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.

Creative practice, process and place.

Studio Space – SIA

Over a number of weeks, I’ve been developing my creative practice whilst being privileged to have access to the facilities at Sheffield Institute of Arts (SIA) – I am one of the Artists in Residence on the 2019, AA2A programme.  Until this morning, I was here, working with resources, talking with students, pushing my own creative practice boundaries and experimenting with my work.  Then, last week, I presented my creative practice and process to the Extended Foundation students and on Tuesday, I’ll present to the MA, Design Students, on the Level 1, here at the Old Head Post Office (SIA), which gives me the opportunity to give back, in some small way.

This place, this old Head Post Office, is quite magical. You can feel it in the fabric of the tiled walls, the mosaic floors and sash windows. Being here makes me feel free.

But, I learn every time I’m within its walls – by learning new techniques, asking questions, seeing what the Students are creating, learning through osmosis and by reflecting and being patient until finally, my practice has turned a corner.  This is maybe how the universe works. Time, experimenting, patience, reflection and energy = creativity  

Over a number of weeks, I’ve been laser cutting and laser engraving – something I wasn’t allowed to do myself at NTU because all cutting went through the one technician. At Sheffield Hallam, students and staff alike learn to use the laser cutting machines themselves, of which there are 6 here at SIA and more at Sheaf. 

When I get the chance to spend time with a new technique, the more I learn about process and in turn, the more I take chances and become adventurous and experimental with new ideas and outputs. At SIA, I’ve learned to laser cut. I still don’t know how to do everything and not I’m without mistakes which I build on, but I can cut and engrave what I visualise quite well. It takes time.  I’m on two hours a day, two days a week.

When I first started at SIA, I wondered how my work, which is inspired by the Heritage Shetland knitted lace industry, its tradition and the knitters themselves, could actually fit within the urban setting of a city in Yorkshire. Four months after starting at SIA I’ve developed a piece of work that is both portable and in keeping with place.  I’ve learnt through time.

This place of Sheffield is so far removed from that place of Shetland.

To me, there initially seemed to be no possible link for my creative practice and its links with knitting and Shetland because the work seemed to have been dragged out of context by the two places being geographically hundreds of miles apart.   But this morning, loaded with printing ink, roller, John Lewis bread board, rags and my hand-made, 15x17cm, rubber printing block that I made using my CAD lace knit designs, I have hand printed my tessellating Bird’s Eye pattern across the stairwell wall by the MA Studio.

The result is a happy one.  Hand printing on the wall made my heart race because I realised what I can do with this idea.  The printing block is portable, it’s accessible, it’s easy to set up and it works.

I can print on any flat wall, any place, any time.  This morning’s printing was a stepping stone to see how well I could make the tessellating pattern match, if it would work on a wall, does it need to be perfect, I love the imperfect walls of Shetland – so it can be patchy, how would I go round corners, what would it look like in a large block of space,  how long would it take and if it could be possible to take the printing block to Shetland to print across the walls of a derelict croft house that I have fallen in love with and have revisited over a number of times since 2015.

And, the answer is yes.

New art, new project. I’m heading for Shetland in May / June and know exactly the wall I will be printing on.

Bird’s Eye. Pop up, Site-specific, Interventionist Art.

Bird’s Eye.

Interventionist, Pop-up, Site-specific Renegade Art, or, Art placed to raise a smile, make a connection or engage?

Today, I did something either quite interesting, or quite stupid. I’m edging on the side of the former.

On the 14th floor, lightly taped to a window, in meeting room, in the Architecture department, in The Arts Tower, I left a Paper Laser cut of my knitting.  It’s an intervention between paper, view, light and viewer.

After creating digital laser cuts, to place in derelict croft house windows across Shetland, I find that I am now looking around at making site-specific work within the City that I live.  And questioning why, and what for and what does this really mean to me and to anyone else? Is it legal? Is it damage or intrusion? Is it pop-up fun? Is it harmless? What is the purpose? Should I or should I not?

On New Year’s Day, I purposely looked, from the car park, at the Arts Tower – having never been inside it, never used the Paternoster lift, never seen the view of our City from its heights and I considered that it seemed the perfect location to place my laser cut work in one of its windows. In a Site-specific, pop up intervention. For the work to stand as a chance to have a moment of exchange with a passer-by. To engage, in some way. I never want to, or will I damage or deface any location.  I want to interact with people in a positive, maybe a thought-provoking way.  My work requires the viewer to interact, if only briefly. 

To look up, look through it, look at it, take it down, tear it down, contact me, ignore me.  I don’t mind but in placing this laser cut in a window, in a room, in a building that I have never been in before – I wanted to touch some ONE in a small way, to intervene with a view unlooked at, through blinds half down and half up, to maybe touch someone, connect with someone – a positive intervention. This moment of connection is a gift, from me to you.

At first, we caught the Paternoster lift.  A completely new and exhilarating experience.  I, and my friend, were a little scared so we waited.  We waited to see how fast the lift moved, how many seconds we’d have to get in and then out whilst it was moving. We were a little scared to do something that scared us. So, we waited a little longer then went for it.

Riding up in the lift car was a short but completely mindful time.  I had packed my scarf away, held my bag tight and concentrated before stepping into the moving lift and it felt good to overcome being scared.  It was decided on ascending, that we’d get out on floor 15 because if we delayed getting out, there were still 2 more floors before we’d have to launch ourselves out. But at floor 13, we were too apprehensive of the exit so jumped out at floor 14.  I looked to my right and there it was –  A perfectly placed meeting room with a wall of windows, opening up to a wide vista and view across the city.

So many meeting rooms across the city are just used without consideration of where they are.  How many people looked out of those windows 14 floors up, amazed at the height from the floor the the view point, amazed to be in the sky overlooking the busy city? I don’t know. The blinds were up and down.  The location instinctively felt right as it had done in the past when placing site specific work. I unrolled my laser cut whereupon it was gently held open so as it would not roll into a tangled mess, and I taped it lightly at the corners, to the window pane to create an intervention between the outside and in, a breaking up of the view so that it now had to be looked at by peeping through knitted paper.  It’s a trial, it’s not bespoke but could be. If the room had laser cuts on the windows, and when the sun shone through, there would be knitted lace shadows across the table.  It’s a start.

This piece is not entirely finished.  When someone engages with it to look at the city landscape through it, this will be the moment of completion.

It’s harmless pop-up art that sits in one of the most iconic buildings in Sheffield, to open up an interaction between viewer, location, and art work, to intervene between view and seeing, to stop someone just for a moment and for them to wonder what it is and why it is there.

A moment of exchange.

We interact with our architecture.

We break the unseeing eye.

The work is called ‘Bird’s Eye’ for two reasons – the laser cut is developed from a simulation of my Lace knitting which is inspired by Shetland and the many lace designs created by generations of lace knitters going back to the 1800’s, who knitted to subsidise their family income.

This is a Shetland Bird’s Eye lace pattern and secondly, I called it Bird’s eye because, for no other reason than that – It’s a Bird’s Eye view


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.