Who Owns words once they are spoken

Last night was the closing party to Celebrate ‘Making Ways’. I came back from London especially for it. ‘Making Ways’ was an ambitious 3 year programme to support artists in Sheffield.

I stood in a group of people at Sidney and Mathilda last night and felt a deep sense of pride to have been a small part of what has happened here in Sheffield over the last three years, with funding for the arts and Artists developing from it, me included.  Most of all, I was proud of Janet Jennings who has tirelessly co-ordinated the project of over hundreds of artist applications, events, workshops, gallery programmes, supporting new staff and studio workspace development.   The Cultural Consortium of Sheffield bid for the money and won it, but it was / is Janet who has held it together.

In January 2018, during my MA in Knitting at NTU, I applied for an R&D grant in the 2nd round of Open Calls.  It was my first ever application – ever, ever. It was a pure application, heartfelt, possibly a little naïve, but for me –  very focused.  Out of 98 applications in that Open Call round, I was firstly shortlisted then, one of 7 who were successfully awarded the money for either their project or R&D. I was grateful and earnest but didn’t fully understand what the impact of that grant would mean to me.  I met with Janet to talk it over and planned then went to the furthest inhabited island in the UK – Unst – the home of Shetland lace knitting.

My application was called ‘Vod’ – and empty place.   Vod is a Shetland word for an abandoned or empty place.  I had fallen in love with the many abandoned croft houses that lie across the whole of Shetland.

I aimed to use a concentrated period of 10 days in May 2018 to:

  • Travel to and work in Unst Heritage Centre to research primary lace knitting and to record stories from the women who still create fine lace and of their ancestors. 
  • Find derelict crofts on the island of Unst, research and record the oral histories of these abandoned homes. (which I have started to do)
  • Make site specific work using photography as a platform develop a relationship between Contemporary Art, the stories of women knitters in Unst, the crofts, dialect and the elemental landscape.
  • to experiment with a one-off pop-up summer installation in a found derelict place on Shetland (agreed by the land owner) to develop audiences for photographic contemporary art which tells a story.

I already had one amazing contact on the small island of Unst (Rhoda) and over the previous two years had built up relationships with many knitters on mainland Shetland.

This was an ambitious aim in 10 days.  I embarked on the 9 hour train journey to Aberdeen from Sheffield, the 12 hour overnight ferry to Lerwick, the 2 local buses and 2 interconnecting island ferries to get me to the northern tip of Unst.  36 hours after setting off, I arrived. I’d done my ‘ethics’ training at NTU, I’d brought my books and recording equipment, cameras, laser cuts and power shima knitted lace entirely inspired by Shetland, its heritage and culture- I was ready.

I was a fresh, naïve 54 year old from a city who had spent many weeks on Shetland with women who enjoy talking of their knitting heritage and knew my stuff,  but Unst is a different land.

The thing I mainly learned is that even if you are trusted by one person in a small community, on a tiny island (some of whom have never left the island in their lives) it is not an instant green light access to connect with everyone.   I was taken in by a wonderful woman who was chair at Unst Heritage Site – Rhoda, who took me places and talked of her ancestors who knitted to subsidise the income of the family. I have beautiful recordings of her talking of her mother and aunt.  I spoke to other women but none wanted to share information, saw fine lace knitting,  I found abandoned croft houses that I fell in love with and recorded their soundscapes, I watched the sea, learned of the press gang stealing Shetland boys. I saw, heard and felt so many amazing things that it was the changing of me in a long chain of change.  

The main thing on the Island of Unst that I quickly learned and reflected on was that some lace knitters do not like to share what they knit or make in case you steal the pattern or idea and make it your own. This was definitely not my aim but it dawned on me after a few days and there was nothing that I could do that could change that in my 8 day stay.  Over months, I would have fully engaged, been part of the community and eventually been trusted and accepted. The major deeply moving light-bulb moment came when I understood that not many would talk to me about the past and the history of knitting because then the words would be out and I would have heard and possibly, they would no longer be theirs.  This learning was something that ‘ethics’ training cannot teach. You learn it by being in it.

In Unst, I wrote to Janet part way through the night in late May and remember writing – ‘who owns words once they are spoken’.   This is the main thing I learned at that time but since the R&D trip. But it is not the main thing that I felt and saw. I know that you earn the voices that you hear spoken and that those words are not yours. Since the R&D, I have gathered confidence, learned a new language, and found an honest understanding of my creative practice and built an aim to go further. 

After graduating, I applied for and was lucky to be accepted on the AA2A Artist In Residence scheme at Sheffield Institute of Arts.  This one year residency has built on my skills and technique and given me the absolute freedom to make work in that amazing building but I would not have applied for the AA2A had I not had the leg-up from the Making Ways  R&D grant in 2018. 

Last night I felt proud of Janet, of Sheffield, of Art and Sheffield, even a little proud of myself because I haven’t finished yet. There’s still so much to learn and research and find out and make.  I’m always just at the beginning of something new but there is so much more.

These few words are written in gratitude to Janet Jennings and ‘Making Ways’ Sheffield.

Artist Residency

Artist Residency

I’ve never had an Artist studio for a number of reasons: – it is an expense that I cannot really afford, I live a 4-mile cycle ride from town so to get to a studio and back is a chore, and in the summer, it felt odd to call myself an Artist.  One miserable, wet, dark, raining night in August, I did look at a studio at Kelham Island, but it wasn’t right. I couldn’t find the right place, at the right price. 

In the end, I did buy a desk and was delighted how that desk, in my home, made me feel and instantly became my work space.  It was enough. It is enough. My flat became exactly how I wanted it –  a live/work space at any time of the day.

Then, in November, when I was accepted on to the AA2A Artist residency programme at Sheffield Hallam University, I moved old papers and prints into the MA studio at Sheffield Institute of Arts (The Old Head Post Office) It is a small space with a perfect wall area to overlap things, put things up, leave things, remove things, reflect.  So, until the end of June ‘19, that is exactly where you will find me every Monday and Tuesday.   Take this as an open invite to come visit.  

There is nothing not to like about this gorgeous, strong building which was, for many years, The Old Head Post Office in Sheffield. The floors in the large exhibition space are mosaiced, the walls are still tiled in dark rich brown and cream and everywhere is conducive to creative thought with old remnants of a by gone postal service in town which litters the walls, floors and views. The technical resources are second to none. Space is limited.

The AA2A residency came at exactly the right time.  I applied 2 days after the closing date, the submission was accepted, I was interviewed and proceeded to naïvely cover the interview table with examples of processes and work. It was a shamble of words and lace knit and photographs and, of course, laser cuts. I was over the moon when I was accepted.

Now, is a new phase – a progressive time to learn, experiment and develop by using the resources available to me.  In return, I will show work to the current students, do presentations and workshops, be around in the space, ask and answer questions.  I’m also mentoring a little.  Alongside that, there are countless students doing their thing, and we share information.  They’ve got used to seeing me and I look forward to seeing them.  In the new year, I’ll offer workshops and add information to their notice boards of competitions and residencies.

I did not want repeat my creative practice, therefore, I expose myself to a very creative environment as what can be called ‘A Young Artist’ and I will add – at an older age because I’m not young but I feel it.  But, to repeat is out of the question – where do I start?

I could only start the residency at SHU, where I had left off at Nottingham Trent Uni but I had never used a laser cutting machine myself as this is done by the technician at NTU. At Sheffield Hallam, the students use the laser cutting machines themselves.  They’re shown how to use them and off they / I go. I collected all of my files from NTU but they are not compatible with the software at SHU. So the learning curve of preparing files started.

Initially this seemed daunting but, only 3 weeks in, daunting is a memory.  I’m learning by trial and error but the errors are mine and I continue to learn from them, build a new portfolio and a new-found confidence as a practicing ‘Artist in Residence’. Silly mistakes during the process of live tracing an image and digitally cutting it open up steps to understanding what I can try next and how to overcome errors.  When I fail, I try again and again until, after I feel that I have some small grasp of the technique.

 Students come into the laser cutting room, we discuss our practice and technique, we share learning experiences and own it.  Every student fully owns their own work when they create and cut it. After two successful (ish) laser cuts, I needed a location to place the work in order to really see it.  

I could hear a voice in my head asking myself why I thought that laser cuts of lace knitting which were inspired by Shetland could ever fit into Sheffield. There were no links between lace and Yorkshire. Did it need a link? Could I create a link? Was it becoming inauthentic or decorative? Or, was I repeating myself. And, that would never do.

Showing my work has previously been an easy act to do as I chose remote extreme outdoor locations to place laser cuts or lace knitting and Only I saw it.  In Shetland, the work merged with the landscape and each relied on the other to give meaning. Pure Symbiosis

Today, I do not have access to Shetland to continue to place laser cuts into abandoned croft house windows but I have done that already, photographed it, shown it and understood it.

Now, I only have digital files that stem from my original lace knitting CAD patterns. And I am placing them into Sheffield Institute of Art (SIA)

I looked around the SIA building, the stair wells, and corners at the working windows – mostly sash, and mostly aesthetically pleasing.  I even used a measure and made diagrams.  In Shetland there was no time for a measure of any sorts – not of windows or of place – I came across places and the site-specific work was entirely intuitive. It was placed quickly, in wind and gales and rain or snow.  Here lies a clear difference, I have the luxury of choice and measurement – though this may remove the rawness of the work.  

At SIA, location can be more considered than in Shetland.  The work can be left in situ at SIA and not blow away.  Consciously, I knew I wanted a window of great beauty, subconsciously, I wanted a window in a location with great foot fall.  I also considered the view that would be seen through the laser cuts. I wanted people to walk past and either look or not, to stop or not, to think about the laser cuts or not but I did want the work have ‘the option to be looked at’.  I didn’t want it hidden.

I chose this window on the half floor at Sheffield Institute of Art, between floors -2 and -1 from the reception to the studios and laser cutting rooms. A stair well of much foot fall.

I must admit, I put laser cut 1 and 2 up quickly because I had no permission and I felt nervous.  Nervous if I could be stopped, or asked what I was doing or, and this was the biggest thing, – was the work interesting enough and would it ‘work’ into this location.  Laser cut 3 went up – doing it felt good and I didn’t hide it but I could no longer reach to place the next row. At this point, I tried to enlist the support of Jim, a technician, who was obviously going to ask the question I had been avoiding – Who gave me permission to place this work in this window and had I had it covered by H&S?

So, now after the work has been checked and cleared by H&S, Jim placed 3 more panels and I am thinking of placing renegade work across the city and then in galleries.  New Goals. But for now, this window is my canvas. 

Happy Christmas.  Here’s to 2019 and new things that I don’t know exist yet.