Saturday, February 25, 2012

I was supposed to be making a map, but ....

While my excursions were limited, when I was looking after my mother, I dreamed of escaping away to West Dean for some course or other: no responsibilities other than working for a few days.  So, once my time was my own again I immediately thought - I must book a course. 
Over the past few years I have become progressively convinced that my design abilities were going stale, and so the input I most needed was to shake up my active visual decision-making.  The printmaking classes I started last year have been enormously helpful in that regard, and I recently increased them from one day to two per week.  But all the preparation drawing for the printmaking is done at home, usually using stuff from my files - and so it had to be a drawing class at West Dean.
I did not want life drawing, or beginners drawing, and noted Innovative drawing as appropriate.  Of course, I did not pay sufficient analytical attention to the second half of the title of the workshop: Innovative drawing: mapping a personal journey.  Well, my life has been absolutely jam-packed with journeys, literal and emotional - but I chose a recent journey (that can be seen at the bottom of this previous post) along a boardwalk with no endpoint at Dungeness, a place full of contradictory atmospheres and attractions both visual and emotional.
I did lots of research about shingle in general, shingle at Dungeness, the buildings at Dungeness, the endangered species living in the shingle which the boardwalk protects from the heavy-footed humans, ... looked up maps, ... and prepared a notebook and several printouts.  Well, it was too much.  I felt that any map I would come up with would simply be a copy of what was already in my notes.  I was stumped.
But I had come away to concentrate on drawing, so that's what I did.  All the time I had been doing my research the back of my mind had been beavering away at possibilities for representing shingle.  It did not pop anything into the front of my mind until my hand got going with my soft pastels.
I love working with soft pastels: I find their feel voluptuous, and liberating.  I can let myself go when using them.  I have never been to any classes, but fell into using them as powder on my fingers, and for that reason my favourite pastels are those made by Unison in Northumbria.  They are the softest and crumble easily.  The pigment is dense, and I have found that once scanned it retains that purity of colour even when reproduced on cotton for my quilts.
So, for the two and a bit days of the workshop I concentrated largely on the elements which attracted me most: the shingle, the dead stems of the sea cabbage, the geological and biological information about the shingle, and the boardwalk. 
The shingle manifest itself in pastel and pen, in layers on coloured paper.
The stems of the crambe maritima (sea cabbage) had made a great impression on me - a robust plant - a survivor in this alien environment, but their skeletal winter stems were brittle and fragile.

Simply drawing them straight was not going to be enough.  This is where sheer luck came in.
Because my husband was away from home at the same time, I decided to get a new small suitcase for myself.  At the last minute when leaving the house I thought I'd better take some stitching with me in case of boredom in the evening, and opened a supplementary compartment to put the work in.  It was stuffed with paper which I just pushed into the bag with all my art materials for the weekend.
Well - that paper has turned out to be just glorious stuff!  I scrunched it, then spread it out flat, then covered it with pale pastel, and then drew with an extremely fine pen along some of the folds.  For me it captured how I felt about those skeletal stems.
I was so delighted with the marks on the paper that I utilised that method to reproduce all the notes which had fascinated me: I wrote on more pastel-covered scrunched paper.  I used two colours: what is commercially known as sepia in a pen, and black, in the finest pen I could find.  I wrote out my notes about the kind of shingle formation found at Dungeness, and also on a separate sheet I wrote the names of endangered local bees and beetles.
But despite all the fun I had doing this, it was hardly what was expected of me in that workshop.  I did make a couple of half-hearted attempts at collages, but it all looked dreadful.  And as I say, my heart was not in it.  I embraced failure on that part because I had succeeded in other ways.  I realise now that there is no longer the need for a weekend away because I can go back to making a mess in my own home, and leave it there for as long as I like.
I thought that the drawings would come to nought, but as so often happens, the back of my mind was still powering away, and yesterday I started on the design in progress at the top of this post.  It looks like all my other stuff, but I guess that's just what I do.
I think that I might just possibly have finally learned that I have the greatest difficulty in squeezing my work work into any kind of deliberate theme or form.  I can do it for picking up a new technique, or exploring some creative area outside my work, but although I could happily, using my skills from my previous career commission innovative maps from other artists - I must admit to myself that I, myself, am not interested in making one.
It was not completely a waste of time going to West Dean for the weekend, but it had been such a seductive idea for so long that that blinded me to its actual value to me and my work.


Anonymous said...

This is quite intriguing and exciting, both your explorations, process and the conclusions... and the influences of Dungeness. I still recall how excited I was by the book about Derek jarman's garden there. Amazing, isn't it, how things do fall into place from these investigations and influences?

June said...

I love this description of the process -- and clearly it was a grand success. You wouldn't have been concentrating on the shingle if you hadn't put yourself into that situation where you *had* to produce something, even if the something wasn't what you were comfortable with. And that led you to the shingles, and then to the liberation of the pastels. And the crumpled paper. And the writing within the pastels on the paper. And then the incorporation of the shingles with your earlier work.

It doesn't matter one jot or tittle whether you fulfilled the workshop "assignment." That's not what you went there for, even if you may have thought you should be there for that. What you got was so much richer and so much more useful than any "mapping collage" that might have somehow filled in the lines on someone else's "drawing."

Congratulations. Now you know you can sign on for any workshop that appeals for any reason -- and come back with things you could have not imagined at home.

The use of the theme is to stretch you, and that stretching takes forms that no instructor and not even you can imagine. Some instructors might think that you might have done otherwise, but you now know better:-) A great and good insight!

I say all this (and apologize for saying it at such length) because it is somehow the essence of what happens to me at the residencies. I always go with certain plans and objectives and goals. They are, however, placeholders, while my unconscious (or arty side or whatever) figures out what to do with itself when it discovers the original goals aren't working. You did it in a couple of days -- it often takes me weeks.

I am delighted -- I guess mostly because your experience somehow affirms my own quirky ways. But of course, this is really all about you -- I'm just a grinning onlooker.

Olga said...

Anonymous - yes, I do find it interesting how the brain and the emotions sift through influences to pick and choose what they want.

June - You are right that I really set aside the mapping aspect of the weekend long before I got there, and stuck with what I really needed to do. The trick will be to set myself similar exercises in order both to enjoy the research/enquiry, and to give myself a starting point for creative exploration.
I find it fascinating and encouraging that this process happens to you too, in a similar way: this need to start with goals which are readily set aside for what the subconscious needs to make progress.

Margaret Cooter said...

It seems to me that you did make a map - the sort of map that is contained in song in nomadic societies. And it seems to me that the workshop was a great success in drawing something out that wanted or needed to see the light....

Olga said...

You are right Margaret: it's the power of story which keeps me in its grip. Myth and folktale have always been important to me, and I guess they do represent a kind of mapping.

June said...

I find yours and Margaret's comments about myth being a kind of mapping intriguing. Indeed, a mental map, perhaps, or emotional or cultural. My brain tends to believe that maps represent physical tangibilities -- the walk Olga took, or my crosscountry meanders through the city. Something underfoot, perhaps.

But this is clearly a limited way to see things -- mind-mapping, after all, is one of those ideas that also intrigues me. Thanks for setting my mind in motion, as it were.

Olga said...

June, I too generally think of maps as being diagrams which show others the way to navigate round or recognise an area. But since signing up for the drawing workshop became aware of the use of the term 'mapping' being everywhere. I'm not sure I agree with all of the uses, but I certainly can see Margaret's point that a song, or a poem or other literary piece, or a visual image can map emotions, interests, and events insofar as the work navigates round marked points of recognition. A history painting could be said to map an event - although, I'm sure that that's not the verb I would have used previously, unless a diagram of the battle was included.