Leave No Trace, Shetland

Place of return

At every visit to Shetland over the past 4 years, I always take time to return to an isolated, derelict, lonely croft house on Bressay where I respectfully and quietly develop a creative practice that speaks to me of connections and belonging. 

The deterioration of this 2 roomed croft house has been logged since I first saw hand stencilled flowers painted across the walls at waist height in 2015.  The last family who lived in this small home painted those flowers but now they are gone.  The croft house may be small in size but I have spoken to a woman who was born there, as were her brothers and sisters and her mother and her own children.  It was her grandmother’s house and I heard of three generations of women who went home to give birth to their children there.

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Because I know this, I hear the sounds in the plaster on the walls that is now, year by year, disappearing away down to the stone fabric of the build. 

For weeks before returning this time, I had made preparation for my reunion with the shell of a house, by making it a gift of hand-block printed wallpaper with a Shetland Bird’s eye and a Brother / Sister lace design.  This wallpaper has been a couple of years in the making from learning CAD knit to using the stitch pattern to create a laser etched rubber stamp to print the design.   Material process and practice led research has always been the core of the development of my art practice.  I have long questioned – is it craft or art and is it relevant today a Contemporary Art arena in a time of changing families, fragmented families, home life, belonging, gendered women’s domestic craft of knitting and narratives of those women.  

The world is speedily changing and what can we say through art that will make a difference to someone for a moment to stop and think and feel.

Last week, on my first day back on Shetland, I nipped to see the derelict croft house.  As I was rounding the corner on the hill, my pace and heart quickened at what sight may greet me as it had been 15 months and a cycle of 7 raw weather seasons each taking its toll on the exposed walls since my last visit.   I hoped the house would be standing proudly as before which it was.   It felt like meeting an old friend.  Returning to make work here is not a safe option.  It feels as if I am breaking and entering, although the house has no roof and takes the label of ‘barn’.   I know it was a loving family home that just happens to be falling down on farm land which is owned by another person.  I visit it like an old relative. I look forward to first sight of out and in. Each year, I notice change.

On Tuesday, I returned again. This time, I carried the wallpaper, paste, brushes and measure to wallpaper around a window that I know so well. I had a hope of making creative work that spoke of belonging and connection to place and women’s domestic craft of knitting, maybe something of my own personal journey to this point.  

I measured, sized the walls, and hung the strips of paper on crumbling plaster in the hope of creating something that touched on the embedded experiences I had during the making process.   A connection of past and present. I’m interested what other people see.  My critical eye firstly noted that the water based ink ran when touched by water based glue, and that the design would have probably looked better with one style of lace pattern and at best it could be described as imperfect and at its worst – well, you can only say but actually, on a practice led research level, the piece did work because in the right place, with the right print, I know I can create a piece of work that does speak of belonging.

After I stepped back from it, I recorded my initial responses and photographed the work then I pulled the paper off the wall, folded it and took it away for the bin back in Lerwick and Left No Trace.

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Leave no trace, only record the moment of a coming together of a conceptual and expressive property which remains personal.  What is this work – is it Art? Textile art? Ethnography? Materiality? Am I telling stories? Am I making stories?  I’m trying to understand it in a way in which textile materials and techniques are expressed in contemporary site-specific art in order to tell a story.

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


What makes that one pure creative moment?

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I’ve unknowingly walked for almost two years to find this pure creative moment – Or, did this one pure moment draw me back to this derelict, abandoned croft house on the tiny island of Bressay to find me?  

Planning for the unplanned. 

This morning, I didn’t know that I was going to return to this place.  I was in Lerwick, it was sunny, I spontaneously caught the ferry for one last time over a seven-minute stretch of water between two islands. I instantly feel free, always standing on the steps of the ferry deck to watch the island of Bressay greet me.

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I walked left to right, my feet bringing me the long way around to a place I know well. In my back pack a tube with a roll of cut paper and no clear plan – just a creative desire to place the paper in the ‘right’ place.

Climbing the gate at the road side, I break in. Pushing the roped, iron gate, I break in to a place I know has been sold away from a family to a farmer who has made it into a barn. A two-roomed croft house, 8 strides by 4, that has seen births and deaths, and women waiting for men, and men coming home to a place that only towards the end of its lived-in life had running water.  Three windows, a long-gone porch, slate tiles strewn across the ground, roofless and now all traces of painted walls gone. A place I found in August 2016, returned to in April 2017 with a woman who had been born in it, to now – this day in May 2018.  It is not new to me but each experience is different.  

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Almost two years gone, the walls all turned to white chalky plaster – all traces of the family’s carefully stencilled wall paint in deep rust and yellow now gone.  But I saw it.  I remember it. I draw my hand across the wall. Seven seasons of weather putting an end to colour that I know was there.

Instantly, on being inside the roofless croft house, I feel at home. It’s sunny and breezy. The ever-present wind on the islands wraps itself around every minute of the day. I can hear it, feel it, see it.

No time to waste.  I don’t measure, don’t think, just empty my bag across the earth floor to unroll the paper and without much thought, hammer it with a rock and Shetland tacks in to place in the old window that still has glass in it.

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I step back to experience a purity so pin-sharp that I cannot breathe for one moment.   

This pure moment of creativity that speaks to me.

But the paper has been cut into by a two-year long story of my knitting and a search for authenticity. It also contains a technical skill not to be ignored

 

In reality, to the unseeing eye, it is a laser cut in tracing paper. But look to see, because for me it is not just paper.  The moment of placing the ‘fitting’ and fitted paper laser cut draws on every single thing that was leading to this moment.

No one else would have / could have felt this because it is my pure moment pulling on threads of two years ago selling a house to go to Uni at the age of 53, to learn something about myself that I already knew but had lost and to learn new skills and to understand resilience once again.

In placing that laser cut, I found myself in its authenticity – my authenticity.  A language of knitting lace stitches using a computer aided design simulation to create a fine paper laser cut which can rival any fine lace knitting.  It has skill, it has knowledge but more than that, I can hear all of the voices of my past from when an old man once said to me, “never sell these, Tracey, I had them during my grandiose period”  to a woman telling me only last week of her ‘grandmammy’ walking up the hill, using a knitting belt to knit and wearing a kishie on her back going to collect peats for the fire, to a man silenced for fifteen minutes in the wind, the ever present wind on these islands and of course, it is this physical place.

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It’s not just a paper cut. It holds a physical and emotional and philosophical journey, even.

But that one pure moment is a visible celebration and a testament of my repeatedly returning to a group of islands, learning the cultural climate, a landscape and how to get around in seasons on my own to a place that holds stories which I pick up and add to with the materiality of life.

It’s a celebration of all the knitters who have lived in these croft houses over generations and generations subsidising the small crofting income with a material craft and a skill that was given little value.  

Other people will read  it differently, on a different day, the light is different, the wind, the sounds, the movement. 

No one same moment can be pure for everyone. This moment is mine only because it is wrapped up in thinking about authenticity, heritage, time past, a woman standing in a doorway waiting for her man to come back from the sea. The pure moment is the placing of something that fits exactly in that space, without tensions and stays there in an elemental landscape until it blows away.

Like dirty paper.

 

I place the work, it becomes site-specific.  I feel it, document it, understand it and walk away – without looking over my shoulder.  Such a pure beautiful moment. 

With Thanks to Making Ways, Sheffield for enabling this trip to happen. And to Sue Turton for hours and hours of laser cutting. 

 

‘Vod’ an unoccupied, empty place.

I am a Contemporary artist who works with textiles and photography.  I am also a knitter – sometimes a pretty good one.  And, I suppose I’m a designer of contemporary lace knit.

Recently, I took my knitting, which is fine lace knit,  back to the place of original inspiration, which, for my current project is Shetland.  I take the lace back to a found derelict croft – a home where knitting certainly would have taken place and lace could have also once been knitted there. The project is called ‘Vod’ which is a Shetland word for Unoccupied / Empty place.

Shetland has many derelict crofts, sometimes quite plain and simple, sometimes with a yard and gate, some with modifications such as a lean-to toilet room but always, they are deeply moving. There’s something powerful in the traces that can be seen of what  once was, their remoteness and their outlook. They all have a soul.  It’s compelling to stand and look out of a derelict croft house window.

It is mostly in the window that I place my work. Sometimes across a door

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The more crofts that I found in Bressay and Burra and worked in, the more I looked out of the windows and wondered how many women had looked out of that same window, waiting for husbands to return or for kids to come home and that was when I began to really get interested in the social history of the places and the women who had once knitted there.  Below are some of the archive images of women knitting by crofts, which are from Shetland Museum.

My practice began to explore particular social and political narratives of place and values of material production embedded in place/s.  Once I found the crofts, I began to research how the women were paid for their knitting and came to learn about the truck and barter system.  I long to hear Shetland women tell stories of their ancestors’ home life and history and this is why I want to go to Unst – the most northerly isle in the British Isles – parallel to Norway and below Iceland on the map. It is the home of Shetland lace knitting.  I’ll spend time in the Unst Heritage Centre and cycle around the small Island, taking in the surroundings. 

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Almost two years ago, when I started my part time MA at NTU, I was firstly inspired by Shetland knitted lace and my research was initially about the textiles only – how the lace was knitted and the motifs in it.  Over the last two years and over five subsequent visits to Shetland,  I have become more interested in the women who made the fine Shetland lace and how and where they lived, often in remote and extreme conditions. Learning this, and finding these places, developed a deeper understanding of the social and cultural context of lace knitting in Shetland. To express my respect for and love of Shetland lace and the homes once lived in and the knitters themselves, I respond to place and its associated narrative histories – in particular woman’s material and conceptual histories of creative practice.

There is a sublime energy in the derelict crofts coupled with the energy of a my contemporary take on lace knitting placed back into a abandoned building which creates a third energy – the site specific work itself.  I hope that my latest Site specific work has integrity, authenticity and soul.  The symbiotic relationship between my lace knit or lace engravings coupled with placing the work into derelict crofts,  is an act which produces contemporary art that speaks of place, time, culture, textiles, struggle, hardship and past lives.

I’m lucky enough to be returning to Shetland to finish ‘Vod’ and I hope to interview and record the oral histories of knitting and crofting from the women at the specialist Heritage Centre in Unst. These women keep the origin of heritage lace knitting alive. I want to respond to their stories by making a textile and photographic site-specific work around their stories and creative practice on Unst. I have not been able to reach Unst on my previous visits to Shetland due to Winter, ferry crossing availability or non-availability of space to cross the sea between the islands, availability of day light (5 in the Winter) and the closure of the Heritage Centre between October and the beginning of May.  I have not previously recorded oral histories and this is the only place where the lace stories originate.  Unst is 60 degrees North and I learned from my son today, who will be filming in the most Northern part of Norway in March, that there are only 90 degrees, then you are at the Arctic.

The reason that I can return to Shetland is that I have been awarded an R&D grant to research the stories of the knitters, their lives and to look at the knitting itself and to work in derelict crofts, this time, with the permission of the owners to hopefully arrange a pop up  installation in a derelict croft, around the Bank holiday weekend at the end of May. I will invite local artists, knitters and crofters for tea and cake and to look at the  work that has grown out of this body of this project  that has taken me a year and a half in the making

The Research and Development work in Shetland, is called ‘Vod’ – an unoccupied, empty place.

Thanks to Making Ways, Sheffield  for supporting this R&D trip and for supporting the development of my creative practice.

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