Wednesday 15 August to Wednesday 26 September 2012
Josephine Harvatt is a visual artist living and working in the Canterbury area. She graduated in 1996 with a degree in Fine Art and since then has exhibited and sold her work both nationally and internationally.
Today is the first day of my artist’s residency. I really love the way the new Beaney has been seamlessly integrated with the old; full of light, air, and space, it is altogether a good place to work. The building is teeming with purposeful activity. Everywhere people are working to bring order from chaos; the place is full of half unpacked boxes, half filled vitrines and drunken columns of elderly books.
I nose round the cases in the Explorers and Collectors section, and am relieved to see that my old favourite, the Cabinet of Curiosity, is still there in all its barmy glory. (What a debt we owe to Victorian scientists; all those amateur archaeologists and naturalists pillaging pots and chasing butterflies for the edification of the Empire.)
… But which artefacts shall I work with?
The agony of choice!
I decide to stop procrastinating and just start – anywhere will do – and happen upon this fellow (who must be the most disgruntled looking finch ever to have come out of a taxidermist’s studio), and the first sketch of my residency is complete.
Next I wander on to a case full of Greek pots; there is something very appealing about variations on a theme- all the same and all different - and I decide to make them the basis for my first painting. More sketching and photography ensues.
Although there is something extremely satisfying in seeing a collection of objects tidily arranged in real life, when I have used a grid format for a painting in the past it has ended up looking a bit too ordered, so I think I will have to (metaphorically) shake the pots up and introduce a little chaos into my composition.
The Beaney is even more of a hive of activity than last week – the place is inundated with plasterers, sawyers, sorters, porters, fixers, menders, movers and shakers.
Alone in my top floor eyrie I have started my Greek pots painting by laying down a fiery orange background – it looks so good it is quite tempting to leave it as a monochrome but I press on and begin work in the foreground – a balancing act of antique black and orange vessels.
While I am working Anton French drops by; he is making a film about the renewal of the Beaney, exploring the relationship between digital and traditional media. We have a chat and then he sets up the camera to record my progress at the easel, so that is me sorted for my fifteen minutes of fame.
After he has gone I think about what we have discussed; I reflect that human interaction is becoming more and more mediated (and sometimes superseded) by machines – the internet, the cash point, and the automated supermarket check out are obvious examples – but there are more subtle ones. The antique pots I am inspired by are a case in point. They would have been formed by hand (maybe even bear the potter’s fingerprints), and that maker’s touch is transmitted down the centuries to each and every person that handles them, just as a kiss may be transferred through the medium of an inanimate intermediary object in traditional Indian cinema.
In modern times such workaday articles are probably not only made by machines but packaged by machines too and so the continuity between maker and user is lost.
Does this matter in the wider scheme of things? Perhaps not but I can’t help but feel that our experience of the world is just that little bit poorer as a result.
Of course concerns about the effects of mechanisation on society and culture are nothing new; co-incidentally, later that evening I come across a quote from Margaret Bondfield (Britain’s first woman Cabinet Minister) speaking at an exhibition of quilting in 1930:
“I want to express the importance of maintaining this original craft for its own sake. In these times when everything we wear and use must be turned out in millions by machines, it is a refreshing glimpse of beauty to see the work that these women are able to do with their fingers and their native genius. I am convinced in the future if our people are to remain balanced, they must develop in crafts and creative work”
Following on from last week’s thoughts on technological advances …
When a Kindle owner uploads a novel he or she gets a pristine package of digitised information identical in every respect to every other download of that text. No matter how many times it is read it will never alter; it remains as perfect, immutable, and ultimately sterile as the day it was uploaded.
If the novel is bought in book form however it is unique to that owner. It may be hardback or paperback, with a dust jacket or without, a rare first edition or a cheap reprint. With the passage of time it becomes ever more differentiated from other copies as it gathers grubby thumbprints, coffee stains and creases.
Furthermore by dint of its passage through many pairs of hands (the touch of each borrower transmitted to the next) a library book becomes in consequence even more of an individual; it may acquire ad hoc bookmarks, bus tickets and shopping lists, and, (my own favourite mark of distinction), scribbled marginalia.
Yes, I know; technically it is defacing public property and very naughty - but the sometimes cryptic tone of such writings (“Sp!” “No! See p83”), combined with the fact that the audience for such pronouncements are necessarily circumscribed by geography and literary taste means there is a whiff of the secret society about them.
By comparison a digital download is a dull and two-dimensional thing…
Anyway, enough of the musing and back to the painting: early this week my work went through a very unfortunate ugly duckling stage so I made a leap of faith and ploughed on regardless in the hope that it would all come out alright in the end.
After a lot of squinting I decided that the colour palette – shades of orange, peach and black – was horribly reminiscent of eighties upholstery fabric and needed something to give it an edge.
I took a deep breath, added in a turquoise outline and suddenly the whole painting came alive, hoorah! With the added bonus that the negative spaces between the pots were now more happily integrated into the overall picture. I really felt like I was onto a winner.
My relief was to be short lived however. By Thursday I had reached the point where however many layers of paint I put down, the picture did not seem to be progressing, it is beginning to feel like Groundhog Day.
Is this a sign that I have reached the limits of this piece or should I try something different and risk disaster? As a friend used to say “you only know what “enough” is when you have done too much”- as true for art as it is for ice cream.
I will let you know next week.
The space I am working in – the Learning Lab - is destined for children’s educational and workshop events and this week has seen a major influx of exciting brown boxes full of toys and art materials. It’s a bit like sharing space with Santa’s workshop. One of my favourites is a beautifully designed and painted wooden cake stand which as well as introducing ideas of shape and number to pre-schoolers is one of the most fabulous pieces of pop art I have ever seen. Claes Oldburg eat your heart out! Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it had to be imported from France. Why is it that there was no native equivalent? I can only think that this is firstly, because other countries regard art and design (like food) as a serious and worthy concern as opposed to a slightly effete middle class indulgence; and secondly, because of the English view of children as inferior citizens who can be palmed off with any old rubbish.
Still on the subject of superior toys I have discovered the most enchanting kaleidoscopes being built into the very fabric of the Beaney.
Like little worlds within worlds, they are the creation of Anna Heinrich and Leon Palmer and you can see more of their work here: https://www.heinrichpalmer.co.uk.
As to my own work I have had a bit of rush of blood to the head; decided to switch media and work into the acrylic with oil pastels, introducing pinks and yellows into the palette. The result is (thankfully) that it is beginning to sing again. When I began the residency I had a very grandiose vision of a whole series of canvases which, when hung together, would have formed my very own Cabinet of Curiosities; sadly I can now see that I will not have enough time to do this. Instead I am going to use the opening weekend to ask people to nominate their favourite objects and incorporate the most popular into a painting – a sort of People’s Choice Cabinet of Curiosities – if anyone is reading this please do come along and see me in (very appropriately!) the Drawing Room where I will be showing my work to date, and help me with my quest.
Well folks, I finally finished my Greek pots painting – it was a very useful study in colour and form, lessons from which I hope to carry forward into my practice.
Earlier in the week I took time out to visit the Whitstable Biennale, and in particular to see ‘Sacrilege’ by Jeremy Deller, a life-size inflatable sculpture of Stonehenge. Fine art you can bounce on – what’s not to like?
It was quite an experience. Sprinting across it was strangely effortless, almost flight-like; as when you run in a dream .I don’t know if any human sacrifices had been made to the Sun God over it but the organisers certainly couldn’t have asked for better weather.
The highlight of my month however had to be the opening weekend of the Beaney . Over 6,000 people came through the doors, of which I am pleased to say, a goodly proportion were families with children. Gone and good riddance are the days when young people (i.e. anyone under 50) were not encouraged (indeed barely tolerated) in museums and art galleries.
If places of culture and learning are not for the benefit of the up and coming generation who are they for?
One of the younger visitors came and chatted to me as she sketched from the collection. She was kind enough to give me her drawing and I include it here – I think it compares favourably with the original.
Most of the time I kept myself busy begging and browbeating the unwary to complete my Ultimate Cabinet of Curiosities Questionnaire. Responses were as varied as nominations but here are some to give you a flavour:
My favourite object: The man to the left of the Buddha
Why? Because of the level of drollery
My favourite object: Silver Disc Brooch of Kentish work
Why? Because it gives the lie to the Dark Ages
My favourite object: Mummified cat
Why? It is a genuine curiosity and almost functions as a bridge through time. It represents a continuing fascination with cats (Egyptian cat idolatry/contemporary fascination with kittens)
My favourite object: Mummified cat
Why? Because it’s evil
My favourite object: Shabti figures
Why? I like the idea of someone doing my work in the afterlife
My favourite object: The Darstang arm guard
Why? It is a unique weapon
My favourite object: Knuckleduster knife
Why? It looks like it would get the job done
My favourite object: The anti-slavery jug
Why? I believe it is important that the horrors of past slavery are remembered
My favourite object: Lion’s head
Why? It goes ‘roar’ and has lovely eyes and sharp teeth
My favourite object: Spear
Why? It can poke stuff
My favourite object: A mammoth’s molar
Why? It is very weird to think that a mammoth lived in Kent many years ago. Also it is MASSIVE!!!
My favourite object: Letter written in blood
Why? Anyone who can write “for God’s sake send me a surgeon English if possible” at the point of death and after trauma deserves to be remembered. He even put in the punctuation.
My other main contribution to the opening weekend was a portable pop up Cabinet of Curiosities that, (in the best Blue Peter tradition) I had made earlier in the week to prove that you don’t have to be a wealthy collector, or even own a cabinet in order to have your own Wunderkammer (as they were sometimes called). As you can see from the picture, I have stuffed it full of all sorts of ephemera that I have collected over the years, and I will be posting instructions on how to make your own version next week.
Here as promised are the instructions for your very own fully portable Cabinet of Curiosities:
1. Take a long piece of card and divide it into sections as shown on Fig 1. It can be any size you like but the width of the back plate must be twice that of a panel. You can also have as many panels as you like but there must be an odd number on each side otherwise your doors will be open the wrong way!
2. Score along the dotted lines with a compass point
3. Fold the panels concertina wise as shown in Fig 2
4. Stick anything you find interesting onto the panels – recipes, photos, stickers, newspaper cuttings, magazine pictures, postcards – when you run out of room you can start layering them by sticking them along one side only so that they can be lifted to reveal what is underneath – if they are bigger than the panel just fold them to size before sticking
5. If you wish you can decorate the doors of your cabinet and/or add handles – I used bundles of ribbons on mine but beads or buttons would do just as well. If your cabinet is very full you might need a rubber band or length of ribbon to hold it shut
In the last week of my residency I had the treat of a visit to the Oast House where the Beaney keep such of their collection not presently on show; it was amazing, like a cross between the warehouse in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Steptoe’s junkyard. Once again I felt that I could have a year long residency and still it would not be enough.
Although the residency is now over I am continuing work on the Ultimate Cabinet of Curiosities painting, which will be displayed on the Artist’s Open House Trail as part of the Canterbury Festival.
Thanks again to all the people who participated in the search for the Ultimate Cabinet, to Martin for allowing me the use of the Learning Lab, to Craig for the access to the collection both at the Beaney and at the Oast House, and last but definitely not least to the lovely Mitch for all her support and encouragement.