Friday, 6 January 2012


A new year's Bank Holiday and a rare day out together for me and my partner Robert Cooper as we try to resolve our 'live/work balance' a little.  We fancied a bit of sea air, estuary actually! so headed for one of our favourite shorelines - shh, it's a secret location - if you read on I'll have to kill you! 

The site of a nineteenth century rubbish tip where barges from London would dump and then burn their cargoes on the beach, it's now a  magical, shape-shifting place - drawn, pulled and turned by moon and tide and by the shovels of illicit bottle diggers who excavate deep into the estuary mud hoping to find rare gems of painted pot lids and lemonade bottles.  We come in their wake, searching for a different treasure; broken pot shards, fired and fused glass and clinker and, in my case, body parts.  I'd been told stories of the place by Robert and his ex-student who lives nearby, so I was primed for what might be found there.

When we first visited I was determined not to be seduced by its abundance and approached the shoreline with a circumspect eye.  Robert goes into feeding frenzy in places like this.  An inveterate mudlarker, frustrated archaeologist and collagist he would happily fill carrier bags full of stinking 'rubbish' to pore and ponder over and re-collect in the studio.  (See for examples)

There's so much concentrated visual information that it takes a while for the eye to focus.  The first things to come into my line of vision were the most familiar - blue and white china shards - almost irresistible, but I have a large collection from other shorelines which I've always intended for mosaic in the garden - one day.  Next, the myriad broken glass bottle necks - so many different shapes, sizes and colours many with the iridescent, rainbow bloom of long immersion in briny mud.  We'd not long before been to Collect where we were intrigued by Hans Stofer's necklaces made from re-cycled bottle necks. Here they were without the price tag - a pick-your-own, DIY version anyway. Then the cup handles, how much tea had once slopped around their shattered bowls?  A nation of tea-drinkers in microcosm. 

Funny how everything comes in useful sometime - some of these bits of blue and white provided inspiration for a plaited paper basket project in 'Practical Basketry Techniques'.

Robert was off the leash and way down the beach as I continued to pick my way through the sedimented  history of glass and ceramics trying to remain aloof.  'I'm not taking any more rubbish home.  We've got more than enough as it is.'  Oh, and then I saw it.  White, smooth-cheeked, with soft curls and soulful eyes - a child's head.  I picked it up and all resolve was lost in the enchantment of the find. 

We've returned again and again. Robert with a mission to find bases or egg-cups or handles or lumps of slumped glass and crazed ceramic - the Victorian beach fires having acted like a secondary kiln firing on all the transfer-printed earthenware, porcelain, stoneware, metal and glass.  I've now trained my eye to search, not for the familiar geometric regularities of circular handles, cylindrical bottle necks and triangular shards but for the anomalous curve and curl of an elbow or hairline, the muddied fingernails of a child's tiny chubby hand or the slim ankle of a Dresden shepherdess.  A fragment of a smile or the unblinking eye of a china doll half buried in green slime is cause for a triumphant shout; Robert! I've found another body part!

A day's finds - scrubbed and cleaned.  The dogs are Robert's - he has an eye for dogs.

I discovered whilst researching the history and traditions of basketry for 'Practical Basketry Techniques' that indigenous Australians made baskets to contain the bones of dead babies.  These shattered body parts from the shoreline have also made me think of the derivation of the term 'basket-case' and how I might incorporate some of the body of basket making history into my work.  But that's another story .................

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