Monday, 4 November 2013


A MEASURE OF CHAOS: my new solo show at the Pound Arts Centre, Corsham in the heart of rural Wiltshire.  It was a privilege to be asked to exhibit for the annual Corsham Festival and I want to say a big THANK YOU to everyone who helped with the show - I thought it looked fantastic.

It was such a lovely surprise to walk into the exhibition and see how Celia the gallery technician and Martin the centre manager had displayed the work in the listed Victorian school house which is now the Pound Arts Centre. 
My 'happy snaps', taken just before my 'meet the artist' event on Saturday evening, don't really do the show justice. So, for those who couldn't make it to Corsham, here are a few shots of the work in situ - augmented where possible with studio images and close up details.
Stella Harding, A MEASURE OF CHAOS, 2013 - plaited vintage steel tape measure and telephone wire - both 'redundant' materials.
The theme, A MEASURE OF CHAOS, came partly from my love of weaving with vintage steel tape measures, many of them made in my home town of Sheffield, South Yorkshire - once world famous for its steel industry and precision calibration tools. Generations of my family worked in the factories before they were closed down.  Others had worked in the nearby pits - supplying coal to fire the furnaces. Both my great grandfather and my great-great grandfather were colliery blacksmiths. In the 1980s whole communities fell victim to political forces that measured everything solely in terms of  profit. 
The theme also refers to the fact that many traditional baskets were in themselves official measures.  A bushel, a half bushel, a peck, a cran and a sieve, for example, were precise measures of different produce.  Their production, by highly skilled basket makers who would have served a long apprenticeship, was controlled by Customs and Excise officers checking that the baskets measured up to the standard.  In several instances I've inverted this tradition by using 'measures' to make contemporary basketry.
In addition, many of my weaving techniques explore the intricacies of three dimensional geometry -   the term geometry itself  meaning earth measure. 
But in the modern world, in the words of Leonard Cohen, 'There ain't nothing we can't measure any more'. Even chaos! 
Stella Harding BLOOMING (left) and A MEASURE OF THE STARS (right)
Stella Harding A MEASURE OF THE STARS 2013 - plaited vintage steel tape measure, spun paper tape and telephone wire.
In addition to a vintage steel tape measure made in Sheffield by Rabone-Chesterman circa 1950 this piece uses painted spun paper tape, another redundant product, that was made in West Yorkshire on the same machines that were used to spin wool before the decline of the woollen industry.  The tape was originally used as strapping on the machines and later to bind packages before it too was replaced by polypropylene strapping tape.  I'm now eking out the last few metres of my dwindling supply. 
                    Stella Harding BIG BANGLE 2013 - plaited etched steel tape measure circa 1920
Stella Harding BIG BANGLE - work in progress - using approximately 25 feet of  etched mild steel exquisitely patinated with age and wear.
A local gallery owner who came to the show asked if  I would consider lowering the price of these tape measure pieces.  I politely declined. I may look like a soft touch but my heart is pure steel when it comes to respect for my 'redundant' materials and the craft processes that underpin my practice.  (Wannabe gallerists take note: a small measure of respect wouldn't go amiss sometimes.)
Stella Harding NEW BLOOM 2013 painted willow, jute and rattan
Stella Harding NEW BLOOM 2013 (detail)
Not all the work in the exhibition uses measures though. This 2 metre high wall piece is part of my on going exploration of a hyperbolic-paraboloid form I came across by chance manipulation of a twining technique.  For me it resonates with the control and release of energy (as in exploding super-novae for example) and the chaotic, contrasting, kinetic effect of intersecting hard lines and soft shadows. 
Some people see Native American feathered head dresses, Zulu spears, Zoroastrian sun rays or broken bird wings.  There's a measure of chaos in all creativity, I think, and in the range of meanings it evokes - long may Chaos reign.
I liked the way the Pound  displayed these spiral plait pieces in deep boxed cubes.  Each cube  becomes a little installation of these ambiguous forms - part engineered/part organic - as they take centre stage - singly or in pairs - in a frozen moment of time and space.    
Stella Harding KEPLER'S JEWEL - photo Trevor Springett
Stella Harding SHOW YOUR WORKING OUT - photo Trevor Springett
Kepler's Jewel and Show Your Working Out both reference the three-dimensional geometry underlying many basketry techniques and forms and my own attempts to negotiate the fine line between order and chaos to find a balance between mathematical precision and gestural spontaneity.  The grey 'ball' of fine rattan on the bottom left formed itself  when I plunged several very orderly and tight sprung coils into a pan of hot dye.  They ravelled themselves together in a trice - hours of pans-taking work undone before my eyes; a happy accident so perfectly imperfect that it's probably unrepeatable.
Stella Harding CHINA BLUES - painted lime wood and rattan. Photo Trevor Springett 
I also allow the long fine painted stems to arrange themselves as I weave around them.  It seems I need an element of unpredictability or surprise in my working process.  The more I make though the harder this is to achieve - one's hands and eyes become too knowing as the level of tactic knowledge increases with repetition.  When there is no further measure of chaos to take me by surprise I know it's time to move on;  the wonder is gone and only tried and tested formulae remain.

Monday, 2 September 2013


I'm thrilled to have been appointed as basketry tutor at Morley College, London where I'll be teaching an evening class CONTEMPORARY BASKETRY for BEGINNERS and IMPROVERS

The class will run for three 10 week terms per year on Tuesdays from 6-9pm and the start date for the first term is Tuesday 10th September.  There are still places available if you'd like to join us.  No previous experience necessary and tools and materials are provided.

Week by week you'll be introduced to all the major basketry techniques including coiling, looping, twining, stake and strand, plaiting, interlacing and assembly as well as a wide range of exciting materials.  We'll explore form, texture and surface decoration and there'll be plenty of opportunity to work on your own projects including making functional containers, sculptural forms, jewellery or fashion accessories.

for more course details or contact quoting the course code VTX027A

Here's a small taster of some of the techniques we'll be exploring.

Open hexagonal plaiting with bias plait sides and windmill plait border
Cobbling (random coiling)
Check weave plaiting
3D Looping
Covered core coiling
Spiral plaiting
Interlacing (random weaving)
Pinwheel plaited base
Stake and strand - waling and twining
We'll be working in the newly refurbished textile studio at Morley and there'll be opportunities to exhibit work in Morley's own Gallery as well as the textile department's showcases.
If you want to learn exciting new skills, enhance your creative practice or relax into the weave in a friendly and supportive environment come and join us.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Crafting the Genome Lab: MRC open day

Scientists all around the UK are celebrating the centenary of the Medical Research Council this year and the geneticists, structural biologists and crystallographers at the Genome Damage and Stability Centre, University of Sussex, are no exception.  They've planned a whole day of discussions, demonstrations and lab tours to promote their ground-breaking research.  A particular specialism is  damage caused to our DNA and what the body's attempts to repair it can tell us about cancer and rare genetic disorders.

Back in 2012 they hatched a plan to invite artists with an interest in science to contribute to the day and I was one of the ones who responded.  Land artist Chris Drury, who has made several works inspired by genetics, will show one of his large-scale pieces and Shirley Chubb will install Darwin's 'Thinking Path'. 

Stella Harding BLUE JEWEL 2011, Photo Ester Segerra
People have often suggested that my spiral plaited forms look a bit like the DNA double helix, but rather than show an existing piece I proposed something a little different to the organising committee.
They wanted the day to provide an opportunity to communicate with members of the public, an opportunity for dialogue and active engagement.  My suggestion was that on the day scientists, artists and members of the public should work together on making an interactive installation crafted from the very 'stuff' of the genome labs.  At the initial meeting I wasn't sure exactly what this stuff might be - I had some vague idea it might involve waste paper - lab reports, research papers, old journals and the like.  This was before I'd actually visited any of the labs in the centre. 

Plastic! fantastic!! Far from the sterile, orderly white-coated stereotype here was a myriad of colourful chaos.  And, after one use, most of it goes in the recycling bins! 

                Of course, it's all colour coded and sorted into hazardous and non-hazardous waste.

All handled with equally colourful gloved hands.  This is the everyday stuff of lab craft.  So, if  DNA is 'the stuff of us' - the building blocks of life,  then all this plastic paraphernalia from the research laboratories would be the building blocks for Crafting the Genome Lab - a fantastical experiment in collaborative making and repairing and having fun! - which is what a celebration should be about.
I've certainly been having fun playing with some of the tip-box covers and six-well dishes in the studio - their perforated, cellular grid forms remind me of Lego and Meccano building blocks.

So, somewhat predictably, I couldn't resist making my own tip-box high rise.
Eat your heart out Norman Foster.
Who knows exactly what we'll make on the day.  There's a large space in the entrance of the Fulton Building to fill and to get things going I'll be contributing a 2 metre length of my plaited 'DNA' (each 2 metre double  strand of tightly packed DNA is unravelled and copied every time a cell divides).  Participants will be invited to 'damage' and repair it in whatever way they see fit.  There'll be plenty of scientists and PhD students on hand to help out and answer questions.  After talking with crystallographer Tony Oliver I've a hankering to grow a large glittering crystalline structure out of hundreds of 5mm pipettes - but I've heard the students are a dab hand at making elephants out of plastic gloves so it's all to play for on the day............
If you'd like to learn more about DNA damage and repair, have a look through an electron microscope or if you just want to get your hands on some plastic see for details. 

Monday, 27 May 2013


May justice prevail today as writers, publishers, journalists and students go on trial again in Turkey.

Professor Busra Ersanli, translator and women's rights campaigner Ayse Berktay, publisher and Nobel peace prize nominee Rajip Zarakolu and student Deniz Zarakolu are amongst many others who face long prison sentences if convicted for speaking out against injustice.  Pen International, English Pen  have been campaigning on their behalf for nearly two years during which time many have been held in detention. 

My piece for 'Maggs Between the Covers' was made to highlight the plight of prisoners of conscience throughout the world and the humanitarian work of organisations such as English Pen. To give support to writers at risk you can sign up to their rapid action network by visiting their website  

Thursday, 16 May 2013


"Beauty is the First Test", curated by Liz Cooper, 27 April - 30 June 2013, National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford

When I heard last year that this exhibition was opening at the Pump House Gallery in London I felt a twinge of regret that I wasn't part of what was one of my 'wish-list' exhibitions.  So I felt very privileged to have been asked to participate as a case study as it travels to various new venues around Britain.  I've been banging on about the mathematics underlying basketry techniques for years not to mention my own past experiences with the subject.

Spot the pattern - six around one never fails to delight and Lesley Halliwell's spirograph drawings are one of the highlights of the show
Views of the exhibition at the National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford.  Showing work (on the walls) by Lesley Halliwell, Janette Matthews, Michael Brennand-Wood, Janice Gunner and Ann Sutton and (on the floor plinth ) textiles by Lucy McMullen.  Four of the five case studies can be seen  displayed on specially commissioned furniture by David Gates.  Photos: Liz Cooper

The brain-child of curator Liz Cooper, herself a former school maths champ, this exhibition brings together artists and makers whose work (mostly in textiles) "explores how mathematical concepts underpin craft techniques and artistic development".  The title is a quote from British mathematician G. H. Hardy - one of the first to propose mathematics as a language for describing patterns:

"...the mathematicians patterns, like the artist's or the poet's must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way.  Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics" (Hardy, London: 1941).

'Beauty' may have lost its currency as a standard for judging works of art since Hardy's day, being now considered too subjective or socially constructed a concept.  And there are many 'ugly' patterns of human psycho-social, political and economic behaviour that claim the attention of contemporary artists.  But as Liz Cooper herself points out in the Pump House Gallery exhibition booklet, the word sets up a challenge and a subject for debate - especially when applied to craft practices.

"In craft it is debateable whether one wants beauty as an end result - especially if one eschews the bucolic vision of William Morris and an idealised ruralisation of craft practice that conveniently ignores the location of most art schools and colleges, and the majority of the population, in cities and towns." (Cooper, London 2012)

Contemporary bobbin-lace making by Gail Baxter and Carol Quarani - two of the five case studies - with sculpture and drawings by Peter Randall-Page (centre) and Ann Sutton in the background. Photo: Liz Cooper

The inclusion of the five craft 'case studies', including lace-makers Gail Baxter and Carol Quarani, furniture maker David Gates, basketry by Stella Harding and woven textiles by Margot Selby, not only adds focus on process and materiality but also challenges perceptions of contemporary craft practice. 

Contemporary basketry case study by Stella Harding with sculpture by Suresh Dutt in the background.  Photo: Liz Cooper

My own case study, showing three-dimensional geometric forms in a plaiting technique more often used to make straw 'corn dollies' and a wearable structure plaited from a redundant steel tape measure - disrupts preconceptions about the materials, techniques, forms and functions associated with basketry.

A book, with text by Liz Cooper, giving insights into each case study maker's studio practice, materials, inspirations and artistic development is displayed alongside the work.  In some cases the makers have also provided sketch-books, tools, models or work-in-progress.

David Gates' case study showing scale models of his bespoke furniture, a range of carpentry joints and a developmental sketchbook is exquisitely engaging.  Photo: Stella Harding

 Carol Quarani's case study illustrates how she uses lace as a medium for conceptual work.  Her doctoral research explores how lace curtains can be used to re-read the relationship between the domestic, the uncanny and the Gothic 
Contemporary bobbin lace by Carol Quarani
Pattern  recognition may be a basic human attribute and one of the ways in which we make sense of and come to understand the world.  Order, symmetry, balance, harmony and repetition can be safe and comforting. Often though we only recognise the significance of a pattern when it is disrupted in some way - by small irregularities, asymmetries, discord, accidental marks leading to unintended consequences.  This for me, is the beauty of  this exhibition.  If we look closely it reminds us that chaos is part of the equation - that the devil is in the detail and that beauty is only ever skin deep. 

Oh, and I loved the way the shadows of the case studies on the gallery floor grounded the structures, animated the space and created a dramatic film noir effect.

Which allows me to segue shamelessly into a plug for a forthcoming experimental film of the case-studies, commissioned by Liz Cooper from film makers Electric Egg and funded by Arts Council England.  The film will be shown alongside the exhibition from the end of May.

But I'm going to leave the last word to G.H. Hardy - ever the one for a pithy quote:

"It is a melancholy experience for a mathematician to find himself (sic) writing about mathematics.  The function of a mathematician is to do something (...) and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. (...) There is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain." (London: 1941)

Better get making then!!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013


                                          Stella Harding JEWELS -  photo: Arnold Borgerth

When I started secondary school we were given two books - a copy of the King James Bible and a book of Logarithmic Tables.  We were told we could keep the bible when we left school but the Log Book - the mathematicians 'bible' - would have to be returned.  I covered both in brown paper to keep them clean and stowed them in my desk for the duration.

Despite being a confirmed atheist I loved Scripture (as Religious Education was called at our school).  My teacher was a scholar of ancient Greek and Aramaic who had worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  She was also a liberal thinker with a wicked sense of humour who opened our minds to all manner of 'heresies'.  I excelled at the subject.

Mathematics was another story. I had the same teacher for six years and she made my life a misery.  She was one of those draconian maths teachers, thankfully fewer in number these days, who should probably be held to account for the poor levels of adult numeracy in this country.  She was a bully who derived pleasure from humiliating those less able than herself.  The prospect of double maths on Monday mornings made me sick to the stomach.  On the few occasions when I was called upon to consult my Log Tables the columns of numbers would swim before my eyes like indecipherable cuneiform.  She was also a tyrannical control freak who demanded absolute submission to her rule - and woe betide if you ever forgot your ruler!  The idea of educating enquiring minds was an antithetical heresy.  I failed O-level maths twice before deciding enough was enough and I handed back my Log Tables.  Whereupon Miss T flew into an apoplectic rage and ordered me (then aged 17) to stand in the corner of the room - the classic punishment in Victorian times for the class dunce - thought this was the late 1960s!  I politely refused, found another teacher and passed my O-level maths on the next re-take.

    The other side of the equation: Stella Harding PRECIOUS JEWEL 2010 m2 gallery, London

I confronted many of these demons in 'Show Your Working Out' my solo show at the m2 gallery in 2010.  Though something of a cliche this phrase, beloved of maths teachers and uttered with varying degrees of exasperation, makes obvious connections with showing aspects of both the material process and the hands-on thinking through making of contemporary craft.  Though we're often only privy to the final resolution the mis-calculations, crossings out and scribbles in the margins can be equally revealing to an onlooker. 

I was particularly inspired at the time by the writings of the 17th century astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler who wrote of geometry as having "... two great treasures; one is the theorem of Pythagoras; the other the division of a line into extreme and mean ratio. The first we may compare to a measure of gold, the second we may name a precious jewel."  He was referring to geometry but it was the poetry of his language that struck a chord in me. 

                     My 'measures of gold', plaited vintage steel tape-measure bangles. 
Made in my home town, the steel city of Sheffield, by Rabone Chesterman - a company that specialised in high calibration tools and equipment - these tape measures with their exquisitely etched and printed numerals offered for me  a way of literally and metaphorically weaving mathematics and three-dimensional geometry using an intriguing plaiting technique. 
As the numbers weave over and under from left to right in a continuous line of progression, following the law of unintended consequences sometimes unforeseen disruptive patterns emerge.
I've just discovered that Kepler also wrote an essay in 1611 'On the Six Cornered Snowflake' which he gave as a Christmas present to his employer the Emperor Rudolf II - "since it comes down from heaven and looks like a star".
    BLING !!! (my guiding star) Stella Harding 2010, hexagonal plaited steel tape measures, dyed chair cane and spun paper. Photo: Trevor Springett
Stella Harding BLACK PEARL 2010, steel tape measure, polypropylene strapping tape and spun paper. Photo: Trevor Spingett
I appreciate Kepler's fascination for pentagons too - plaited in my case.
Stella Harding 2008, painted spun paper
Open hexagonal plaiting is another technique I come back to again and again - exploring it in different materials. 
Stella Harding (with Shane Waltener) 2011, stitched plastic bags, for Practical Basketry Techniques A&C Black 2012
Stella Harding 2012 'Between the Lines', stamped lead, for Maggs Beneath the Covers
So, fast forward now to this Monday when I had the pleasure of welcoming curator Liz Cooper to my studio.  Liz is the curator of  'Beauty is the First Test' an exhibition exploring the relationship between contemporary craft and mathematics which opened at the Pumphouse Gallery in London last year and is now travelling to venues around Britain and Ireland.  I first heard of this exhibition when working with Martin Shaw of the Crafts Council's Participation and Learning team to adapt one of the projects from Practical Basketry Techniques as an on-line tutorial for Key Stage Two maths students.  I'd suggested this project for Craft Club as I've long been aware of the natural mathematics underpinning many basketry techniques and the belief of some ethno-mathematicians that basketry was fundamental to the development of our human capacity for pattern recognition and manipulation of line and form in space. 

      Twining with 5-9 year-olds at Pitzhanger Manor in 2011 - one of my favourite  projects from 'Practical Basketry Techniques'.

When you think of maths as the science of pattern it's not so scary and even a five year old can being to get to grips with it. 

My contemporary basketry will feature as one of five case-studies (including weaver Margo Selby, furniture-maker David Gates and lace makers Carol Quarini and Gail Baxter) when 'Beauty is the First Test' opens again on 27th April at the National Centre for Craft and Design in Sleaford.  I can give a sneak preview of the piece that Liz Cooper chose to represent the mathematical concepts underlying many of my pieces.

      ARCHEFOSSIL 2012 - one of the latest in my line of spiral plaited 'Jewels'.  Photo: Arnold Borgerth.

Amongst other things this tightly interlocking three-dimensional spiralling form represents, for me, the ability of the human hand to grasp tacit knowledge that the mind might otherwise let slip.  And, since I've discovered, through basketry that I have 'mathematical fingers',  I'll be letting go of my previous maths phobia.