Materials have been a catalyst in all my work from day one. Whenever that was. Maybe it was watching my mum mix up flour, salt and water and turn it into salt dough. New matter created with these basic ingredients. It was as easy as that. Now I could be master of my own creative universe, what else could I transform? And so it continued many experiments later into A Level choices of science and art. For me, these two subjects asked the same question – what happens when…? My scientific education was always a little more laden with sheer fact over discovery and things became a bit static for me there, all that memory testing. So I ventured down the art road, hauling my science bag of tricks along with me.
I’ve always looked to artists working with non decorative materials. Antonio Tapies, Eva Hesse, and Robert Rauschenberg are my heroes. Their use of plaster, rope, plastic, latex, glass, sheeting, cardboard, wood, sand and grit all signalled the power of art resting in the material itself. Their materials do the work while they, the artist play the supreme role of editing: gathering and arranging substances to be best seen and felt.
The scientist in me did want to intervene a little more, explore cause and effect, observe, transform and look again at materials. I learnt how to make paper, how to boil onion skins to make dye, I made paintings with mud and photocopied broken glass to make patterns. I froze objects in water to watch them thaw and ran car tyres over my ‘road’ textiles to make a ‘real’ mark. I read The Secret Life of Bees and promptly wanted to cover everything in honey – inspired by its imagery of the black Mary statue who was bathed in honey as worship. I still have the screen print on a swatch of cotton in my sketchbook, richly preserved in a honey layer – nine years on.
Starting C F McEwan was, I told myself, the respectable face for all this random experimenting. I was becoming overwhelmed by my imagery and was probably looking to give it a home. Five years later, combined with photography and some brilliant digital print technology, there are collections of scarf designs containing all this imagery, locked up in the print.
From these scarf collections I’m choosing to explore three pieces for this blog post, sharing some of the original imagery. Each design has a different material as their starting point – foil, concrete and paper. There are so many more materials from the archives to share with you, but maybe I’ll save those for another post, lest this one gets a little long!
This design is called Pi. Naming a design can sometimes feel a bit arbitrary. They are all abstract, I don’t always feel like it. But this one was different. Within the imagery sat a little sculpted piece of foil in a shape that reminded me of the symbol for Pi – π or Π, which stands for the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. I can thank my brother for that. Putting Pi on my radar forever as he strove to memorise Pi to sixty decimal places. Out done by my dad and little cousin, who later on, aimed for 100 decimal places – coz everything’s a competition.
Why foil? I’ve always liked using low tech, easy to find materials and foil has some terrific visual and tactile properties. I ransacked the kitchen drawer and started with some simple folding.
This is a small piece of folded foil, photographed on white paper in daylight. It’s a good place to start. I often begin my photography of objects on white paper. It allows me to see clearly, watch for shadows, find the interesting edges. But it still very much looks like foil and I wanted to transform the subject further. Sheets of foil allow for some instant movement between the 2d and 3d. I could use the foil as a surface and an object.
Here’s the same piece of folded foil, now sitting on a foil surface. Light fills and reflects off the sheeting, creating a darker and more dramatic foil object on top. This shot is still using daylight. I wanted to explore the lighting further, so I tried out some side lighting with an old disco light. I love how foil holds the memory of every action, every crease and fold. Light gets trapped in the crevices and creates great shapes and areas of light and dark. Here’s the shape that inspired the Pi name…
I begin sculpting with single objects, photographing one piece at a time. Next comes some repetition. How would these objects look in a group? Here’s a few swatches of foil before and after some sculpting.
As I created each new little shape, I varied the quality of the edge, moving between rolling and folding actions to create some strong contrast in shape and reflection. I realise the word sculpting may sound a bit fanciful, when I was doing nothing more than what a person does with an empty crisp packet in the pub – pre fidget spinners. Fair enough. I try to call to mind that artist (who was it?!) who talked about the best sculpture being that piece of paper you fold and place underneath a wobbly table. Its beauty residing in an elegant and efficient solution – and perhaps, also in the eye of the beholder! But I find this idea freeing, look closely enough and the starting points are all around us.
Pi, along with other textured scarf designs, form part of the Light collection which you can see more of here
It is without doubt, the paintings of Spanish artist Antonio Tapies, which led to my interest in concrete. Yep, painting and concrete, or more accurately, ‘concrete on canvas’, being a typical caption next to his work. He scored marks using sticks in drying cement and embedded materials like rope and cloth into the surface, composing with the raw materials. It would take me another 15 years since first seeing his work before having a go, but the idea of concrete stayed, stored in my mental folder of must-trys. When I was considering themes for the Spring Summer 16 collection, concrete rose to the surface again, probably sparked by the industrial interiors trend emerging. I liked the idea of mixing silk scarves with the story of concrete.
Here’s my equipment, plastic lining a small wooden frame and an even layer of cement mix. I added water and stirred, the cement very quickly becoming gloopy and lumpy. I also layered clingfilm, cellotape and paper into the lining to create textures in the drying cement. Below is a concrete tile that shows the surface that was in contact with the plastic sheeting and the cling film – you can see the many creases. Where I’ve tried to remove the cling film, some of the concrete has chipped away creating holes within the tile.
With all these textures and uneven surfaces of the tiles, I thought I’d try some projection back onto the concrete surface. Here is a series of four tiles stacked up with some digital projection of various imagery. I love the gaps appearing between the tiles which seem to fall away into darkness – offering a new way of composing with the tiles as a group, focusing on the negative spaces.
I got out my disco light to capture the surface of the concrete, using a side angle of light to accentuate the details. This provided some new sources of colour, great for developing some scarf designs later. The scarf design featured in this section, I would go on to call Disco.
I broke up the concrete tiles into fragments and photographed them in daylight and on a light box. I enjoyed arranging the pieces and started to look at the cross sections of the fragments. I use a lot of macro photography for close up work, ideal for these textures. Filling the camera frame with the surface detail means a small piece of concrete can evoke a whole landscape.
You can see the rest of the Concrete scarf collection here.
Paper, paper, paper, I’m obsessed with it. One of my early textile lessons at art college was to spend an hour creating as many new constructions or surface textures as possible – just using plain white paper and perhaps some scissors and cello tape to help us. I loved it. If this was textiles – I was hooked. I recommend this as any creative warm up activity. The simple act of moving 2d to 3d would become my ongoing inquiry. Paper is perfect for this exploration. Many years later, while brainstorming some workshop ideas for a year 12 class, I found an origami method on youtube. I wanted students to explore that move from working 2d to 3d. This mini video demonstrates how to make the box design. I explored a little mark making activity first with black pen and then went on to make the box.
For my Spring Summer 15 collection, I focused on paper, I called it my Out of the Fold collection. Everyone of the six or so designs were created using paper as a starting point. For the photo shoot, I returned to the origami box, this time scaling up the boxes in size to between 50-75cm in length. I varied the folding angles and made a series of irregular origami boxes to use a backdrop.
This scarf design, called Wall Cast was developed directly from this same origami box design. Back in my studio, while working on the paper collection, I folded fifty or so a4 sheets of paper into this box shape. I blu tac-ed them to the wall and lined them up in a group. I began to partly dismantle the folds and liked the ordered chaos ensuing. Here’s one of my only grainy pictures of that initial activity.
This became my wall of paper boxes, now simply paper folds, full of shadow and line. I needed some colour and went back to my digital projector to cast light and imagery onto the paper folds. The projection of imagery was interrupted by the various angles of paper and this in turn created an interesting new surface to capture. I photographed a series of different images projected onto paper folds – including the foil imagery. Here are a few examples from that series that were all combined to develop the Wall Cast scarf design.
That’s the three materials covered, foil, concrete and paper, forever to belong within my textile practice. I share these starting points with you as much to remind myself as well as inspire others to have a go. We are never far away from resources rich in potential. Even a paper clip can be deconstructed and photographed, probably looking futuristic and terrifying in the process! A good camera, thoughtful lighting and some experimental camera angles, this is my recipe for creating abstract imagery and moving materials into textiles.