Stone circles, hill figures and rock art generally have fascinated me for years. That’s why I was so drawn to the drone photographs of these artefacts, taken by David Abram, when they began to appear on Instagram. I’ve just received my copy of his Aerial Atlas of Ancient Britain. It doesn’t disappoint. The photography is stunning.
Without these photographs, the only way to see the full extent of these ancient places is via maps and plans. The simplification inherent in their production creates a strong graphic image, which I find appealing. On the ground, they don’t reveal themselves in the same way. The attraction of the images, for me anyway, comes from the way they put these bold, graphic shapes back in their landscape settings, with all the rich and subtle colours that implies. In addition, many of these are in remote places, inaccessible to a 76-year-old with mobility problems, so they offer a vicarious experience to complement the data in reference books.
I’ve used references to neolithic art in my own work many times, and I think the Aerial Atlas will be a source of inspiration for some time.
Examples in my work
These tiny collagraphs draw on the idea of stone circles, for example.
These draw on hill figures. These are proof prints from a project derailed by the COVID pandemic.
This sketch, manipulated digitally, is based on craters, but contains the same archetypal round shapes.
I have a theory, which began with art, but applies equally well to the constructions in the Aerial Atlas, that there are certain archetypal shapes with which we have a physiological as much as an aesthetic response. The obvious ones are of course line and circle/disc, but also spirals and labyrinths and probably others. The job of the artist is to tap into that physiological response. David Abram’s photos do that, I think. They expose the ‘complex simplicity’ of the shapes our ancestors created on the land, never seeing those shapes themselves, but somehow reacting to them.
Sometimes the artistic influence on a piece of work is deliberate. There is a lot to be learnt from trying to emulate the look of another artist without directly copying. This was the case with ‘Shalimar’ below, where I was channelling Richard Diebenkorn and his Ocean Park paintings. (Not in the shop yet, but will be soon. Contact me if you are interested before then.)
Sometimes, though, the influence is accidental. You looked, perhaps, at the other artist’s work years ago. Then as you work, something in front of you triggers the memory, and it becomes embedded in what you make. I think that’s what has happened here with ‘Mercury Beach’. I was framing a batch of prints for upcoming shows, (watch this space for more news on that and where to see them). Suddenly I saw Barbara Rae. Not the subject matter, but the intense colours and the ribbon like horizontal marks. Incidentally, when framing it, I decided it looked better inverted. The version below is upside down compared to the version in the shop. I think it was that change of perspective that made me see the artistic influence coming through.
Of course, I may be deluding myself, but getting even part way towards the work of someone like Rae is not bad in my view.
My last post, about using periodic reviews of old work as a mechanism for moving forward artistically, made me remember something I know in theory, but keep forgetting. Perhaps I need to review lessons learned too. I tend to describe myself as a printmaker. It is easy to forget – well, I find it easy anyway – that the print doesn’t have to be the end state. This is especially so with gel printing or screen printing, which use acrylic paint. Take this image, from that last post.
The initial inspiration was the idea of the pictograph (definition 1 in link) as developed by Adolph Gottlieb. The mark in yellow was also supposed to be redolent of Japanese or Chinese calligraphy. The problem I have with the image is the purple/white patches which break the mark are unrelated to it and to anything else in the image. I spent some time thinking about how to overprint them using gel printing without losing other aspects, which do work. Then it stuck me. Paint them out! That was lesson one…
I would be in good company doing this. Gillian Ayres, for example, used to set aside some prints from an edition, specifically to overpaint, an example being Springfield No 2 from 1999.
The second lesson learned, which seems even harder to remember, is that every blog post doesn’t have to be a dissertation! Just because I like writing long posts, doesn’t mean others want to read them! I’ll do my best, though, because if I can remember that lesson, I’m more likely to keep posting.
I’m always scanning through the pile of unfinished pieces in my studio. Once enough time has passed from me to forget how they were made, they become objects in their own right. Moving forward by reviewing old work and thinking about the next steps becomes much easier. Looking at the work of others, as I have been doing over the past couple of days with John Hoyland for example, is often enough to shake your mind free. The image below is an example of such a review.
Less regularly, I review the pile of finished but unframed prints. When I do this, I typically change my mind about some of them. The last time I did this, I removed about 10% as no longer being acceptable quality. Some of these may benefit from additional work, and others may have elements that can be salvaged to make smaller pieces. Many of the Tiny series were made that way.
I’m aiming to get back in the studio next week, probably starting some new prints from scratch, although for some reason, I’m getting the urge to paint and create some really heavy textures. Time to dig out the Polyfilla?
What or who is the biggest influence on your work? I’m not sure if I can give a coherent answer to that question. I rarely try to deliberately emulate the work of another artist. If I do, it is largely for self-instruction. This one, for example, is called Shalimar. It was an examination of the Ocean Park paintings of Richard Diebenkorn.
Beyond that, it gets a bit more tenuous. I look at a lot of art books – and the real thing too when I get the chance. I don’t see explicit direct influences in my work, but I suppose others more distant from it might. There are many things I explicitly avoid, too. There’s a very strong generic look around at the moment. Look on Instagram or Pinterest to find many examples, with patches of colour against neutrals or greys, coupled with curved shapes in black or white.
Recently I came across a wonderfully eclectic list of influences, cited by the artist John Hoyland in a talk he gave at the Tate in 1980.
“shields, masks, tools, Avebury Circle, swimming underwater, views from planes, volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls, graffiti, the cosmos inside the human body, food, drink, music, dancing, relenting rhythm, the Caribbean, the tropical light, the northern light, the oceanic light. Borges the metaphysical, dawn, sunsets, fish eyes, flowers, seas, atolls. The Book of Imaginary Beings, the Dictionary of Angels, heraldry, Rio de Janeiro, Montego Bay”.
John Hoyland 1980
That’s a great list. It is probably closer to the way most of us absorb influence in any field, not just art. One of the things that struck me is that there are no artists in the list. The sort of ‘copycat’ work that abounds on Instagram and Pinterest doesn’t stem from this sort of list.
Somewhere in one of my notebooks is a list I made, not of influences, but just headed as ‘Things I Like’. From memory, it included:
stone circles, standing stones, hill figures, neolithic carvings, NASA/Hubble photographs, collections of similar objects, cave paintings, Nazca lines, shadows, Native American art, city plans, layers, mid-century graphics, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Science Fiction, Martian landscapes, Misssissippi maps, valley sections, Northern landscapes.
Do you have a list you are willing to share? Let me know in the comments.
For me setting aside time for play is a key part of creativity. It’s a way to get past my inner censor. It allows me to fail. That’s important because without failure there is no measure of success.
It’s almost a month since I spent time in my studio. Initially I took a break to think, because I found myself repeating the same thing. The work looked superficially different, but the process was the same, and so less and less enjoyable. Some health issues then intervened, so my time away from the studio became even more protracted.
I’ve already blogged about making digital prints. They are where I came from as a printmaker, so an important part of my practice. Going back to them while not in the studio was still a form of play. It gave me the freedom to think about ideas of shape and form and composition without investing too much time. Or money for that matter, since decent paper is not cheap. In the end, even though I was ‘only playing’ the outcomes were very satisfying, and I ended up with two ‘suites’ of prints. One is a set of square prints which relate quite strongly to the monotypes I have been making all year. The second set are panoramic in format, but oriented vertically. I wanted to avoid any landscape references and make these wholly abstract.
This isn’t the first time I’ve used play to generate work. Back in 2014 I made a set of what I later called Tinies. I was painting then and very bad at judging how much paint to put on my palette. Rather than waste the leftovers I took, as I realised later, what were monotypes from the palette using some heavy mixed media paper I had to hand. Later I cut these down into small squares, each about 25-30 mm on a side. My original intention was to reassemble them into a collage.
I never made any progress, although I did play around with the pieces for a while. I kept the pieces though, then later still, mounted a selection of these to fit into a 6” x 6” frame (150 mm). When I took these to an ‘art boot sale’, to my surprise they sold very well. Many were sold before I decided to number the rest into a series – Tiny 2014.
The next year I acquired a number of pieces of mount board, originally samples of different colours. I used these to make a set of collagraph plates, experimenting with materials like tile cement. Printing these allowed me to play gain, experimenting with colour combinations, trying out the effects of overprinting colours. These became Tiny 2015.
Tiny 2017, was another set of ‘found images’, this time cut from failed monotypes made with oil based inks, while Tiny 2019 was a return to the small collagraph plates. So far there have been no more.
Now though, I’m itching to get back to physical printing. I find it immensely satisfying to see an image gradually emerge out of the clutter of bits of paper, stencils and general rubbish I use to make my monotype prints. How I do that will be covered in another post.
I hope though that I can still retain the freedom from the last few weeks of ‘playtime’.
I’ve posted before about using my monotype prints as source imagery for digital prints. I’ve started adding some of these prints to the shop. You can find them here, but I’ve added a few tasters below. I’ve bitten the bullet and made them limited edition (they will all be in editions of 50}. I don’t like doing it, but every time I ask others, they seem to prefer a limited edition to open. They will be in a mat sized for a 50 cm x 50 cm frame, so will fit readily available commercial frames, or you can have one made.
I’m thinking about offering some of them in a portfolio form, perhaps with some additional material. I don’t know what the market would be for something like that, so any observations or views would be welcome. When I have a better idea of what I want to do, I’ll put up a form so you can register an interest.
This isn’t the post I intended for today, which I’m still writing. Instead, here is a YouTube video about a wonderful artist book I came across only this week. It is by Pepe Gimeno and is described as “a book about writing without a single word.” Watch the video, and you will see how apt that description is.
I’ve only recently discovered the work of the wonderful Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers (also here and here). These quilts have been created by generations of women in the isolated African-American hamlet of Gee’s Bend, in rural South West Alabama. The earliest identified quilt maker was Dinah Miller in 1859. Throughout the post-civil war years and into the 20th century, the women of Gee’s Bend made their quilts from scrap materials such as old shirts, overalls, aprons and dress bottoms. They did this from necessity not art. Even now the average income is less than $10,000 and these quilts were needed to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated shacks that lacked running water, telephones and electricity.
Gee’s Bend and the Civil Rights Movement
Gee’s Bend is very isolated. Until the 1960s there was a primitive ferry which reduced the journey time significantly. However, when black residents of Gee’s Bend began taking the ferry to the county seat at Camden to try to register to vote the local authorities reacted by closing the ferry service.
The shutdown of the 15-minute ferry ride forced the residents of Gee’s Bend to drive, if indeed they had a car, 40 miles over narrow rural roads to get to the county courthouse in Camden, then 40 miles back. They would be without a ferry service for over forty years. Even when federal funding was agreed in the 1990s it still took until 2006 before it reopened. Such enforced isolation made already hard times even harder.
From the 1960s onward, the opening of the Freedom Quilting Bee in nearby Alberta, which had many from Gee’s Bend as members, began to generate increased attention, although the aim of the Quilting Bee was to meet commercial contracts for the likes of Sears, not sell the work of individual quilters. It took until the late 1990s to generate real interest after art collector, historian, and curator William Arnett began to buy quilts from Gee’s Bend makers.
Arnett organized an exhibition called, “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. This later travelled to a dozen other locations across the USA. The exhibition featured sixty quilts created by forty-five artists. When it reached New York, one critic rather gushingly described the quilts as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee (if you think I’m wildly exaggerating, see the show), arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South.” In 2006, the US Post Office issued a set of stamps to commemorate their work, but without giving individual credits.
While this exhibition brought fame to the quilts, Arnett’s relationship with the quilters was troubled and in 2007, two of them filed lawsuits alleging they had been cheated out of thousands of dollars from the sales of their quilts. The lawsuit was resolved and dismissed without comment from lawyers on either side in 2008. From the outside it is hard to work out what really happened, but it seems that the issue is in part the nature of the art market, where pieces travel from dealer to dealer at ever inflated prices.
Despite the controversy, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, created by Arnett, continues to collect and organize exhibitions for Gees Bend Quilts. It is also managing multiple campaigns to support the quiltmakers and African-American artists in general. They aim to provide documentation, marketing, and fund-raising, as well as education and opportunity for quiltmakers. The foundation is also involved in a multi-year campaign with the Artists Rights Society to protect intellectual property rights for the artists of Gee’s Bend. Some of the quilters have been selling on Etsy for a while, but from February they are creating their own brand presence. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the site is however already overrun with knockoffs and attempts to cash in on the name. The domain name geesbendquilts[dot]com appears to have been hijacked by someone in Indonesia.
The work of the women of Gee’s Bend raises many questions about the nature of art, challenging as it does the mainstream view that art is made by people who call themselves artists. The utilitarian nature of these quilts is married with a real aesthetic sense that has created objects of great beauty which are indeed art. In achieving that state, they need no validation by comparisons to Klee or Matisse or any other artists. Nor are they ‘outsider art’ except from the perspective of those who wish to control the cultural narrative. They are not ‘naïve’ or ‘folk’ art – their artistic decisions are just as sophisticated as those of the artists with which they are compared.
The community of Gee’s Bend are just as much an artistic community as places like St Ives. Even more so perhaps, since their art genuinely springs from the community and continues through the generations. Reading various interviews with the quilters it looks as if they are finally being recognised as individual artists and the money generated is finally beginning to have an impact locally. The Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective currently has 50 members, working as ever to make each quilt unique. Two members (China and Mary Ann Pettway) now run quilting retreats, passing on their skills to quilters and makers across America.
I would love to list all the artist’s names, but I haven’t been able to find a definitive list. The list of quilters on the Souls Grown Deep website numbers 120 but over the generations there must have been many more whose names are now lost to us. The list below is drawn from the Foundation website and is based on the works acquired by Arnett and then held by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.