Tuesday, 27 November 2012

We need to talk about basketry: #1 starting line

Life.  You wait ages for a storyline and then three come at once!  They're all interconnected and in one way or another touch on some of my recent thinking about basketry.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin.
(I haven't any particular images to illustrate this blog so I'm just going to insert a few random pics of my favourite basketry techniques)

Cordage by Pip Weaser of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle www.scottishbasketmakerscircle.org

I went to the Craft Study Centre (www.csc.acreative.ac.uk) in Farnham last week for a practical workshop on writing about craft run by centre director Professor Simon Olding and independent writer/curator Sara Roberts.  We were a small group - a mix of makers from different craft disciplines including textiles, ceramics and basketry alongside a couple of curators and educators.

After the usual introductions we got our brains into gear with an ice-breaker exercise in which Simon and Sara gave us each a minute to write down three words we felt characterised good writing about craft.  There were no right or wrong answers but what was interesting was that of all our combined words none were repeated. Several though clustered around the themes of clarity, simplicity and accessibility whilst others expressed a wish for writing about craft that is surprising, provoking and questioning.  We then mirrored the exercise with only thirty seconds to write down one word that sums up bad writing about craft.  Impenetrable, obfuscating, inaccessible and confusing were some that give a flavour of the general consensus.

Interlacing by Rachel Max www.basketryplus.org

Next was a talk by Simon and Sara on their top tips for good writing - well illustrated with engaging and inspiring examples, including one of my favourites; ceramist Matt Smith's piece for the catalogue of 'Unravelling the Manor'. www.unravelled.org.uk    www.mattjsmith.com   Then it was time for tea and a spot of networking before the challenge of crafting a few words of our own.

The brief was to select one object from the current exhibitions at the Study Centre and write fifty words about it for a general audience (reading age 12-14). With a checklist of points to include such as revealing something of the making process, providing a context for the reader to appreciate the work and including a human element - i.e. telling a story - we were given just ten minutes before having to read it aloud to the group! No pressure!!

Having decided there was no time to follow most of the others up-stairs to the exhibition of contemporary ceramics by Alison Britton I headed straight for the ground floor display of objects reflecting the life and work of Robin Tanner - print-maker, educator, craft collector and founding trustee of the Craft Study Centre.  I'd seen this fascinating exhibition, curated by Jean Vacher, on a previous visit so had an idea of what to expect, ceramics by Lucie Rie, Hans Coper and Bernard Leach, furniture by Gordon Russell, textiles by Barron and Larcher as well as etchings and engravings by Tanner himself.

                                         Samples of basketry techniques by Stella Harding

I was desperately looking for something that would connect to basketry in some way and the closest thing was exhibit No. 42 a rush-seated chair by Gordon Russell.  I've never done chair-seating but I know a lot of basket makers who have - it employs related materials and techniques.  Nine minutes left.  I began writing - accompanied by Vaughn Williams' 'Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' playing softly in the background.  Some frantic word-counting and crossings-out later Sara came in to say 'stop writing'.  We then headed upstairs to face the moments of truth - standing in front of our chosen objects reading our pieces aloud to the group before getting feed-back from Simon and Sara.

Twined cardboard cups made by children at a British Museum workshop - see similar illustrated in 'Practical Basketry Techniques' A&C Black 2012
One brave ceramist volunteered to go first with her piece about Alison's Britton's tea cup collection.  Nice one: get it over with so you can relax and watch the others squirm as they wonder when it's going to be their turn.  Listening to engaging prose followed by generous and encouraging appraisals from Simon and Sara gave some comfort as it gradually began to dawn on me that I would probably be last. 

Back downstairs to the Tanner collection and after a discourse on a brown jug there was no escape.  I don't know what imp of perversity had got into me there in the hushed shadows of all that's hallowed in the British craft tradition, but I would have to stand by what I'd written. Deep breath, no apology, say it with conviction.  Here goes.

"Number 42.  A chair.  Ladder-backed, rush-seated, English Yew.  Solid, enduring, vernacular.  It speaks of pastoral sensibilities, cottage industries and traditional values. It speaks too of my on-off love affair with the rural idyll.  Perhaps it's time for an end - a sticky divorce?  It would make good firewood, if only I had the hearth."

53 words

Imperceptible pause.  Explosive gasps of incredulous laughter.  Beaming smiles and positive grins.  Huge relief.  Comments from Simon and Sara re-assured me that it took confidence to write something provocative in that particular context. It described the object and its cultural context whilst telling a personal story which takes the audience on a journey with an unexpected twist at the end.  Comments from the group were that they'd never look at that chair the same way again!

Coiled Pomo basket from the Pitt Rivers Collection - maker unknown

For me, it summarised a lot of my thinking about basketry and my own relationship with craft traditions and the relative values of craft skills, processes and objects.  I greatly admire that chair - everyone said that was evident.  It stood in place of the basketry I couldn't find to write about - filling an absence, a silence, an empty space in the history of objects with no maker's name to legitimate their place in the hierarchy of cultural production.

What struck me too was that all the others had chosen an item of ceramics to write about.  A craft genre with with no shortage of erudite and eloquent makers, craft historians and  cultural critics to chart its history and contemporary developments. Simon had advised us earlier that one way into honing our writing skills was to read, read, read and it's often occurred to me that much of the critical writing about contemporary ceramics and textiles could easily relate to basketry.  But where would that leave basketry as a distinct area of creative pratice with its own specific conditions of production and consumption?

No. We need to talk about basketry.  Not fibre art, not constructed textiles, not willow weaving, not even basket-making.  Basketry.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

BEHIND THE LINES: Maggs Beneath the Covers #7


The Private View for 'Maggs Beneath the Covers' held at Maggs Antiquarian Bookshop 50 Berkeley Square, Mayfair to coincide with the Lapada Art and Antiques Fair was definitely an upper crust affair - even down to the hand-raised, traditional crusty meat pies with lashings of English mustard served alongside the champagne.  There was cake too - quite a spread.  These days it's rare to see so much as a peanut at the average private view.  Curator Penny Green had done us proud and not just with the finger food.

Works by the twelve artists who'd been commissioned to respond in 'extreme and conceptual ways' to Maggs' collections of rare books and manuscripts are beautifully displayed over all four floors of the Georgian town house close to the books that inspired them.  Some are in hallways and others in the garden - including 'books of remembrance' by ceramist Robert Cooper .

Penny Green's own work installed on the first floor landing - two seated figures representing the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning - looks as if it had been there forever.  Look carefully and you can just spot Robert Browning sitting in the sunlight by an orange tree.
In curating the exhibition Penny had decided not to have any labels or statements close to any of the work.  A small brochure guides visitors to the general location of each piece and they are left to discover them, or not! depending on their powers of observation.  Some of the interventions are so subtle as to be easily missed.  But that's the fun of this kind of exhibition - it invites curiosity, exploration and active engagement with the site. 
Some of those who came got so into the spirit of discovery that they were found wandering 'off piste' in the dusky underground storerooms and passage-ways trying to decide whether the various piles and accumulations were art-works or just dead stock.  Brave of them I thought, as darkness was falling and the place is notoriously haunted by a broken-hearted 'Mr Havisham' - cruelly jilted on his wedding day.
My piece 'Between the  Lines' is sited on the second floor in the Continental and Illuminations Department close to where I'd been standing when I'd first glimpsed 'my' book in Paul Quarrie's hand on the site visit.  I was expecting a special visitor to the private view, Cat Lucas, English Pen's Writers at Risk campaigns manager, and had arranged to meet her there.  Cat had asked me to write a guest post for their website and in yet another example of happenstance the posting and the exhibition opening  co-incided with the release of Salman Rushdie's latest book 'Joseph Anton'.  Censorship, free speech and freedom of artistic expression were hot topics.  
Between the Lines by Stella Harding
Although ultimately the work will have to speak for itself and tell its own story, being there in the room alongside it gave me an opportunity to find out what it has to say to others and to answer questions about it.  A member of Magg's staff had seen the piece prior to the private view, and, knowing little about it, told me it reminded her of a brazier - in which banned books might have been burned. In the sixteenth century when Francesco Ghesi, the book's owner, was writing his defence to charges of heresy it was more than books that were being burned - convicted heretics could face death at the stake.  In recent years we've seen the burning of books and effigies of writers by religious fundamentalists and only a few weeks ago on July 30th, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, the mother of imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Tai Phong Tan, died in a defiant act of self immolation.  She was protesting the detention of her daughter - a former policewoman who'd built up followers around the world with her blogs about police abuses in Vietnam.
Most people wanted to see the book that had inspired my piece.  Impossible in this case as it had been sold before I'd had the chance to really see it myself.  But imagination is a wondrous thing and as I explained that the small area of 24 carat gold leaf represents the 'footprint' of the book - people began to make connections with other imprints, shadows and memories of lost objects from their own experience.
When Cat Lucas arrived we were able to connect the small size of the book to the size of Francesco Ghesi's handwriting as he'd written in the spaces between the printed text.  Many prisoners of conscience write under extreme conditions - some write in infinitesimally small script on tiny scraps of paper or rag which can be smuggled out by friends or sympathetic guards.  Handwriting can say so much about a person too and small changes over time often alert human rights observers monitoring a prisoner to changes in their circumstances.
I'd enjoyed handwriting a letter to Busra Ersanli, something I haven't done for years, and had been touched to receive her letter in return - hand written after her release pending retrial.  In a sense this project has been as much about the history of human communication as about one book.  The laborious work of stamping individual letters onto the lead strips was juxtaposed by the immediacy of tweeting an update to this blog - telescoping the centuries from Roman times to 21st century social media.  My internet searches, emails to English Pen, blog posts and various digital interconnections are as much a part of the creative process of this project as the final woven lead container.  What connects us as humans isn't the means by which we communicate but the desire to do so.  The desire for freedom of speech and artistic expression will find a way.
I'm writing this post now as Busra Ersanli and nearly two hundred others face another  trial in Turkey tomorrow October 1st.  In her letter to me Busra wrote of her friend, the translator and women's rights activist Ayse Berktay and whether anything could be done to bring her to attention.  Ayse's name is one of several imprinted on the lead - a small gesture of solidarity.
Monday October 1st also sees the hearing in Russia of an appeal by the three members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhada Tolokononikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich, imprisoned for two years after their peaceful performance protest against Vladimir Putin and leaders of the Orthodox Church who support his repressive measures.  Artist David Shrigley has added his support by designing a T-shirt for Amnesty International and English Pen are holding a Poems for Pussy Riot poetry protest at 11.00am on Monday October 1st at the Champion pub Wellington Terrace, London W2 4LW.  www.englishpen.org/poems-for-pussy-riot-ebook They are asking those who can't attend to write about the event and the ebook of poems on their websites, blogs and Twitter.   
Even the smallest gesture can make a difference to a prisoner of conscience. Sending a book, a letter or postcard of solidarity lets them and their captors know that they are not lost to the eyes of the world. A quick tweet or an email to a government or regime acting in contravention of human rights costs nothing, takes only a few moments and is surprisingly simple to do with modern communications technology.  See English Pen's Rapid Action Network for how to do it. www.englishpen.org
If you get the chance please do visit 'Maggs Beneath the Covers'.  Don't be put off by the imposing location and the entry buzzer.  You'll find a warm welcome inside 50 Berkeley Square and the freedom to explore and discover for yourself all the inspiration you could desire.
'Maggs Beneath the Covers' is on until 21st December 2012.  9.30- 5.00pm Monday-Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday. Please see www.maggs.com for more information.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

END OF THE LINE: Maggs Beneath the Covers #6 the weave

It's only a few days before the exhibition 'Maggs Beneath the Covers' opens - 12 artists responding in extreme and conceptual ways to Maggs collections of rare books and manuscripts.  I haven't seen my finished piece since it was delivered to Maggs over two months ago and now feel as if I'm writing backwards - reflecting on and un-weaving the making process. 

When I delivered my piece I got chatting to another maker who was testing the installation of her work.  I asked how she'd come across the book that inspired her.  I was fascinated to hear she'd gone exploring Maggs on-line catalogue for an appropriate volume!  She'd conceived of what she wanted to make, determined by the nature of her practise and her current interests, and had then gone looking for a book that would fit the concept.  Retro engineering! Well, why not?  Why trust to happenstance and chocolate rabbits as I had done?  My more process-led approach was to work with whatever called out to me and to follow its desire line - wherever that might lead.  This might have some relation to the way basket makers often make use of whatever seasonal materials they happen to come across in their locale.

Exactly why a book owned by an imprisoned writer (my raw material) should have struck a chord with me at this juncture is something I'll reflect on later.  Perhaps it had something to do with having recently had a book published myself for which I'd written the, albeit uncontroversial, text.  Suddenly I was not simply a co-author who'd worked on the overall construction of a book but the writer who'd selected, manipulated and crafted the words, sentences and paragraphs.  This subtle distinction was an important one for me, my creative labour not to be appropriated through elision.

Stella Harding GREEN JEWEL 2010 Photo: Sylvain Deleu
A item of basketry, as with any crafted object, is a fusion of four variables: material, technique, form and function, each of which interacts with a more nebulous fifth - location or context.  I more typically make abstract, sculptural forms, exploring combinations of materials, techniques and forms to create re-natured assemblages that function as objects for the contemplation of the ontological uncertainty of human/nature. 

                               Stella Harding KEPLER'S JEWEL 2011 Photo Trevor Springett

Plaited vintage printed steel tape measure bangle
At other times they might be worn as a measure of certainty, but they rarely look like conventional baskets. 

For the Maggs piece  I'd allowed my researches into the unfolding storyline to dictate which material I'd use - lead, the imprinted lead then to dictate an appropriate technique - an open weave that would distribute the leaden weight economically, and the combination of material/technique to dictate the form - which I was beginning to realise was going to have to be ... a fairly conventional looking basket! 

I recalled the first site visit when Robert Harding (no relation), one of Magg's directors, had spoken of the book as the 'perfect object'.  In other words, from the time the first bound volume was made the book hasn't changed its form or the way we interact with it.  Even an e-book mimics the way we open and hold a book and turn its pages.  Baskets come in many forms depending on their function but archaeological finds tell us that the basic forms for specific  functions haven't changed in millenia.  So, just as the unremarkable appearance of Ghesi's small book belied its extraordinary story, I would reflect this by making a fairly unremarkable basketry form - to function as a kind of 'stealth craft' - an innocent looking decorative container which would belie its content.  Not as a container for an imprisoned writer - as I'd originally proposed, but as an expression of the transformative power of books to free the imagination.

And so at last the weave began, with a six-pointed star - or a hexagon surrounded by six triangles, depending on how you look at it.  These are the  first set of connections in open hexagonal plaiting - a multi-directional (3-way) weave more commonly used for making lightweight, ephemeral containers for transporting small livestock to market. With a bit of practice it's a quick, economical weave that's used a lot in the Far East with indigenous plant material such as bamboo or rattan which can easily be split or cut into flat strips.
It's also one of my favourite weaves and gave me a personal connection to the story.  I've used it a lot with strips of paper or plastic tape, chair cane and cardboard.  Lead though is not a typically 'appropriate' material to use with this technique.  It has too much 'memory' and little energy or will of its own.  It's extreme malleability verges on passive resistance! But I enjoyed these qualities - it forced me to think about every move I made with this delicate and yielding material whose subtle beauty belies its reputation as a base, toxic metal.  And the  starry weave is fitting for a different reason; for lead, like all the heavy metals, was  forged in the white heat of an exploding super nova billions of years ago. What came from the stars was woven into stars.

Even before I'd begun weaving the base I knew I'd be unable to add extra horizontal elements to form the sides.  I didn't want any lumpen overlapping joins so I used a bias weave even though it disrupted the pattern of stars and hexagons.
In fact the sides were a combination of a bias lattice plait with hexagonal 'intervals'.  The weave was  uneven at first despite my best efforts, but a few hours spent with a lump hammer coaxing it into shape over a mould sorted that out. 
Throughout the making I'd been pondering how to represent the book itself.  One idea had been to make a porcelain slab the same dimensions as the book and to decorate it with gold lustre thus recreating my 'lost object' in tangible form. In the end there were frustrating technical issues to do with lustre-firing that couldn't be resolved in the time remaining.  My compromise solution was to gold leaf a section of the weave  the size of the book. 
What seemed like an expedient compromise turned out for the best. Now, this alchemical symbol of Francesco Ghesi's book has become one with the weave - highlighting the parallels  with Busra Ersanli as his word 'justice' intersects with her word 'solidarity'.  That gold foil covered chocolate bunny has a lot to answer for!

                Viewed from certain angles the golden rectangle sheds precious light in a dark place and illuminates the text as in a medieval manuscript. 

Whilst from another perspective the ecclesiastical overtones of the interior spaces are undeniable.
My final decisions were about how to finish off the basket -  how to end the story. I'd dispensed with issues of joining by choosing a bias plaiting technique that didn't require extra elements.
There was something compelling about not resorting to a neat resolution.  Looking askance from a different perspective showed there was no tidy closure to this story.  Though she was freed from prison after the first hearing Professor Ersanli and her co-defendants face another trial on the first of October.  Just the other day I received a reply to the letter I'd sent whilst she was in prison.  I was touched that she'd taken the time to write back to me and moved to tears by her bravery, dignity and selfless concern for her cell-mate, the translator and women's rights activist, Ayse Berktay.   Many loose ends, many more human connections, one strand at a time.
The end of the line has yet to be woven ...

Friday, 10 August 2012

LETTER LINES: Maggs beneath the covers #5

A portal moment
PRECIOUS JEWEL, inspired by the writing of Johannes Kepler, Stella Harding 2010.  solo show,  'Show Your Working Out' m2gallery Peckham, London (www.m2gallery.com)

On July 3rd 2012, the day after the trial began in Turkey of Professor Busra Ersanli and her 193 co-defendants, my piece for 'Maggs Beneath the Covers' was completed and delivered to be photographed prior to the exhibition opening on 20th September 2012.

I'm time travelling now, criss-crossing historical and social space.  My lap top is a portal to the multiverse - a worm-hole through the warp and weft of epoch making social events and my craft of basketry has become a time-machine.

It's 1564. A paradigm shift has occurred in the medieval mind-set and Europe is teetering on the brink of modernity.  In reaction to the rise of Protestantism, the counter-reformation is underway and in Venice the book, that in two years time Francesco Ghesi will take with him to the prisons of the Roman Inquisition, has just been published using the latest innovations in print technology.  Made possible, in part, by alchemical experiments in the composition of lead alloys the print revolution has been propelling the communication and rapid spread of heterodox ideas - including the teachings of Luthor and Calvin and Copernicus' theory of the heliocentric universe.  Roman Catholic orthodoxy and the power of the Papacy is under threat.  The old world order is being turned upside down.

I thought about Ghesi having turned his edition of the Canons of  the Council of Trent up-side down and back to front.  Surely not a unconsidered act.  It seemed to me a purposeful gesture of defiance and spoke of a determination to find an alternative perspective from which to write his defence.  Of course, when paper was a scarce, expensive commodity this would have been a not uncommon practise.  It's the particular cultural context that opens a space for a different interpretation.

Released from detention on July 13th 2012 pending a new trial in October, Busra Ersanli spoke to the world's press of the day in October 2011 when she was arrested and "my world turned upside down".  Devastating no doubt to find oneself facing a sentence of 15 - 22 years imprisonment if convicted.

The word turned upside down.  Stella Harding, TRESPASS 2007. Red and green dogwood and painted willow.  Photo: Trevor Springett

I was taken back to 2004 and a body of work made for an exhibition 'Passion' with fellow basket maker Suni Lopez, when I'd first turned my basketry up-side down and began to write on the lines of the weave.  A small mark in the development of my own personal language and one that I've often repeated since.  Writing the weave another way round.   Though I might upset a few die-hard traditionalists mine is a very small, safe, act of topsy-turveydom.

Stella Harding, SPELL 2008 (detail).  Painted Hazel. Photo Sylvain Deleu

Stella Harding, TRUE NATURE (detail reverse side) 2011.  Stencilled willow. Photo Trevor Springett

Returning again to 1564.  Galileo is born and will subsequently provide the empirical proof of Copernicus' theories.  This is also the year in which the Council of Trent, first convened in 1543, authorises a revised version of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum - a list of forbidden books, to be administered by the Roman Inquisition with the aim of regulating the output of printers and controlling the spread of heresy.  Heresy, from the Greek word for choice, is redefined to mean any belief that conflicts with Catholic dogma.  Many convicted heretics will suffer death by fire or life imprisonment and important works by mathematicians and astronomers, such as Galileo's 'Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems' and Johannes Kepler's 'Epitome Astronomiae Copernicianae' will later appear on the Index. 

I began to wonder, did Ghesi's text come at a conjuctural moment when many interconnecting social systems - scientific, technological, philosophical, political, economic, cultural  - gradually began to shift and realign.  Could he be regarded as one of the first prisoners of conscience of the modern era?

          9 kilos of pure lead sheet recycled in Welwyn Garden City - the home town of Hertfordshire Basketry (www.hertsbasketry.org.uk ), a group I joined in 2007.

Back in May 2012 I realised I had to weave, not with paper - perhaps the more obvious, more familiar choice - but with lead.  A new material for me - I'd little idea where to source it or how to work it but I was determined to write the texture of my piece not between the lines of printed lead type face as Ghesi had done but directly onto and into lines of lead.  In this way I would make visible that element of the craft of printing that had changed the world when it was invented by Guttenberg in the fifteenth century.  I put out feelers amongst local artists and found, right opposite my studio on Creekside, some friendly metal-workers who pointed me in the direction of a local supplier of re-cycled pure lead and gave me a crash course in how best to cut it - very carefully!  Lead is notoriously toxic and, due to fears for Health and Safety, its use is now banned in many art colleges. 

The lead was heavy and expensive relative to more traditional basketry materials and I couldn't afford the luxury of time or money using it for prototypes.  Having chosen the material I would also have to chose an appropriate basketry technique: a weave that was economical in its use of material not just in terms of cost but more in terms of my ability to actually lift the finished piece.  The weave I chose involved having to cut the lead into 1 metre long, 1.5 centimetre wide strips. Wearing a mask and surgical gloves, using a Stanley knife and a steel rule, I first scored 'guidelines' onto the lead sheet in much the same way medieval scribes had scored the vellum of their manuscripts with a stylus and a straight edge (see Tim Ingold, 2007, 'Lines: a brief history', for more on the relationship between letterlines and guidelines in the development of printed text).  But unlike the scribes I then had to cut right through the lead.  It was slow, heavy, painstaking work.  There was sweat as I scored, pulled and tore along the open wounds in the soft metal, tears of frustration when the line veered off true and blood and band-aid when the knife occasionally slipped.

Unlike many basket makers I rarely use a knife and certainly not a Stanley knife - the short, angled blade is considered too hazardous and I was warned against it by several tutors.  Better to use a curved 'picking' knife or the longer-bladed Opinel that I occasionally use for 'slyping' or 'scalloming' willow.  Over the four days that it took to cut the strips I was also reminded of my first summer job as an art student in the late 1960s, working in the packing department of Stanley Tools in Sheffield, spending hour after hour, day after day, boxing up Stanley knives by the dozen.  I've had an ambivalence to them ever since! 

This preparation time also brought home to me that one of the things I love most about basketry is its minimal reliance on tools or equipment.  My hands are my main tools and so the weave becomes, for me, a form of hand-writing: personal, intimate, idiosyncratic, flawed, sometimes indecipherable, hopefully unmistakably my own.  Reading their handwritings from prison I felt a connection with Ghesi and Ersanli.  I can't understand Ghesi's Latin or feel Ersanli's situation but I can see their human hand in the words.  These are not depersonalised ciphers in a oppressive dehumanising system.  They are the marks of real people experiencing oppression at first hand.

Back in 1921 PEN International (www.pen-international.org ), a global community of writers, was set up to campaign for the freedom to read and to write.  Since 1960 its Writers in Prison committees and Rapid Action Networks, co-ordinated  by 145 local centres such as Englishpen ( www.englishpen.org ), have been campaigning to free thousands of imprisoned writers around the world.  Many are held without trial and in contravention of their human right to freedom of expression as recognised in international human rights law.  The words of John Milton from his 1644 'Aeropagitica', quoted on English-pen's website; "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all other liberties." is a reminder that we still can't take this freedom for granted.

Once the lead was cut I began the slow, repetitive job of printing text into it using metal stamps.  Spelling out lines from the book, Ghesi's defence and Ersanli's handwritten postcard from a Turkish women's prison interspersed with quotes from Milton, Voltaire and Noam Chomsky on the subject of freedom of speech took eight days.  I also added the names of other imprisoned writers, poets, publishers, bloggers and human rights activists including the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Rajip Zarakolu - writer and founder of Belge publishing house, who was arrested in Turkey at the same time as Ersanli. 

It was a period of concentration and contemplation as I lifted each letter stamp in turn from the boxed alphabet, positioned it carefully over the lead and hit it twice, firmly, with a lump hammer.  The sensuous rhythms, sounds and cool, hard yet softly yielding touch of this process were eons away from my usual, more immediate, stencilling and spray painting - like the difference between the ancient Roman practice of sending messages inscribed on lead tablets and today's tweet from a smart phone.  Taking time, I felt very much in touch with my materialised thoughts through the slow, subtle texture of this process. There were irregularities and imperfections - the irrevocable marks of my un-skilled metal work which became an aesthetic device to signify humanity - small lapses of concentration, a slip of the tired hand, subtle differences in pressure over time,  and even the odd 'typo'! - the lead told it all.

Eventually though, these storylines were ready to be woven together and the final structure of the plot revealed ...

You can follow English-pen on Twitter @englishpen -  tweeting now to help free Vietnamese bloggers Ta Phong Tan, Nguyen Van Hai and Phan Thanh Hai. 


Friday, 13 July 2012

PARALLEL LINES - Maggs Beneath the Covers 4

Fantastic news! Today's Friday 13th of July and I've just received a Tweet from English-pen letting me know that Professor Busra Ersanli has reportedly been released from custody.   She, along with over 180 other writers, publishers, journalists, students and human rights activists, was arrested in Turkey last October and has been held in a women's prison, awaiting trial, ever since. 

I came across her name after doing an internet search for women writers in prison soon after hearing, on Friday 13th of April, that my proposal for 'Maggs Beneath the Covers' had been accepted.  The more I read of her case on the websites of Pen International and English-pen the more I was struck by the uncanny parallels with Francesco Ghesi the owner of the book that had inspired my proposal.

Like Francesco Ghesi, Busra Ersanli is a published writer and a university professor - of political science.  Like him she'd been held in prison awaiting trial and like him had spent her time writing her own defence against the spurious charges levelled against her.

There was another reason though, why I finally chose to focus on her story to represent contemporary imprisoned writers.  After contacting English-pen to let them know of my project and then again to ask for advice on contacting writers in prison, Cat Lucas of their Writers at Risk programme emailed me a digital image of a postcard that Busra had sent to Sarah, an English-pen member.  In celebration of World Book Night, Sarah had responded to English-pen's call to send a book to an imprisoned writer.  Sending a book is an uncontroversial way of making contact and letting a prisoner know that they are not forgotten.  The book Sarah chose was 'I Capture the Castle' by Dodie Smith - one of my own all time favourite reads. 

      My own much loved copy of 'I Capture the Castle'.  It's been a comfort blanket in difficult times and never fails to make me smile.

It's a captivating and gently humorous portrait of a young girl trying to find her voice as a writer above the clamour and chaos of her eccentric, impoverished, artistic family.  The opening lines find her sitting in the kitchen sink to write her journal.

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink, that is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea cosy. I can't say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left.  And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be very inspiring ..."   How very true! A charming reminder that we all need to move outside our comfort zone from time to time.

This common tie of having read and enjoyed the same book I felt gave me an introduction to writing to Professor Ersanli - a shared experience, however small, helped bridge our different worlds.  Though, actually, not so very different.  In some of the reports of her arrest and trial she was described as a "Professor of Sociology", and I too had taught university courses in sociology some years previously. 

I found it ironic, but strangely levelling that now, in these days of instant digital communication, we were forced to rely on the exchange of handwritten letters and postcards which might perhaps take weeks to arrive - if at all.  Though books and messages of solidarity were getting through in this instance, Cat Lucas warned me that sometimes prisoners of conscience have been presented with sacks of mail only on their release - denied the solace during captivity of knowing there were those who cared.  In some cases, imprisoned writers have gone to extra-ordinary lengths to communicate with family or friends: writing in infinitesimally small script on minute scraps of paper or fabric, begging or bribing guards - who are often more sympathetic than one might think - to smuggle messages, or seeking help from other prisoners to get the word out. 

Francesco Ghesi's story, written over four hundred years ago between the lines of his little book, on every page, sometimes only two or three lines per page, wherever he could find the space to communicate his innocence and pleas for justice, still, unfortunately, finds parallels today.

I've always felt that basketry as with any mode of creativity is about making connections between different lines of thought and material practices across social, historical, political, cultural and temporal spaces. Yet it still remained for me to find a way of weaving all these parallel storylines together ..........

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

HARD LINES - Maggs Beneath the Covers 3

"Hard lines chuck", my partner the ceramist consoled when I told him the book I'd chosen as my inspiration for the project 'Maggs Beneath the Covers' had been sold to a university library in the United States.  After the initial stab of disappointment at not being able to see or hold the book for myself  I quickly realised there was a  curious symmetry to what I now regarded as my 'lost object' of desire - in Lacanian terms that which drives the urge to create.

The material realisation of a piece of work comes in many forms and I've never been especially interested in literal depiction, recreation or illustration.  Now that the actual book was gone I could fully turn my attention to its owner - the mysterious man in the Roman prison - who I would also never see except in my mind's eye and the signficance of his own interventions into the text.

Paul Quarrie at work in the Continental and Illuminations Department

Paul Quarrie, who had researched the book prior to its sale, soon provided me with fascinating background information, including its title and dimensions.   As one of the many editions of the canons of the Council of Trent, written in Latin and printed in Venice in 1564 by one G. Cavalcalupo, the small book was neither rare nor remarkable.  Ironically, as Paul had explained on the site visit, books such as this, written in Latin, are now quite hard to sell as so few people read the language these days.  With its plain vellum cover it wasn't even desirable as a decorative addition to a gentleman's study or country house library, unlike the many lavishly tooled and gilded Continental books of a similar period on display in the department.

                    Early gold-tooled vellum and leather bound books from continental Europe

Ordinarily it wouldn't have had much going for it and might have languished in Maggs back catalogues for decades.  Certainly, I'd blinked and almost missed it. What made it special was its extra-ordinary provenance.  Its owner Francesco Ghesi had been a professor of philosophy and theology who'd taught first in Naples and then in Rome.  He was himself a published writer of several manuscripts and printed books.  Somehow though - possibly through connections to Giovanni Morone, one of the more heterodox thinkers of the time - he'd fallen foul of Pius V who was elected Pope in 1566. 

Upon opening the book it had been revealed that Ghesi had turned it upside down and back to front and, throughout its 184 pages, between the lines of printed text, he had handwritten his defence to the Roman Inquisition whilst imprisoned by the Pope under suspicion of heresy.  It was probably precisely the fact that this was such an unremarkable volume of religious doctrine, so small as to fit easily within a man's grasp, that he'd been able to carry it with him to prison.  And, anyway, how could the Inquisition object to a prisoner reading and reflecting upon the very canons of faith against which he'd allegedly committed heresy.  He finished writing his defence, with its poignant plea for justice, in December 1570 but  was only freed in 1574, following the death of Pius V, after spending eight years in prison.  Francesco Ghesi died in 1578 "unable to enjoy other than in paradise the prize of his innocence".

Hard lines indeed!

I now knew which material I wanted to use to make the piece.  But first I had another difficult choice to make;  one contemporary writer, a prisoner of conscience, to represent the hundreds, if not thousands, imprisoned worldwide today .........

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

OUTLINE - Maggs Beneath the Covers 2

As one of over forty artists invited to submit an outline proposal for a new Arts Council England site responsive project, 'Maggs beneath the Covers', I was faced with a challenge. Choosing one book from amongst the vast collections of Maggs Bros Antiquarian booksellers (www.maggs.com) seemed daunting at first.  A bit like searching for the one perfectly round pebble on a shingle beach or an uncracked cup in a sea of shards - except that here everything was potentially perfect in its own way if only one could see it in the first place.  How would the mind's eye adjust to, and begin to make sense of the sheer volume of volumes at Maggs? the overwhelming tsunami waves of personal, social, historical, cultural and political matter?  How to begin the cognitive/creative process of sifting, categorising, selecting?  Perhaps, I hoped, the one book would just eventually leap into view, standing out from all the others and calling out to me, "Stella, I choose you!"

                   Early manuscript inscribed on vellum with illuminated capitals and rubrication

Taking on the mantle of a cultural anthropologist I tried to listen and carefully observe, making notes and taking photographs as we were given a tour of the various departments, which included Early British, Travel, Continental and Illuminations, Autographs and Manuscripts and Counterculture. We all smiled as one of the directors cut through any fine-grained classification systems and subsumed all this stuff under the three broad-brush categories of  'white books, brown books and shiny books'.  'White books', which could also be manuscripts, are the earliest - often written on, or bound in, vellum and dating back centuries. 

'Brown books' are so-called because they are often bound in leather - albeit not always brown in colour and 'shiny books' is the catch-all, dealers term refering to anything from more recent times which might nowadays even include computer hard-drives or e-books. 

I have to admit that my magpie eye finds it hard to resist anything shiny - even the foil covered Easter bunny on the mantlepiece in the Autographs and Manuscripts department seemed to be winking at me in a mischevious way - 'why not choose me?'.  Or perhaps it was because I'd skipped breakfast and was begining to feel a bit light headed from all the information overload that the promise of a quick sugar-rush seemed so appealing.

There was much food for thought:  the whole of Captain Cook's journals from his voyages of discovery - a sensation in their time like a trip to Mars.  Stacks and stacks of political pamphlets - the eighteenth century equivalent of blogging - a whole society ranting to itself.  Two leaves from Marco Polo's journal found under a fly-leaf having been re-cycled as bookbinder's waste.  A series of exquisitely illuminated capitals cut from their manuscripts and flogged to a Grand Tourist who then collaged them into a scrapbook like holy iconography from last year's Christmas cards.  

   Another job for the book doctor - re-uniting these Capitals with the
    body of the text from which they were cut.
Yet when I got home and tried to make sense of my pages of notes, images and sketches I found myself drawn again and again to one scribbled sentence.  "Little book (favourite) been in a Roman prison"  It was a short reminder of a small, insignificant-looking, vellum bound book which Paul Quarrie, from the Continental and Illuminations department had cupped gently in the palm of his hand as he'd explained to us that its owner had handwritten 'between the lines' of printed text whilst incarcerated in a Roman prison.  Who was the owner? why was he imprisoned? what had he written? what had become of him?  There were no answers to these questions in my notes and I hadn't taken a photograph of the book.  Distracted by hunger and chocolate rabbits I'd almost missed the pure gold of the extraordinary human story hidden beneath the covers of the small, pale book.

                                  JEWEL TRAP 2010 Stella Harding.  Photo: Sylvain Deleu

We were given only a few days to write and submit a proposal.  Despite knowing hardly anything about the book, not even its title, the plight of its imprisoned owner desperate to find some space to communicate his thoughts stirred in me a desire to make something of its story.  It seemd fitting to propose making a basketry form which would reference the darker side of containment - to trap and constrain, cage and kill.  I had touched on this theme before in other site responsive projects at Pitzhanger Manor and the Petrie Museum (see previous posts).  This time I wanted to use it to highlight the cause of the many hundreds, possibly thousands of writers, jounalists, poets and bloggers who today are imprisoned, tortured, sometimes killed for speaking out against repression.

I was thrilled and excited when I got a call from curator Penny Green to say that my proposal had been accepted and I could hardly wait to get started. First thing was to contact English-pen - the local branch of a worldwide organisation, Pen International, which campaigns for the freedom to write and to read. www.englishpen.org . Cat Lucas co-ordinates their Writers at Risk programme  and could help identify and put me in touch with writers currently in prison.

Next thing was to email staff in the Continental and Illuminations department at Maggs to arrange another visit to find out as much as possible about the little book.  I wanted to hold it, turn its pages, see for myself the hand-writing betwen the lines, learn more about its owner, make drawings and photograph it. Penny Green's vision as curator was that our finished works would be displayed as close as possible to where the chosen book was kept.  Visitors to the exhibition would be free to explore the public areas of Maggs and discover both the artworks and the books that had inspired them.

When I got an email inviting me for a second visit it also contained some disappointing news.  What each of the chosen artists had been warned could  happen, had  happened.  Maggs Bros, who have been in business since 1853,  had done what one of the world's leading antiquarian booksellers does best. 

They had SOLD my book! ...........