The blindingly obvious

I often think that stating the blindingly obvious is one of my strengths, but I still trip over things right in front of my nose.

In my last post I talked about wanting to focus and how I’d been throwing stuff out. The other side of what you throw out is what you hold on to. And when I looked at it all, some themes and messages about my textile practice jumped right out at me.

First, I found these scrappy little bits of felt. I made them back in 2007 from the left overs from a collaborative exercise on a felt workshop. I started with the smallest pieces, felted onto a length of yarn; and moved onto bigger bits. I thought of them as a kind of bedraggled bunting.

Every time I went through my old work, I kept these. I didn’t agonise over it; for some instinctive reason I just rolled them up and kept them.

At the same workshop, a friend showed me a photo of a garden in her village, festooned with frayed Buddhist prayer flags. So I thought I would try to make my own string of prayer bunting, a more organised version of the scrappy bedraggled bunting.

Not perhaps the most obvious idea for an atheist, but prayer can have many functions, some of which – reflection, gratitude, creating a private space – are valuable even without a religious attachment. Anyway, this is what resulted.

The words transfer-printed on the strip joining the flags are a Chinese proverb:

An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle but it will never break.

The same year, I was playing with making marks that would look like writing without being readable. I was trying to lay out strips of pre-felt in a random way, but got stuck on how to make a truly random arrangement. I veered off in a different direction: seeing if I could use the strips of marks to create another image.

Who needs the Sistine chapel when you’ve got the hands of Adam and God in felt?

There are some interesting marks in there but the original idea about mark-making was parked, while I created an installation in a courtyard, comprising these ‘hand of God’ pieces, alongside pieces designed to receive offerings. (Sadly, I had to throw these out because they were being eaten by various fauna attached to the flower/leaves/seeds etc left attached to them.)

I titled the installation Sanctuary. I had started with clearly religious iconography but looking at it all now, what I think links this back to the prayer flags and forward to the next piece is the idea of a contained and containing private space.

The following year, I continued playing with the mark-making and with the idea of containment: Enfolded is a fine cotton cloth with a labyrinth felted into it on both sides. It ended up as a performance piece with me unfolding it, wrapping it around myself and then emerging from it, leaving it behind like a cocoon. (Click on an image to see the sequence more clearly.)

When you are inside the piece, the felted sections are opaque, so it seems like you are looking through the bars of a cage or prison. But it’s an enclosure you can leave when you want to. It’s a safe space connected to the outside world and movable.

Here’s another enclosure idea made a couple of years later: Home was a temporary creation, a room within a space. It was a mock-up of something I was thinking about making in felt. I didn’t get any further because I didn’t have any idea how I would make something so huge in practice!

Initial sketch for ‘Home’
‘Home’ mocked-up at West Dean College, Sussex

Nonetheless, the idea of making a portable felt room continued to lurk in the back of my mind, until earlier this year when I made Wherever you go, there you are: Caveskin for the exhibition Hollow Chambers. I wrote about it in an earlier blog post, talking about how the idea started as being a felt room, a portable space – something you can put up wherever you are and take down – but became something more like a skin you can keep with you or shed.

Caveskin, 2019: wool fibre, thread, fabric; c 3m x3m; installed at The Crypt Gallery, London NW1. Photograph © andrewyoungson.com

Looking at the trail of earlier works, I would also describe it as a sense of sanctuary made manifest and portable; perhaps a ‘tomb space’ where something valuable can be put aside but not quite discarded. It is a transitional object in itself – a physical object that reflects an internalised sense of safety – and it can be a space of transition or transformation, a space for reconsideration or re-working.

In much the same way as I am reconsidering and re-working this idea; or the way felt transforms unconnected fibres into a strong entangled fabric, in which the very method of its making embeds the transformation.

I’m still thinking about the link with my drawing practice. Perhaps it’s in the making and remaking of memory, the internal personal search for the meaning of events, or the way we carry life events with us, even if we aren’t aware of them.

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