I think we all have our particular distractions and mine is working in my garden. Finally as the weather cools enough to entice me out of my home, and out of a summer hibernation of sort, my moments of procrastination are spent outside trying to bring some control to my overgrown garden.
Recently I spent hours digging around looking for the stone boarders to a path I had set down four years ago. The paths radiate from a central circle and form the structure of this part of the garden in which I wanted to reclaim a little formality. Slowly I uncovered one stone at a time and was surprised to find that the old pattern holds true. Each stone was there where it should be and where it had been placed before nature and various garden activities helped to blur the edges.
Rediscovering stones made me aware that there are other patterns that have become quietly overgrown, structural paths set down for my tapestry work for example. All through the hot summer I put my head down and worked faithfully following some long ago decided plan. I thought little about it, just did the work and ticked off the hours. Now after spending a little time reassessing the project as a whole, it is exciting to establish that there is in fact a structure. I have had to prune back ideas and fancies that have crept in but on the whole I find myself reassured, and perhaps slightly in awe, that I was the one that put it all in place.
Re-establishing the framework has been invigorating and also a constructive exercise before burying myself once again in a new tapestry in which I can continue to dance with my personal angels and demons and trust that the paths will keep me on the straight and narrow.
I am currently finishing a tapestry titled "Death Rides a Pale Horse", which for the last couple of weeks has had a disturbing resonance with my real world. For one reason or another death has been a regular topic in our family and while this in itself is not a bad thing it has come rather more close to home than usual.
An uncle died of throat cancer after months of debilitating discomfort. Then, thankfully, an artist friend has survived dangerous, major surgery. The disappearance of the Malaysia plane has also left its mark on everyone's hearts and imaginations.
More shocking and upsetting to my immediate circle though, is the death in a car accident of three family friends, a mother and her two varsity-going daughters. While I did not know these people well the immediacy of this vanishing act has floored me and completely shattered the lives of the people close to them.
Conceptually I think we all go through the exercise of imaging what life would be like if a nearest and dearest died, the shock, the emotional trauma. We either imagine ourselves falling apart or bravely soldiering on. I have realised, however, that no matter how accurately we try to recreate this possibility we never come close to imagining the real extent of the emotional wrecked-ness of it.
I realise now that while this tapestry began as an interesting conceptual look into death, a general human condition ripe for analyse and contemplation, it has become more of a tribute to real breathing loves lost, and the people left behind to pick up the pieces. It is also a reminder to me to appreciate every moment I can with the people important to me.
One of the greatest challenges I have at the moment is trying to balance my work and home life.
In the not so distant past I would see a sticker on the back of a car proclaiming "mom's taxi" and I would smile and think, "poor sods, that will never happen to me! I am a career artist not a bored stay at home mom". While I am a career artist and I am not bored, I have to accept that I am also a stay at home mom.
Here I am with two children at school with extra murals that never fit neatly into a day and a lift schedule that leaves me gasping for air. The gasping is due to the panic that sets in as I calculate how many hours I am not sitting in front of my tapestry loom weaving. Keeping in mind that each tapestry takes an average of 150 hours to complete I gasp a lot.
On top of that, our current summer average temperature sits at between 35 to 40 degrees. By the time I collect the kids they are already puddles of hot frustration. And then there is ninjutsu, ballet or piano to be endured. Give me patience!
Yesterday, however, after counting up the meagre hours of work I was able to fit into my day and feeling a little strung out, the eldest sits at the piano and starts to play her most recent piece and the youngest starts doing plies and pirouettes as accompaniment. While it is not Swan Lake it does bring their mother to tears and I realise that those "wasted hours" are an investment into another sort of creative development, the personality and learning of two very precious little people.
We are all allowed soppy moments to make life more manageable.
I have just done myself a huge favour and bought myself a book titled "The Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers" by Liliane Delwasse (Editions du Patrimoine: 2008). It was going to be an early Christmas present but due to international postage hassles (or was it local?) it is now a birthday present. Oh well, I am thrilled to have it.
For over a year now I have been working on a project based on this particular Medieval tapestry. Using much creative imaginings and artistic licence I have pasted together an understanding of this work through images and information gleaned from the Internet. While the Internet is an incredible source, and I would never have come across the tapestry it if I hadn’t been looking for images for monsters and beasts, I always suspected that there was much I was missing.
So not being able to get to see the work "in the flesh" I ordered this book from the museum in France. Having waited such a long time for it to arrive and having my bouncing enthusiasm dashed every other morning (I don’t receive many parcels in the post) said enthusiasm finally waned and I felt I could continue with my project quite happily without it. But no, now I realise again how important and inspiring it is to study master pieces with attention and in great detail. And this work is filled with details I could only guess at and a level of craftsmanship which is awe-inspiring. I am absolutely fascinated by the intricacy, patterning, careful toning and colouring to be seen in it.
There is nothing quite like studying the work of master artists and craftsmen, from any age, to make one feel both inspired and insignificant. Yet again the Tapestry of Angers has captured my imagination and it is wonderful to be enthralled. Now I just need to ground myself for long enough to pull images out of my head and my heart and to continue with a work which I hope, perhaps, will instil a little awe in others.
The Two Witnesses - detail.
Third panel, scene 30 (28) of the Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers.
Photo credits: CMN/ Caroline Rose
"The Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers" by Liliane Delwasse (Editions du Patrimoine: 2008) page 31.
I make a point of not reading the papers I work with, it takes too much time and the news is old by the time it is dyed and dried. Generally I have never found reading newspapers an uplifting experience and I feel the world would be a happier place if we humans limited our daily news intake.
Sometimes, however, I become distracted by the headlines and something will jump out at me. Others slide in surreptitiously through my peripheral vision and after a few minutes I find myself frowning and thinking… “what??”
From this weeks' random selection of distracting phrases, which are now woven into the hair of a woman diving out of the sky in a work titled "Killing the Dragon", I get stuck on lines like:
"Good for the groin" and "Bump, blow and bong your way to the dream life" (no, actually, this was an article on tax).
Afrikaans headlines also do a particularly interesting dance in my mind: "Is daar n vasgestelde salaris vir n koster?" (a what? a beadle or clerk of the church my Afrikaans husband informs me). "Rompslomp veroorsaak lang gewag" and "My wiele en ek".
These arbitrary word and titles tend to catch me when my mind is somewhere deep in the latest audio book I happen to be listening to. This is currently "14" by Peter Clines, a world of mystery, much strangeness and a good dose of space and alien monsters.
Put all these images together and the world becomes more than a little surreal. To friends and family - please be patient if it takes me a little while to ground myself after a day's work.
The tapestry I am currently working on, "Killing the Dragon", is nearing completion and while this is thrilling the thought of starting the next tapestry is daunting.
Finishing a work is rather hypnotic. After months of work it is that last piece that pulls the whole thing together, that little piece of magic. Relatively speaking there is so little to do but it takes so long. I land up working long hard hours on that "last little bit".
Starting a new tapestry on the other hand involves a completely different mindset and is also strenuous in a different way. First I have to warp my loom. My loom has 280 pins on each of the top and bottom bars. I have to wind 2.5 meter lengths of cotton thread from top to bottom along all the pins. This involves stepping up onto a high stool, then down again 280 times while holding the tension steady on the thread. If I don't take a break (this is simply suicidal) it will take me about 2 hours. Each time I do this I spend the next two days contemplating the lie of the seemingly passive activity of tapestry weaving, mostly because my muscles ache and remind me constantly that I am indeed human.
Once the warp threads have been evenly attached I then have to cut and tie another 280 strings to every second string to create a shed. Altogether it takes an average of 850 meters of cotton thread to warp the loom and most of a day.
When the loom is ready I prepare the thread by dying, cutting and spinning the sheets of newspaper. Spinning one ball of newspaper thread takes about an hour, takes one page of newspaper and makes about 18 meters of thread. Depending on the complexity and denseness of the weaving each tapestry takes anything from 100 to 200 sheets of paper and 140 to 190 hours of quiet back and shoulder- aching work.
Now that I have all this to look forward to, I will concentrate on enjoying the relative luxury of simply weaving that "last little bit".
Warp - The threads stretched vertically on the loom
Weft - The horizontal threads crossing the warp
Shed - The opening between warp threads through which the weft is passed
Every so often I check what Google has to say about “Tamlin Blake”. Mostly the results are expected and unsurprising, more like a walk down memory lane. There are listings of exhibitions I have taken part in, past reviews, some pleasing, some irksome, all seemingly permanent.
Recently however I discovered to my great surprise that I have a plant named after me. This I wasn't expecting.
When I was busy with my botanical art studies, I was privileged to be helped by Ernst van Jaarsvelt. Ernst is a botanist and horticulturalist and the curator of the Kirstenbosch Conservatory in Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town. He has written numerous books including Succulents of South Africa (Tafelberg),Waterwise Gardening (Sunbird), Catyledon and Tylecodon Handbook (Umdaus) and Gasterias of South Africa (Ferwood Press).
Ernst would lend me strange and beautiful plants to paint and study. He is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to plants and on the many occasions that I visited him at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens he would share the dry scientific fact and figures but also enthuse about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of specific plants. It was in Ernst’s article New Gasteria Cultivars by Ernst van Jaarsveld published on www. kambroo.com that I found the following:
Gasteria ‘Tamlin Blake’ (G. batesiana var. dolomitica × G. batesiana var. batesiana)
(named for the artist Tamlin Blake)
Rosette 180 mm in diameter. Leaves spreading, lorate, 80 × 25mm; surface olive green,
tubercles in transverse (zebra) bands,margin denticulate; apex obtuse, mucronate.
During my studies I would often came across plants that had been named after great explorers and plant collectors and, in more recent history, plants have been named after some of the more prolific and dedicated botanical artists. For example in Albuca batteniana is named after Auriol Batten (b. 1919) and Crassula lettyae and Aloe lettyae after Cythna Letty (1895-1985) both prolific artists who have added greatly to the knowledge of botanical art in South Africa.
To find myself among their ilk is an honour, as well as humbling.
Also artists, like most humans, are not immune to a little recognition… and ego flattery.
Thank you Ernst!
Post script: I have sometimes wondered why I took the detour into botanical art and illustration when honestly I love to make things and get frustrated working with watercolour. I am constantly grateful for those years though. It is a demanding art form that requires time and patience. Through the study of illustrating plants I learnt to pay attention to detail, to work carefully and with perseverance, a blessing when it comes to working with tapestry.
The rain has finally come to the Riebeek Valley and everything feels washed clean. Now the million's of Rands worth of germinating wheat seeds will have a chance to grow instead of wilting under the warm sun. Even those of us that only live on the outskirts of the farming community feel their relief. At the same time the weaving of my most recent newspaper tapestry "Second Trumpet" is complete and for some reason the coming of the rain feels significant to me.
I worked on the image for this piece during the protests a few months ago when farm workers were protesting their daily wage. While the protests in the valley were thank fully rather peaceful it was a time of tension and stress for the workers, farmers and communities living in the area especially while farms and vineyards were being burnt in the Darling area.
Just as I have finished weaving the smoke and fire for weeks on end the rain has come to give new life and vigour to the land and the people who live so closely to it. It has taken me 140 hours to weave and will take another week to work off completely, however, one of the best parts about finishing a tapestry is that I get to start the next.
By its very nature tapestry weaving is a time consuming and laborious process. The general practice for tapestry weaving is to use a detailed, full-scale image attached to the back of the loom to provide a guide for the weaving. This image is known as a cartoon and it often contains numbers or marks as colour references.
So the thought of making a tapestry 'sketch' is rather incongruous.
An artist in Australia who is doing some interesting work is Cresside Collette. She is exploring the concept of 'en-plein-air' tapestry and makes small jewel-like works which convey some of the immediacy of the environment she is working in. She works directly onto a small loom without the aid of sketches or any other preparatory work and the results are captivating and fresh.
She has also written a paper in which she explores the importance of drawing since the Medieval times as the "foundation for and the integrated context of woven tapestry" and looks at the "the shift in importance of the weaver as artist within the process".
"Found in Translation – the transformative role of Drawing in the realisation of Tapestry"
Whether one attempts to work 'en-plein-air" or not I think it says something about staying focused and creative even while working from a well considered and detailed cartoon. Working on a tapestry need not be a mere multiplicative process, but rather a continuation of the creative process.
"Bundanon Valley", Tapestry 9 x 9.5 cm
"Pulpit Rock", Tapestry 10 x 10.5 cm
"Towards the River", Tapestry 9.5 x 8 cm
"Valley View", Tapestry - 6.5 x 28 cm
This is what my current obsession is all about. This 14th Century tapestry is fascinating in its detail and workmanship as well as its wild and fanciful images. It shows the story of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Divine and what is left of it is over one hundred meters long.
It is also the starting point of a project which will take me the next year and a half to complete. If all goes well the work will be exhibited at the Circa Gallery in Johannesburg at the end of 2014. Working Title: Revelations - Stories or secrets disclosed, things that were not before realised
I have no intention of retelling the story of the St. John’s Apocalypse I am using the melodramatic themes of the story as initiating sparks for themes and discussions in my own work. I have chosen to work very loosely with the ideas, patterns, feelings and inspirations that develop through this process.
Side note: When I was very little my grandparents gave me a Bible which, through a printing or binding error, does not contain the Book of Revelations. While I am not religious I have always found this somehow, vaguely significant.
The tapestry I am currently working on is based on the panel of the “Nicolas Bataille - the second trumpet and the shipwreck"
Detail: "Second Trumpet" in process