Creative downtime in Devon

The summer is over and I reflect on one special week away last month that gave me lots of time to think and be creative.

My family and I were invited to participate in a creative field school at Ashridge in Devon, and despite not knowing much about what was in store, we took the very long and scenic route to Devon, down some scary narrow and steep lanes, the car full to the brim, and arrived many hours later, at the most beautiful hidden-away gem of a farm where we settled in for what became a week to remember (Devon via Stonehenge is a long way from Norfolk).

Over the first few hours we met the other intrepid creatives joining us for the time. We were all tasked with delivering one workshop during the week that everyone else, no matter what age, could attend. There were to be some communal meals, talks and evening events including a cabaret – less said about our contribution the better! There was even a printed book we all received ahead of the holiday with a schedule and other useful information in it but once in Ashridge the blackboard outside the studio became our go-to schedule, with times slipping as we relaxed in to the pace of the place. The one clear day from workshops saw us all explore in different directions, and rather unscheduled but special all the same was how we all chose to reconnect with the group when we returned home, back to the studio that evening to share our findings and keep creating.

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We learned different skills: from making natural rope using brambles and nettles, we made constructions to share with the group, we made zoopraxinoscopes (animations), boodie-ware picassiettes (mosaic plates), monoprints, ceramic pictographs with rubber stamps, printed aquariums, masks and sashes …

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My workshop was called Patterns of Ashridge and I started off by discussing how to draw and stylise natural forms to create patterns, inspired by illustrator Gwen White’s book, A World of Pattern, (left-hand image below) first published in 1957. Everyone committed to the exercise of drawing trees to illustrate a point about stylising through drawing, and then set about gathering things to study for their individual pattern ideas. There were some really successful outcomes completed as folded books, and lots of interesting conversations about what else could be done next.

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What felt so special was the shared time; the learning through the workshops and the time available for informal social gatherings. Coffee time at 11am, or afternoon tea was spent clutching the sewing project or nettle cordage as we embraced the new craft skills and helped each other remember what our workshop leader had told us. Having only met a few of the other people before this week, we all took the time to share the experience. We found common grounds; the shared networks including academics in common.

We all appreciated the lack of internet connection and took pleasure in the secluded and peaceful environment of Ashridge. We swam in the sea, explored in the river, picked blackberries and generally appreciated the natural world around us, including newts and owls – it all felt many worlds away from the everyday routines we find ourselves launching back in to as the Autumn comes.

We send a huge thanks to Des and family for such a wonderful and generous experience!

I shall be talking about Gwen White and her books at the Women in Print symposium at the House of Illustration on the 16th September.

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The church kneeler above was from Modbury Church, Devon – there’ll be another post about those in due course!

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creative sparks in Armenia

Combining a design career with an academic role often means my weeks are busy and varied, but I had a week at the beginning of this month that was very different to the rest! I’ve been lucky enough to be given an amazing experience as academic at Norwich University of the Arts – a trip to Armenia. The university was successful in securing a British Council bid to work with students at the Tumo Institute in Yerevan, Armenia to help students to create design work with the aim of making products to sell when they come to work at the university in a few weeks time. This is speed educating! A team of three of us, Will – a business mentor from the university, Mia – a graduate from the BA in Textile Design and me – the lead subject academic. Fortunately we all got on brilliantly, complimenting each others’ skills and all being very happy to adapt in order to make the most of the experience. I was only able to be there a few days, while the other two stayed longer.

The journey was long, transferring in Istanbul and we arrived in Yerevan in the middle of the night so it wasn’t until the morning that we could see what the city looked like. We had some time to rest, so we didn’t! … and instead got up and explored … of course! The architecture was a mix of Modernist Brutalism, Art Deco and Post-Modernism mainly and a pink stone was dominant. Many of the buildings featured wonderful carvings and at many points all three of us were heads and cameras up capturing the city. The food in Yerevan was a complete hit with us and I could have stayed far longer and become far wider. Everywhere we went there was wonderful fresh produce: cheeses and meats, pastries, vegetables and breads, all beautifully presented. Luckily we were all happy to share the dishes to ensure we could try as much as possible.

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There was much excitement as we went to meet the team of students we were going to be working with, and we took examples of our work to introduce ourselves as well as a general plan, and open ears, so we could discuss with them all their own creative ambitions. These first few days were really important to get the project up and running before I had to return to the UK. Tumo studios was set up on the first floor of what was previously home to a wealthy family and there were signs of the better days including murals on the ceilings and ornate tiles. The workshop spaces were really inspiring, catering for print, ceramics, jewellery, sewing and more. Products made by students were available for sale too.

Everyone was very friendly and helpful, as well as really excited to get stuck in. We shared our ideas and thoughts about the project and Mia and I talked briefly through some of our own work. The first afternoon went by quickly and then the three of us were off to explore the city again – I really wanted to see Mount Ararat – the mountain taller than Mont Blanc, (and apparent resting place of Noah’s ark) that has in history been on Armenian soil, but is now behind a Turkish border. We climbed steps and more steps to the highest part of the city giving us views over the varied levels of prosperity in the capital . With sunglasses on, when there was a break in the clouds we could just spot the snow and shady top of Ararat, but sadly the view was not easily captured on camera – Wikipedia has better pics!

The next day was a very long but hugely inspiring one. With our local guides and our researcher eyes in we set off to visit three fabulous places to gain inspiration. The city museum presented the history of Armenia. We learned about traditions, society, historic events and politics, and of course the section about the Armenian genocide was hugely upsetting. We were not allowed to take photographs there but we had other places to go so we crossed the city, including a short trip on the metro (it has one line) to get to the Folk Museum. This was a smaller museum but packed with so much beauty! Here we heard about and saw the traditional crafts and our guide explained the processes, tools and materials involved. I took many photographs! The lace and filigree were particular favourites of mine.

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We were full of inspiration but needed energy so lunch was in a restaurant with our hosts helping us to navigate a menu of local dishes – I had lamb soup with pomegranate and mint – it was very good! Soon we were whisked off to the carpet museum / factory and the journey was a great opportunity to see more of the city and suburbs. It was fascinating to hear the history of carpet / rug making in Armenia and I even had a go at learning the right knot but I was very slow in comparison – there is video footage somewhere – and in the picture below, top row, right hand side, you can see my four cream coloured tufts that they have no doubt got rid of once I turned my eyes!

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The colours used to dye the yarns are still made from natural ingredients and it was right up Mia’s street! There were some secret ingredients of course! We were all inspired by the sights, stories and the motifs, border patterns and processes involved. What an amazing day. We headed back to the studio to think about what we had seen, captured some ideas on some post-it notes and discussed the plans for the next day. Another evening of foraging fabulous food in the restaurants of Yerevan did us well – we all ate too much again.

My final full day was spent in Tumo studios leading some workshops to develop the projects. Will, Mia and I planned the next week of workshops and activities, sharing all our different knowledge and experience, alongside talking through the individual ideas with the participants. I ran a session about motif and composition development and it was fascinating to see how differently these young people took on the challenge compared to the undergraduates in England I have worked with. These students were far happier to play with the process and not worry about it not working, and gave the testing much more time. Can this be the different schooling? Several attempts at the same thing, sharing and much discussion, lots of giggling and trying again got us to where we needed to be, lunch!

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We decided to eat all together in the studio so we ordered in food, (I tried cheese soup – it really is like fondue) and as we sat together we tried to learn some of the language … we laughed a lot. We were also bought a local honey cake to try which was very good. In the afternoon I led a practical session about repeat patterns and design rhythms, and again we talked through individual ambitions for design ideas and product potential. The participants will be heading to Norwich next month to develop and resolve product outcomes to test in a commercial setting. We discussed differences between Norwich and Yerevan and about the next phase of the project. At times we had visitors popping in to see what was going on but we kept on track and too soon I was having to say my farewells and leave the group – with the silver lining of knowing I’d see them in Norwich in May.

One more meal, a final evening with Will and Mia, a supermarket sweep around a 24/7 shop to buy gifts, back to the hotel to pack up, a twenty minute nap and that was that, it was Thursday – I flew out of Yerevan in the very early hours, swapping ‘planes in Istanbul and on to home.

I was so sad to leave the people and city, and was so envious that Mia and Will had another week to see more. In only a few days I had experienced somewhere so interesting that before getting there had felt daunting. Everyone we met were so friendly, helpful and proud of the city and country. I had the chance to learn about a different country and textile culture while working on a really different project, testing my teaching in a very different situation. It really was a great opportunity, hooray for saying yes!

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Thanks to Will and Mia for some of the photography and being such great team mates!

Letter box spotting

I shared this photograph on instagram earlier this week and thought it appropriate here too. I have lots of collections and I’ve mentioned several on the blog over the last few years. Some are from certain times in my life, this being one of those.

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During the 1990s I was fascinated by the post and all things related. In student holidays I worked in the Royal Mail sorting offices in Leeds & Norwich, sorting and delivering mail, day & night and was even offered a permanent job – but I went back to graduate in design! I still have my uniform belt & badge, I wore number LS394.

Much of this time I was a student and I was attracted to the graphic qualities of the imagery related to the system of handling post too. I loved the labels and sacks and used some of this language in my final major project on my degree course in Printed Textile Design. I also discovered the GPO Len Lye films etc and couldn’t believe money was spent on such avant garde films to encourage people to post early for Christmas. I love the fact I held in my hands people’s exam results, postcards and letters to Father Christmas and helped distribute them across the world. I liked working the nights with huge machinery that I fed with post as it sort. It was a great feeling to be part of the huge system. For my training I and a dozen others were trained to sort post without error and had to sit an exam to prove it, in order to work the shifts – I still remember too many postcodes, and my geography of Britain improved! My interest in everyday design around me was fuelled … and I’m pleased one of my design heroes David Mellor designed a box. I’d love to design a Royal Mail stamp!

I also loved spotting the different post box designs up and down the country and before  knew it I had rather a few! These photographs include locations across Britain, France, Spain, Israel, Denmark, taken by me and loyal / tolerant friends. Some photographs are very poor quality but the prints on Kodak paper are something of my past. I used to wallpaper my student room with new additions as I got them back from the developers. Thanks to all those people who helped – I’m not sure what to do with them now but let me know if you recognise any of the locations! I have more than this image shows but it gives you an idea of the collection. I’m not sure I’ll start collecting these again but it was a nice trip down memory lane to discover them again.

New / old horizons

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, and it’s been a life-changing couple of months. Resigning from my academic role at Birmingham City University and relocating the family to Norfolk was a huge decision for us all, but we are out the other side, living in Norfolk, settling in and enjoying the change of scene. I’ve taken up a new role as Course Leader for both the BA Textile Design course and the BA Fashion course at Norwich University of the Arts, and I’ve received a warm welcome. I’m enjoying spending time back in central Norwich too and the campus is made up of some fabulous buildings, see below.

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I knew the change in environment was going to be for the better but I’d underestimated quite how good it would be. Commuting to work on a bus rattling along the country lanes is a world away from the streets and railway tracks of Birmingham. We are making sure we are out in the landscape as much as possible and visiting new and old places to find our feet including Rockland St. Mary, Ranworth and Winterton. I feel as if I can breathe more deeply, and yes, their will be more photographs of reeds and the drawings may well feature horizontal lines!

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The end of an era at textilesBCU

If you follow me on any other social media channel you will be well aware I had an amazing send-off by my colleagues at BCU last week. After almost thirteen and a half years working on the BA Textile Design course as lecturer / senior lecturer, and for the last two and a half years as course director it is time to move on.

This staff team have been amazing to work with and it was a hard decision to go, but as I’ve written before, there’s more to life than work, and we want a change of scene for our family. I have worked hard to deliver five big lectures in my final three weeks and decided to end with a series of slides to remember (with the final slide copied below) – as well as hand-over the role to colleagues, empty an office and say farewell to dear friends and students. Here are some pictures from the last week.

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I have been overwhelmed by the number of cards and gifts I have been given, some beautifully hand-made or carefully sourced – so thoughtful! I was also delighted to receive a table-top hand loom I had wanted for a few years now – an old 8 shaft Harris loom warped up by the amazing Sheila, and a beautiful chair, with special thanks to Kelly-Marie, Brenda and Kavita as it has printed upholstery featuring quotes from staff and students past and present that brings tears to my eyes as I read the kind comments. There is also an assessment sheet on the back of the chair – a tradition I started many years ago as I presented staff with their own as they left, so indeed it was my turn – I passed!

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My final day was marked by a third year send-off I could not have predicted – a parachute ride for a textile mini-me from the third floor in Parkside. What precious memories! I send a huge thank you to everyone who helped make this a celebration and who have shared their appreciation of my efforts over my time at BCU. It’s a small world and I know I will cross paths with these wonderful people again!

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Plot 8

This summer has been a funny one for harvest on the allotment. The long period of heat and lack of rain resulted in tiny potatoes and very  late runner beans but somehow despite this, vast marrows! This year of gardening has been rather chaotic, with sparse visits fitted in around our working patterns and family life, but once I’ve made the time and put in the effort to get there I have always really appreciated the head space the plot gives me in a somewhat full-on / stressful academic / design career. An hour of digging is so good for my mind and body, far better than any gym visit. Connecting with nature helps me register the seasons, and home-grown fruit and vegetables are the best!

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This year started off like any other: hoping for bumper crops, trying to stay on top of the weeds, while trying to clear old ground for new patches of earth to cultivate. Then an opportunity arrived and we made a big decision that has been in the back of our minds to make for a while, couldn’t work out how to do it, but is now coming true. We are leaving Birmingham and moving to the country – Norfolk to be precise (yes I was born there, no I’m not going home) – where I am taking up a new academic role, and it’s all-change! Anyone with a sense of British geography knows we will be nearer the sea, we will see more sky, and the horizon will be flatter! We are not moving up or down, we are moving across!

This process has been taking shape over the summer months and during this time I’ve had to come to terms with leaving plot 8, in an allotment site in south Birmingham that I’ve worked so hard on, dug intimately and harvested crops from since 2006. My children have slept in their prams in all weathers as I’ve carried on digging, they’ve chewed on runner beans when teething and learned to grow their own plants too – as well as digging large pits to fill with grass seeds, much to my horror! I’ve dug alongside friendly birds, untangled a hedgehog from the bindweed and been startled by a fox; it’s rarely lonely at the site. I’ll never tire of the first scent of sweet peas each year. Here are a few images from over the years:

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I’ve written many posts here about the plot and the process of growing food, colours, harvests, the community spirit and the way it has inspired my first commercial collection of patterns: Plot to Plate, launched in 2012. I’ve made many editions of prints as a result of mapping the crops growing here. The joys of growing my own food were celebrated in the design featuring tools used on the Plot to Plate title design across tea towels. Without this space – this haven of nature in the big city, I would have struggled far more from living here. As I worked at the allotments I would often think of all the shoppers in the Bullring on a Saturday afternoon, wondering why they made their choice to do so, rather than garden like me.

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This post is written to register the anticipation and excitement of change despite the vast upheaval, both physically and emotionally: saying goodbye to friends and colleagues who have shaped the last 13 years of my life, as well as this plot, that has paid its part in taking care of me. We’ve gathered the tools, taken our last harvest, handed back the keys and now hope that someone else will feel the joy of plot 8 in years to come!

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women designers, lost and found

Sometimes themes seem to rattle around in my head, connecting with other dialogues I have had. Last week I attended a really interesting Study Day at the House of Illustration as part of the Women in Print series organised by Desdemona McCannon on the theme of Enid Marx and contemporaries. The subject of women’s careers, and specifically their profile compared with their male counterpoints was discussed – not a new idea, but as a recurring theme I thought it worth revisiting here. In the same week Stylist magazine featured an article about the price of artwork made by women compared to men. It was such a coincidence I’ll expand some thoughts here.

It’s not a secret that women often have a harder time gaining recognition in many lines of work in comparison to their male peers. I wrote in a previous blog post about Eric Ravilious and friends at Compton Verney that it certainly wasn’t lack of skill that kept the women such as Helen Binyon from comparable public attention, and therefore further opportunities through their careers. There are highly talented women in history who we are only just giving air-time to, but the fact is their careers may not have excelled in the way their male counterparts did, or if they did they may well have been paid less for the work because they were women.

Enid Marx chose not to take issue with gender-bias in her career, and got on with a multi-disciplined design portfolio, with impressive outputs including books, textiles and patterns which were beautifully communicated through the exhibition at the House of Illustration (sorry it’s just ended!) – but you can visit Compton Verney instead. We got to see the exhibition as well as listen to knowledgeable speakers such as Enid Marx expert Lottie Crawford giving a really insightful illustrated paper about the legacy that Enid Marx and her peers have created for us today, as well as Jane Audas taking us through a fascinating journey of clients and sales put in to a broader context of who’s who.

I have heard people wonder why we need to make a point about this being a gender issue, but I would say that this has been said from a male perspective, and not from those being subjected now and in the future to selective opportunities due to gender. As a woman designer, and female academic training mostly women to have design careers where there is a history of undervaluing female contribution, I remain concerned.

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It is sometimes the case that research can be discovered more easily about men because they were promoted more and as a result have a higher profile, whether through greater self-confidence, the social / commercial networks or marketing material, from family or company archives, past exhibitions or publications. During the study day in London the point was made that there was also a sense that women got on with the designing, often alongside raising a family or carrying out other domestic tasks. Did they lack the opportunity to promote themselves, didn’t see the need, or couldn’t find the time? Working in isolation at home can certainly challenge one’s self-belief compared to working in an office with colleagues who can praise you and your work as and when required. This reminds me of the freelance work of Sheila Bownas, almost accidentally discovered and collected by Chelsea Cefai, and brought to a new appreciative public in the last few years. The family knew little of the extent of her prolific output of designs as a textile designer until Chelsea pieced the jigsaw together, and thank goodness we know of her now!

There is another consideration here. Does the discipline these women are working in make a difference to their profile? Enid Marx worked across illustration and textiles, but her illustrations are better known. Is this because as an illustrator your name is usually on the cover of the book, even if it is on the inside, or on the poster? For freelance textile designers it can be quite different. The name of the company is usually printed as legend details on the selvedge, but historically not always the name of the designer. If this is the case we may never trace the designer. This remains the case today in industry when big name brands buy in freelance patterns and the designer’s name is not carried through.

The article in Stylist compares Mark Rothko and his fine art paintings to Anni Albers’ textile practice; the subject of a show coming to Tate this Autumn. When the Bauhaus opened its doors in Germany in the Twentieth century the founder, Walter Gropius, stated anyone could study any discipline, and yet the women were rather heavily steered towards the weaving workshop, considered suitable for women. That was where Anni Albers learned her skill, fell in love with the teacher Josef Albers, took his name on marriage and continued to live in his shadow; he led a fine art practice of painting while she made textiles. I can’t wait to see the Anni Albers show – and for Anni to have the publicity men with lesser creative careers have had before.

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Craft, seen as a second-rate subject to Fine Art is part of the discussion throughout the article in Stylist, and it also makes the point that textiles is seen as a domestic activity, thanks to the increased leisure time during Victorian era. Grayson Perry has made significant strides in opening up the conversation about value of craft, but far more needs to be done to change opinions. As an academic one of my biggest concerns is the lack of respect textile design currently receives as a subject in the education curriculum and agenda. It’s becoming one of my catch phrases but I really mean it – we all wear pants! How can textiles be seen predominantly as a past-time, a hobby – when we all wear textiles, sleep under textiles and protect ourselves with textiles? How dare this government puts at risk the supply chain of future textile designers because it doesn’t see it as important enough to be a GCSE? Fashion is nothing without textiles, and this industry is one of the big ones on the global stage – don’t get me started on that!

Refocusing back on the study day, we also discussed the nature of research carried out by women, and that the particular approach / nature of research writing holds a female voice that may not be considered intellectual enough; often relating to social networks, domestic arrangements and family life. Several female audience members agreed that they doubted their own confidence when finding their research voice alongside the traditional academic tone / content they believed was expected by their male counterparts. Are women undermining themselves and lacking confidence in their own abilities?

I don’t have the answers but this is not a conversation that should stop. More dialogues involving men and women about historical and contemporary design practice, craft and textiles are needed. There is not one way, this is not binary, but we need to make sure the different voices, approaches, strategies and practices in the creative subjects and beyond are given a platform. The diverse ways of being whatever it is we are should be valued, and represented by a diverse community. Wouldn’t it be lovely if talent and opportunity were really the key ingredients for building profiles, gaining opportunities, and writing about it!

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