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In an effort to be topical with the spring here at last, I am posting another of my Flora Embroideries, the Auricula Theatre. A strange idea to display flowers in such an artificial setting, I just had to embroider it – but needed quite a bit of help. In fact after the initial sampling I left the embroidery of all the dozens of tiny petals to my then assistant, Debbie Cripps, and a beautiful job she made of them. All I had to do was design and assemble the whole edifice.
The theatres actually did exist and originally for a purpose other than display, the curious colours of some of the flowers is due to a farina or flour like substance that coats the leaves and petals giving them a white or silvery appearance and it can be washed away by rain – so the earliest flowers were often placed under protective coverings. I became intrigued by the auriculas having seen them at spring flower shows – not in theatres but in simple plant pots; even in local church halls they really attract attention – they just don’t look real, they look like someone has painted them in strange colours with stripes and edgings of greens and white and yellows, they look like a child’s drawing of a flower.
And when they are displayed in modern theatres their various markings can be truly appreciated
So I set about making one for myself, to become a permanent display. I arranged several of my photographs form the various shows I attended into a staged setting, then set about trying to embroider them.
first I needed to draw them before I could start to stitch them.
at first I tried to paint in the backgrounds, really to make things easier and quicker….
They looked OK but didn’t really have the intensity that the real things had, show auriculas look like imploded flowers so intense is their colouring and perfectly symmetrical their form. I realised that I had to make similar intense embroideries. I started by embroidering individual petals..
I decided to try coloured grounds to make life a little easier.
I used gauzes and fine silk grounds so that the made up flowers would not be too heavy but it was a bit of an awesome task even with help with the stitching.
after giving the fabrics and my working samples to my assistant I set to work to develop the theatre.
I know that this drawing is really simple and childlike but it was enough to get me started – I soon realised I had to make a 3D embroidery, so the curtains were lined and draped and the canopy was held above and projected out beyond the flowers, it was ribbon worked exactly as 17th century embroidered bed hangings. The earliest auricuals were grown by Flemish silk weavers and eventually shown in special competitions were prizes were awarded, usually a silver cup or spoon. The Flemish silk weavers introduced them into England as early as the 17th century – so I decided to have curtains made from woven silk brocade that features auriculas ( you can’t say I am not thorough in my research)!
The finished embroidery is very 3 dimensional and is densely stitched and draped, it is the one piece of work that everyone wants to buy, probably because it featured on the poster for the exhibition at the Holburne museum in Bath where the whole set of Flora embroideries were first shown in this country. This was in 2000 so this is really old work now – but making this piece made me decide that I needed to start to develop new types of work using different media or techniques or both, this heavy stitched surface is too time-consuming and therefore too costly to sell except to a committed collector or dare I say it – museum? and I have decided not to separate the pieces because they tell a story of how, through trying to perfect nature we can go horribly wrong. I had stitched myself into a corner but I still had quite a few more pieces to complete The Flora set of work.
Yet another first for me – I have been invited to make a piece of work for an exhibition in the Select programme for Stroud International Textiles . I have often visited the Stroud textile festivals and even posted my observations last year and the year before. For about a month the whole of the town of Stroud in Somerset, England, is taken over by textiles to be viewed in exhibitions, talks, workshops or bought at specialist markets, generally a must-go-to see show every spring.
I have been invited to make a piece of work for an exhibition called Pairings, where several partnerships of makers have been put together to develop work. This is a result of the Stitch and Think project that was the major part of my research post at UWE. Bristol, Alice Kettle, a Senior Researcher Fellow and applied artist using machine embroidery has been conducting a similar project at MMU ( Manchester metropolitan University) and she invited several members of the research group to join in this fascinating project. Over the past several months I have been preparing work to make a combined textile based on the idea of Metamorphosis. My partner, chosen by Alice, is Rachel Kelly, a textile designer specialising in Wallpaper and an associate lecturer at MMU. Rachel has been asked to incorporate new technology within her making processes – this should very interesting for a hand embroiderer.
Rachel interacting with wallpaper
When we first discussed the work I explained about my ideas around metamorphosis; we would have to change our ways of working to develop this work and as her work incorporates lots of motifs to make your own interchangeable wallpaper designs the idea seemed a perfect fit – Rachel agreed – luckily. We decided also to make a joint piece of work – not easy when we live and have our own studios more than 200 miles apart. We discussed what we had in common, she read the blog and I read her website. she thought we should concentrate on drawing and I recognised that she was an avid colourist – so we set to work. After some initial difficulty getting started, I suggested that we make work by the game of “consequences” one person draws something folds the paper down and the next person draws the next bit…..you can follow this interaction on our joint blog that starts this weekend.
So to begin – I sent Rachel 2 images of a tree I had seen in the local wood, it looks like an animal stretching upwards with a rump for a tail from one side and from the other, a side view of a voluptuous woman. I have been observing the tree for about 20 odd years now and I call it the Daphne tree, I take visitors to see it and I never pass it without an acknowledgement. I kept thinking I must do some work with this. I really feel that the Greek myths of metamorphosis, mainly observed by the poet Ovid, are true parables of the human condition; how often do we wish to change ourselves in some way or another – it is the hardest thing to do – and as the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for
I started by drawing the tree from either side, quick pencil sketches just to make a start by recording what I could see and the camera couldn’t quite capture. The dogs got bored quite quickly and it was very damp, my paper was really limp and my drawings extremely scribbly, I sent them to Rachel via email.
They were enough to get me started though, I next asked Sophie, my administrator at Heart Space Studios to pose for me from the tree images that I showed her.
then I drew from the photographs as the pose was really difficult to hold for her.
I really did not like this drawing, too beautiful, too glamorous; she looks like a glamour model …yes Daphne was a nymph but this needed attention so I drew over a photocopy and got rid of the breasts…
but she is still too lovely, too refined, this won’t help the feeling I want to establish and what is that? - Below is a Ted Hughes poem, from his book ‘ Tales from Ovid’ published in 1997 this is another woman turns to tree story – Myrrha, from the poem ‘Venus and Adonis’ - Myrrha calls to the gods to help her and her prayer was answered…
The earth gripped her ankles as she prayed.
Roots forced from beneath her toenails, they burrowed
Amongst deep stones to the bedrock. She swayed,
Living statuary on a tree’s foundations.
In that moment, her bones became grained wood,
Their marrow pith,
Her blood sap, her arms boughs, her fingers twigs,
Her skin rough bark……
I have never forgotten that passage of sheer terror when I first read the poem, and some of this somehow needs to be conveyed…so back to the drawing board. So if you wish to follow this developing project go to the joint blog that Rachel and I have set up, www.haighahdkellypairings2012.wordpress.com where we are posting our ongoing work and immediate reactions to one another..
This face of flowers has haunted me for years, I am fascinated by the loveliness which is coupled with the unease I feel every time I see it – delighting in the delicious idea of a face made of flowers but this looks more like a tattoo, it’s scary. Arcimboldo, court painter in 16th century Vienna, is widely acknowledged to be the father of surrealism; he made ‘likenesses’ of people from all manner of objects, a librarian’s face made of his books, a cook’s portrait in a dish of food, today modern advertising still use the same clever devices to spectacular visual effects.
So I decided to make a face of embroidered flowers picked from my own garden ( as you do). I started with a collage to see what I would need to find to make it convincing, the man’s face in the bottom left corner is also by Arcimboldo, a portrait of his patron Rudolph ll as Vertumnus,the god of the harvest 1590.(You can also see my version of a Vegetable Man). I had to resort to all sorts of flowers to make the face – but the expression of vague alarm on this first face of flowers should have warned me what was coming……….I started to draw the flowers from my garden, searching out roses for cheeks, pansy eyes, rosebud mouth…how innocent it all was; by the end of this embroidery I had more many ideas due to my research both visiting flower shows and studying the history of Florists – the growers, showers and developers of our modern day flowers. Slowly the work became a whole series of embroideries about man’s manipulation of nature with beautiful and terrible results……….however to start at the very beginning.
This is the vase of flowers that I used for the drawing above, the pansy eyes, the foxglove nose and eyebrow, the carnation mouth are faithfully recorded, not exactly in the same spaces – but if you squint the face can just be seen in the bunch below left. But I had a problem – I didn’t have the right flowers to use in my garden to develop this further so some more would have to be bought.
I had put them in a lovely old (and mended) hand blown glass decanter and this made me think of the beautiful Dutch paintings of vases of flowers – it was studying these closely that made me realise that none of these actual painted bouquets ever existed, they were portraits of individual flowers painted when they were in season and assembled by the artists – how else do you get tulips with fully blown roses with ears of corn with anemones all in one vase – in the 17th century.
Now I knew how to get what I needed, I designed the face and searched for flowers to fill in the features. I drew each flower as I found it, embroidered it on dark silk organza ready to be cut out and assembled when I had enough – this took several months. I started with a drawing of Iris from my garden – I knew she (by now she had become Flora, the Roman goddess of spring) had to have my colour hair, this iris was perfect a sort of reddish blonde. In the drawing I have recorded the striations of colour so that I can develop my stitches in the same directions.
I picked, drew and sampled all the flowers I could find, it was a lovely summer of work. Friends and neighbours started to bring me flowers they thought I would like to include, the search was on for all sorts of auburn and orange flowers for the hair,
flesh coloured roses and poppies for the skin, rosebuds for the mouth.
Slowly, by travelling around to see specialist flower shows and drawing from all kinds of resources I pieced together the face; the pastel drawing I worked from and the ongoing recorded collage can also be seen below.
So now this face had to have a body, the old glass decanter was perfect, with a swelling rounded shape and elegant proportions, easy enough to draw, but how do I embroider it?
Placing tracing paper over the drawing to get a pattern for the vase I suddenly realised this was how to achieve the effect of seeing stalks though water and glass, I painted the stalks on silk with dye then bonded embroidered silk organza onto the surface -
I lost most of the painting in the process but the effect is both subtle and sinks into the black ground and so does not distract from Flora’s stupendous poppy breasts.
So here she is in all her splendour. But she is short lived; surrounded by things that will harm and ultimately destroy her, the rose-cutter bee will eat her cheeks, the butterfly will lay eggs and the larvae will feed from her, the beautiful beetle feeds off rose leaves and the snail will first slime then devour her. Only her beauty spot, the lady bird, will protect her – from greenfly.
Winter flowering pansies are in the shops now, but I have a set of embroidered pansies in flower all year round…the Pansy Faces from the Flora Embroideries.
So just how did the rust and gold pansy on the left turn into the tiger below? I will try and show you.
Visiting the many different flower shows whilst researching The Flora, I was struck by the way the pansies were displayed – they are arranged separately in trays, not as the usual bunch of flowers in a vase, but just the heads placed poking out of a board on a tray – why? I like to think that it really makes you look carefully at the difference in each wonderful flower head; but I suspect it may be because one of the criteria for a show pansy is to try to grow the petals to form a perfect circle. Then “heads” and “pansy faces” came together in my mind, so I started to photograph the trays at all the shows I visited, as you can see below the standard of presentation is often patchy and there seems to be no attempt at colour co-ordination!
I fantasised that if I could breed flowers I would develop the pansies further by changing the shapes of the petals and regulating their colours. I tried also to keep the changes to a minimum to show the stages of metamorphoses from flower to face. You can see that in the drawing below I started with a butterfly. which was fairly easy, and then moved onto the owl..he was a bit trickier and the problem of making this metamorphosis became apparent – whilst drawing and inventing from the research everything was clear, but whilst stitching the flowers/birds/ animals my mind became confused between whether I was stitching an ear or a petal…..and this got more confusing as I developed the series.
I then developed the cat or tiger; the stripes were fascinating to depict as they could follow through the growth patterns of the petals and it was a delight to invent and stitch, as was the monkey – the dog was not made – if I could have drawn a wire fox terrier as pansy I would have included him that but I could only manage a shitzu – I have always thought of them as pansy faced dogs.
I then decided that this was all too innocent, while I was happily playing and exercising total control over inert materials – the plant breeders and agricultural scientists were not. What would happen if it all went horribly horribly wrong? The ultimate goal for mankind seems to be to become like god and make make everything for our own benefits and in our own likeness. This was hard decision to make and I knew from the start that I would have to eventually develop a human face; I at first thought it could be a nice face – another beauty like Flora and the Edible Woman.
But really all along I had known it had to be a self portrait to make sense of my idea. I first appear drawn in grey pencil amongst my lovely colourful animals and fairy faces – and yes I do recognise that it is a sign of vanity – but I have never ever liked to see pictures of myself. Friends have learned not to show me any photographs they have taken of me – I rip the heads off them – I want only to be known by the images in my work – so a control freak as well…I know I know.
But back to the plot – below is a page of drawings for the final pansy face, a horrid version of me …
I am imagining that the aubergine I bought yesterday in a wrapped pack of two, from Sainsbury’s supermarket in Whorle, is the love child of my Giant Vegetable Man and Edible Woman ( see my previous post and Flower Show). I think he has his mother’s nose and his father’s chin; the two of them have been shut away for several months in a studio cupboard so who knows what goes on in the dark seclusion of storage?
Viewed face – on he has a sort of boyish charm and his hair is really rather cute – it looks as if he may make a good rugby player when he grows up, he already has the broken nose.
Several people have mentioned his resemblance to an Easter Island figure so here is my favourite photograph of him - on top of the garden wall gazing out over the estuary towards the Welsh hills – I haven’t the heart to cook and eat him just yet. Ratatouille will have to wait.
This is Harvest Festival time and in celebration of the season I am featuring the Edible Woman, alternatively The Prize. She is a member of the Flora Embroideries and was first imagined as a mate to The Giant Vegetable Man in the Flower Show blog. He had to have a mate made for him, even though he is pug-ugly, it would be sad to let all that male vitality and virility go to waste.
The first idea I had for her was as an earth goddess, all burgeoning breasts and stomach, lascivious and wanton…a good match for him. I made several drawings but couldn’t bring myself to actually embroider them; she was not to be a figure of ribald humour like him and I did not want her to be sniggered at in the giant vegetable show .
The breeders and exhibitors of flowers and fruit for prizes, prefer perfection of form to any other consideration. So she had to have some sort of beauty and so I thought she could possibly become an old man’s darling, kept for her beauty and breeding potential – a trophy wife. But as such she is vulnerable as is an edible woman.
I thought of the lovely dishes of fruit displayed at the local flower shows often arranged on paper lace doilies and also the bowls of water containing heads of flowers arranged in patterns so delicately displayed.
I then remembered that my mother used to win baskets of fruit at the local whist drives when I was a child. She would invariably come home with either a bottle of sweet sherry or more often a wonderful exotic basket of fruit. Well the basket was exotic, a large straw affair – what I now call a “lady basket” – which had to be given back the next week; it was always tied with a ribbon on the handle and the various fruits culled from village gardens were made valuable by the beautiful presentation - a proper prize.
My lady was beginning to take shape in my mind, but how to make her face from edible things?I bought some exotic fruit and tried to arrange them into a face – this was not easy, the first attempt was really dreadful, like a fat unhappy drunk pumpkin woman, the only things that worked were the 5 okra as ladies fingers and the pomegranate and persimmon looked hopeful as breasts…….
But I decided to sort it out by drawing..I would work with what I could and let the rest take shape around this, while stitching samples I had plenty of time to think.
I don’t remember when I decided to make the fingers from asparagus, I know why though, they look more like painted pink fingernails. The painted silk is shown below above another edible personification, but who would want to marry her?
So here she is – my Prize – the Edible Woman in all her glory; displayed for your delectation in a ruched fabric marquee, usually reserved for weddings but often used for the classier northern England flower shows. You could eat all of her, from her apple cheeks to her cherry lips, dip her asparagus fingers into melted butter and nibble you way through the sweet salad flowers of her hair; scrunch your teeth through her pear nose while contemplating her dark nipples before you peel your way into her luscious ripe breasts……
Now here’s a challenge – would any of the cooks out there like to concoct a recipe from her, or for her, maybe a menu would be easier….the asaparagus doesn’t lend itself to inclusion in fruit salads – but then what do I know? I don’t cook puddings I only ever embroider them.
This is the season for flower shows in England and here in Somerset there are lots to visit, so last Saturday I went to a neighbouring village, Tickenham, just to see how it compares to the Portishead show – which is the best in the district and had inspired a set of embroideries which I made some time ago…. more of which later.
When I arrived the first view was of the small marquee set in a field with lots of other tents and awnings with stalls selling things, a brass band played, there were queues for ice creams, cream teas and home-made cakes – so far so good.
I really like the shows in marquees the best – the air smells of flowers and crushed grass and the light inside is perfect for enhancing the exhibits. Sometimes at the posh flower – arranging shows such as Harrogate in Yorkshire, they hire wedding marquees which have draped walls of ruched fabrics…but plain canvas gives the best light.
Although the main point of these shows are the vegetable and flower competitions, I prefer the other stuff; children’s gardens on a plate or seed tray;
surreal faces and animals made from vegetables. But My Grandad at the head of the blog only received a third prize – what do the judges think they are doing? The display that won – and it was excellent – was praised for being “simple and effective” – but who wants ‘simple and effective’ on a wet Saturday afternoon at a flower show – we want exuberance, competition, prizes for fun, colour, imagination and originality. In all the many shows I visited I have never before seen a child’s vegetable portrait.
So when I went to the shows for inspiration I wasn’t looking for “refined” I was looking for ideas and arguments about how we manipulate the natural world for our own benefits and as I saw the baskets of vegetables and those marrows on Saturday, I remembered my own versions of these exhibits.
I went to the giant vegetable show in Lincolnshire where I had expected to just see larger versions of the above…but there was something else going on.
The marquees where hot and humid but the smell was of rotting vegetation, huge marrows and mis-shapen pumpkins often carved with names, it made us think we had wandered into a vegetable porn show. My original idea of a sort of giant Green Man was replaced by a lecherous freak of nature - and it was so obvious that everyone else saw what we saw and were comparing these vegetables to body “parts”.
I think you can see where I was heading………
The drawing for the vegetable man above was constructed from various vegetables exhibited at the show, all chosen for their grossness and sexual connotations. In the embroidery, below, I have put the man in a booth with a curtain that can be drawn aside, a convention of the popular freak shows in 18th and 19th century Britain. He holds a packet of birth control pills; apparently one grower had stolen his wife’s pills because they had made her retain water and put on weight – so he mashed them up as a liquid feed for his Heaviest Marrow exhibit – honestly this is true, I invented nothing for any of the embroideries in this collection, I merely re – arranged the visual facts. Below, the onlookers are being enveloped by a marauding cabbage.
But to get back to the Tickenham show and the wrongful distribution of prizes. Can you believe that this hand puppet only made third prize in Class 184 – for 8-11 years inclusive – “Anything you like – you made it, let’s see it”? I think he has such presence and holds the true spirit of Mr Punch that he is in a class of his own.
In future blogs there will be more stories from the flower shows which gave rise to The Flora Embroideries.