Blog of Chrissie Freeth tapestry weaver, features writer for UK Handmade, weaving features editor for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, Artist in Residence National Trust and trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association
These posts have been far more retrospective than I thought they would be, but quite frankly I have been having too much fun at the loom, but more on that later.
A friend of mine had gone inter-railing around Europe with her family and as I realised how much travelling I’d be doing during this leg she inspired me to get a rail pass, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made, more so even than the purchase of a travel kettle, so that’s saying something. Aided by the accompanying app, the freedom to just hop on and off whatever train I wanted was totally liberating, and without having to mess with ticket machines and kiosks. And so after saying a rather hard good-bye to Halberstadt I zoomed at 268km/h from towards Nuremburg. I was also self congratulating myself at this point for treating myself to some loose tops back in the UK, it was unseasonably hot and sunny.
Nuremburg was a delight. A modern vibrant city, teeming with life, and yet easy to navigate and possible to cross by foot in a few minutes. It was hard not to be moved by what had been lost in the allied bombing; like Halberstadt, so much had been destroyed.
My destination was the Germanisches National Museum. The museum was full of jaw dropping art and artefacts from pre-history to the twentieth century, but I only ever got to power walk through the galleries not immediately relevant to my work, otherwise it would be too easy to lose focus. The main gallery which held the medieval tapestries was, as expected, low lit. The tapestries were behind glass which gave good access when they were at eye level, and a few tapestries were displayed horizontally, which again meant they were easy to study. Shadows and reflection were a bit of an issue, especially from a distance.
I won’t lie, the German tapestries I had seen before were somewhat crude, and I was expecting more of the same, that was why I wanted to see them, as a contrast to the workshop-produced tapestries I had already seen. But whilst they were very different, they were every bit as accomplished. The bulk of the collection were woven in Nuremburg, although two Flemish tapestries illustrated the changing tastes of those who could afford it. Little is known about the workshops, but some tapestries were attributed to a nunnery, St Catherines, in the city, the ruins of which are extant. The tapestries were a lot smaller than the Flemish pieces, often elongated strips.
There was a preference for bold areas of colour rather than the delicate hachure that dominated the tapestries during the first two legs of my travels, and a palette dominated by reds and greens. Dovetailing featured heavily, but oversewing of slits were less prevalent, presumably because the weight of the smaller tapestries were less of an issue in opening them up. I felt a lot more affinity with these German tapestries in how my own practice has been developing. There was a cleanness and crispness to these tapestries, aided by the limited palette and the limited use of pattern (apart from the three woven in Strassburg where there was not a centimetre unadorned). Faces were simplistically rendered, and there was much repetition in features which made them relatively indistinguishable. As with other German tapestries I had seen, some faces were left blank, but I am still none the wiser as to why, in the same piece some were drawn in, some stitched, others part woven.
I spent several days here, and at the end of one when my brain has the elasticity and absorption of a bowl of blancmange, and my feet had the sting of burnt out stumps, I thought I would dash into another gallery before heading home, only to come across rooms of other tapestries I didn’t even know about. I did swear, and I believe I even huffed. I have since done my penance to the tapestry gods for my ungratefulness and gave then due attention the following day. They included the most amazing tapestry of fanciful creatures, alas much of it hard to get at due to the placing of furniture and reflection in the glass. Nonetheless my head nearly came off in a double-take when I saw one tapestry clearly woven from the exact same source as one I saw in Paris last year. At the GNM is also the largest fragment of one of the oldest weft-faced fabrics in Europe, the Cloth of St Gereon, helpfully(?) cut up in the nineteenth century and distributed around various museums. This piece and other near contemporary pieces were well beyond the scope of my research, but it was an honour to get to see them.
Tapestry contemporary with the above, clearly based on the same original source on display at the Cluny in ParisI spent several days here, but also headed out to Munich for a day. It was quite strange seeing from the train window the exact landscapes, woodlands, and churches I had seen in tapestries in Nuremburg. My destination was the Bavarian National Museum. There was a huge variety of tapestries here, and although they were behind glass there was much less spot lighting so access was the best I’ve yet enjoyed. Some tapestries were relatively crude, squared heads and stitched faces, but others, including one depicting the adoration of the Magi, were beautifully woven, and towards the lower edge in this particular tapestry was a weaver, possibly a reminder to the viewer of the human toil that has gone into its production. That a tapestry such as this could have been woven in a nunnery, as has been suggested, was a real eye-opener as to the skill and training open to their makers. I had to confront a lot of my own prejudices.
Detail from the Adoration of the Magi 1490-1500 ?Bamberg
Wild people hunting, Strassburg c1450
I had hoped to get to Bamberg but also recognised I had to pace myself. My days were not just filled with studying the tapestries themselves, but also, back at the hotel, reviewing and uploading images, as well as making notes. By the end of my time in Nuremberg I was dreaming of Unicorns at night and getting very itchy for my loom during the day. As I traveled to Frankfurt and then into Basel in Switzerland I welcomed the downtime, but of course had no idea, the best was yet to come.
It seems to me I only ever post when grounded by something, this time a chest infection and stinking cold. I don’t trust my brain enough to allow myself anywhere near the loom but today at least I am going to trust myself at the keyboard.
When last we talked I had just finished the Lamentation tapestry. In an attempt to paint my life in as rosy a glow as possible as Pinterest, Instagram et al demands, what I may have failed to mention is that it totally messed with my head.
It was a throwback, I had to produce something ASAP and I had plenty of warp sleyed at the right sett. What I really wanted to do, of course, was get on experimenting with a new weaving style inspired by my Churchill Fellowship. But the Lamentation tapestry, I liked it, I enjoyed weaving it, and it has taken me time and angst to develop my own style of weaving – was I doing the right thing turning my back on it.
Despite my doubts next due on the loom was a ‘straighter’, less painterly tapestry, and so I dressed the loom with a warp wide enough to start expanding samples beyond just the faces I had done before. The cartoon was based on an earlier piece but I doubled the weft to try to to save time. I enjoyed the process of weaving her, it was a more considered and involved process. I wanted to get at the crispness of medieval tapestry and although everything is laid bare technique-wise, and there was no where to hide, I liked having to rely on just the warp and weft, none of the gimmicks I might have pulled before. It made me feel I rather bashed out my other work, able to hide behind the randomness of it.
As she progressed I could appreciate her technically, but I started to question where I could take work like this artistically. I just couldn’t see it in other work of mine, how I could take her forward into bigger, full-sized work. I couldn’t see how to make it relevant. Ever since I started my Fellowship I have been aware of the fine line between being inspired by the medieval skills of tapestry weavers, without going all doublet and hose in the production of my own, and I think I was fearful that was where I was heading and it froze me. And whilst I was embracing the formality of this type of weaving, there was still a part of me that questioned whether I missed that expressive element I thought I had finally found.The doubled weft hadn’t worked so I knew I needed to do another sample to rectify that and as there was enough warp I started another piece. It was a chance to be sure it wasn’t working, and to try a few other things like lettering.But again, it just wasn’t doing it for me on an artistic level. I started to wonder if there was a way to amalgamate this technical progress I had made with my darker creative leanings, and that seemed to go ok at the sketchbook, but by now I was heading into a complete creative implosion. Do I keep trying to make this ‘straighter’ style work, if so, how? Or do I go back to the bigger, blended, more painterly work I was familiar with and comfortable with
Fortunately, I know some great craftspeople and artists and there’s one in particular, Liz Samways, whose judgement and honesty I trust implicitly and I was able to browbeat her into meeting with me for a few hours mentoring over lunch in Salts Mill. What a privilege it is to be able to spill one’s brains on a table and have someone help you scoop them all up again. Together we were able to unpick how I’ve got into to my mess, and we were able to map a way out. It was, of course, all rather obvious in the end, I have actually got my weaving to do what I wanted to do, I just hadn’t seen it and a lot of that was a failure in me to commit to it.
So it was snip, snip snip, off with the half-finished tapestry and a new warp was put on the loom, and a fresh mindset installed in me. Three things from our conversation in particular came to the fore as I sat at the blank pages of my sketchbook, 1) that whilst I want to weave with some expression, that was already there, just not in the way that I thought it was – it was in the figures themselves, not in the way I weave I them 2) that what I draw isn’t actually rubbish straight off the bat, it is doing what I want, if only I’d give it a chance 3) yes I have worked hard to develop a particular style, but if I am not going to be true to the findings of my research, then what was the point of doing it?A new cartoon emerged quickly, and interestingly I did it the old fashioned way, huge pieces of paper taped to the wall, and I worked with rulers and pencils, just as when I started out, rather than digitally, and it felt raw and satisfying. I began weaving a cropped area of the larger cartoon as a sample. I know it will seem to strange to anyone not intimately familiar with my brain, as they will be wondering how different this new piece really is from the tapestry I began this post with, but there has been a massive change in how I am approaching it intellectually and creatively as well as technically and I can see a future with it too, swimming with ideas, in fact.The first sample was just a sample, this new piece is the start of something. And whilst sitting in your pants on your sofa reading this the wood is clearly discernible from the trees, I assure you, when it is you all caught up in the brambles and with the wolves howling a few feet away, it is jolly difficult. Now I have committed I feel all parts of me come together, the academic, the medieval (wonderfully free of doublet and hose), the archaeologist, the artist, and the weaver, both technically and creatively – and it feels great.
I had made a good start on the tapestry when I had to go to London for the annual conference of the Heritage Crafts Association. I went down the day before to spend some quality time at the V&A and their tapestry collections on display.If I am completely honest, it proved rather emotional. I dashed into there a couple of years ago between meetings. I realised then I would never be able to call myself a weaver unless I learned more about the skills that went into those tapestries, that I would have to study tapestries first hand. Books just weren’t going to take me where I wanted to go as a weaver. It was a sad moment, because I knew I would never get to see such tapestries. I simply did not have the resources.
And yet there I was once again, having seen tapestries across Europe and the US thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I saw the tapestries again entirely differently, I was able to read them, understand them, work out the techniques at play, and learn from them, and I was able to see them in relation to my own work.I love that there is nothing in my new work that isn’t in the fifteenth century Devonshire hunting tapestries and without it being pastiche. Different wool, dyes and warp of course, and I as a weaver am still alive in my forties and have my own teeth (I would also say I was plague free, but that is a damned lie). In fact I can see that everything I have studied over the last year is in this tapestry. I love that to me it seems honest, I have finally found my peace with tapestry and with myself and that opens the door to exciting things in the future. I have grown up, I have graduated. What has certainly helped is a bit of space to experiment instead of having to make work for events without breathing. In a few weeks I’ll be on the plane to Germany and then Switzerland for the last leg of my Fellowship. Good god, I hope it doesn’t unbalance me as much as the first two legs! I suppose it will defy the purpose entirely if I go study more medieval tapestry through fingers over my eyes!
In among all this I have had the prepare the Lamentation for exhibition at the Platform Gallery in Clitheroe. I was awarded the Selector’s Prize for Innovation at last year’s Craft Open and part of the prize was to display my work this year. I took the tapestry over this week and got a sneak peak at the work destined for display and it is clear it is going to be a great exhibition. It opens on April 14 and runs til June 23. I am also pleased to say I got selected for Art in the Pen later in the year, and so this new body of work will be destined for that and I can’t wait.
I have heaps to do to get ready for Germany and Switzerland and of course this damn plague to get rid of, but I hope to get back to the new tapestry as soon as possible and finish it. It has been a couple of days now of self-imposed exile from the loom, and I can feel the ache for it in my marrow.
I think I would have mentioned before that however much I enjoy doing events, I do feel I am cycling backwards in order to make work for them, especially last year when sales have been so good. The downside is I just do not have the time or space to experiment. I’ve also felt it keenly as I have had a year of exposure to such wonderful things and my mind is swimming with ideas and things I want to try. When such experiments can take months, the risks are obvious.
I don’t usually do Christmas, my family are in the Midlands and I tend to just work through. But as the holidays approached I found my productivity slowing, I am loving the tapestry I am working on but was barely weaving in a day what would normally take a few hours. I accepted a break would do me good and as the rest of the nation were sitting on the sofa in their pants, their face dropped into a tin of Quality Street I, goddamn it, would do the same. I banned myself from the workroom for two weeks. Not to step across its threshold. Oh no. Banned from the loom. I could only look upon it from the hallway, lovingly, longingly, but we were to be parted.
I ain’t got no PhD for nuffin. After a couple of days of spring cleaning and fighting through brain fog to amalgamate my to dos I suddenly realised, yes I was banned from the workroom, but I could set up a sample loom in the living room. I know, total genius. Whilst I have been comfortable in the medieval techniques I have been working on this year, high up on my list of things I wanted to do was to apply those techniques to a more modern design rather than the faux-medieval visages I had been doing. I already had a cartoon, although it had been intended for the more darker, blended style, and after an hour to rejig it I ran into the workroom for a handful of yarn and warp and set up the sample loom downstairs. It was mid-sized, and actually one I would have used as an undergraduate; I was the very happy custodian of various textile equipment from my archaeological department.
The frame was just the right size to rest against the arm of the sofa and my lap and so I worked on it horizontally. This was a new experience for me, as I usually work on a vertical warp and it took time, each warp needed to be picked out by hand, but it was enjoyable. The only issue was some abdominal pain, which I assumed was my bent over posture, William Morris’s weavers I remember reading somewhere were plagued with it. Oh how I laugh.
It is still hard to let go of the ‘fuss’ of my old style and to embrace the simpleness and crispness of this type of tapestry, but I do rather love it, and I am dying to have the time to get beyond these small samples. I am working on a design inspired by a line from my great-great-grandmother’s records from the asylum she was kept in, something she said, it is like hearing her voice, I think it is a reference to a Victorian song.
I had a few more attacks of pain under my rib cage, one on Christmas night when I was so convinced I was going to die I got dressed for the sake of the poor sod who was going to find my body once its whiff paraded down the street. I didn’t want to make a fuss this time of year, the NHS is overwhelmed afterall and booked to see my GP in January. But eventually I ended up being taken to hospital by ambulance with suspected pancreatitis or a gallstone jammed somewhere it shouldn’t be. My biggest regret is not getting a snap of the IVF and morphine drip hanging off the dismantled scaffold loom in the living room. Also, irritatingly, my ASBO neighbours were very helpful getting the ambulance and I am still not entirely sure of the etiquette – do I owe them a thank you card or can I just pretend it never happened?
It all turned out to be down to a stoopid liver condition I found out about last year. I am a bit peeved as I had no idea this was part of the deal and decidedly want my money back. But a few days in hospital and rest at home did mean I got, afterall, a break over the holidays. Except I did manage to do my tax return. What can I say, I am a bloody hero.
It did mean though I was massively behind on adminy things and once up to it I had to clear the decks of all that before I could creep back into my beloved, much missed, abandoned workroom. I know many weavers see it as a contemplative, meditative act, and yes I can find myself ‘zoning out’, but to me it is work – I do it to produce a piece of work, not for the act itself. But it has shocked me how much my loom contributes to my sense of wellness. Getting to the point where I could just sit at it and work has been like a tiny island in a vast sea. I’m there now, this blog and some planning for the next leg of my Churchill Fellowship aside, and it feels good to have my bum planted firmly in the sand under the shade of the solitary palm tree. Whether it is that meditative aspect, or the repetition, or the familiarity, or the structure, or the sense of purpose, alludes me, but I do know we are wedded now (to be clear, in a metaphorical way, not a pervy way) .
I’ve learned a lot, my friends rallied around marvelously and I now acknowledge I do need to accept help more often than I tended to do. I have also realised I have to get on and weave what I want to weave, rather than live in a panic about making things I feel have to, otherwise, really, what is the point? Life is too goddamn short.
I hope you appreciate I am having to lift my fingertips from under my hot waterbottle warmed blankets to type this. As the UK welcomes(?) some early snow it seemed a good time to get comfy on the sofa and update this blog. I cannot apologise enough for yet another delay, but the truth is I have had my head down working on a brand new tapestry.
There has been an elephant in my workroom over the last year. As per my last post I feel I have made some strides and am looking forward to pushing things further, but it has been a year of samples and small tapestries, always in the shadow of my main loom and an abandoned project on it, the warp my older size and sett, so of little use in the direction I want to go. I knew I could ease it off the loom and store it but I suspected it would just get abused and unused and it seemed a bit of a waste. Fantastically my tapestry Might Have Been, on show at the Cartwright Hall Art Gallery as part of Bradford Open has sold (thank you, whoever you are, if you see this!). I had earmarked it for an exhibition I am doing early next year and needed to make a replacement piece and PDQ. I have only ever woven single figures before, but have always wanted to try to weave more; one figure is just a figure, but two is a story. Stylistically the resulting cartoon is a bit of a backward step for me, but it does enable me to use that warp and not waste it.
The narrative aspect of tapestry is what appeals to me and this got reinforced during my travels. Most medieval tapestries I saw were biblical in theme, and I came across a fair smattering of one or more Marys weeping at the crucifixion or its aftermath, and of course such images were rife in the Byzantine and more recent murals I saw in Bulgaria. I am in no way religious myself, but I felt a need to weave my own version but with a more defiant and accusatory stance, Mary the mother, and Mary Magdalene the follower or whatever she was, looking out of the tapestry at the viewer, at us the murderers. As historical figures we know so little about them, they are ephemeral, fragments, whispers, and I felt that might suit my old style of weaving, with the figures half transparent.
Biblical Marys were traditionally depicted in threes (there were loads of others in the entourage apparently) and although there was a third figure in my original drawing I decided to lop her off as the warp wouldn’t be wide enough. But I soon realised there was still a third Mary in there through me as the weaver; Mary is my middle name. Through these figures I too am looking out at the killer of my brother and whilst it always shocks me how personal my tapestries can become, I suppose if I don’t have part of me in them, there’s little point devoting the extraordinary amount of time they demand. Of course I didn’t intend for this to be yet another tapestry about that, but it has happened unconsciously. The time from the initial sketch, drawing the cartoon, colour sampling and pulling out the old tapestry on the loom couldn’t have been more than a week, so there was clearly little doubt that this was what needed to be woven.
I have just reached the half way point, pretty much working on a loom-bed-loom pattern as I did this time last year. I actually enjoy it, feeling sequestered and focused. But although I am putting ridiculous hours in I am surprised I haven’t got further, I am wondering if I am not as quick now as I was twelve months ago. Although I have been rubbish updating things here, I have been able to post updates on Instagram, so do find me over there if you are interested in seeing the project develop. There’s even videos!
In the meantime heaps of other things have been going on – did I say I had been sequestered? The Ilkley Arts Trail was fantastic. The Manor House was a bit of a squeeze but there was great camaraderie among the exhibitors and it was fabulously well organised.
I also got selected for the Craven Arts Christmas Exhibition which will run until 23rd December at the Exhibition Gallery in Skipton Town Hall. It is a great show, lots of really good quality pieces and it is certainly worth popping in. I did a stint there yesterday in the gallery and sold a lovely painting to a lovely couple. I got to put the red dot on, it was very exciting.
I also did a talk on my Fellowship so far to the Bradford Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, who are just about the loveliest folk you can imagine, and again I had a great time and it was good putting the talk together and reliving my trips, I am itching to get on with the next leg.
I also had a massive clear out of my workroom. I had always tried to make it a cosy space, somewhere I wanted to spend time, but after experiencing the calm and clarity of a weaver’s workroom in Bulgaria I decided to redistribute the tables, chairs and bookcases, and layers of nonsense that had accumulated on the walls to make it much more bare, so it is just me and the loom, and it has made a lot of difference being able to spread out when it comes to sorting yarns and drawing cartoons, and I suppose more focused on the job in hand. Although I do often get the feeling I am being watched……
Tomorrow I begin the second half of the new tapestry. But today I am on short-listing duty as one of the judges for the Heritage Crafts Association’s suite of awards. The HCA has been in the press a great deal this year with the publication of its HCA/Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts. The HCA is offering an award funded by the Marsh Christian Trust to safeguard crafts and the deadline isn’t until mid-January, so do have a look if you think you might be eligible.
Bulgaria has been a gigantic sledge hammer. It has swung fast towards my temple and knocked some sense into the grey cells behind it and pushed out all the blocks and doubts that have been clogging and festering for some time. I do have to add that my gratefulness towards Bulgaria is slightly dimmed by my slicing off the top of a finger making a Shopska salad yesterday, but, in time, I will forgive.
So what happened? I had an actually full blown epiphany. With a choir and trumpets, clouds parting and I’ll be damned if there weren’t angels too. I talk myself out of the things I want to do. I tell myself things won’t work or they’ll be stupid or pointless or rubbish before I even get to the loom. I tell myself I have to be an artist, despite, well, not being an artist. That until I know who I am as an artist I am never going to be the tapestry weaver I want to be. My Churchill Fellowship has given me the technical skills, but I need that artistic vision to put them to use.
I’ve made pieces like Maides Coign, Delia Jo and No Longer Mourn (above) that I am really proud of, but I needed to move forward and make full use of my Fellowship. I knew for one reason or the other, my Fellowship would change me as an artist and I would be leaving that work behind. It has just taken time to figure out how that change was to manifest itself. I had hoped the breathing space between events would lend some time to experiment, but I was not happy with what I was doing. They were not true to myself, they were derivative, they weren’t from within. I could not see how I could use them to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
The past has been an integral part of who I am since I was a teenager, it led to my career as an archaeologist. It is why as a weaver I am looking to the lands of my medieval predecessors to fully understand what tapestry as a medium could do. That I was denying myself what I really wanted to do became apparent when I was so blown away by the medieval wall paintings at Pickering. And I have tried, unsuccessfully to work out why they affected me so and to reflect that in my work since. The medieval tapestries I have studied I looked to as technical inspiration rather than an artistic one because, after all, what is the point in recreating something that has already been done, what is the point in pastiche?
But seeing all those medieval frescoes in Bulgaria has forced me to admit to myself that – somehow – this is where I am rooted as an artist, even if I don’t fully understand it. If I wanted to be true to myself, if I wanted to see who I truly was as an individual, then I had to be honest with myself for the first time and say, pastiche aside, this medieval imagery was my happy place and I needed to go back to it, and I needed to just weave for the hell of it, and not talk myself out of it before I even began.
I have been collecting online images, and of course I have an extensive resource now thanks to my Fellowship. I picked a face from a German tapestry I am hoping to see on the next leg of my research and I drew up a cartoon inspired by it and I just wove. It was an exercise in being a weaver instead of being an artist. And bugger me if I did not see straight away the way forward for me. I saw for the first time, how to use medieval imagery as an inspiration without it being just a recreation. I could use it as a vocabulary as it were, to tell the stories I want to tell. I also realised that it was the twee-ness and passivity that I was reacting against and that was something I could easily address.
I know the resulting tapestry is only a face, but to me it is not. It is a way forward, because I can see the rest of her in my head. I can see and sketch the dozen or so tapestries that are now stonkingly clear. I hope this will become ore apparent as I start moving away from samples.
I have always hankered after finding a way to be expressive in tapestry, perhaps because as such a rigid medium, that is the challenge and one managed by so very few. I gave up trying to find that expressiveness, I surrendered myself to the weft and the warp, I accepted that there were limitations and yet in that I found the most striking sense of freedom. I accepted tapestry for what it was, and this of course, was one of the fundamental aspects that led me on my Fellowship – I finally, absolutely, truly, got what tapestry was, to me at least. I understood it as a medium, what it could truly do. Interestingly this was no surprise to the textile artist Hannah Lamb who noted over on Instagram that among her students it was often those who needed structure to tame their creativity that leaned towards weaving rather than those who were inherently neat and regimented.
By resorting to the formal, the thing I had rejected from the get-go, I have in fact found my liberation. The huge, ginormous, momentous irony for me is that once I stopped trying to be an artist, I suddenly became far more confident than I have ever been as an artist. I know exactly who I am, I know exactly what I want to say, I know exactly where I am heading, I know exactly what I want to do and I know exactly what I have to do to get there. I have a straight back. I am content. And of course it all makes full and proper use of my Fellowship – everything comes together.
This sample is getting her first outing at the Ilkley Arts Trail. Over sixty artists will be exhibiting work across the town. I am in the old Manor House, a beautiful sixteenth century building. There are six of us in there and alas there was not as much room as hoped, a bit of a problem when one aims to work at a mural scale! One of my fellow artists, Ben Snowden, very kindly gave up some of his limited space and I am exceedingly grateful. And I was rather heartened too that my new girl had an offer made when she was only up for a few a seconds! Alas I need to hold on to her for a little while as a reference piece and cus, well, I just goddamn love her too much!
We open tomorrow and are open right through to Sunday. There’s a great programme you can download from Ilkley Arts website and see what is going on and where. I do hope to see you if you can make it.
I was all set to run off to Germany as soon as it is over, but in truth I have been struggling somewhat after coming back from Bulgaria energy-wise and it seems to make sense to delay the next leg of my Fellowship until early in the new year and I can do it justice. The folks at the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust have been staggeringly understanding and I am very grateful to them.
Early start over to Ilkley tomorrow so I had better go hit the sack. Ttfn my lovelies x
A few weeks ago a vacancy on an EU funded trip to the Devetaki Plateau to study traditional craft skills emerged before my awakening eyes. I leapt from the Ipad and my bed and straight onto the laptop. My WCMT Fellowship has taught me, a girl who nearly had a panic attack at the prospect of going to an unfamiliar coastal town last year, that I am far more capable of things than ever I thought, that travel and new horizons are essential to my practice and that I should grab every opportunity that comes my way.
It is not very often that I have a few weeks clear of commitments but I had an unusual gap in the diary which I had earmarked for some experimental work. But as someone who has a particular interest in the safeguarding and promotion of heritage crafts, seeing the celebration of traditional skills in a rural Bulgarian community where such skills are still intrinsically valued was not something to be missed. I also had a very personal reason for wanting to go. In my quest to better understand tapestry as a medieval art form, I have recently been exploring, both on and off the loom, medieval frescoes, especially Byzantine work, as another contemporaneous large-scale mural art form. Out in Bulgaria I knew there was a glimmer of hope I might, just might, get a chance to see some first-hand. Medieval frescoes of course were not the purpose of the wider project, the itinerary was clearly laid out taking in craft festivals and relevant museums. But I had a sneaking suspicion that out there I had better chance of clapping my eyes on Byzantine frescoes and those influenced by them, rather than in the industrial north of the UK. The trip seemed a perfect compliment to my Fellowship, it would mean I lost a couple of weeks in planning the next leg, but it seemed a worthwhile sacrifice. I was quite shocked and very thrilled when I got an email the next day saying my flights were being booked. And what luxury, no organisation to do myself, no travel arrangements, no itinerary to put together, no meetings to set up or accommodation to find, or documentation to produce. All I had to do was get myself to the airport.
Our first full day was spent in the capital, Sofia. This involved exploring the Roman city of Serdica, their ruins had been wonderfully incorporated into public spaces and buildings. Our first stop, however was the Rotunda of St George a Roman temple enveloped by a modern hotel and long ago converted into an Orthodox church. It was a Sunday so a mass was under way. No photographs were allowed, at least not without a fee. It was mesmerizing introduction to Bulgaria, the chanting, the intimacy of the mass, and yes, amazing ancient frescoes coating every surface of the tiny building.
We also visited the Church of Saint Sofia and its Roman necropolis and then onto the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The latter I had dismissed, it was relatively modern so of little personal interest to me. But nothing could prepare me for its size, its richness and of course the awe inspiring frescoes, very arts and crafts inspired. These frescoes very much marked the space as ‘other’, as something sacred, as something expressive (have a google for the interior).
Our final stop in the city was the Ethnographic exhibition where there was a wonderful display of traditional textiles and costumes. There I met a lovely tapestry weaver, Lydia Raeva who very kindly shared some images of her work. She used an amazing beater (sorry for the quality of the pic), made of iron, at least a hundred years old and passed to her by her teacher. At half a kilo, it was a wonderful weight. Stupidly I did not realise Bulgaria had a tradition of kilim making akin to that of nearby Anatolia. There was mid-nineteenth century example on display and Lydia was working on a piece inspired by such motifs for demonstration purposes.
We then hit the mountain coated roads to Gabrovo and the next day kicked off with a quick visit to a small monastery, Sokolski. Again coated in frescoes. It does not take long for them to get blacked over thanks to the candles and oils within the church and conservation work to remove such coatings have to be undertaken quite frequently.
Our main destination was Etar Open Air Museum of Traditional Crafts. It largely consisted of a recreated street, some of the buildings relocated from elsewhere, and each top and bottom floor houseing a traditional crafts person. These included wood turners, cow bell makers, potters, black smith, copper smith, icon painters, leather workers, wood cutters, and weavers and many more. Most pay rent and sell wares some, such as the the cow bell maker – and weirdly – the weaver, are sponsored as their crafts are so endangered. One weaver told me there are only 15 left, a figure I am struggling to believe and cannot be sure it is a translation issue as it just seems astounding. There are demonstrations at every corner and exhibitions too, including an International Craft Fair. One of the participants was a fourth generation potter with quite possibly the fifth generation either side of her. Bulgaria of course is signed up to UNESCO’s Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage, a stance demonstrating its commitment to safeguarding its heritage such as craft skills. The UK is one of the few who hasn’t.
Finally we headed to Gabrovo’s Museum of Humour. The town has a reputation of being misers, the Gabrovo Cat being one with its tail cut off so it does not take as long to get through an open door and thus let the heat out longer than necessary. The museum took self-deprecation to a new level, but also included a series of Adam and Eve inspired cartoon like tapestries and a large exhibition on nineteenth century frescoes. Of course I had long ago given up laughing at myself and my secret hope of sneaking in a look at a fresco, day two and already I had seen more than I could ever have hoped for.
The next day we started towards the Devtaki Plateau, stopping on the way at the medieval town and ancient capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo. This was a change to the planned itinerary, one of the folklore festivals we had intended to visit having been rescheduled. The modern town was covered in public art and there was a street dedicated to craftsworkers. But a late night google had revealed a plethora of ancient churches in the area, one in particular within walking distance of the town. So while my fellow travellers headed for the ruins of the ancient fortress, I headed down the hill to the small church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
I was a bit peeved at the no photographs rule within churches. But the form of worship was very intimate, it seemed to focus on on personal interaction with icons rather than masses being done to a congregation at a set time, and I could appreciate that having tourists snapping away would be incredibly intrusive. But at the medieval church for a fee photographs were allowed and I had the whole place to myself. It was entirely awe inspiring, just as it was intended to be. There were three layers of frescoes. In the UK these would have been protected with plastic coverings, we would have been kept at a distance, but I was left entirely to my own devices, just me and the frescoes. I could not believe it.
Inside the church most frescoes dated to the early fifteenth century with a few dating to the thirteenth. More frescoes in an outer gallery dated to the sixteenth. It was engrossing to see in paint the very same images, motifs and details I had seen woven in wool and silk and precious materials during the course of my Fellowship. It was interesting to see actual textiles too, albeit painted, at the bottom of the paintings. I can’t wait to think all this through properly.
But it was, too soon, time to leave one paradise for another, namely The Herbal House in Gorsko Slivovo village. A huge gate from the road opened onto a magical garden and a beautiful guesthouse, freshly baked bread waiting for us on the kitchen table. Our hosts lived across the road and brought us our meals which were, quite frankly spectacular. I have never in my life eaten so well. In fact everything we ate in Bulgaria tasted differently, better, flavoursome, it made me realise how literally tasteless our food has become. Most households in the villages seemed largely self-sufficient and it showed in the sheer quality.
After a breakfast of a jam so sweet it was like the neighbour’s honey and doughnut like bread we headed to the spectacular Devetashka Cave and the Krushuna waterfalls. It was a great chance to see the impact the Devetaki Plateau Association, from which our week’s guide hailed had had on the region. Over the last few years they have branded together nine or so villages, offered training to guesthouse owners, promoted tourist attractions, organised first response, established wifi and organised festivals and much more and all seemingly with little central support. It was interesting waking one morning to read an article from the Beeb posted that day about the crumbling population in the villages of Bulgaria such as the one I was staying it. Every other house was abandoned, our hosts were the youngest we had seen. Its wide street was deserted apart from A4 sheets on every lamppost and doorway commemorating the dead like lost cat posters back home. I will confess it did seem that this small fight by the association against what seems an overwhelming tide, has a sense of inevitability about it, especially without political support which is clearly so lacking.
After the cave we stopped at the village’s cultural centre and its small museum. Once every house would have a loom, although wooden reeds seems to be all that remains of them now.
Apart from being amazing cooks, our hosts were also craftsfolk too. In the afternoon we had a demonstration in wire wrap jewellery. Most of my friends are jewellery makers but it is not something I have ever done myself and it is all a bit of a mystery so it was good to have a bit of insight now. It is fair to say we were all utterly gutted to leave The Herbal House.
En route we stopped off at a retirement club in Kramolin village in the corner of which were more textile implements on display including shuttles, swift, reeds and combs. This can’t have been for the benefit of the tourists, it was just evidence of the respect traditional crafts were held on a day-to-day basis. Some original costumes were on display, as they had been in just about every museum we visited and our guide and others we spoke to also had costumes in their wardrobe and they were used.
We had a picnic lunch in the ruins of a Byzantine town, Hotalich. Not all of it is excavated, but the houses we saw had belong to craftsmen, pottery still left in the kiln, suggesting its occupants had to flee. We had earlier that day seen some of the artefacts excavated from the site in the museum at nearby Sevlievo and which included loom weights.
By afternoon we had reached the the Guest House Eco Art in Drashkova Polyana. Here we were invited to take part in a ceramics workshop, and striclty between you and me it only took one series of the Great pottery Thrown Down for me to want to unceremoniously ditch my looms for a kiln, so a chance to have a go was something I was looking forward to hugely but I found myself suddenly empty of all energy and with heaps of regret I had to retreat to my room and rest. However I did get to see the work of my fellow travellers. Perhaps it was the work of the Loom Gods at play, realising how fickle I am and preventing me from getting my hands on some clay.
The following day we headed for Troyan Monastery, one of the largest in Bulgaria. A mass was underway to we couldn’t get in, but it was clear the extent of damage the frescoes suffer, half of them were almost completely blacked over, the other half were being cleaned. They were mid-nineteenth century and made by one of the most celebrated icon painters of the day. On a tanoy the priest sung the mass. He seemed to have a cold and every now and then a cough boomed out, but even that did not lessen the magic of it all.
Our next stop was the National Museum of Craft in Troyan. It was understandably focused on the ceramics on which the town is famous but there was also much to see in the way of textiles. Interestingly some of the decorations on the posts were inspired by the monastic paintings. The textiles included traditional costumes and rugs – woven as well as hand-tufted, and an exhibition on felted carpets.
We stopped briefly at a Roman fort on the way back to Sofia and the airport. All of us incredibly sad to be leaving and vowing to return.We all came to Bulgaria with our own interests and aims and inevitably I ended up focusing on the textiles, but to be honest it was all around me, all the time, it was impossible not to. I arrived home exhausted, overwhelmed, at 4.30am on Saturday morning and it has taken until now to write this post. There is so much for me to digest and already it is making me rethink the directions I am heading in and of course I’ll share all this as it happens. And I for one will never forget the quiet, the calm, the beauty, the history, the weather, the landscape, the goddamn food, the traditions and the friendliness. This project was part of PRIDE: Partnership for Rural Improvement & Development in Europe. One cannot help but feel devastated that we as a country are turning our back on Europe, and inevitably they are turning theirs on us. How ridiculous we are. This trip has had a huge effect on me and I know it did on the others too, quite significantly in fact, and in different far more profound and personal ways as well as professional. How tragic that such an amazing opportunity as this may now very likely be denied to others in a couple of years.
In truth my return has been a bit bumpy. I was so chuffed with how well I had managed while I was away, it was a bit of a shock to find myself so tired I could hardly function at all, and it has taken a good fortnight to start punching my way through. It has been incredibly frustrating.
I was also welcomed home by a laptop that wouldn’t work – a cracked motherboard, apparently. I tried to tell myself I would manage with just an iPad but it soon became clear that was nonsense. I am going to unashamedly do a shout out for the extremely lovely and talented jeweller Catherine Woodall, who had a laptop she wasn’t using, and has quite frankly got me out of a massive hole. It was quite a thing to realise that when such things happen, one is not alone.
All this does not mean I have done nothing, although *ahem* I am yet to fully unpack. When I started my PhD someone told me to start writing it from the get-go rather than waiting to the end, some of the best advice I ever received, and I have done the same here and have written up my notes, slowly building up my report. I’ve also started sorting through my images, no mean feat as there are thousands of them.
As for weaving, it had been my intention to take my time. I was only half way through my Fellowship after all, there was lots more to see. But by the time the first week was out I was working on a cartoon for a new full-sized tapestry, which I am hoping may be ready for the Saltaire Arts Trail in May, but certainly for Art in the Pen in August.
I’ve also started on some technical studies, like piano scales, experimenting with the techniques I have seen (above). This has included a finer sett and using some dovetailing and cut backs, and weaving over a single warp, which had always turned out rather pants before. The key was to hold back, stop with the gimmicks and just let the warp and weft do their job. Ironically the result has been far more control, something I always lacked before, and I do feel the world is now my weaving and drawing oyster. I might now be able to weave what I draw, instead of drawing what I can weave. This is a massive step and the implications are vast and very, very exciting. This is a very different style of weaving for me, but I love it, and I never saw it coming. It has been interesting to compare this piece with the failure I did after seeing the medieval wall paintings at Pickering – they go to show how much this Fellowship has already pushed me and the importance of seeing the tapestries in the flesh.
I had hoped to go back to Europe before I head off to New York at the end of the month, but my brain has been cheese and I haven’t trusted myself to put it together, but plans for New York are well under way and the Met museum have been fabulous and I cannot wait.
I am going to make myself some very strong coffee and attempt to catch up with my inbox, but hope to spend some time this afternoon with my sketchbook and some pie. Ttfn xxx