Sarah Burns, who works under the name ‘Dora Fabrics‘ is a devotee of natural dyestuffs and has spent the last few years searching for native plants in the fields and hedgerows around her Sussex studio on the South Downs, and experimenting to develop an array of sumptuous colours that you would never imagine coming from plants such as the humble Ash tree or bramble.
Sarah escaped her life in the city working as an economist to follow her creative dreams, and re-trained as a printed textile designer, moving out of London to the idyllic countryside of Sussex.
The designs in the Dora Fabrics collection are reminiscent of 1950’s woodcut prints; simple, graphic designs that originate from Sarah’s observations of her local surroundings. The graphic qualities of the prints are belied by the gentle colour palette created from the naturally dyed base cloths that Sarah creates.
For the ‘Makers Tales’ show Sarah has dyed sumptuous lengths of crunchy silk with dyes from the weld plant, which gives a glowing warm yellow, walnut and Ash bark which has given a rich pewter grey-green. Colours change depending on the mordant (or fix) that is used and on the fabric base, so Sarah’s dye recipe books are like a bible of invaluable observations.
When talking with Sarah, the joy of what she does is infectious and luckily for us she offers courses in dyeing where we can all experience the excitement of the unknown, foraging for plants, chopping, boiling and testing to our heart’s content in the fresh air of the Sussex countryside. Coming away with ranges of colour swatches and a new found respect for nature’s incredible bounty.
Of course, if you don’t fancy the process of dyeing then Sarah can be commissioned to create lengths of hand dyed linen or silk to suit your colour scheme, but be aware that the nature of the method means that you may need to wait until a particular plant comes into season, as in the world of Dora Fabrics Mother Nature dictates the seasons and their colours!
The current ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition of Medieval ecclesiastical embroidery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum took me way back to my student days when I was lucky enough to be of the generation when it was still possible to study Embroidery A’level. My lovely embroidery teacher allowed us to take off on flights of fancy with creative embroidery whilst instilling a respect for the timeless techniques of the past. It is hard nowadays to imagine a state school sixth form running an A’level course with only three students, but at the time we never even questioned it! Alongside our study of artistic and contemporary stitch techniques the history of embroidery was an integral part of the course and I was thoroughly absorbed for a while in the world of ecclesiastical embroidery and it’s techniques. The no photography protocol of the V&A meant me taking out my note book and sketching some of my favourite fragments, and even this was time consuming, leaving me to speculate on the unnumerable hours that were spent actually stitching these pieces!
The language of this exhibition was not unfamiliar to me as a past student of ecclesiastical embroidery, although I did hear several people wondering “What is a ‘chasuble for?” or “Which is the ‘split stitch’ and which is ‘couching’? ” ( A chasuble is the highly decorated tabard that a priest wears over his normal robes whilst celebrating Mass) Split stitch and Couching are shown here:
In the 13th Century, English embroiderers were at the pinnacle of embroidery workmanship. Church and high society aspired to commission their garments from the English embroiderers in London.
Large embroideries like the Butler Bowden and Syon Copes were made by highly trained professionals, both men and women. They were employed in workshops which were funded by merchants and noble patrons. The merchants took the profits, not the embroiderers who received only modest payments for their work. Most workshops were in London where the necessary capital was available and which was the principal port through which the imported materials arrived. The phrase ‘opus anglicanum’ was first coined to describe the highly-prized and luxurious embroideries made in England of silk and gold and silver thread, full of elaborate biblical imagery.’English Work’ or Opus Anglicanum remained the most sought after work until well into the 15th century.
I was looking forward to the rare opportunity to see ‘up close and personal’ the incredible detail in the embroidered vestements worn in the Medieval Church. I found it sad to think that the hours of work that were put into the embroideries were lost on the congregation, as they would not have had time or opportunity to ‘read’ the pictorial stories depicted on the garments, nor would they have been able to see the minutiae of the stitches that created these incredible works of art. There are exquisite examples of intricate stitching and beautiful fragments of embroidery in this exhibition, but I did feel that it was a missed opportunity on the part of the V&A. In comparison with the recent exhibitions of the past year , this one fits the norm of a dry, old fashioned, ‘museum’ exhibition. I had the impression of wandering amongst embroidery and theological aficionados, who, albeit enthusiastic, certainly did nothing to enliven the atmosphere.
The staging of this exhibition is in a dry, traditional style, some of the beautiful work is presented so far back in the glass cabinets, that it is impossible to make out the details. There are fantastic stories depicted in many of the Church garments, none of which were adequately told in the labelling. The minute stitches really needed to be magnified, but there was no way of doing so. A short film demonstrated the technique of one style of stitching, but was small and nestled between two glass cases, so difficult to see if there were more than two or three people looking. All in all I left, even after my second visit, feeling frustrated at the lack of interactive or engaging display.
However, if you have any interest at all in the world of textiles or history, then this may be the only opportunity for a long while to see such a comprehensive collection of some of the worlds greatest embroidered treasures, so essential viewing !
I do love to pop in to my local galleries on a completely random basis, (often to grab a coffee in addition to cultural input, it must be admitted!) The South London Gallery is a haven of the Camberwell/Peckham culture scene, and in addition to having a great cafe next door, shows pioneering contemporary British and international artists as part of its mission to “bring art to the people of south London”.
The current exhibition of Slovakian artist Roman Ondak in the main gallery has uncovered the original Walter Crane marquetry panel inset into the gallery floor, and he uses the quote in the panel as his exhibition title; “The source of art is in the life of a people”. The exhibition lasts for one hundred days and a significant element of the work is an oak tree trunk sawn into one hundred disks, the disks have each been marked around one of its rings to represent a key historical event that happened in that year of the tree’s life. each day a new slice is mounted on the gallery wall and tracks the passage of time, demarcated by Ondak’s selection of significant events. it is fascinating to ‘read’ this timeline as it evolves through the show period, and realise that each of us has a different perspective of what we consider to be ‘significant’ historical events.
Roman Ondak has invited local young people to get involved in the creation of his work ‘Awesome Rules of Language’ where he has taken illustrations from a 1960’s textbook and recreated them on the walls of the gallery. The illustrations have been drawn over by the adolescent collaborators and these doodles and comments have given a quirky contemporary twist as a commentary on social and educational norms.
Still in the theme of education, Ondak has salvaged four large school blackboards from his native Slovenia, entitled ‘Four Moon Phases’ a bowl of a ladle is inserted into each of the boards, symbolising the four phases of the moon, referring again to the passage of time and the transition between past and present that informs our existence.
I will certainly be popping back periodically to check what has happenned next in Ondak’s ‘tree of history’.
The Saturday night crowd in Peckham’s trendy Blenheim Grove must have wondered what on earth was happening in the Me’lange hair salon. Usually full of people having their hair braided, nails done or feet pedicured, this Saturday instead saw the official opening of the ‘Hair looms’ exhibition of photographs celebrating the natural beauty of black hair.
Melissa Jo Smith, director of ‘Illuminated Arts’ generated the project in a response to the growing concerns about the misconceptions around black hair styling traditions, and perceived unfairness particularly within the education system where students of both sexes are often unfairly penalised for wearing traditional plaited or braided hairstyles or having large afro’s, whereas long or extreme European hairstyles are often disregarded.
Robert Taylor, whose work is held in major collections such as the National Portrait gallery and the V&A, has worked with local people within the salon to explore the forms and effects of natural black hair styling. The resulting images are forceful in their natural effervescence and character with an immediacy that belies the thoughtful approach he has taken to presenting real down-to-earth people. It is this down to earth aspect of the exhibition that I loved; Simple black and white images about hair, being shown in a vibrant and bustling hair salon. If you have ever visited Peckham High Street (which I thoroughly recommend) and it’s side streets you will know that these salons are true social hubs for the local community. The mere fact that combing and plaiting black hair can take hours to achieve, necessitates a real connection with the people around you in the salon. None of that “would you like a coffee and a copy of Vogue to read whilst your hair is being cut?” Here you find children, friends and family hanging out, gossiping and generally making themselves at home whiling away the hours of intricate styling. The heady fumes of nail polishes, steam treatments for hair and a myriad of styling products pervades the air as we take in the photography and note the pride of all concerned in this exhibition. Mr Taylor is being interviewed, comfy rococo sofas are drawn up for a panel discussion, a little girl has one half of her head a mass of downy curls whilst the hairdresser plaits it into a beautiful swirl around her head. As the photographs are interspersed between the salon’s mirrors and styling tools.
Saltfish fritters and sticky lemon cake were served with Carribean fruit cocktail punch, and we settled down to a discussion on the imprtance of the traditions of black hair, it’s cultural identity in the modern world and the political statements integral in the changing trends in Black hair styling over the decades. The debate was sparked by a video of archive footage of Britains first recognised black hairdresser Carmen England in the 1940’s. It was here that the attitude to ‘alien’ black hair became apparent as the narrator refers to ‘secret oils’ and hot combing required to achieve a stereotypical 1940’s hairdo! The Hair loom exhibition’s visitors were variously horrified, indignant and amused by this glimpse into hairderssing history. Debate ranged from the inevitable references to slavery traditions, today’s ‘Black lives matter’ campaign and the practicalities of nurturing a healthy head of afro hair. Overall the consensus accross the panel was that the overwhelming pressures on modern women to conform to stereotypical straight, Eurocentric and treated hair are too heavy to ignore for the majority of women.
The irony of assosciations with slavery and poverty were not lost on me during the discussions about hair extensions and wigs, with the current concerns over the ethics of real human hair extensions. “Much of the hair on sale comes from small agents who tour villages in India, China, and eastern Europe, offering poverty-stricken women small payments to part with their hair. As one importer, based in Ukraine, told the New York Times recently: “They are not doing it for fun. Usually only people who have temporary financial difficulties in depressed regions sell their hair.” More worryingly, back in 2006, the Observer reported that in India some husbands were forcing their wives into selling their hair, slum children were being tricked into having their heads shaved in exchange for toys, and in one case a gang stole a woman’s hair, holding her down and cutting it off.” Homa Khaleeli, The Guardian 2012
“Historically hair was very important in Africa and was, in many tribes, a way to show one’s status, identity, religion, and ancestry. The importance of hair in determining one’s status became even more apparent during slavery in the United States as black women with a kinky hair texture had to work in the fields while those with a more Caucasian- like hair texture were house slaves (Robinson, 2011; Lester, 2000). However, despite their looser hair texture, house enslaved Africans still had to take a step further in order to be presentable as white masters had control over them and forced them to have an image as close to white as possible (Thompson, 2008).
Therefore, emulating white standards of beauty for body image and particularly for hair meant having more status, the possibility to pass as white, become free and even survival in some instances (Patton, 2006). The mixed children from slave masters had looser, straighter and softer hair considered “good hair”, which added to the pressure African Americans experienced to appear as white as they could (Tate, 2007). That helps understand how black people’s need to alter their natural hair came about and still persists in our times.
The Politics of Black Womens’ Hair. Vanessa King & Dieynaba Niabaly 2013
Minnesota State University, Mankato
The event was finished of by a piece of traditional african dance by Marta de Sousa ofthe Nzinga dance company, based in Forest Hill.
Politics aside, the striking images in this exhibition are worth a look, you shouldn’t expect an uninterrupted view as in a standard gallery setting, but enjoy the atmosphere and banter as you do!
Put aside at least a couple of hours for this mammoth collection of 6o’s and 70’s memorabilia, from Twiggy, The Beatles and Sam Cooke right through to the final 1970’speace movement, Vietnam war and a massive Woodstock festival experience.
Imagine taking the ‘Acid test’ and be absorbed by the musical timeline that cleverly takes you through the show on the headsets provided.
There was so much to take in, and so much to listen to, I could have done with a second visit, which, as a friend of the V&A I can do, but one day ticket holders are not so lucky and really have to immerse themselves in a head swirling cacophony of images, memories and music, which are, I suppose quite in keeping with the surreal hedonism portrayed in the exhibition!
The portrayal of optimism, and faith in the power of youth sails through the sixties, and comes crashing down as you enter the era of the Vietnam war, and the Black power struggle in the seventies. The quote that sticks in my mind is that of a young aamerican soldier being interviewed about the casualties of the war; the interviewer asks;
“And the children?”
“And the children”
Struggle against authority becomes the focus of youth and the era of festivals and the peace movement takes us into Woodstock, where we experience the music and fashions of Hendrix, Baez and The Who. The optimism of youth emerges once more and the naive optimism abounds amongst the music and naturalism of the moment.
Of course as we progress to the final room of the exhibition we are faced with the story in film of cynical consumerism, war and politics all overlaid with the soundtracks to CocaCola adverts.
I left the exhibition with an overwhelming sense of the rollercoaster of emotions I had experienced through the show, optimism, hope, idealism and freedom, juxtaposed with disillusionment, futility and brutality. John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is playing in our ears as we leave the show, epitomising all these emotions in one poignant moment.
Design Junction 2016 is one of my favourite mainstream shows of the annual London Design Festival. Contemporary design is presented within changing locations each year, all of which have some link with industry. This year’s Design junction is held at the newly revamped Kings Cross Granary Square, also home of the iconic Central St Martins School of art. Rather than attempting to give an overview of the show I have picked one theme which caught my eye as I was browsing the myriad of exhibits this morning: the trend for incorporating wooden elements into products that are more often seen using industrial, shiny or synthetic substrates.
Notably in the lighting displays wood is being used in innovative ways, bringing a natural element to contemporary lighting.
Another Studio have developed new techniques for working with wood: taking sheet veneer and cutting and folding it into dynamic shapes. The mix of machine and handmade processes serve to craft these beautiful forms. The wooden sheets are backed with a fabric which adds colour to the inside of the lampshades.
Tamasine Osher has created a collection of wooden ‘cupola’ light forms that are from hand-turned wood with the beauty of the grain enhanced by the polished surfaces of the bowls which balance delicately within graphic steel and brass bases. The glow emanating from these wooden bowls has an ethereal quality that I love, and can envisage warming a cosy corner one winter’s evening.
Dinesen created an imposing backdrop to the entrance hall for the show. A giant wooden ‘tent’ structure served to showcase their range of stained Douglas fir and Oak flooring, setting the style for the strong wooden trend in this year’s show.
The juxtaposition of industrial and natural was subtly used on the Tala lighting exhibit. This company has an ethos for sustainable design and have established a pledge to plant ten native trees in the UK for every 200 units sold within Europe. These lights have the aesthetic look of the traditional filament bulb whilst receiving all of the technical and energy saving capabilities of the LED. The bases or ‘knuckes’ of the lights are from turned wood, and soften the post industrial look.
The wooden home accessories of Geoffrey Fisher have all those wonderful tactile qualities of natural wood. The natural forms found in woodlands make beautiful and sustainable products, Geoffrey transforms twigs and branches into products ranging from hooks and tabletop dustpan and brushes to whistles, catapults and skipping ropes.Retaining the bark and juxtaposing it with perfectly smooth surfaces gives this range an honesty that is both comforting and pleasing to hold.
In the spirit of sustainability, Design House Stockholm present the Atelier 2+ greenhouse. Essentially an architectural design, this mini greenhaouse is made of laquered solid Ash, with toughened glass panes. and a galvanised metal planting tray. it is designed to be a freestanding interior ornament, and brings my perusal of all things wooden to a natural close.
I revisited one of my favourite art venues this weekend in the Cotswold town of Cirencester. The Brewery Arts Centre was one of the pioneers in encouraging designer makers to set up workshops and studios in their purpose built hub.For the past 40 years the Cirencester Workshops’ aim has been to ‘give the public good quality crafts, provide craftspeople with a fair rent and encourage them to produce creative work of a high standard, and to put the enterprise on a sound financial basis’. I have been priveleged to witness the evolution of this centre over the years and have always enjoyed popping in to see what’s on in the gallery or peep into the workshops to witness some really stunning works being created. (Not to mention the fab coffee!)
The current exhibition, “How does your garden grow?” has been curated by garden designer Geoff Carr. He has created an indoor garden design which features ceramics, sculpture, garden furniture and tools. Although I was not a great fan of the synthetic lino ’tiling’ which didn’t really do the works sitting upon it justice, I thoroughly approve of the concept behind the show. So often, garden design elements are shoved to the background, overshadowed by showy plants and flowers, but this exhibition gives us the opportunity to see gardening staples, such as terracotta flowerpots, trowels and bird boxes in a new light as bona-fide pieces of craft in their own right.
The sculptural qualities of woven willow are more apparent in a gallery setting, before they have been overgrown with the plants they are destined to support. The ceramic forms of Nigel Edmonson incorporate ‘landscape based abstraction that responds to the Lakeland fells’ that lie on his doorstep.
Karen Edwards also works in clay , exploring her interest in plants and landscape. The pieces are hand formed, using various techniques to create individual pieces which are then embellished, embossed or polished and glazed.
The palatial clay birdboxes created by Peter Garrard are a fantastical journey into his world of fascination with Chinese, Medieval and Pre-Renaissance artefacts. Lavishly decorated and glazed these dwellings would be for the most discerning of feathered property tycoons!
A row of beach hut striped teracotta pots spans the width of the gallery and I love the idea of these colourful elements added to the simplest form of garden pottery. The humble flowerpot has been given special treatment by potter Simon Hulbert who works in Haye-on-Wye. Simon says;”My work has always been varied in scale and complexity- from the humble plant pot, simply thrown, through to the larger one-off pieces which are often monumental in scale.” I am so pleased that he has treated us to this display of ‘humble’ pots.
I seem to have focussed on the ceramic elements in my photographs but there was a range of other mediums on show, including some stunning steamed wood baskets from Jane Crisp
And just in case you feel the need to get your hands dirty and actually plant something in your garden here are some really splendid bespoke tools from Implementations to adorn your garden shed walls!