Imagine the scene: it’s, say, a wet Wednesday in the pseudo November we have been enjoying here in June in the UK. The marking is finished but your brain is almost dead, shrivelling from the side of your skull from the sheer tedium of reading the same thing in different handwriting fifty times on the trot. Idly scrolling through your email you suddenly see an invitation to a workshop on something which at least looks different, a masterclass on using completely different materials to those in your usual repertoire, the turf, surf and sky of the title. A bit pricey, but for two days with materials and sustenance. I had to sign up.
The masterclass started with a getting to know you drinks party on the Friday evening at which Basil, our tutor, showed us the concertina paper book equivalent of a powerpoint presentation of glorious images from nature as a way of getting our minds to start thinking before we started. I thought the drinks were a really good idea as so many people come to workshops totally inhibited and convinced that everyone else is either professional or professional standard and coming straight off their retrospective at the Victoria and Albert. So the ice was broken before we started work.
The masterclass was about working with materials that we wouldn’t usually use including animal skins and feathers. I chose mainly to work with leather, and couldn’t resist buying this glorious piece of lazer printed, stamped and gilded scarlet suede:
It was pretty expensive but my heart lifted when I saw it, and it reminded me of all that glorious leather ‘wallpaper’ in grand houses and Renaissance costume and fine bookbinding, and, and, and. Plus red and gold. I can never resist that. Probably the most amazing stuff was the dried, cured and tanned fish skins. So this is dyed and manipulated fish leather:
This is a fabric made of pieced together eel skins:
And this is a gilded salmon skin:
I bought a piece of perch which had been tanned and dyed black which handles just like suede. I could fill the blog with pictures of the exquisite materials. Basil, the tutor was very generous, and the price of the masterclass included generous amounts of backing fabrics and threads and beads, and Janet who runs Heart Space was magnificently open with her stash. So there was plenty to work with. The literature on creativity tends to state that you need abundance to create the conditions for people to create, although we were all stunned by the end of the first morning when we were introduced to the materials. Basil presented us with material rather than inspiration. The inspiration came from materiality rather than source material. The emphasis was on making and design rather than creating finished pieces, and we were very actively discouraged from thinking about making our things into bags, hats, waistcoats and, for the corset makers who were sitting opposite me, from making corset panels.
I found this part extremely difficult. The embroiderers on my side of the room are used to producing panels. Almost anything can be mounted as a panel or hung up as a wall hanging, so not making a thing is very difficult. I am also a great finisher rather than producer of samples. I think this is because I work, so when I go to a class I really concentrate and get on with it. I am not great at sitting with the process and seeing what emerges. I think that this might be an area which really needs work, because something very new might emerge if I did give it more time, but the goddess of finishing things makes very regular calls on me.
Basil was a really lovely person to work with. He clearly knows and loves his materials and his enthusiasm really is infectious. He is fascinated by seeing what the materials will do, how they can be manipulated and changed, what secrets are left to be revealed in a material as ancient and well-known as leather. He had a lovely visualisation exercise at the beginning of the class, and unusually he didn’t show any of his own work or sketchbooks. There was no influence or stimulus except what was in our heads or what the material suggested. At the end of the class he asked us to talk about our work and to say two words which captured our experience of doing the work. My two words were feverish and food. The creativity for me was feverish. I was gripped by it. I was inhabited by it and taken over by it. Sometimes creativity is calm and relaxing and meditative, but other times it is like a fever, demanding and tiring. All those old images of the tyrannous muse descending and driving people mad are sometimes true. My other word was food, though. All that touching sensation generating materials and looking closely at them felt like restocking the larder or recharging the batteries for weeks to come.
The other people on the masterclass were really delightful and very generous with tools and materials. They were interesting people to sit and talk to at lunch and they produced some fascinating work. I really enjoyed spending a weekend with them.
There is a lot to write about the process, but I will end here with some more pictures and my next blog will be about what I made.