My involvement with, The Museum of Object Research, is giving me the chance to explore how an object works within my own art practice. I wanted an object that would relate to previous work, and fit in with the idea of a of the possibility of a feminine, phenological response to materials. I chose the handbag, partly because of a mild obsession but also because for me it works as a perfect feminine archetype.
“The handbag is one of our most debated, most gendered cultural artefacts. It can be a powerful status symbol, and is a universally recognised indicator of femininity.” Sandra Mardin. Semioticist
My own preoccupation with them began in childhood, standing at a stall at a Bring and Buy sale, and the dawning realisation that I could buy nine used handbags with my pocket money, equivalent to the price of a Mars bar today. They were all shapes and sizes in different materials; leather, moc croc, plastic and textile. The thing that stuck though and remained with me throughout my life, was the used-ness of them, what today would be described as being, pre-loved. The surface of the bags bore graphic traces that evidenced the previous owners/wearers, their scent and their very battered-ness, resonated and hinted at, other lives. And I loved them all.
In retrospect, I think this early, multiple-bag exposure, set in train, a heightened perception of and material sensitivity to old bags. I would give anything to see them again. And this has made me think of the long succession of bags that followed, I remember them all in graphic detail, I could even draw them for you…
“…handbags are in some way linked to the feminine and one would have to see a direct link with the womb…” Rosalind Mayo
The idea of the handbag performing as a cipher for the womb in dream analysis, was started by Freud and continues to seep into the culture today. It seems I have chosen an object which carries multifarious, perceptual and literal baggage and so this stage of the project: to identify and define possible areas of work, has not been easy. During this research phase, I began to notice certain commonalities to do with, bag behaviour. At a party, the hostess noticed that I was carrying a small shoulder bag. She joked with me about this being a safe place to put it down and seeing my reluctance, ushered me to a point under the stairs where there was what seemed to be a whole flock of women’s bags all clustered together forming a circle. There was something so tender about this and memories of being in busy clubs and saying to strangers, “could I leave my bag with yours?” came to mind. Safety in numbers perhaps, but I find it hard to imagine a parallel situation with men and their briefcases or man bags, of which more later.
I couldn’t bear to end up as an Elvis Presley and sing in Las Vegas with all those housewives and old ladies come in with their handbags. It’s really sick. Mick Jagger
Interested in the physical evidence of wear, I began a series of bag portraits starting with my own, I treated it exactly as if it was a human sitter. I side-lit the model and placed it on a white background. Then asked friends to come with their bags and sit with me as I drew, while we discussed their bag behaviour. At this point, the project took on an identity of its own, complete with illuminating anomalies, tangents and emotional projections. One friend was “traumatised” when she put her favourite bag in the post, another was so conflicted, she became unable to choose between two of her favourites. The husband of another woman insisted on her giving me a particular bag that he “loved”, but she herself did not and had barely used. There were times when I found myself cheating and breaking self-imposed rules. Each bag seemed to demand it’s own medium, also, I wanted the bags to face me, all in the same position, to do that, I had to pack them out, to make them stand up properly and found myself filling them with whatever came to hand, glasses cases, candles, baked bean tins…Putting my hand inside another woman’s handbag felt decidedly weird.
“Bags also serve as the portable manifestation of a woman’s sense of self, a detailed and remarkably revealing map of her interior, an omnium-gatherum of myriad aspects of her life…”
And then, talking and simultaneously drawing the model, something I have always managed before, now became difficult, as I was forced to turn my head away from the subject. When I did have a bag to myself, (contrary to expectation) I was able to engage more deeply and with no constraints, would work for hours. But insights from the feedback given by the bag-owners, kept coming and helped me focus. One participant recounted fetching her mother’s handbag and having to hold it at arm’s length, not wanting it to touch her body as it would have made her uncomfortable. This brought up something I have often encountered, bag awe, most noticeable around your mother’s handbag, but in a lesser way, an indefinable aura pertaining to all women’s handbags.
“Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law. That is why I carry a big handbag.” Margaret thatcher
With all this talk of handbags, a memory surfaced, of being at a late-night party and a slightly squiffy friend, unable or unwilling to find an ashtray, found an unattended handbag, opened it, flicked her ash into it and casually carried on smoking, occasionally tipping her ash on the rim. Finally, she ground out the butt with the heel of her shoe, flipped it into the bag and snapped it shut. I have never got over the shock and sense of transgression, how could she…? When I recently recounted this story to a friend she looked suitably shocked and said,
“Yes, that’s like spitting in someone’s face.”
Part II follows.
All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.
I am not a natural learner. Well, not in the traditional, educational model of; linear, sequential, bite-sized chunks type learning, which as a child, I found hard to swallow. The nearest technical term for my learning style, is probably, non-linear, but I would describe it as an; holistic, phenomenal, sporadic, and insightful event, which can come without warning and on a good day, is an overwhelming, 3D, synapse-sparking experience. These insights are often generated at and between, media boundaries especially at the point of crossing over. Recently, I have had a whomping-great, word/picture, head-opening insight. I was practically talking-in-tongues… but I’m getting carried away and to make sense of these insights and to satisfy the need to share, I must backtrack to come forwards.
Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you are pierced. Aldous Huxley
As readers of previous blogs will know, I am an artist, though these days, the link is a bit tenuous as I spend a lot of my time writing. I come from a large family of five children and although not poor, money was tight, which may have been why people felt compelled to give us vast quantities of books, sometimes a whole lifetime’s worth. The books piled up in the attic and we children, roamed and read at will. From age ten, I devoured an eclectic and heady mix. Here is a small sample, in no particular order; Little Women, The Last Days and Death of Hitler, The Carpet Baggers, Lorna Doone and Biggles, interspersed with everything by Agatha Christie and Ray Bradbury. This resulted in un-holy, non-hierarchical couplings. So, it’s not surprising my first attempt at oil painting, was copied from a book, an illustration from Gulliver’s Travels. Crossover: reading/painting.
Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth. Ursula K. Le Guin
In my twenties, I taught English as a foreign language and forced to draw on my strengths, made extensive use of the whiteboard and marker pen, to invent, lightening quick, on-the-spot, brain drawings, to explain and reinforce, things like prepositions (1.) Flash cards followed and soon words and pictures melded and elicited language. Crossover: drawing/spoken words
Later on, in Adult Education, as a teacher of drawing and painting, to expand student’s technique, I made lists of step-by-step instructions to fit images of de-constructed paintings. At this time, I was also exhibiting my own work commercially, detailed still-lives of objects with printed text on the packaging, Sherbet Dabs come to mind, and a book by my then favourite author, Iris Murdoch. Later still, were magazine and book contributions, road-testing, paint reviews and demonstrations, all discussed painting techniques and this type of writing became a habitual way of reflectively, documenting process – I still seem to be doing it… (2.) Crossover: printed text/painting.
The word is a verb and the verb is God. Victor Hugo
But it wasn’t until I ventured back to university that I consciously used words as a medium in my art practice. To accommodate the difficult transition between figurative and conceptual art, I moved into sculpture and while revelling in all the new learning, discovered Richard Serra’s famous Verb List (1967-68). He used verbs like; to chop, to spill, to cut, as a vehicle to create work, incorporating industrial materials like steel. He used verbs in an overtly masculine way, which prompted me to hijack and subvert some of the more ambiguous ones like; to cover, to flow and to fold, and feminise them within my own work. Eventually I used new ones like, to nurture and to augment. The use of verbs as a constraint, kept the work pared down to its essentials. (3. & 4.) Crossover: conceptual art-speak/sculpture.
After university, I wrote a blog about my art practice which precipitated a profound change. In retrospect, I think the drip effect of regular writing allowed words to insinuate themselves as my primary medium. Three years on, I have a novel, Indian Yellow, which at the moment is languishing in Intensive Care, undergoing various treatments, each time I have another insight. My lust for knowledge is undiminished but now creative cross-currents flow between art and writing which enables me to utilise the famous, Sentences about Conceptual Art, by Sol Lewitt, which were my mantra at university. All apply equally well to writing and these two are especially pertinent. (3.) Crossover: art practice/journaling
No. 6. If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.
No. 22. The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.
Now drawing flows into and informs my writing, for example, I have learned (through tedious repetition), it is better at the start of a portrait, not to commit to any singular feature too soon, rather, keep the drawing loose until an accurate foundation is established. In writing terms, this would equate to a speedy, loose first draft and to let the theme emerge naturally to avoid over-committing too early. Crossover: preliminary sketch/first draft.
You never try to push a noun against a verb without trying to blow up something. H.L. Menken
And lately, reducing my overall adverb limit, in an attempt to improve my writing, less is more, has forced to my verbs pull their weight, stand on their own feet, so to speak. And that’s when it happened…reading late into the night, I became aware of other writer’s verbs behaving oddly/badly/brilliantly (adverb count blown), sometimes in unexpected ways and at others, completely out of their original context. I could see that these intentional shifts, augmented the verbs with added feeling and extra reaching power, as here:
“Mammy exploded the cutlery on the kitchen table.” From Electric Souk, by Rose McGinty.
This tells you so much about Mammy. And below, two fairly ordinary verbs used to extraordinary effect.
“The driveway unfolded in a lazy ache and I looked up to the house, its wide face rubbed to orange by the late sun.” from Light, by C. M. Taylor.
The use of unfolded, gives a heightened sense of ennui and, rubbed, makes physical, an invisible weathering process.
And finally, in The Good Son, by Paul McVeigh, the rambunctious spirit of the book, is for me, encapsulated within the dialogue and I couldn’t help noticing what was going on with the verbs.
“Ma I’m away on.”
I shout to the yard.
“Did you get washed?”
Ma shouts back.
The verb-treatment here, lends vernacular authenticity, especially Ma’s passively voiced, get washed, which helps me see, Ma and gives new meaning to term, phrasal verb. Crossover: words/visual image.
So that’s about where I am now, reading with my new, verb-watching antennae on and enjoying art and literature, showing-off and swashing around together, as well as intermittent attempts to defibrillate my novel…whilst surreptitiously starting a new one, called Bleu, God help me.
I thought art was a verb, rather than a noun. Yoko Ono
Richard Serra’s Verb List. https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2011/10/20/to-collect/
Sol LeWitt’s Sentences for Conceptual Art. http://www.altx.com/vizarts/conceptual.html
Paul McVeigh https://paulmcveighwriter.com/
In the month between my mother’s death in November and her funeral in December, delayed because of a backed up, (their words) crematorium, I existed in a state of limbo and found it impossible to settle down to anything that required more than a modicum of intellectual effort. I have often heard it said that the grieving process can’t begin until after the funeral and now I know what they mean.
During that hollow time, my intuitive husband whisked me off to Marrakesh for a few days, a welcome distraction, though unreal in the sense that it was punctuated with moments of vertiginous remembering: Oh, yes that’s right, my mother has died. Even at the funeral, which was lovely in its’ generous and eclectic rounding up of her life, still I felt removed, not quite there. And then without pause, another distraction, Christmas with its revving up towards excess.
In the first week of the new year, I decided to open my mother’s sewing box, with which I have a complicated relationship, hence the procrastination. Lifting the lid triggered the same magnetic pull from childhood, filled as it was with mysteriously, strange and desirable objects. Mostly Mum kept us at bay, it was her work box, an essential repair kit, from which she patched, darned, buttoned, hemmed, and mended. Only occasionally did she allow us to play with the contents of the button tin, which magpie-shiny, always yielded unexpected treasure.
Of all the things, we should’ve said
That we never said
All the things we should’ve done
Though we never did
Kate Bush This Woman’s Work (from The Sensual World)
There were other things in that box that I have never fully registered before, three generations-worth of; material off-cuts, leftovers, ribbons, tapes, even bits of old knicker elastic, all carefully rolled into neat little make-do-and-mend parcels, tucked away against future lack. Something about those tender little bundles waiting to be useful, mirrored and amplified my own regret about good intentions towards my mother, not fulfilled.
And before I could quickly shut the lid, stop up the dam, hold back the flood, I felt myself coming undone. I’ll spare the details but it was messy and went on for some time. Eventually, a tiny idea began to fight its way through the misery:the realization that I could transform the box into art and that I had the necessary ability to change its original function, thereby neutralzsing any negative affect, without having to destroy the physical object.
Take your broken heart and make it art. Carrie Fischer.
I went to bed exhausted and during the night, art, not for the first time came to the rescue by downloading into my brain, very precise instructions as how to transform the box. First, I emptied it and spent a whole day sorting and categorising its contents. Although hard, the womanly process of re-rolling and packaging was comforting. The next step was to replace broken hinges and then cover it with fine printing paper which was inclined to wrinkle. This gave me deep, inexplicable satisfaction. Then I painted and waxed the surface of the box until it felt right.
We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey. Kenji Miyazawa
It took the best part of a week to cut and roll bits of material from my collection of used women’s clothes and household fabrics, gleaned from charity shops. The rolls, although cut the same size, had to be painstakingly trimmed to fit. Once in place, I slit the padded lid, and replaced some of its innards with tumble-dryer fluff, from washing the used clothes.
Once finished, I felt better. The sewing box, my mother’s work box, still reflects women’s work but the emotional pain of looking at it is diminished. But it is only now, as I write this, I can see that the box is really a tribute to my mother’s tireless sacrifices and celebration of the constant thread that runs throughout and unifies my practice.
What we have once enjoyed deeply we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us. Helen Keller
This is the first piece of work in a new series called; Displacement.
On a recent weekend away, to walk and think, on looking at a map, I discovered that Monk’s House the previous home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, was only a few miles away. I was unable to ignore the magnetic pull of its pared down authenticity expressive of an essential and pure truth that still lingers from past occupants.
On my last visit, I met Marie Bartholomew, a room steward and giver of garden talks. On the morning in March 1941, when Virginia Woolf went out for a walk and didn’t come back, Marie was there. She was then the gardener’s nine year old daughter, she has rich and detailed memories that extend well beyond that particular day, and she is able to paint an oral picture of the comings and goings of people and contextual flavour of the times, from the general to the exquisitely specific.
On that first visit, I had an instinct to draw her but there was no time. This time, I managed to turn up on her once a week visit to the house. She was wearing a highly patterned jumper and talking animatedly about plumbing, she really does know everything. This time I didn’t want her to get away, so I asked to sit for me. It was soon arranged that another room steward would cover for her and we agreed to meet in the garden in twenty minutes. I decided to warm up my pencil with a drawing of a bust of Virginia made by Stephen Tomlin and located in the green sitting room. The bust is famous for being half finished due to Virginia’s inability to bear Tomlin’s necessary scrutiny which caused her to abandon the sittings.
There is something perceptually marvellous about copying a famous art work. I have always been an inveterate copier, as a child I copied all my favourites, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Vermeer, Van Gogh etcetera but it was only as an adult once I got to see the originals that I understood how much I had been missing. It is my firm belief that some trace/stain/essence remains. In the case of the Tomlin bust, despite or perhaps because of its unfinished rawness, I felt a classical sensibility underpinning the work.
Ironically, I couldn’t finish it because of my appointment with Marie. We sat (Marie’s choice) in the garden in not ideal conditions as we were on the same bench, usually I prefer a bit of distance and Marie was worried about her dark lenses. However, the light was amazing and I could really see her. Marie Louise Bartholomew, named after a pear, is an amazing person and repository of endless anecdotal illustrations. She is a living link with the past and at eighty-seven, I really hope someone, the National Trust perhaps, will tape her memories for future generations.
I continued to work on both drawings from memory at home, something I don’t often do. It made me reflect on why I am driven to try and capture some unspecified, uncanny, ephemeral thing from strangers in passing and how lucky I am that my own process is founded on early study, through ‘A’ level History of Art and History of Architecture and what a loss for artistic young people now, the ruthless incursion into the present educational system, will be.
The land of Literature is a fairyland to those who view it from a distance, but like all other landscapes the charm fades on nearer approach, and the thorns and briars become visible.
It seems I have difficulty with the truth. It became evident when I set out to write a memoir about my Indian adventures, to leave for my grandchildren. Very soon I came hard up against the limitations of truth; real life just doesn’t fit into satisfying, creative shapes, even when you leave out the boring bits. Within six months, I was tentatively exploring fiction. That was nearly three years ago. One miserable and depressingly cold day, I sat down to write in an attempt to cut myself adrift from the truth that was keeping me safely moored in the doldrums. It was so cold I grabbed the dog’s blanket, threw it over my knees and began to write.
And then it happened, like Cixous, I went off writing, the blanket tucked around my knees, was like being in a sleigh, no ordinary sleigh, but one that H. G. Wells might have used for his time machine. The sense of unlimited freedom and infinite possibility, gave me a head rush. Of course, these feelings did not last, but I never forgot that first, safe, physical cocooning that precipitated the mental abandoning, necessary for the creation of fiction.
The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life; which helps us regain our equilibrium. Norbert Platt
After a while, I began to seriously miss making art, and drawing, which I always somehow maintain, was not enough. I decided to make a blanket in the evenings as a counterpoint to the daily mental effort. And mindless crochet was perfect, muscle memory meant not having to look or even think much about what I was doing. But the decisions about colour and texture were another matter altogether. My source materials were a disparate collection of leftover wool from various projects, plus, ancient family inheritances with their accompanying emotional attachments. I chose and applied colour harmonies, with runs and reversals, according to my mood.
Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself. Franz Kafka
In the beginning, the words flowed easily and I thought they were all great. After initial success, I was felled by pride: What am I doing? It’s all rubbish and any way I could never be as good as; Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolfe Iris Murdoch etc, etc. And then it got much, much harder, bleak, anxious days where words were policed with self-doubt. But gradually I applied myself to the craft of writing, through the explorations of generous authors. And always a voracious, if eclectic reader, I reread my favourite books, through a deconstructing lens. In the evenings, the blanket grew, but I still had no idea of its final shape or function.
I start with the idea of constructing a treehouse and end up with a skyscraper made of wood.
Eventually I decided that the blanket must be for my mother, who at ninety-six still finds it difficult to relax during the day, so I thought this might help. Deciding on its function, determined the ultimate size and shape of the final blanket. And suddenly it was finished, a whole, a thing in itself with its own identity. I had never taken two and a half years to do anything, much less commit myself before starting. Up until that point, I had never really believed that I might actually finish the book, now I could see that it was possible.
The blanket ran parallel to the book and mirrored its process, it insulated, and protected tender budding ideas, it was my cloak, my mantle, my security blanket. The finishing of it, was a timely fruiting, a natural end, and now that it’s gone (not literally, it’s in St Albans with my mother) it’s time to finish the book.
Writing is not something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards. Robert A. Heinlein