Monday, 5 August 2019

Program of work for the MA Major Project 2019

The Queen of the Air

Record of research and progress of work  leading up to my submission for the Major Project assessment and exhibition 6th August 2019

In brief my schedule of activity consisted of individual tutorials on 4th June, 20th June, 9th July, and 30th July; researching my subject and experimenting with different processes 1st June to 19th July; preparing and engraving perspex panels 22nd to 29th July; installation of work on 31st July.

Woodcut block with oval

Inspired by reading John Ruskin's book The Queen of the Air,(1869), I became intrigued by the subject of air itself giving life and the notion that everything in nature, the clouds moving above us, the shape of a tree bent by the wind, even our own bodies, have been shaped to some degree by this invisible force. 
My research question began to focus on finding a way to depict this invisible medium in a 3-dimensional sculpture or installation work.

Woodcut block without oval
My original plan was to make a large scale woodcut block, possiblyusing the jigsaw method. With this in mind I made numerous small scale blocks to test out different designs.

Woodcut block: second design

My first designs shown here were not giving me the effect I wanted. Continuing my research I discovered the work of Timorous Beasties, designers of famous fabrics and wallpapers. Timorous  Beasties work shows  a strong connection with John Ruskin's views on  on the link between art, nature and society, where animals, plants and society are visually inextricable.Timorous Beasties designs have a strong element of nature and what effects nature: weather, wind, air currents, air movement.                                                      My design started turning into a sort of weather map of air movement! 

Pencil drawing on paper of new design

The problem I needed to solve next was the question of material for my work. The problem with using wood is that it gives a sense of weight and density, the opposite of what I wanted.

Colour woodcut block

In my research into the many different materials used by artists, the answer presented itself. British sculptor Anthony Caro created art out of steel, wrought iron, bronze, wood, stone, and even paper. then he discovered perspex, a material he described as "there and not there".

Perspex plate without oval

Perspex is a material I had not attempted to use before so I started by experimenting with making some small scale drypoint printing plates.With perspex I felt that I had resolved my problem of finding a suitable material for my invisible subject. Something that is "there and not there".

Perspex plate with oval
Discovering that I could use the same hand tools that I use for my woodcuts was a bonus. I had decided to discard the oval shape as it seemed to be giving a sense of containment, and the nature of air is that it is all surrounding.

New design on perspex
I went through a lengthy process of drawing different compositions and finally decided on using the design on the left. I scaled up my drawing of this and engraved the image into two 3m x 1.5m panels of perspex.Thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the technicians these two panels are now suspended "in the air".

In The Queen of the Air, written by John Ruskin in 1869, the Goddess Athena is "Physically, the Queen of the Air; having supreme power over its blessing of calm, and wrath of storm."
"Spiritually, she is queen of the breath of man, first of the bodily breathing which is life to his blood, and strength to his arm in battle; and then of the mental breathing, or inspiration,which is his moral health and habitual wisdom; wisdom of conduct and of the heart, as opposed to the wisdom of imagination and the brain; moral, as distinct from intellectual; inspired, as distinct illuminated."

"Listen to the air. you can hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it." John Fire Lame Deer

 In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram describes air as being "the most pervasive presence I can name . . . Yet the air, on the other hand, is the most outrageous absence known to this body. For it is utterly invisible."

MA Fine Art:  Major Project

Critical Evaluation

Title and content
The title of my submission is: The Queen of the Air.
My onsite exhibition consists of two panels of 3mm thick clear perspex. each piece measures 3 metres wide x 1.5 metres high. The two pieces are engraved by hand on one side and are designed to be used as drypoint printmaking plates.The pieces are suspended horizontally, 600mm off the floor, and parallel to each other, with a gap of 1.2metres between, and secured using wire rope fixed to overhead beams.

Subject and research
The subject matter of my work was inspired by John Ruskin's book: The Queen of the Air, (1869). 
Informed by his intense study of Greek mythology, Ruskin describes the goddess Athena as, "physically, the Queen of the air, having supreme power over its blessing of calm and wrath of storm." He continues: "The conception of the physical power of Athena in cloud and sky is easy to grasp because we know what clouds and skies are. The conception of the power of Athena in giving life is more difficult because we do not know clearly what life is, or what way the air is necessary to it, or what there is, besides the air, shaping the forms that it is put into." (Ruskin 1869).
Although it was my fascination with mythology that sparked my interest in The Queen of the Air, I became more intrigued by the subject of air itself giving life and the notion that everything in nature, the clouds moving above us, the shape of a tree bent by the wind, even perhaps our own bodies, have been shaped to some degree by the movement of this invisible force. So, Ruskin's "Queen of the Air" begins to have affinities with broader philosophical ideas such as Plato's "Anima Mundi"
Continuing my research, I discovered David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous. Although essentially a book about his concerns with the advance of the Antropocene, Abram devoted a whole chapter: "The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air," to air as a medium. Abram describes air as "the soul of the living landscape, the secret realm from whence all beings draw their nourishment." (Abram 1996).

Research question and process
The challenge that my chosen subject posed was to find a way to give visual expression to something we can hear, feel, smell, but is totally invisible. The question I began to research was: To what extent is it possible to give visual expression to this life sustaining but invisible medium in a three-dimensional  installation or sculptural work? In past modules I favoured the idea of using natural materials like wood or stone. My medium of choice in my practice for some time has been in creating woodcut or wood engraving blocks, to be used as either 3-d sculptural pieces or for the purpose of  producing prints.My original intention for this module was to make and exhibit a large scale woodcut block, possibly using the jigsaw method. After experimenting with with many different ways of depicting air or air movement in drawings, I tried out some of my compositions on wood panels and made several small scale woodcuts. this experimental process was interesting but was not producing the result I wanted.the problem that it highlighted is that however thin the wood panels are, wood itself gives a sense of weight and density, the opposite to what I was trying to achieve; the work seemed to embody rather than evoke air. Using my woodblocks to make prints, I experimented with using different types of paper. The nearest I came to finding the solution I was seeking was when I made a print using Gampi Japanese paper, a very thin and quite transparent paper that shows the printed image on both sides. Using Gampi paper I could achieve this sense of weightlessness and transparency. The problem here was that the largest piece of Gampi paper produced is 90cm x 60cm and unless I joined lots of pieces together, I couldn't produce a piece of work to the scale I wanted. For my invisible subject, I needed to find a material that is made in large panels but is also a material that gives a sense of lightness.
British sculptor Anthony Caro created art out of steel, wrought iron, bronze, wood, stone and even paper. Then he discovered perspex. Caro had tried working with glass but found it too difficult. With perspex he found a material that he described in an interview as "there and not there".This quality suggested something like the nature of air! Perspex is a material I had not attempted to use before so I started by practicing on a small piece using hand tools to make different marks.The most exciting part was finding that I could use use the same tools on the perspex as I do on my woodcuts and the technique used in making a drypoint is very similar to drawing with a pen or pencil on paper. When making the composition I had three main objectives: 1) I wanted the design to be as invisible as possible; 2) There should be tension between the flat surface and the marks to give depth and movement; 3) To try to give the work a sense of the all surrounding nature of air.
I went through a lengthy process of drawing different compositions and finally decided on the one I wanted to use. I scaled up my drawing to suit and incised the image into two 3m x 1.5m perspex panels. When completed I felt that I had combined the ancient and the modern: the ancient art of engraving using hand tools and the modern material: the perspex.

The secondary question which arose at this stage the was the matter of how and where the work should be displayed. The engraved lines on the perspex drew attention to the medium in a way that was "there and not there"! Paradoxically, this made the site of display very important. I felt that the work should be placed in a well-lit area with as much free space as possible surrounding it. Thanks to the immense help and consideration of tutors and students my work is now placed in an open area with a generous amount of
natural light. After many hours of hard graft that made great demands on the patience and ingenuity of the technicians, my work is hanging freely "in the air", so to speak. the piece has a sense of floating and weightlessness which gives added meaning to the concept. the building it is in was constructed in the Gothic style, (thanks to John Ruskin), and my work is close to a beautiful Gothic window. The ancient features of the building connect with the ancient craft of hand engraving and form an interesting contrast with the modern perspex material. One can look at the material or one can look through and beyond it.

The aim of my composition is to depict air movement or currents of air and to allude to the notion that the air has played a major part in shaping our world since the beginning of time. My work aims at inviting the audience to reflect on this invisible medium, this unseen enigma that enables all life to live. Air is also the medium of interflow between humankind and the non-human element in our world: animals and plants. As Abram points out: "What the plants are quietly breathing out, we are breathing in; what we breathe out, the plants are breathing in. And thus the health, balance and well-being of each person inseparable from the health and well-being of the enveloping earthly terrain." (Abram 1996).
Ruskin wrote the Queen of the Air in 1869, 150 years ago, and he warned us then: "By care and tenderness we can extend the lovely life of plants and animals; by our neglect and cruelty we can arrest it, and bring pestilence in its stead."
"If we damage the natural world we are damaging ourselves." (Sir David Attenborough 2019)

Achievements of the work
Overall I feel that I have achieved what I set out to do in this module and that the use of the suspended, engraved perspex addresses my research question originally and successfully
I feel that my work interacts in a positive way with the work of the other students in the room, but still retains its sense of space.
The process of making the work has made me keen to develop the concept further, possibly introducing site-specific "draughts" to give an added sense of air movement. Having reached the end of the course, I am keen to continue working on the same subject, perhaps with a younger audience.

Weaknesses of the work
Referring back to item 2 in my objectives for the composition, I feel that I could have achieved a greater sense of depth in the composition by having more variation in the width of the engraved lines. Also, in a future piece of work using the same material, I feel that the sense of movement would be greater in an installation with several panels.

Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous. p226 New York: Vintage Books.
Ruskin, J. (1869) The Queen of the Air. p5&p29. London: Smith Elder and Co.
Ruskin, J. (1869) The Queen of the Air. p30. London: Smith Elder and Co.

Reading Material
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Acroyd, Peter. Blake. London: Sinclair Stevenson, 1995.
Bann, Stephen. Parallel Lines. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.
Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1988.
Hewison, Robert. John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.
O'Donohue, John. The Four Elements. London: Transworld Ireland, 2010.
Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies. London: Sage Publications, Ltd., 2016.
Ruskin, John. The Queen of the Air. London: Smith Elder and Co.,1869.
Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice. London: Smith Elder and Co., 1851.
Ruskin, John. Fors Clavigera. Philadelphia: Reuwee, Wattley and Walsh, 1891.



Sunday, 23 June 2019

Art after Nature: Days of Future Past

6th May to 21st May 2019 

An exhibition by Current MA Fine Art Students at Birmingham City University to celebrate the bicentenary of John Ruskin's birth.

The work I presented for the exhibition was a large scale woodcut printing block made from three pieces of 15mm thick birch panels.
The pieces are cut in the shape of a Gothic arch and hinged together using brass piano hinges to form a triptych.
The work was exhibited in the Concourse at the School of Art, Margaret Street, Birmingham and was entitled:

The Head, the Hand and the Heart

Image showing the triptych in its closed position

Image showing the triptych with the side "wings" almost fully open

Detail with the robot building a wall

Detail of a robot woman washing up

Detail of a robot in the office

John Ruskin, (1819-1900), was supported financially all his life by his father and could easily have chosen to live a life of idleness and luxury. Instead he devoted his time and energy to studying nature and to teaching us how to care for our world. He told us: "It is the job and the joy of mankind to look after the earth."
In his journal  Fors Clavigera, he forecast with disapproval the coming of, "machinery that will build, plough, thresh . . .  meantime your wife in the house has also got a goblin to weave and wash for her, and she is lying on the sofa reading poetry."
The artwork is my interpretation of what I imagine these goblins or robots of the future might resemble.
Ruskin was opposed to any form of mechanization of labour and tried to teach us the importance of useful and creative employment, and that idleness does not bring well-being and happiness. In very recent times medical research has found strong evidence that creativity has a major positive impact on both mental and physical health.
Ruskin was a champion of the Gothic style of architecture and believed that the stunning features in some of the Gothic buildings that he studied in Venice and elsewhere, were copied direct from nature, and were the result of the freedom given to the masons and carvers to be creative in their work. It would be quite interesting know what his views on on the modern tower blocks as shown in my artwork might have been! 

The centre piece in the triptych is inspired by Edvard Munch's The Scream.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

January 2019

I made this piece of work as an experiment in combining the mediums of painting and printmaking

The subject that inspired the work is a windblown hawthorn tree that can be seen on the bend of a road known as the Green Road in the Burren, County Clare. 

Figure 1 is the first print taken from the woodcut block:

Figure 2 shows the areas I have coloured by hand using acrylic paint:

Figure 3 shows the finished work with the key block printed over the coloured image.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Response to
The Waste Land  

By   LSA      Leamington Studio Artists

An exhibition at  East Lodge, Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa

Curated by Karen Parker

Inspired by and in parallel with "Journeys with the Waste Land" an exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry. 

The exhibition at East Lodge opened on 31st  October and closes on 25th November.

I presented two woodcut prints for the exhibition 

My title for the work is Dry bones can harm no one

For this exhibition artists were invited to create a piece of art to resonate with a particular aspect of T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, in whatever medium they chose.

The aspect of  the poem that intrigues me the most is in the final part What the Thunder Said, in particular, line 377: "A woman drew her long black hair out tight......" and line 390: "Dry bones can harm no one." 
In between these two lines are references to "bats with baby faces," and "empty chapel" with "no windows."

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Advanced Practice 2

The work I presented  for this module was inspired by a poem written by W. B. Yeats, entitled
The Stolen Child

The title of the work is:       Unquiet Dreams    
Words taken from a line in the poem: 
"Give them unquiet dreams"

Mythology and Irish legends were subjects that Yeats was fascinated by and informed much of his early poetry. He wrote The Stolen Child in 1886, at a time when there were many stories about fairies snatching away children and this created fear and anxiety in the subconscious of a lot of people. The poem describes a world that "is full of troubles and is anxious in its sleep." 
The woodblocks for the above engravings are made from two rough-cut "slices" from the trunk of a cherry tree. Preparing the blocks for engraving revealed many shrinkage cracks and defects in the wood which I tried to repair at first but then looking more closely at the beauty and shape of the pieces I decided to try to find a way to, as far as possible, create the compositions around the shape that was formed by time and the elements. The result is that I practically allowed the shape of the tree itself to dictate both the scale of the work and the final composition.

Part of the work required for the Advanced Practice 2 Module was to make a trial publication. As an experiment in comparing the two techniques of woodcut and wood engraving I used one of the compositions from the images above, enlarged it by 50% and changed the format to the oval shape. The process I then used is known as the multi-block method. First I made a key block (or line block) to make this black and white print:

I prepared another four printing blocks and applied the coloured inks I chose on each block to make the images shown below:  

I then made the final colour woodcut print shown below by inking and printing all four colour blocks on a sheet of Japanese paper and printing the key block over the top:  

Saturday, 3 February 2018

MA Fine Art  January 2018    Module Title:     Advanced Practice 1

 January 2018: 
This piece of work is entitled Death of the Hag and is inspired by a scene from the seventh century legend Sweeney Astray, translated by poet Seamus Heaney from the original text written in Irish and entitled Buile Suibhne.
These are the words that Heaney uses to describe the scene: "Sweeney..........could not shake off the hag until he reached Dunseverick in Ulster. There he leaped from the summit of the fort, down a sheer drop, coaxing the hag to follow. She leaped quickly after him but fell on the cliff of Dunseverick where she was smashed to pieces and scattered into the sea. This is how she got her end on Sweeney's trail."

Dunseverick in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, is situated near to the famous Giants Causeway. At Dunseverick can still be seen the ruins of the gatehouse to Dunseverick Castle, famous according to records for being visited by St. Patrick in the fifth century.

The process: I began by creating a sketch of the scene, transferring it to the boxwood block and then engraving it.

The engraved block ready for the press

One of the first prints from the block

London visit Monday 29th January 2018: At Tate Britain I was intrigued by this painted screen by Francis Bacon, made in 1929. Bacon worked as an interior designer among other things before he became a painter and the screen is apparently a rare survivor of the period of transition from one career to the other. This is a photograph taken on my I-phone

While in London I also visited the V.& A. Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.
The main purpose of the visit was to see Rachel Whiteread's sculpture titled Place (Village) (2006-2008) This piece of work comprises around 150 dolls houses which were collected by Whiteread over 20 years. On the mezzanine floor at the V. & A.  I also found a large sculpture by by the famous  Jules Dalou. This stunning work is in terracotta and titled Peasant Woman Nursing a Baby:

 Preparations for 24th April Assessment and Exhibition:

February 2018:  In my practice I started making initial drawings for a new piece of work in preparation  for my next assessment. This work needs to be completed for the assessment and the exhibition on 24th April. My proposal is for a free-standing installation 2.4m tall x 1.2m wide.

In the Meantime: A Mini Holiday in Iceland:

22nd February 2018. Went to Reykjavik,  for three nights, primarily in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Seeing the lights turned out to be impossible because of the cloudy weather but spending an evening in the famous Blue Lagoon was an exciting experience. Also, while in Reykjavic, I was able to see some very interesting artwork at the National Gallery of Iceland.
Of particular interest to me was an exhibition of  the work of Asgrimur Jonsson (1876-1958). Jonsson's art focused on themes from Icelandic folk tales, which had never been illustrated before. Jonsson had grown up with these stories in south Iceland and so his work was informed by his background in Icelandic folk culture and 19th century romantic nationalism. I found this exhibition very inspiring and I felt a strong connection with his work and my own practice where I have used inspiration from the ancient myths of Ireland that I grew up with.   Below are some of the photos I took of his watercolours and drawings:

Sunday 25th February:  Back from mini holiday in Iceland
Tuesday February 27th 2018: I did a presentation of my work to tutors and students where I showed a working drawing of my proposal for the 24th April show.

Once again this piece of work is inspired by Sweeney Astray and the composition is made up of seven highly charged scenes taken from the legend.

The work will be a large jigsaw woodcut (1.8 m x 1.2 m ). The intention is to use the jigsaw woodcut block as the actual artwork and also to use it as a block to make coloured prints. I have used the drawing below for a study of the coloured inks I intend to use on the prints:

Here I have transferred the outline of the images in the drawing  to a 1.8m x 1.2m panel of 6mm birch plywood:        

Using a hand held jigsaw I cut around the oval shape and then cut the image into three sections:

Using the fretsaw in the wood machine workshop, I started to cut up the block into separate pieces.
The image below shows the stage of cutting reached on the first day:

With the cutting of the jigsaw completed the the problem I encountered was to find a way of printing this large block in one piece. Even using the largest press available in the print room, this was not possible so I decided to divide the jigsaw into three sections and print each section separately. 

Part Time Part Space Exhibition:  24th April 2018

Birmingham City University, Margaret Street, Birmingham

My work for the exhibition was a floor-mounted installation showing the jigsaw woodblock mounted on a wood panel, set into a wooden plinth (which I made myself for this purpose). 
Fixed to the rear side of the wood panel was the second of two prints I made from the block.
The title I gave the work is Conflict as it relates to the tensions and conflict between the new Christian teaching and the old pagan beliefs and way of life. I am greatly inspired by artist Philip Sutton's jigsaw woodcuts and I was very excited when  I discovered that in the process of cutting up the block and applying the ink to each piece separately, the residue of the different coloured inks left on the block had a very different tone to the print it produced on paper. Also the texture and grain in the wood became highlighted by the ink and I was able to demonstrate this effect by exhibiting the woodblock as well as the print produced by it. 

Front views of Conflict showing jigsaw pieces

Rear view of Conflict showing print

Yertle the Turtle   Jigsaw Woodcut  60cm x 30cm

The piece of work I made next is also a jigsaw woodcut but on a much smaller scale than the previous piece. The work is inspired by the children's storybook entitled Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, written by Dr. Seuss and first published in 1950. 

Yertle,  the Turtle King, was not happy in his position of ruler of his kingdom which consisted of a simple but very pleasant pond. He took the view that if he was physically higher up he could expand his territory by becoming ruler of whatever he could see. He commanded  the other turtles to raise his throne by standing one on top of the other. All went well until the turtle who was called Mack at the bottom of the pile began to complain about having pains in his back, his shoulders and his knees. Yertle ignored his complaints and commanded more and more turtles to climb on to the stack and make his throne higher and higher.  Once again Mack at the bottom of the pile complained but was again ignored. 

Then plain little Mack did a plain little thing: He burped. The whole throne shook, then collapsed and Yertle the King fell Plonk! in the pond. "And the turtles, of course..........all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be".