But where can I buy all the pretty???

Visit Vagabond Romantics shop now to browse and buy altered art, wearable collage, and lovingly curated craft materials unearthed from the farthest reaches of granny's attic.

Friday 30 October 2015

Baby It's Cold Outside

A small selection of my Colinette yarn stash
The nights are well and truly drawn in, I'm feeling the chill in the air, and that can only mean one thing: time to knit!! Specifically, I've acquired two new settees in a neutral beige faux suede that are way too plain to grace my vibrant Mexican-themed living room and I've been dreaming of knitting another throw from Colinette's Arizona Dream pattern book for ages.

Yesterday was beautifully crisp and autumnal the perfect excuse for a crafty (get it?) little road trip. Mid Wales may seem remote, but if you are American and laugh in the face of distance like I do, it's amazing where you can go in a ninety-minute drive. We hit the invaluable resource that is Scrappies for some Christmas craft supplies and finished up at my spiritual home, the Colinette mill shop.

Is this heaven? No, it's Colinette's sale room. Oh wait, same difference.
It's been a busy week, so today I have rewarded myself with a long lie in followed by a leisurely afternoon surrounded by gorgeous colour. I've even mastered a new stitch: broomstick lace, which is far more impressive than the effort warrants. I predict a flurry of lacy scarves for Christmas. But only if I finish my throw in time.

Colinette's Sonoran pattern throw in Lone Star colourway,
knitted from the Arizona Dream kit by my own pudgy hands

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Art vs Craft

Fam, Mixed Media Art
Doll Assemblage, 2015
Yesterday I mentioned making the transition from craft to fine art and promised to write more about it, and I know you've all been waiting on the edge of your seats! I thought it was also appropriate to include an image of "Fam" ("Mother"), the other assemblage piece I submitted for exhibition and which was rejected despite being, to my mind, the stronger piece of work. I'm not saying that has anything to do with the ideas I'm about to discuss, you can draw your own conclusions.

I recall a meeting I attended several years ago with a group of woman makers who wanted to form an arts collective. We stumbled at the starting blocks because no one could agree on how to define ourselves. The three options were crafters, artists, or makers. This provoked a surprisingly heated discussion which I've never forgotten. Personally I was fine with any terminology, though I preferred "makers" as it takes in any creative practice and does not have the perceived exclusion that the term "artist" carries for some, nor the uncomfortable associations with grannies selling acrylic knitted baby clothes in church halls that "crafter" is still often associated with. But one participant had trained at art college and was hostile to the idea of being relegated to a "mere crafter", and others didn't want the more highbrow "art" label attached to their lighthearted creations. It was something of a defining moment for me.

What is art, and what differentiates it from craft? Arguably less and less these days as contemporary artists embrace traditional craft skills and galleries support conceptual craft. So let's make it personal. I never felt comfortable calling myself an artist because I felt Art (note the capital A) should innovate and challenge, it should involve some new process or idea, or it should be made with a clear aim in mind. All I've ever wanted is to enjoy the creative process, to play and experiment and make things that I love and that other people might love too. I've never felt moved to try and make statements or set out to innovate - I take the position that being creative means trying something new, so if I've never eg drawn a horse, drawing a horse is creative enough to satisfy me.

For the last ten years, I have run art history workshops for children, and for the last few of those years, I was incredibly fortunate to work in a particular primary school where many children attended the workshops with great dedication, and several of those challenged me and informed my practice in ways they could never have known. I was constantly pushed to discuss more contemporary art and more women artists, and this meant educating myself. Because of the interests of the children, I began to research women artists in particular. I had a passing knowledge of Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois. I was already a huge fan of Cindy Sherman. But I "discovered" Carmen Herrera, Yayoi Kusama, Christo's long-unacknowledged partner Jeanne-Claude. And I began to see artists like Georgia O'Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, and Yoko Ono in an entirely different light as I learned about their lives and the experiences that informed their work. And the more I learned, the more I fell in love with all these incredible women.

One of the artists I researched was Grandma Moses, an American folk art legend who shot to international stardom when she took up painting at the age of 78. What fascinated me about Grandma Moses was the story that at gallery openings, there would be a table display of her baking and preserves, because in her mind, there was no distinction between her domestic skills and her artwork. And therein, I believe, lies the answer to the question of what differentiates art from craft.

Two anecdotes I'll share and I'll try to keep them short (although you can already see this is entirely contrary to my nature). The first involves reknowned burlesque performer, teacher and scholar, Dr Gypsy Charms of the Academy of Burlesque and Cabaret. Holding forth to a group of students in the pub one evening after class, Miss Charms was asked what the difference is between a burlesque performer and a stripper. She spent some time discussing the historical context of burlesque as an art form, but in the end, she finally said it mostly boils down to the audience. That is, the difference is in the intent of the performer. Are you simply aiming to give your audience bare flesh, or do they want the art of the tease, the story, the big reveal?

The second anecdote is really paraphrasing a fascinating observation from Michael Pollan's excellent book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, which is divided into four sections corresponding to the four classic elements with each one relating to a cooking process (ie: fire=roasting, water=boiling/stewing, air=baking, and earth=fermentation). Pollan starts with roasting because this is the most basic, primal cooking process. It calls to mind "cavemen", the discovery of fire, sacrificial rituals and the hunt. It's only when humans become more technologically advanced that they are able to create the cooking implements that allow them to stew and boil in a pot. At this point, Pollan suggests, cooking is transported from a spectacle to a mundane task, from the campfire to the kitchen, and the cooking duties change hands from men to women. Even today, women are usually the home cooks responsible for preparing the family meals, stuck in the kitchen with a boiling pot that, as if by alchemy, transforms plain ingredients into delicious food. And yet, when there is a celebration - a feast - who is at the forefront? Whether it's flipping burgers on the grill or carving the turkey, when we think of men cooking in the home, more often than not it's part of the elaborate spectacle of a "special" meal, and the daily drudgery is left to the ladies. And what about celebrity chefs and cookery programmes? Once again, when cooking becomes a spectacle, it is often dominated by men. (NB I know this does not represent every household or indeed every cook, but it is the stereotype for a reason - these generalisations, whilst by definition not showing the entire picture, still account for many households)

So we find ourselves back at art and craft. We know that, broadly speaking, craft objects are functional and are more associated with women. And that's where it all comes together: the cookery, the intent, the concepts. For me, the biggest difference between art and craft is the historical, cultural gender gap in the makers and what their intent was. Men got to be Artists, with the intent that their work would be on display in a gallery, revered by the public. Women crafters concerned themselves with beautifying their immediate environment, with making their homes more pleasant places to be, with demonstrating their love for their families by using the simplest materials to transform the functional components of daily life and elevate them into little works of art. The only consideration of the audience was that the work was done out of love, but these creations were not for strangers to admire in a gallery nor to make any statement. They were a quiet, modest way to make the world a better place. And personally I don't aspire to anything greater than that.

Monday 26 October 2015

Inspired by Wales

It's a long journey, especially when you're a self-taught dropout, from being a "crafter" or a "maker" to an "artist". There are issues with all these terms and how they're perceived that would be interesting to discuss in another post (makes mental note...). I have been experimenting with the arts for my entire life, but only recently feel I have begun to truly cross the line into fine art.

To that end, I have applied for an open exhibition at a lovely local gallery. The theme is "Inspired by Wales" which is something that could be said of most of my work only insofar as I am often creating pieces with found objects from the region (which is a genuine treasure trove for the artist working in assemblage). But I know where my artistic interests lie at the moment, and it was immediately clear how I could incorporate a Welsh slant into them.

I very pleased to say that the mixed media and found object assemblage pictured here has made it through to the final round of judging, which happens this afternoon. Needless to say, my fingers are firmly crossed.

An Apothecarial Guide to the Landscape of Wales, Mixed Media Assemblage, 2015
The details, of course, do not come through in the photo. The cabinet itself I had to buy new but treated with paint effects to suggest aged wood and added antique bronze hardware. The image which forms the backdrop was rescued from the bin and kindly donated by a local hotel. The 17 bottles that form the contents were all excavated from a nearby smallholding. And the contents were scavenged by myself over the period of a couple of weeks and include wool plucked from fences, the most delicate seashells I have ever seen, rainwater from a hilltop, fresh forest air, a handwritten Welsh language poem, chips of slate and coal, and more. It was a beautiful project to work on, grounding me more firmly in my new home and connecting with the varied landscape around me. I hope to do several variations which could be more focused on particular environments or specific sites, and in doing so, to root myself further into the Wild West (of Wales).

Monday 5 October 2015

In Praise of Yarn

The "Wall of Wool" at Vagabond Romantics HQ
I have a lot of yarn.

I mean, seriously.

Some of my stash (but by no means all) can be seen in the photo to the left. 

I collect yarn from charity shops, independent wool shops, mill shops, trade fairs and of course online. Sometimes I want unusual textures, other times I lust after the unmistakeable palette and understated luxury of Noro, other times all I care about is how soft the fibres are.

Colinette's Tao silk yarn, with it's rich painterly hand-dyed colours, soft-as-air fibres and enviable drape, has almost everything I want from a yarn - if only I could afford it! I once found a tangled 500g hank of seconds in a nearby market for a knockdown price, and the silk feels so gorgeous in the hand that even the hours it took to unsnarl it and roll it into a ball felt decadent (but not as decadent as the oversized boxy garter stitch jumper I eventually knitted with it)

Drops do a gorgeous cotton viscose that has a convincingly silky lustre, a nice drape, an extremely reasonable price, and a delicious range of colours that run the gamut from subtle vintage shades to the rich jewel tones of a spice market. It's become my go-to yarn for most projects thanks to all of the above. It was also the yarn I used as the base for my "Lucy" knitted cuffs that were recently voted "Make of the Week" on the Wool Warehouse Facebook page. We intend to be listing a few of these lush little gems as autumn progresses, so do keep an eye on the shop if you fancy one (or a pair)!

And of course there's recycled sari silk yarn, which is becoming more and more widely available. Often there's an added bonus that it is spun by women's cooperatives from the silk threads that collect on the floors of fabric mills, or indeed scrap strips of sari fabric itself make an unusual ribbon-style yarn which may even include the odd sequinned motif or bit of beadwork. I have a terrible time resisting this and came away from Wonderwool 2015 with bags of it, but can rarely bring myself to knit with it because it is simply too beautiful as it is. I have, however, worn an untwisted skein as a rather dramatic necklace, and many compliments I received on it, too.

You may be wondering what the point of all these ramblings are and the answer is, I don't think there is one. I just felt like sharing my enthusiasm for yarns and fibres, and to encourage you to pick up a ball to play with next time you're in a wool shop and something catches your eye. You don't have to be able to knit or crochet, there are so many ways of playing and experimenting with it, and nothing quite like the tactile quality of working with fibres.