questions. They tell me their truth, and it encourages me to face my own.

I’ve been laughing at my “weird” works. By doing this I preempt any suggestion of weirdness from others. They have nowhere to go because I’ve already said it. I shut down any possibility of discussion . Other than by those awkward people who poke me with a stick to make it happen (thank you). I’m not yet prepared for the conversations that might ensue if I show that I take myself, and this work, seriously. Beneath the ridiculous bluster of “I’m a weirdo I am!” lies a vulnerability and a rawness I’m not yet ready to encounter in public. Two conversations with two people who know me, and my work, well, have brought me close to tears. Ok. Not just close. Over the edge. But they are both a safe place, so I’m ok. But I need to feel stronger before showing this work in a formal setting. Just in case someone astute asks the wrong/right questions. I need to prepare myself. Writing this post might form part of that preparation.

A discussion over dinner wandered all over the place, but touched on when and why we exhibit the work: do we exhibit when it is “finished”, done and dusted, safe, complete, and we feel we know everything about it? Or do we exhibit when it still feels raw and a little precarious, in the hope that exhibiting it will help us learn more from those who view it?

So… In forcing myself to encounter these drawings properly, by pinning them up to view, I look at materials, methods, meaning. It’s like REALLY looking at yourself in the mirror and accepting what you see. (No I can’t do that either.)
I don’t think I have REALLY looked at these drawings. I don’t think I have accepted fully what they are about. They scare me a little…. They are NOT weird to me you see? They’re not. They are a true thing. They are a true expression of what my brain is trying to process. To be honest the last few months have been a bit shit. I’m still coming to terms. I’m still trying to find my equilibrium here.

The methodology and the process of my drawings have rules. I extrapolate those rules from the patterns that emerge. I pursue them until they bore me, and then they mutate until I have a new rule. Materials, composition, technique, the colour palette all have a place within this rule-making.

Meaning then? Digging deeper, but also simplifying. Drawing I find is a purer, more straightforward way of working. It is more immediately connected – brain to paper… No filter…. No distraction…

Abstraction is attractive. Liberating.
I have lived a life filled with symbolism. The Catholic Church, Renaissance art history studies, and the occasional dip into semiotics. I see symbols and infer meaning all over the place. My brain seeks it out.
Abstraction could be my saviour then?
Abstraction is my secret confessional?
I can’t help myself.
Abstraction is a shouted whisper.

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In.

In.

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After eight months of looking, looking, looking some more, finding, losing, getting, losing again, will they won’t they? Yesses, Nos, Maybes…

…We have just… TODAY… moved into the studios. Exhausted but relieved… it’s like someone opened the window in my head and let some fresh air in.

I have no more words… for now…

Mary Beard and The (female) Artist

The nature of this blog is that is as much (if not more) for the writer as the reader. I try to capture those fleeting thoughts that affect my thinking… so that I can return to them to pin them down as they make themselves known in the work.

So here goes… this might be a bit of a ramble. When I get to the end I will read and edit for clarity if necessary…

I’ve just finished reading Mary Beard’s Women and Power. I admire this woman greatly, as we all should, frankly. She is full of knowledge and insight, her knowledge of the ancient casts light on the present. There’s a grand sweep about her writing that is deeply affecting.

Women and Power then. So far to be a powerful woman one has to be a parody of a man? We should be looking perhaps at what power is and how it manifests itself. Our definition of power being currently, inherently male. There is a passage in the book about the balance of women in government: our own being around the 30% mark, but that in Rwanda it’s 60%… indicating perhaps that the outward facing parliament is NOT where the power lies?

The power lies, says the wonderful Mary Beard, in being taken seriously.

Women being taken seriously is the issue then?

I look at my own work sideways…

Up until very recently my work has focused on the feminine, and the domestic: embroidery, bras, children’s clothes… my themes being the relationships between parents/adults/children…

I am still very proud particularly of the works “Are you listening?” and “Nine Women”. They still stand up well to scrutiny I think.

My recent work is more abstracted from these themes… concentrating on the essence of connection and touch. My materials have changed from the feminine and domestic to a more neutral, non-domestic pencil and paper (with a bit of ink or watercolour here and there). I have been wondering about the increase in Likes/Follows/Shares on social media by men since this change and why this might have happened.

Is it because the work of women is seen as only FOR women and the work of men is universal? This is where the power struggle is I think… when the creative work of women is also seen as universal we might be on to something? How can 51% of the population be seen as a “minority group”?

(“We’ve already had a woman’s play in the programme this year” – yes that really happened!)

By switching materials, is it now more universal in its appeal? Women (on the whole) really understood the previous work, and I have had so many amazing conversations about those installations mostly with women, all sorts of women, artists and otherwise. The conversations with men about these works have been men that I already know, most of whom are artists themselves.

The work I am now doing in preparation for The Tenth Woman is getting rather dark… animal… visceral… and men seem to respond to this more readily, and are happier to talk about this than an old bra embroidered with barbed wire, or a child’s dress embroidered with abusive hand marks… equally dark in my eyes… but… what is going on here?

I must admit it is good to have a wider following, and different conversations. I do now however find myself wondering if this change in materials comes from an unexpected place? I still think the drawings are feminine… but what is the nature of graphite that makes it more neutral/acceptable to the male gaze?

I’m also puzzling over myself and my own change in attitude. There is an element of Don’t-give-a-fuckery about this. I used to pride myself on the accessibility of my work, that people could relate to the textile, the stitch, the domestic… I could easily explain what it was about to those who asked.

I now find I can’t be arsed to explain. Why the fuck should I?

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Athletes and Artists

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I’m no athlete that’s for sure…

I admire the women athletes who have begun talking about how their menstrual cycle affects their performance. I admire the marathon runner who allowed her flow to flow to make the point. I think I am probably too old to make such a personal and public performance/demonstration, and I certainly had the sort of upbringing that continued and reinforced the taboos. But I’m older now. I am more of a feminist now. I see the importance of eliminating such taboos now. I think it would have been helpful to me as a young woman to know more about my own body. How I have come to know it is through my own experience. I could not have done, and would not make now, that public a stance. Some things are too ingrained. But I can support and admire. And of course I can write.

I am 57. Peri-menopausal. Every 28 days (or close, it’s getting rather more unpredictable lately) My heart sinks. Here we are again. Surely I’ve done enough?

Those things have an effect on my work. Of course they do. Many days in the month I have boundless energy, I am well up for life and art and gigs and fun…. but…. Yesterday, to be frank, was a fucking miserable day. Really. I dragged myself out of bed just before noon, having hardly slept until 4:00 ish, when I descended into a deep and weird-dream-filled sleep until 11:30… THAT day. My joints ached, I had a headache, my eyes wouldn’t focus properly, I had cramps… the whole box of delights.

I read a little and drew a little. The drawing was grim. Fitful. Frantic. Vile. Cruel. It was a direct representation of my mood on the page. Bones and blood and gnarled forms. I slumped in a chair. I ate the wrong things at the wrong time. I snarled at anyone who approached, in reality or virtually.

Today is a different day. Throughout the awful days I try to tell myself that I will be ok tomorrow, or the next day. I try not to make important decisions or do important things. But of course you can’t always predict with accuracy which day it will be, and some things you have no control over. Sometimes the gig or the work elsewhere is on THAT day and I’ve spent 45 years just getting on with it. These days I do less, but it still gets to me. Every woman will have similar experiences, some more, some less.

Anyway… the point of all of this is that in amongst the abject fog of yesterday, an idea started to grow. It had germinated ages ago I’m sure, but I have only just recognised it. From under the quilt and hot water bottle the connections between the drawing, the songs, the sounds began to coalesce around The Tenth Woman. I knew it was there, I trusted it. I’ve been working through it every day for months now. And yesterday, overnight, and this morning it has become real.

My work goes in cycles as well as my body. Every part of those cycles has a purpose and meaning. One part relies on the other. I can’t have those periods of high energy and productivity without the periods of stillness and pain.

For The Tenth Woman, this is how life is made. This is how life is lived. And it is certainly how the Art is made.

The Importance of Titles

I registered my new project with the Arts Council and began to write the words in the letter boxes.

(Handy Hint no 1: DON’T type them in the letter boxes on the form, type them somewhere else, check the character count, then paste them in, then click save IMMEDIATELY)

About half way down the page concerning the quality of the project, where I describe in more detail what it is I want the funding for, I realise that Ive registered it under the wrong title. The stupidity cuffed me round the earhole. For over a year I’ve had two titles rolling around in my head, and for some reason I decided one was to be the project title. I was wrong! Big Time wrong! So I have changed it. I’m not going to say what the wrong one was, as I might use it for something else down the line. But the right title is:

“The Tenth Woman”.

Now those of you who have been following this might recognise the title. Now I’ve changed it, everything makes so much more sense, is balanced and focussed .

*forehead-slap*

(if you feel inclined to look back, the dates of the posts are 03/05/17 and 12/05/17)

So this is the “new” project, with myself and my multifaceted, interdisciplinary practice I embody The Tenth Woman. Under her auspices I can gather these elements and work. I can allow myself to just BE The Tenth Woman.

Suddenly it all makes sense.

Funding and Terror

Trying to write an artist statement while at a crossroads in your thinking is difficult, as you want to sound confident don’t you? My friend Debra Eck  is currently in this place too. I feel empathetic as I sit here trying to write a funding application from a similar position of uncertainty. Changed work… Shift of focus… But this is precisely why I need a period of funding, to get me through that period of precarious perching to a place where I can commit to a body of work and plough through again to (hopefully) find a higher plane.

So I’m teetering on the brink again. Applying for funding is very much about speculating to accumulate. If they say yes, then it’s all worthwhile. If they say no then it’s weeks of work down the pan. Work that will never be paid for or offset against the joy of being given the money!

I’ve spent months pondering the amorphous blob of ideas, willing it to coalesce into something firm and focussed and useful.

Last week, thank god, I could actually see it. So it’s time to start filling in the form.

I’ve spent time helping and supporting other artists fill in their forms so I am now quite familiar with the format and the idiosyncrasies of the Grantium platform. I’m even now in a position to offer professional help if anyone wants me to, and if you have any specific needs in terms of accessing the forms (for example if you have a visual impairment) then ACE will pay for that support for you. They are wonderful people and it is an amazing organisation, but the application process can be a nightmare.

But however familiar I am with the process, writing my own bid is a different beast. the emotional attachment to the work creates obstacles. My own terror can too. I have decided that one of my targets for this project should be to gain the confidence and technical skills required for a solo performance. These words have been inserted, deleted, and inserted agin every time I open the application.

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The glorious thing about being in a band, or even with one other person accompanying is the camaraderie. Dan is a wonderful man to have next to me on a stage. I swear that man can read my mind, and can certainly pick up on anything untoward, and steer it off! The band is great too. I have Ian, Andy, Lloyd and John all beside me, or hiding behind me. their support for me up front singing is palpable to me. I feel it properly. It is easy to “perform” the relationships between us all, and in doing so, immediately the audience know we are good people, they see it in those relationships. It is relatable.

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But how do you convey that without the onstage interaction?

And this is exactly the point at which my thoughts about the project coalesced.

Those drawings about relationships and interaction rely upon there being several elements on the page/stage.

But what happens when there’s only ONE?

How and Why?

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I like there to be some sort of relationship between the WAY that I work and my SUBJECT.

Sometimes I have found this takes a long time to develop. I keep saying “Trust the process!” But I can get to the point of desperation and question the truth of that statement as time goes on.

This new work, these drawings, has been tricky. Textiles and garments are easy peasy. It is fairly simplistic, representational. Stitches are also easy to connect to the themes – see?

But that is exactly my point. That simplicity, while inherently beautiful, is also the sticking point.

I have outlined here in previous posts, how the circumstances of work, home, family, and studio conspired to change everything. I don’t know if everything would have changed if it had all stayed stable? But it didn’t. So what the world offered me, along with all that crap, was an opportunity to think differently for a while. Ditch the objects and the stitching (maybe temporarily, who knows?) and get on with something else. The something else was a diversion, I told myself, occupational therapy… all that… but… niggling at my hindbrain was the fact that I had been stuck and I needed to get UNstuck. The drawings have evolved over the last six months or so to a point where the start is now not visible. I know where it is, and if you’ve been following, you might be able to too.

Just this week, I have, at last, noticed where it sits.

As my pencil searches for anomalies in the texture of the paper and the surface marks of the watercolour, I realise that while I had been stitching, that’s what I had been looking for… a relationship to pick up on.. an unseen “thing” to latch onto, to draw attention to. I have been looking for mutations and anomalies and family resemblance, inherited traits and cycles. In the drawings I have been setting up the culture for these anomalies: Using watercolour, making my own indentations in the softer papers. I then look for one place, one part of the drawing to relate to another, just as I had searched for one person’s affect on another in the garments. I wasn’t pushing or stretching those relationships when I was working with stitches so much. What I can do now is manipulate and provide a culture that allows me to interfere more I think. The drawings are more experimental than the textiles. They are more exploratory. I am able to do more than just point at things and say “look at this”.

With the drawing I am reaching and reacting. I am doing more than observing and illustrating. I am making something happen.

Sometimes you need to get out of the place where you are too comfortable, where things are too easy. Sometimes uncomfortable is the place where things happen.

The Lion and The Lamb

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Is it egotistic of me to see the world bending itself into metaphors for my life?

Or, being kinder to myself, do I see my life reflected in the circumstances that surround me?

March – it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.

I was born in March and my mum used to say I was both lion and lamb. Sometimes simultaneously. Am I like this because she said that, or did she say that because that’s how I am? Would she have said it if I had been born in August?

The studio we were on the brink of securing has fallen through completely, at what seemed like the final hurdle. I don’t know that I will ever know why. It just did.

So I’m here again, the boxes are still piled around with me, but with no new studio imminent. The house is also lion/lamb and is doing neither very well. The lamb might well get eaten if I don’t cage the lion, or tame it. What’s the point in that though? If you have a lion, it’s got to be a fierce wild one, right?

I think I have to forget about the studio option. It’s driving me bonkers. I have to drill down and find the things a studio gives me, without the space itself being a reality. Hopefully if I can do this, the resulting choreography will result in me being in the right frame of mind and in the right place to find something else that does the trick… I will be able to see other opportunities. If I deal with the lion, the lamb will look after itself? But the lamb is under siege, I need to deal with my home. I need to look after it. This I can do, I can control. We have stopped seeing the boxes and excess furniture and absorbed them. We sidle around the bed, we hang our coats on the boxes in the hall, dump our bags on the extra chair that’s wrapped in bubble wrap. We peer at each other over the extra microwave on the dining table, and plonk the post on top of it. I think if I deal with these things, life will be better: I will no longer be in-waiting, and will be able to get on with things. There are things I could and should be doing. Inactivity and indecision have rendered me unproductive. (Having a pile of hundreds of drawings that sit there doing nothing doesn’t count for anything.)

The Lion and Lamb are in limbo. We have deep snow here again. Normal patterns are disrupted and halted. We had those glorious warmer sunny days when we took off our coats occasionally. We could see the spring and the hope: Daffodils, primulas, grape hyacinths flowering, crocuses in the lawn… We had a dark hellebore hiding against the dark soil that is now stunning, purple-black against the snow. The snow, like the end of the studio dream, has halted me again, but the hellebore shows me that all is not lost. Outside the french window while I draw I see the red maple budding, and the sprouting twigs poke through clouds of the drifting snow, reminding me of my own drawings.

Inspired again, my lion lies down with my lamb and all is calm for a while.

Superconductor

I had great response from all sorts of people on International Women’s Day when I posted a Sedimentary-Pea-Pod-Vagina image on Twitter and Instagram. These shapes, forms and lines are a little intoxicating. One person said they were somewhat disturbing… another sensuous…another that they held sexual tension… and another saying they felt they needed a shower… I’ll leave that thought with you a while…

Now these responses, whilst amusing and interesting, have also stopped me in my tracks a bit. These drawings are sort-of-automatic. I’ve said before that I don’t really look at the rest of the page when I’m drawing in one corner. Composition, while obviously to a degree a matter of habit and experience, does happen accidentally. Sometimes I like the wonky ones better. They are a little bit stream-of-consciousness…. so such responses have me asking what the hell is going on in my head? God knows.

My intention was/is to find a tension between the animal/vegetable/mineral so that the drawings are all or none of these things. I like confusion and ambiguity. But this? Questions will be asked!

My PROCESS is informed by my experience of drawing. Over 50 years of drawing, almost every day of my life, has led me to this. The CONTENT is informed by the last ten years or so of rather deeper thought than the previous 40… but the influence is there of course, by necessity. I haven’t had a brain transplant. Many of these years have been spent stitching so I have surprised myself by returning to drawing… until I think about it more carefully… then perhaps not such a surprise. There is something in my make up that draws me to drawing. Something in me that sees the importance of drawing. There are always connections when you look.

I spent about ten years teaching child development, behaviour, play and creativity to child care students, as well as working in a variety of pre-school environments as my own children grew up. I see drawing as a developmental tool and an indicator for all sorts of things. I spent all those years with all those students telling them that whatever else they provide for the children, they must ALWAYS provide pencils and paper, EVERY day, ALL the time. I have no idea if this has had an effect on anyone. I just know that it is important on a deeply human level. Hand-Eye-Brain coordination if you like. Expression. Fluency and “fitness”. Draw from observation, from imagination or whatever you like. Just draw.

I spent another ten years (with a bit of overlap) in a primary school trying to get people – parents – children – teachers – to understand there’s no such thing as “I can’t draw”. If we spent as much time on drawing as we do on literacy the evidence would be there. Everyone can draw. We teach children to read and write, but they’re not all going to be Nobel prize winners. We can teach* children to draw without expecting them all to become artists. There is a visual language that we need too. Some children possibly more than others need this way to communicate and we are not serving them well by denying them the time and attention needed.

Within this context, this Elena-ness, there is a purity about drawing for me. An essence of humanity. This is on a physical level, but also psychological and philosophical. I think there are reasons I became “stuck” working with the textiles. I needed something more… or maybe that should be something less… or something nearer? I needed to dig deeper. For this I needed a super conductor, so that less was lost between brain ~ hand ~ paper.

I am a little bemused by the comments I have received but also gratified. My work is always about some sort of touch and connection. So if the drawing as superconductor approach has led to the ultimate human connection that should come as no surprise should it?

As a result though, I now have questions that I should try to work through:

What are these animal~vegetable~mineral connections?

Is it on a cellular level or an intellectual level?

Is the “deeper” physical or conceptual or both?

Can I be more explicit about touch?

Can I be less chaotic about the cyclic nature of my subjects and themes?

Or is the chaotic what throws up the interesting things?

Is this really about sex?

Sex is really close to death… I wrote a song…

(Caution recommended – heavy breathing alert!)

https://soundcloud.com/elena-thomas/distracted-10-05-15/s-6ZTAE

*The word “teach” here encompasses many things from pre-school painting experiences through observational drawing, to expressing ideas to the learning of techniques…

Seducing the Artist…

An artist can be seduced by new materials. It can be so intoxicating that you forget what you are trying to do. I mentioned in a previous post about being a Methodology Artist… In textile works I have over the last couple of years only allowed myself to use the fabric that is contained by a wooden tray on my desk. Curiously, however much of this fabric I use, the quantity doesn’t seem to get less… Anyway… the reason for the self-imposed restriction was an extension of my self-imposed restriction on buying new fabric. This was an ethical decision, we waste too much fabric and most of it ends up in landfill. It was also a restriction of palette that stopped me getting distracted by the shiny and new. Old fabric sits better with my ideas and themes.

restriction… rules… method…

I love using colour, and I think I use it well. But restricting myself to one particular pencil and one particular sort of paper has allowed exploration of the genre. I talked also of learning a new language. As with new language one aims for fluency. With this paper and this pencil (Daler-Rowney Mixed Media paper and a Faber Castell Jumbo 8B pencil if you’re interested) I felt increasingly in control. I knew how they worked together. I used the texture of the paper to enhance the form and textures of what I drew. A synergy of idea and the material that is really quite pleasing.

But you can’t find something pleasing and just stay there can you? You have to push it a bit. Now I am quite lazy really, and will happily go on in my comfort zone until pushed. Luckily I have those around me who will question and push. A simple question can lead you on…

So… back to the seduction. Instead of relying on the texture of the paper, It was asked “What if you affected the texture of the paper yourself…?”
hmmm… so now, in addition to the 8B, I have a 6H. This carves into the paper almost. I have spent a couple of days working things out, getting to know it. I could possibly draw 6H patterns forever, then draw over with the 8B… oh its a happy thing to do and behold! But drawing pretty patterns isn’t getting me anywhere. So now I have to work out whether it can add to anything. I have an aversion to art that is just about cleverness with materials, Style Over Substance if you like… the terrible end point of being seduced by material beauty. (Opinions stated here are those of the artist). Meaning is sucked out.

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I return then to my sketch book and read back over my blog posts about what I was getting from the drawing that I wasn’t getting from the textile. I remind myself of my quest for the language to express those relationships. I go over my self-imposed rules of engagement and decide – or try to – which are no longer serving me.

The textiles are interesting still. They hold the relationships, they have a history. I can show links and connections. But I think they got stuck at that… the drawings could push at those boundaries if I went beyond stitch, beyond human and beyond the figurative… somewhere between that and the pretty patterns lies a fluency to strive for.

I have in my head this glorious Eureka moment in which I will understand colour, form, meaning and one momentous piece of work will emerge, people will gasp in admiration and I can die happy.

Never going to happen.