Malcolm at SOFA, and a reflection

Walnut Wave Vessel ...coming to SOFA

Walnut Wave Vessel …coming to SOFA

Greetings, blog readers…just to let you know Malcolm will be back in the US at SOFA Chicago this week, and keen to say hullo! Meantime here’s his post from a recent conference paper on the ITE experience….

Artist? Woodworker?

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to do a presentation at the Making Futures 3 Conference in Plymouth, here in the UK. It was a really exciting international event looking to where Craft is heading in the 21st century. The presentation was about how our identities as artists and makers can constrict or free up our working methods, and how these identities are constructed out of our relationship with galleries, other makers, and even our workspaces, materials and tools. I used our experience of the ITE residency as a practical example of how changing the circumstances in which you work can change both how you think and what you are able to make. I thought it might be interesting to share some of these thoughts because they touch on what makes a residency like the ITE so special an opportunity.

One of the conference organisers, Trevor Marchand, has asked me to contribute a chapter based on my presentation to an upcoming book of his on ‘making as problem-solving’.
He’s an anthropologist based at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, who is also a trained cabinet-maker and one of our best writers on how we learn making skills.

Readers of this blog will know that Gaynor and I found the ITE experience remarkable. I think that you could argue that a large part of this was the ways in which it challenged how we saw ourselves as artists and makers, allowing us to step outside our own and others’ expectations of us, while providing a lot of practical support and encouragement to respond in new ways. Instead of simply making the next logical step in our development, we found that our path could lead us in any one of a thousand directions, to places undreamt of. So I wanted to look in a little detail at the ways in which this worked…

Our identity is constructed in all sorts of ways, by other people as much as by ourselves. For an artist, their galleries, collectors, curators and colleagues all have a hand in this. We think we know what we do as artists, and other people know what they expect of us. For makers such as ourselves, who make a living entirely from our art, we need our clients to believe in us as artists, and to be able to follow the developments within our work, but this inevitably has a conservative influence on what we make and show, even if unintentionally. So the chance to make work away from commercial pressure for two whole months is wonderful. A funded residency like the ITE allows you to forget about who you or anyone else thinks you are, and forget too about paying the bills.

We did come over to the US with two completely new possible approaches, ideas that would have been simply too left-field for trying at home. Impossible to simply stop and try something completely new for months on end, to end up with something our galleries and clients might or might not find exciting. And even if we had devoted time we didn’t have to the project, perhaps still impossible in our home environment. It helps to change the working conditions in a major way to really let new ideas flourish.

So, the new approaches were: to see whether we could incorporate fiber and stitch in any way; to make some trial vessels that were actually hollow, rather than the solid vessel forms for which we are known. The obvious link between these two tasks was to make a vessel in two pieces and stitch it together. Everything we did on the residency followed from these two starting points, but we had no idea whatsoever where they would lead. So, our choice of starting point too forced us to abandon our usual ways of working, and made us ask new questions.

Actually, just being away from family, friends and colleagues (and maybe living in a different timezone helps too!) loosens the way the day to day routine actively conditions and distracts you. Gaynor and I were originally selected to do the ITE a few years ago, but were unable to come over at that time for family reasons. Getting a second shot at it gave us both an extra determination to make good use of the time in every way possible. It also gave us a real sense of gratitude in actually being able to come; perhaps this made us more open to the possibilities that presented themselves than we would have been back then.

To further help with this loosening process, there is the intensive and dizzying round of visits to museums and collectors. So much to absorb and reflect on. This puts the emphasis very much on the material, ‘wood’, and the infinite different things you can do with it’. So why do I make in the way I do with this material?

The shift in working environment is also very important. Our own wood-shop is very low-tech, and the materials and techniques we use had become pretty much focussed over the years. We’ve never had any illusions about our skill level as woodworkers, both of us are from an art background and were never practically trained in wood, we’ve had to work it out as we go along. So we have always prided ourselves on our low-tech approach. To work in a fully equipped wood-shop at UArts was both a treat and a challenge…what do you do with all this equipment? Working on the benches next to John Kelsey was so useful here. Apart from the fascinating discussions and general banter with John, his no-nonsense approach to technology helped us ask the right questions. We learnt that a new tool brings new possibilities, and this further helped us to abandon self-imposed limitations. Allowing myself, for example, to have the option of working with templates and making simple jigs has been a revelation. It sounds stupidly simple, but this is the kind of decision of which dramatic change can be made. I just approach things from a wider perspective, and with a bigger, often improvised, toolkit.

Even the limitations of this new environment proved constructive. We are used to working in large sections of seasoned hardwoods, which we simply couldn’t get. So our carved pieces stayed small, leaving the question of how we could get something bigger made… we had to think outside of our normal ways of working, effectively being forced to find a new response.

We had been making a lot of simple paper maquettes, using these as models to play with shape, and starting to sew these together, trying out our new approach. I think this must have opened us up to the possibility of working with actual sheet materials… Gaynor had been deeply impressed with a Dona Look bark vessel when visiting the Smithsonian, and I’d been looking at the stock of sheet plywood, bending ply and veneered board at UArts, wondering whether you could carve into these, in effect drawing on wooden ‘paper’. And so it suddenly occurred to both of us that you could treat boards or veneer pretty much like the paper maquettes we had been making. In fact sewing turned out to be the perfect technique for using with both boards and veneers, working with the natural spring of wood along the length of the grain to form smooth curves. So we could make multi-panel vessels, or make a vessel from a single tightly curved sheet. Some of the traditional Japanese techniques for bookbinding provided stitching that is secure, simple and decorative. To take this still further, if you use very thin veneers (around 1/40th of an inch) the natural irregularity of the grain means that when soaked and allowed to dry the wood will reshape itself along stress lines, bending and rippling. So here was an extra organic element to play with, inherent in the material, but very rarely positively exploited.

A different example, re-purposing a tool: I had been carving the relatively thick (1/8 inch?) layers of the bending ply quite successfully, but the individual layers of normal birch ply were simply too thin to work consistently. John Kelsey came up with a roughing out plane, rarely used in these days of electric planers, the curved blade of which makes a mark not unlike that of a gouge. And suddenly I can draw with the plane on a plywood board, because the plane holds the blade at exactly the right depth and angle. While it is absolutely not what the tool was designed for, it’s perfect for this particular job…

So, over the course of the residency we let go of our ideas of what kind of artists we were, and what our kind of art looked like. We were able to change our relationship to the material itself, seeing it as less of a vehicle for our ideas, and more a necessary partner to collaborate with. This in turn meant we were happier about engaging with ‘woodwork’ techniques, and became more aware of what the tradition has to offer, both in terms of tools old and new, and of working with the possibilities of the material. We seem to be able to take advantage of this in unconventional ways, and better at using and developing our craft skills. You could say that we learnt that it’s not so much WHAT you use as HOW you use it, giving the materials and tools a chance to use their own voices.

The residency was for us a chance to challenge our own and others’ assumptions about our ‘selves’, both as people and as makers, and of course you can’t really separate the two. The surprising conclusion is to see how easy it is, when you change the working conditions and context, for your existing ideas of yourself as an artist to soften and shift, and so for radically different work to appear. We have a certain range of skills and experience, but those can manifest in infinitely varied forms, depending solely on the conditions. We have returned, I think, with different ‘selves’ and a different way of working within our tradition.

It will take time to see what effect this has, what we think of our new work as it develops, and what others think of the changes in it and in us. The problem of how to make, and exactly who it is who is making, anyway? We had thought we pretty much knew who we were and where we were going. We had no idea how much wider the possibilities were. Only by letting our ideas of ourselves as artists be truly challenged, could we be open enough to find these possibilities. Only such an open, supportive, and well resourced program as the ITE could have helped us to do this.

Malcolm Martin