Recently I had the good fortune to sell a large piece of proper art – art with a capital A. Working with the verb, To fold, whilst making it, I had kept within restricted margins of academic thought, with its constant need to question, test out and back up ideas. Once the large wall sculpture had been packed off to its’ new owner, it left behind a large uncomfortable space on the wall and my brain went into overdrive juggling potential ideas for a new work. This coincided with a complete overhaul of our house – it only happens once every ten years or so and involves dreaded decluttering and intense micro-cleaning.
Like most artists I am an inveterate hoarder – but the stuff I collect could easily be classed as rubbish. For as long as I can remember I have been compelled to pick up and keep all sorts of valueless junk, bits of old sea worn plastic, lino, wood, fabric paper etc. Also, any old thing I liked the colour of. My pockets were always full of what my mother would have called trash. I can pinpoint the genesis of this behaviour, when taken as a young child to the Lord Mayor’s I saw Acker Bilk (musician from the 1960s) standing playing his clarinet in the back of a jeep. As he went past, the jeep drove over a random piece of card – I darted away from whoever’s hand I was holding, out into the middle of the road to retrieve this gritty old bit of mangled card, rubbish to you, but treasure to me.
But it’s not just the texture of man-made wear that calls me, it can be broken things, shiny things and even tiny pieces of those things. Most lot of the stuff in my infinite collection carries some kind of emotional charge, an indelible stain that can trigger an exact, re playing of a specific memory, complete with qualia and verging on synaesthesia. Along with all this triggering, my brain constantly calibrates comparative scales of colour, tone, shape and size.
Just before beginning this new piece, my collection had begun to assert itself in various in parts of the house, other than my studio and was inexorably invading our living space. Last time this happened I made a huge painting of this which enabled me to let it go and get rid of it all. The memory of this catharsis coincided with the need to make work and uplifted by the recent art sale, decided to go straight in and abandon myself to the joy of making. Easy. Except that it wasn’t. Five weeks later, my brain is frazzled from the agony of constant micro-decisions about what to include and worse what to leave out and all this to a running critical commentary in my head about not having thought enough about what I was doing.
Around the middle mark – and I must first explain the work is six feet long and about eighteen inches high, I was working in linear fashion from left to right like a written document and showed it to my daughter Rebecca, (international art critic) I know Rebecca to be measured in her tone and thinking and that she can be relied on to give it to me straight.
“Mum I think it’s difficult to discuss this work as art because it is so personal to you.”
She was right of course, somehow, I imagined I could bypass the hard thinking necessary to move beyond the inaccessibility of the personal, to the more approachable and inclusive universal. Rebecca’s words triggered internal debate and for the next week or so, I argued with myself – should I abandon this piece having already invested a lot of time and some of my favourite bits of rubbish? Maybe disassemble it and start again in the right mindset? Or somehow find a way to rationalise what I had been doing. And then one morning I woke up knowing what I needed to do.
I wrote down every memory associated with every single piece (however small) within the artwork, and described the specific colour and texture, text which would not be available to the viewer. After a while, rich colour associations began to form patterns and I began to see a correlation between these and the necessary process of relentlessly organising, sticking down as an attempt to fix a direct expression of feeling.
I redrafted this narration of the relationship between feeling and obsessive collecting and what initially had looked like a boring laundry list, slowly developed into a palimpsest of memory and feeling, perhaps a necessary exercise, parallel to the actual work. And this is where I think the work starts to extend beyond something other than me sentimentally collaging my “stuff.”
By adding and sometimes subtracting/ripping off pieces and working only within the hierarchy of colour, texture and shape, new patterns emerged, and hierarchies formed. The new work, The United Colours of Memory – To fix, is now framed and on the wall. Below I have included a truncated version of the text to share my process, but it will not be shown with the work. Now, I am happy in the knowledge that whatever this work might have started out as at the beginning, (largely due to Rebecca’s intervention and my stubbornness) even if it wasn’t art then, it is now…
United Colours of Memory – To Fix 2019
Wall hung mixed-media sculpture
Made in England, logo from childhood box of Christmas tree candles – anachronistic green.
My grandmother’s first blood donor card – vintage accountant red
Three-generation, inherited Lexicon box- old gold
My father-in-law’s discarded shirt, taken to India – modified for painting, witness of adventure – peachy neon-bright pinkish-red
One of my sketchbooks, the one with (in retrospect) unforgivably bad drawings – judgemental black.
The box which contained the forty-five, year-old scent of the perfume I wore in the delivery room at birth of daughter Rebecca -Taupe, long before I knew it’s proper name.
Pieces of salt-dried plastic from a Caribbean beach in sugary ice cream colours.
The cover of a (still) favourite Iris Murdoch novel – dark velvety turquoise.
One of my diaries, herringbone – with the contents I had to get rid of – anonymous grey.
My other diary (the boring one) with gorgeous patent leather cover – ripe fern green
Mobile phone case, rubber – delicious vulgar pink
My best wool jumper, accidently shrunk in the wash and then mourned over – mauvey-blue
Small section of failed painting, too beautiful to throw away – ancient green and gold.
A favourite family tablecloth that we ate and argued across over many summers, repurposed into curtains to keep the sun out of the bedroom – as many colours as Joseph’s coat, but faded.
The inner workings of my most comfortable bra – functional, slippery, man-made black
My ancient, body-worn leather handbag, latterly sculpture tool bag and now deconstructed as wall art – safe brown
The last jumper my mother ever knitted – Arran – full-cream ivory