Monday, 30 January 2012


One of my favourite materials - red dogwood (Cornus alba Sibirica) - it warms the heart on a wintry day.

It's been great to spend time in the studio this mild and sunny winter.  The heater's been serviced and it's quite toasty at times.  Very different from last year's bitterly cold snap when, apart from a few chilly forays into the local park taking photos for the materials chapter, I spent most of my time at home on the lap-top researching and writing the text for 'Practical Basketry Techniques'.

Now, with publication  less than three weeks away, I've been busy sorting out work for a showcase at the City Lit  - the centre for adult learning where I did most of my basketry training.  The Visual Arts and Publicity Departments there have been wonderfully supportive and, in addition to the showcase, have invited me to do a book signing session on the actual day of publication, Thursday 16th February. They'll also be running a fun competition to win a copy of the book - kindly donated by the publishers A&C Black.  More on this later.  If you're reading this after 6th Feb. you might be searching for the winning answer.  Read on ...

It's all got me thinking about my time at the City Lit and what a life-changing experience it was for me.  I started my two year City and Guilds in Creative Basketry in September 2001 - just days before the catastrophic events of 9/11.  Who can ever forget what they were doing on that day. 

The Part One City and Guilds was a highly structured course which, in addition to introducing all the major traditional basketry techniques; coiling, twining, stake-and-strand, plaiting and looping, also focused in depth on three commonly used  materials - willow, cane (rattan) and rush.  We were encouraged, however, to use as wide a range of materials as possible and to experiment with and combine them freely.  We were fortunate in having gifted and inspiring tutors, including Mary Butcher, Joanne Gilmour, Shuna Rendel and Polly Pollock, who also had their own contemporary basketry practices.

Contemporary basketry by Mary Butcher.  Illustrated in 'Practical Basketry Techniques'. Photo: Jacqui Hurst

An equally important aspect of the course was the research for Prepared Working Designs.  Several of my fellow students questioned the relevance of the design element, especially as we started with a hefty six week design block.  While others were champing at the bit, desperate to get their hands on a basket, I was loving it.  Looking back, for me, this was the perfect way to begin the course as it re-connected me with drawing and mark-making in the widest sense.  There was no insistence on an end product - personal research, experimentation and exploration were the key concepts.  On the first day I sat across a table from Daniel who was doing post-gratuate studies in Fine Art at the Prince's School - moonlighting in basketry!  We giggled like two messy kids on the naughty table as we revelled in all the cutting out, sticking and colouring in.

When I did finally get to make my first basket  though (an open weave, bias-plaited container) I almost cried for joy. Suddenly every other thing I'd ever done, including studying sculpture at art college after leaving school, made sense and it felt as if at last I fitted my skin. 

Painted and Plaited spun paper (with hex-weave, bias plait and windmill plait) - not quite my first basket but it uses similar techniques and the 'loose ends' came to be a feature of many subsequent pieces 

A re-configurable willow piece  from my Part One final project using buff and brown willow, plastic washing line and spray paint.  Not so much loose ends as an absence of traditional bases and borders.

Painted and bias plaited paper baskets from my Part One final show - illustrated in 'Practical Basketry Techniques'.

When that course finished in 2003 I had to wait another two years until 2005 before I could begin the 'Level 3 City and Guilds Diploma in Design and Craft (Constructed Textiles) in the context of Basket Making' - a bit of a mouthful - we just called it Part Two!  In the meantime I'd been developing and exhibiting my own contemporary basketry.  The diploma course introduced more advanced techniques such as twill plaiting, mad-weave (so-called because it's so complex it drives you crazy!), complex linking, square willow work and ever more tortuous borders, fixtures and fittings.  There was more research and writing too in the form of a Research for Design Project and an Illustrated Study on an aspect of traditional basketry.  I chose as my topic the painted, twined basketry of the Yanomami women of the Amazon rain forest. 

I'd begun to paint on my materials on Part One - spray paint being my favourite medium for its immediacy and quick drying properties.  There was indignation from some fellow students when I spray painted buff willow for one of my final project pieces (see above).  It was as if I'd desecrated hallowed ground.  Why would one want to hide the natural beauty of the  material?  A question I continually ask of myself with differing answers depending on what I'm making.

Details of stencilled willow - the bright orange is the natural colour of a variety of Salix alba grown organically by Lois Walpole. 

I continued to develop and experiment with surface mark-making all the way through the course.  Most of the drawing or painting included text or notation of one kind or another - mostly barely decipherable writing or lettering but sometimes numerals and abstract symbols.

TRESPASS 2007: Red and Green dogwood with painted buff willow. Photo: Trevor Springett

I studied Communication Studies in the 1980s and went on to do post graduate research in Critical Linguistics and Discourse Analysis before finally lecturing in a Social Sciences Department.  Not long before I left academia I'd ended up on a research project studying the culture and discourse of  mathematicians.  Part of my 'going native' on the ethnographic side of the project meant having to attend a whole course of lectures on abstract algebra and propositional logic in a department of Maths and Computing Sciences.  For a maths phobic like me it was like being stranded deep in an impenetrable jungle of mind-boggling incomprehensibility without access to clean water or  insect repellent.  All a far cry from basketry it might seem.  Help, I'm an artist really - get me out of here!

Blue Jewel 2011 - Spiral plait.  Photo: Ester Segarra 

But, actually, as I later found out, not so very far removed from basketry at all, as many of the plaiting techniques I encountered and took to like a duck to water have an underlying mathematical basis.  In fact several ethno-mathematicians are now studying basketry for the light it can shed on our most basic human understanding of number and geometry.  For me basketry is like a three-dimensional, geometric play-school.

Plaited vintage printed steel tape measures - I made my first one in 2003 and wore it to the private view of the Part One Final Show.

Detail of Bloom 2009 - red dogwood and cotton cord illustrated in 'Practical Basketry Techniques'

One of the forms I often return to is something I discovered by accident - just playing around with, combining and manipulating materials and techniques in an intuitive way - a hyperbolic paraboloid structure. The sub-editor of Crafts magazine worked with my cohort on the Craft Council's Hothouse Programme for emerging makers. Unfortunately for me his passion for non-Euclidean geometry was matched only by his disdain for the use of pretentious, out-dated buzzwords - such as hybridisation. 'If you must use buzzwords at least make sure they're current!'  He suggested I don't try to explain the maths of this particular structure as I clearly don't know what I'm talking about.  Fair cop! I don't.  However, my hands seem able to grasp it and my work gets no end of interest from engineers, architects and mathematicians.  The forms and techniques speak to them in a language they understand and gets them talking to me about the work rather than the other way round - which is a huge bonus.  I made an 18 feet high version for the Gallery at Pitzhanger Manor recently.  I called it NOVA (new star) partly because my name means 'star' in Latin.  We did a workshop for a group of 5-11 year olds and one seven year old budding astro-physicist, fluent in Latin, explained more about nuclear fusion on the surface of a white dwarf than anything you'd discover from Wikipedia.  So, I'll be keeping quiet about this one too. 

Nova 2011 by Stella Harding. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

Communicating ideas about ones own work can sometimes be more difficult than giving a lecture on Foucault's concept of power in five bullet points.  I like to think though, that having done the latter for a few years with some degree of success has proved a good grounding for writing clear instructions on how to do a three rod wale.  No experience wasted.  Time will tell .........

Saturday, 21 January 2012

A New Line

Making is the new thinking (just thought I'd mention that)

                                                              Stripping willow bark

Another great workshop with Hertfordshire Basketry last Saturday, a follow-up to last summer's bark-stripping fest with Maggie Smith.  It was June, the sap was high and this was one of the most enjoyable workshops ever and an epiphany for me as I'd never stripped bark before.  From choosing a log and making the first tentative incision to the deeper cut with a keen blade, from the careful prising with an improvised bark spud to the probing and gentle massaging with sap-soaked fingers, from the gradual emergence of the milk-white heartwood to the final release of the bark with a satisfying slurp I was hooked on the whole sensuous process and will never look at logs the same way again!

                                   Rolls of freshly stripped willow bark - photo: Norma Adams

Getting hands-on with raw materials and processes like this is what I find so compelling about basketry.  It also vitally informs my understanding and appreciation of any finished works.

This time we brought along our dried bark and Maggie showed some techniques and shared some of her top tips for making bark pouches and pockets - small forms that were achievable in a day.  In the morning, after soaking the bark to make it pliable again, she talked us through the health and safety procedures for safe handling of the razor sharp bark cutting tools.  Finer bark is best for plaiting and after only a few seconds of pulling it through the cutting blades we  ended up with piles of long, narrow, even-width ribbons which looked exactly like fresh tagliatelle pasta.  (I've tried plaiting with fresh pasta - it's much too brittle - not a patch on bark.)  Maggie gave us more tips for handling the material she'd picked up from two world-renowned bark workers, Dorothy Gill Barnes and Joan Corrigan, and by lunchtime we were all on the way to finishing our pockets.  I decided to leave mine unfinished - I've always loved the aesthetics of loose ends - like a promissory note for further inspiration.

Plaited willow bark pocket.  See a similar bias check-weave plaiting technique in 'Practical Basketry Techniques'

One of Maggie Smith's 'willow exploration' pieces from the Assembly showcase of 'Practical Basketry Techniques' Photo: Trevor Springett

Maggie's been passionate about willow and bark since completing the Advanced City and Guilds Diploma in Basketry at the City Lit in 2002.  I finished my Part One Diploma a year later.  She now grows her own willow on her allotment in Northamptonshire and collects bark from other coppiced trees, such as eucalyptus,  from her own and neighbours' gardens.   Nothing is ever wasted - she uses every scrap of root, twig, bark, bast, leaf and shaving.  The by-products of one process, such as skeining, can be used for another such as cordage and Maggie's even perfected a way of creating willow paper from the very finest floor sweepings.

After lunch we moved on to making pouches with some of our thicker, rougher-textured bark.  Assembly techniques such as stitching, pegging, lashing and wrapping are perfect for this and you can be as quick and dirty or painstakingly fastidious as you please - there's a technique for every temperament or time-scale.  I used stitching and found  the finer leftovers from the mornings plaiting made perfect stitching material.  Random looping with more fine strips filled the sides of my pouch and in no time at all - Ta-dah! my bark pouch was done.  Ta-dah! as Maggie explained, is an exclamation much used by Joan Corrigan and perfectly describes the moment of joyous revelation when all the materials,  processes and techniques, including the processes of preparation and design, come together and one has made something as if by magic.

Well, almost by magic.  It's the special magic of making that comes from not having to think too hard about the processes and techniques because they've become almost second nature - invisible - like the air the maker breathes.  The hand is able to grasp what the mind can let slip.  Handmade objects have a magical quality because they've been touched.  Gifted and inspiring makers like Maggie are able to share some of this magic, partly by making works that, literally, bewitch the senses, partly by revealing, communicating and engaging others in the enchantment of material process and techniques.  

Willow explorations by Maggie Smith can be seen at the New Ashgate Gallery in Farnham where she is taking part in a Basketry Focus Exhibition with Mary Crabb and Stella Harding until 28th January.  See for details.  She also has work in a Craftspace touring exhibition 'Made in the Middle' which opens on February 11th at MAC Birmingham. See

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 .................