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I read with great interest and admiration that my friend Stuart Mayes has been blogging on a-n for ten years, and with a quick glance at my archive, realise that I’m coming up to my 6th anniversary this summer.

I think people are either avid bloggers or reluctant ones. To write consistenty for ten, or even six years, shows you have to love it. It wouldn’t be sustainable otherwise.

My Mum was a diarist, contemplated life at the end of every day, and wrote her thoughts privately, and in her latter years, made me promise to burn them without reading them. Which I did. Slightly regretfully, but if she thought it needed doing before someone got their hands on them, then that’s what had to be done! If she had been around in these times, I’m convinced it would all be out there for the world to read, as she would be blogging instead!

Other artists have said to me how they can’t be bothered, because either they have no work so nothing to blog about, or so much work they haven’t time to blog. I wonder how many stalled blogs are sat on a-n’s pages?

It has to fulfil a purpose.
When I started, a few months into my MA, it was my tutor, the wonderful, inspiring Mitra Memarzia who suggested I blog as part of my practice… probably because I talk too much and she thought it might give her a break!
At first it wasn’t part of my practice really, it was a tag-on thing in which I self consciously explored what I was supposed to be doing. I am not an intellectual person. I do struggle with big words. Epistemology and Ontology have to be looked up EVERY SINGLE TIME because I can never remember exactly what they mean, or sometimes which is which. I have a mental blank, and I’m usually pretty good with words! But hey ho, that’s what the dictionary is for right? I also realise with age, experience and confidence that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter …so I don’t give a shit anymore.

This has perhaps been the biggest change in my blog over those years. I don’t really care what many people think. My practice is mine. I don’t turn up at hateful trendy PVs unless I feel like it, or unless someone I like will be there. I have stopped badgering a certain gallery with unsuitable proposals, because I have realised I will probably never fit with their programme, and I’m ok with that.

I have realised that my practice isn’t like anyone else because I’m not like anyone else. Not only is that ok, it’s how it is supposed to be. I plough my own furrow.

The blog is part of my practice. My thoughts and ideas are guided by what I have written, and what I write, and the writing guides my making. I can’t now do one without the other. It is through my blog that I went through the stupid process of not believing that the songwriting was part of the art, and that I shouldn’t be doing the two at the same time in the same place. It was through blogging that I accepted, and now can’t believe I ever thought otherwise! In March, I am due to reprise the nine women installation, bras, songs, and performance. This time, a mere 18 months from the original performance I am no longer apologising for myself, or seeking justification. I now recognise that the songs and the singing of them is part of who I am, and is part of my all-encompassing practice.

To not sing the songs is a denial of the complete artist.

Here I include a link to a recording of “Delicate” as performed live at the original event. Thanks also due here to Dan Whitehouse, singer, songwriter, producer, mentor and musical hero.
It includes a bit of banter and cock-up as is usual when I perform… for more banter and cock-ups please come on 24th March!


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Ah well… It’s all Arty-Bollocks… Right up to the point where you find something you have experienced, and can see it as real.
So, having finished my MA nearly five years ago, and having suppressed the urge to burn anything with Deleuze and Guattari written on the front, I now find myself in the confusing state of mind of wanting to quote a bit of Merleau-Ponty.

When it comes to matters academic, I am generally found reluctant and petulant. I find big words tricky. Some of them I have to look up in the dictionary EVERY DAMN TIME I encounter them!

But… I also find that my work cannot exist in a thought-free vacuum. In order to push on the material, the reality of the cloth and needle, in a meaningful and self-challenging manner, I must keep thinking. Otherwise, a steady downward spiral occurs, where the only reference is self-reference. To climb, you need stimulation to the point where your brain starts to itch.

So this week, I ordered two books: Daniel Miller “Stuff”, and Marius Kwint et al “Material Memories”. I read, allow their thoughts to attach themselves to what I already know, and sparks start to fly. I also know my limitations. I am unable to go to the original texts cited, as they make my ears bleed, but I am able to absorb those parts that have been initially digested and contextualised by someone cleverer. (Or maybe I’m just lazy?) So it is within the chapter written by Susan Stewart “From the Museum of Touch” in the Kwint volume that I come across not only my beloved Aristotle, but bloody Merleau-Ponty:

“I am able to touch effectively only if the phenomenon finds an echo within me, if it accords with a certain nature of my consciousness, and if the organ which goes out to meet it is synchronised with it. The unity and identity of the tactile phenomenon do not come about through any synthesis of recognition in the concept, they are founded upon the unity and identity of the body as a synergetic totality.”

How this becomes real to me is in the manner I go searching for materials. I rarely go looking with a list… Other than something vague like “children’s clothes” at the most. I prefer junk shops and vintage clothing specialists to charity shops. Charity shop clothing is these days too clean, too new.


If my husband is with me on these occasions he now knows to leave me, find himself coffee and newspaper and settle down for a good stretch.
Sight is first… I scan the rails, but I don’t really know what for… Colour, fabric, size.., the physical and visual… Style… Age maybe…
Touch is next… Texture, fabric, the seams and stitches, labels, trims…
Smell…I can’t bear fabric conditioner… It makes fabric slimy… My sense of touch is very sensitive and I know if it has been used… I don’t like it on my own clothes, it puts a barrier between the fabric and my skin… And so we get back to touch… And sound too…
Hearing the rustle of silk, crisp starched cottons or that wonderful softness of well-handled and heavily laundered linen
Taste is there too… I have a wool allergy… If there are wool fibres in the air I can taste them… Feel them on my tongue and in my nose and eyes…
There is a blurring of those senses around the edges… I can smell how it feels…

In among all this sensual information is an undercurrent of memory… The materiality has to latch on… Feed on something that already exists…

Then I remove the hanger from the rail… Remove the garment from the hanger. By this time I’m sold, it is already mine. I hand over the credit card in my cat-nipped state, and head out of the shop.


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In preparation for writing a proposal including an explanation of my work, I am reading “Stuff” by Daniel Miller, and “Material Memories”by Marius Kwint et al. Reading of the latter has again brought me to Aristotle… I love a bit of Aristotle, me!
“Whatever can be said of what is tangible, can be said of touch, and vice versa; if touch is not a single tense but a group of senses, there must be several kinds of what is tangible”
(De Anima, books I & II, pp577-83).
My writing here is in an effort to apply what I am reading to what I am making, and why.

Touch… I have read (but now am unable to find the citation, sorry) is the first sense to develop, and generally the last to leave us, even in severe cases of dementia and old age, where the other four have left us, or faded.

I think I have written before about feeling/touch… That immeasurable distance, for instance, between the felt warmth, before needing to touch the source. The space in the bed between one person and another, the comfort of radiated heat. I have drawn analogies to the radiated warmth of a departed loved one. A stretch perhaps, but I feel it nonetheless. My mother, now departed over twenty years… I still feel her radiated warmth.

So the tangibility of memory, for me is a real phenomena. As an exercise, I stretch my mind back to feel. With a nod to Aristotle, I shall include taste as one of that group of senses that becomes touch, as texture and taste are so closely aligned, in my mouth at least. In this matter, there is an element of synaesthesia. My memory blurs the line between one sense and another. In this stretch back, while doing other things with the rest of my body, my skin remembers…

The feel of the rough weave of the canvas along the edge of the deckchairs.
The papery feel of onions left to dry on a workbench waiting to be plaited into strings.
The popping on my tongue of warm ripe blackberries from the hedge.
The feel of the sun.
The itch of a woollen skirt with elastic at the waist.
The silkiness of a spaniel’s ears.
The bark of the freshly felled elm trees lined up, played on, sat on, read on… Caressing the smoothness under the separated bark that caused their death.
Splinters on a new five-bar gate.
The feel of a new calf sucking hard at my fingers in a bucket of warm milk.
Fresh baked warm rock cakes…but picking out the sultanas because they felt wrong.
Lying so close to someone on the grass in the park, unsure if you are actually touching, but feeling them anyway.
The pages of a new book. Or an old book.
The gliding of ink across smooth paper.
Well washed and worn printed cotton… In all its forms: stripy sheets, a floral apron, a tablecloth of embroidered flowers, a summer dress, a proffered funeral handkerchief……
It is no wonder then, given this brain, in combination with this body, these hands, that my art is how it is… I think perhaps, although yes of course this is Visual Art, touch is the sense that is the most evocative for me. This is why I am not just happy for viewers to touch my work, but I actively encourage it. How can they begin to understand my material choices, or have their own memories sparked, or expect them to feel if they don’t FEEL?

www.elenathomas.co.uk


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I find it interesting how a short question/comment from someone unknown can spark a train of thought as you answer:

Stranger: The lyrics are really personal… how do you start writing a song from something so personal?

Me: Errmmm….

Actually, yes, they do, some of these lyrics… they do feel personal. They have come from me, they are sharp and pointy some of them. Some are thoughtful and melancholy, and some are downright weird.
But personal doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical.

Now that in terms of songwriting I have a Body of Work, I can actually see a methodology that is in fact very similar to the way I might start a textile piece from a garment. I start with a phrase or word or snatch of overheard conversation. I take the garment/phrase and look at it and extrapolate. The things I extrapolate might well have a very close meaning or relation to me personally, at least to start with. With applied imagination, fed by watching and listening to the world around me, at a certain point it stops being about just me, my life, my family…. and takes on its own identity. Sometimes the song joins up with the piece I’m stitching and that feels great, like I’ve really got down to the nitty gritty of someone, or an aspect of life that needs ferreting about in. Sometimes the songs and the textile pieces are a person in their own right, they have their own life to live/have lived… I usually like them. But occasionally the most interesting results come from me NOT understanding how someone else ticks. Then the work becomes a way of understanding… stating, describing, and making an outline becomes the means to find a way in.

Now… what REALLY floats my boat is if this way in actually flicks a switch and the way in proves to be somewhere else within myself… whoa… freaks me out! The whole thing has turned in on itself and I find myself dumped drunk and reeling by my own back door!

The personal has come back and slapped me in the face. I could point out bits of songs that have done this… not always immediately, but maybe a few weeks later upon revisiting the early song sketch. The stuff is in my head… has to come out somewhere I suppose…
Occasionally I see something so strong that its description writes the whole song. That’s not usually the end of it, because sometimes the structure needs a bit of a wrangle, but it’s a sketch. It can be difficult to wrangle songs like this, because somehow every word seems sacred… even if it doesn’t fit properly. There have been occasions when I insist on crowbarring a phrase or word into the end of a line…or even making a fifth line in a four line verse pattern. The musicians have been known to twitch a bit… but often it works. And I think my fellow writers and band members are getting used to it now. Those weird bits are the bits that give character and knock the shape about. This is how I see the songs, they are real people, not supermodels with every syllable in the right place… they have gaps, lumpy bits and rushed bits. They have character. They say what they have to say… I prefer the rhythm of conversation and borrow from that over the mathematically poetic rhythmic and rhyming conventions any day!

Shadow

The light creeps through the leaves
To the gap in the curtain
To leave a triangle of flickering shadow
Where you lay

The song I can hear on the radio
Through the walls from next door
Is the song that was playing
When I met you

My mind wanders off on the journey
That we never took
Because we didn’t know
How we should start

You’ve not been gone long
And my hand feels the warmth
That you left to remind me
Without having to say
This might have been our only chance
To say what we mean without using the words
We shouldn’t say
They mean more unbroken

You’ll stay in my heart and you’ll stay in my body
My head will try to move you aside
From the place
Where you say
This might have been our only chance
To say what we mean without using the words
We shouldn’t say
They mean more unbroken
They say more unspoken

(Copyright Elena Thomas 2016)


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