Beasts of Burden

“Creative expression requires an ability to work with feelings and channel them. Frustration, dissatisfaction, and even a sense of desperation may help you access an eloquence you never knew existed” Shaun McNiff

It’s been 4 months since we went into lockdown and it’s starting to take its toll. People are tired, anxious and irritated and at a deep subliminal level there is a sense of collective unease. The upside is that in this time I have learned so much about myself, my community and the world at large. I have also been reminded about the role creativity plays in keeping us all sane.

Something strange happened in my Zoom drawing class this week. A kind of wonderfully weird and unexpected awakening. We were all busy drawing animals, a theme we have been working on for a few weeks now, and the atmosphere was quiet and focused as everyone beavered away on their drawings.

Then, from out of the silence came a voice, “My baboon looks angry”, to which there was a reply “My leopard looks sad”, and then from the other side of the screen, “My elephant looks confused”, rounded off by “My giraffe doesn’t know what’s going on”. We all laughed in unison, but in that instant, there was a recognition that we were not laughing at our animals, but laughing at ourselves and that our animals were channeling our grief.

As images of the drawings started to come through onto our Whatsapp group, I could see that my students were right. These animals were indeed confused, irritated, perplexed and all pretty fed up.

It struck me in that moment, that these sessions are more than just about learning to draw. Sure, they are relaxing and fun, but more than that, they unknowingly offer us a space to channel our angst about this chaotic situation we find ourselves in. They offer a release for the internal turmoil and in so doing, help us to recognize not only what is going on inside of ourselves, but that we are not alone in how we feel. Recognizing this, allows us to laugh and feel reassured that what we are feeling is normal, given the circumstances.

There is a release that comes with being able to draw together, a therapeutic outpouring of emotion, that leaves us all smiling and feeling lighter after every session.

Here are a few of our beloved animals, who are carrying the burden for all of us:

If you would like to join my online Beginner’s Drawing Course, please let me know.

You can find out more about me at www.sallyscott.co.za

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Drawing in Lockdown

For almost 40 years I have been teaching the basic skills of drawing to adults who wish to learn to draw. No matter where I have lived the rhythm of my week has been held together by the beat of these regular classes, that see groups of kindred spirits flowing in and out of my studio. These spirited gatherings have enriched my life immeasurably and all of my students have become my friends, brought into my life by a shared appreciation for creativity.

The Joys of Teaching

One of the great joys of my work is to see students move from a place of uncertainty and anxiety, where they don’t believe that they can draw, to a more positive place of realizing that they can. Most people who come to my classes, arrive as absolute beginners, drawn here by some yearning to be creative. In some cases there is a wish to rid themselves of a critical voice from their past, to defiantly overcome the fear and do some drawing anyway. Others come for the companionship of a creative community; a place where they can experience support whilst learning a something new. For others it’s purely therapy, an escape from the left brain grind of their high pressure job, or a brief escape from the responsibilities of being a mum. There are many reasons for coming to drawing, but one thing that most students will agree upon is that what they experience in my studio, is far more than just a drawing class.

Something magical happens in these sessions. Something I could never plan. As soon as people enter this studio, we are enveloped in a spirit of camaraderie. Within every group, there is a sense of care, mutual support and trust. A feeling that allows us to exhale.

The Sally Scott Studio, Grahamstown, South Africa

I often hear people say that they find it so much easier to draw when they’re in my studio during a class than they do when they are on their own at home, and I’ve wondered about that and why this should be, but think it’s something to do with the energy of the group and the confidence that comes from knowing that they have support and guidance at hand.

Part of becoming an artist, however, is to be able to work alone, to find the strength and motivation within oneself to get to the drawing board no matter what day, mood or weather. This is something that is difficult for me to teach, as it’s something that resides within the spirit of an individual and develops organically through need and circumstance.

In early March 2020, in my twentieth year of running my Grahamstown studio, things were going well and I had a warm sense of achievement after each and every class. My sessions were buzzing, all at capacity and everyone seemed to be energized and happy. Intuitively, I knew I must savor the moment, and fortunately I did, for as so often happens in life, things were about to change dramatically, in a way that none of us could have predicted.

The Winds of Change

Within the space of two weeks, we had gone from hearing about a virus that was spreading through China and Europe to realizing in horror, that Africa was on its itinerary. After a few days of confusion that followed the President’s speech, I leapt into action and made plans on the run as to how I could keep the classes going. With the announcement of the pending lockdown, everyone bomb-shelled as they ran for shelter, stocking up their nests for the coming storm. I crammed in some last minute extra classes to help those who had only just begun their drawing adventure with me, and at the same time was learning about social distancing and the best disinfectants to use to keep everyone safe.

India social distances on my studio verandah, as she attends her last art class before lockdown

Everything happened so fast that week, and before I knew it, the students were gone and it was just me, my dog and the silence of my empty studio.

A New Way of Being

Like so many art teachers around the globe, I had never even heard of Zoom, and would not have thought it even possible to teach a hands-on subject like drawing, remotely. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I did know for sure, that I wasn’t going to panic and I certainly wasn’t about to abandon my classes. Having been through a war, those old survival instincts kicked in, and one way or another, I would make a plan.

Whatsapp was my first port-of-call and I quickly established two groups into which I placed my students according to their level of experience. This was to be our portal for communication during the lockdown. It was important to me that this be a safe space, a place to retreat, to share our drawings and to draw inspiration and strength. It was to be completely free of the virus, and memes, death tolls and horror stories were banned. I simultaneously moved to email and sent out detailed class instructions that would serve as a guide for what drawing to do next. I spent hours creating new sets of illustrated notes, and quickly learned how to make videos and shared a few short demonstrations on techniques. In their respective homes, my students were busy clearing dedicated art spaces from where they planned to work. We were getting onto our feet and gradually we all got into the spirit of how to be in this new reality.

Helen sets up her home studio space

A few weeks in and I was starting to regain my balance. I even took a X-Fit class to learn how this Zoom thing worked. I still couldn’t quite see how it would work for a drawing class, but was willing to give it a chance. I attended another session and slowly began to relax into this somewhat uncomfortable way of communicating. I thought a little more about it and after a month of being apart, decided to offer it to my students as a way to check in and say hello. I had a few takers and we met at an appointed time. It was wonderful to see them again and I knew after that session that this would be a very good way to keep our community connected. So I planned a few drawing exercises and the next time we met, I offered them an option to draw a little, which they accepted and turned out to be a lot of fun.

Since then, a weekly Zoom session has become the new norm for those who are able to connect and we now have three very active groups. I even got new recruits, who live in different parts of the country, so started a completely new session for them. Much to my surprise, these remote teaching sessions have become the highlight of my week. I am enjoying the challenge and so enjoying watching everyone’s progress.

An evening class in lockdown

Therapeutic Calm 

Many of my students have commented that the drawing has really helped them get through this difficult period of lockdown. It has become an anchor, their calm in the storm and that seeing the familiar faces each week, has provided a sense of normality.  To be part of a creative community, has helped to break the sense of isolation.

As a teacher, I am quietly pleased at the unexpected benefit this surreal situation has brought us, for it has provided my students with first-hand experience of what it takes to be an artist. They have learned what it is to work in isolation and have had to be willing and motivated enough to carve out time for their art, to show up at the page, despite being alone, without an audience and confronted by enormous challenges. Some of my students have found it very hard because they have families to take care of and now have the pressures of home schooling in this abnormal situation. I am immensely proud that they have set up the necessary boundaries that allow them to continue with their art; making it clear that mum’s art is important, that her needs also count and that sometimes she needs time for herself. In my opinion, children can only benefit from that.

What pleases me most is that in all cases my students have shown a willingness to push on regardless of how successful their drawings are. They have quietened their inner critic and drawn for the pure joy of drawing, and for the peace and fulfilment that it brings.

What I have found, much to my surprise, is that it is possible to teach a practical subject in cyber-space, and that not only is it possible, it can be very satisfying.

Over the next few months, I will be sharing a selection of the drawings that my students have produced in the comfort of their homes, with my guidance from afar. I will begin with a series of drawings of buildings that we had just started working on when the virus forced us into hiding.

Looking at these, I am sure you will see why I have every reason to feel proud.

 

 

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The Earth Project: Skirt #5

It’s early morning and I’m in front of the mirror, looking at the face looking back at me. I barely recognise her now that I have new lenses in my eyes. It’s like I’m seeing her for the first time. I pull back my hair and notice a few silver streaks nestling amongst the blonde. As I gently rub cream on my cheeks, I feel their gratitude for the moisture. For a fleeting moment, I go misty eyed as I recall the bloom of my youth and then smile back at myself, realising it’s a thing of the past. I have resolved to be kind, to embrace this season of life, for those eyes looking back at me, though tired, still have their twinkle and are deep and knowing and wise.

It’s been five months since I started work on my Earth Project skirts and today I am to begin work on the final one. As I cross my garden to the studio, I notice a chill in the air. The leaves from my oak tree are falling and collecting at my door. The time feels right to begin the final skirt, for she is The Gatherer, the one who brings all things together.

This skirt represents the wise old Goddess, who has lived her cycle and knows what is really important. Her once vibrant colour has softened, fading through orange and yellow to brown. She is becoming delicate and frail, with a quiet sense of Self, that comes from having seen it all. She’s weathered the storms, experienced much and has the marks and scars to prove it. She is with us for this final season, pausing to impart her wisdom before returning to her Source. She is Autumn, a time when the leaves transform and loosen their hold on life.

Autumn leaves

This is the season where, in the human context, there is a loosening of ties to the material world and more interest in the spiritual. Time spent with family and friends, becomes more important than what one owns. I have illustrated this by attaching a small beaded pouch to the waistband of the apron, which symbolically holds only the bare essentials, our most precious possessions or memories.

The Gatherer

 

Detail of the beaded pouch, the container of precious memories

This is also the season for remembering, for tracing back over paths taken and a life well lived. It is a time of community and the sharing of wisdom, gathering around the fire with loved ones to tell stories that the next generation can learn from. In San cosmology, it is believed that these stories, told around the campfires remain forever in the landscape.

“John Parkington, in his essay on the perceptions of the /Xam hunter-gatherers in “Sound from the Thinking Strings” recalls that //Kabbo’s reason for wanting to return home was that he missed hearing the stories that floated across the landscape from campfire to campfire.” (An extract from Michael Godby’s essay in the exhibition catalogue of the Wake of the White Wagons, by Pippa Skotnes.)

This idea of our paths through life leaving an energetic imprint upon the landscape, reminds me of the Australian Aboriginal concept of the Dreamtime. They believe that humankind has a special responsibility to maintain the harmonies within the Universe and each season selected members of the group travel along the old tracks (previously traveled by totemic animals eg.snakes and kangaroos,) that lace the desert together. They stop at sacred sites to perform the appropriate rituals and sing a line of songs that hold the stories of the people who have traversed the land before them, telling of local episodes in the history of creation. It is thought that these songs help to stimulate the flow of spirit energy that resides within rocks, bringing nourishing rain to plants and animals. It is believed that these song lines will take the travellers safely to a destination they have never been to before.

A time of gratitude and remembrance. The lines of stitching represent pathways taken

Once again the body of the skirt represents the rock face, the sacred place where for centuries, stories have been recounted and recorded. The overflowing scraps of chamois leather create shadows reminiscent of the rock overhang, adding shelter and protection to the figures gathered in celebration below. The figures in the centre of the skirt were inspired by a rock painting in the Southern Cape.

The stitched leather in the waistband is a technique I used in The Dry Season, a work I made in 1996. The effect is intended to be symbolic of a long life journey, stitched roughly together through memory recall. The image in the centre is symbolic of home, the place of security, intimacy and community. In many indigenous traditions, the fire is central to community life, so the bundles of sticks attached to the waistband reference not only the gathering up of memories, but the women who gather wood for the fire that physically and spiritually brings and holds the community together.

Bundles of wood and a symbol of ‘home’

The inspiration for this skirt came largely from the San, who have lived for centuries in harmony with their environment. It speaks of paths taken, tracks in the sand and footprints all made lightly. It speaks of community, of love, support and ceremony and a respect for the spiritual world which is intimately interwoven into the physical. The skirt reflects a season of peace, imbued with gratitude and a new respect for the Earth, our Mother and Friend, that has given us life and refuge.

As I watch the news on television, reeling from one disaster to the next, I am aware that my generation is in the throes of passing on the baton to the next. Only the baton we are passing comes in the form of Mother Earth, and it is my fervent hope that the handover will be smooth and that the young ones will have learned from our mistakes, for our Earth is in a precarious state and it should be the focus of all their attention. I am reminded of a quote I recently read and hope that the dance will continue.

We and our planet are reaching maturity together. Opening up our collective senses to the Universe; watching and waiting for the chord that signals the start of a new and even more fulfilling dance. We are ready to respond to the music of the spheres.” Lyall Watson

In August 2018, I finally stepped back from my pinboard and surveyed the fruits of my labours… five earth dance skirts, affectionately known as ‘The Girls’. They were complete, and in the warmth of the spotlight that chilly winter afternoon, they glowed with self-assured energy.

The Earth Project skirts on the wall of my studio 2018

My energy, on the other hand, was almost spent, but there was no time to rest, for this was not the end, but the beginning of what was to come. The skirts needed to be framed and my client had requested that I hand carve the frames that were to hold them.

In my next post, I will bring you that process and reveal some of the angels who helped me.

If you have missed any of the previous posts, you can scroll down the page or find them through the following links:

 

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The Earth Project: Skirt #4

The story of my Earth Project Skirt series continues…

By mid April 2018, I found myself at the midway point of the project and I was beginning to feel the effects of the many weeks of intense labour and the non stop merry-go-round of thoughts and ideas that swirled around my head. I was running on adrenalin and like any good marathon runner knows, this was no time to quit, especially as the finish line lay tantalisingly up ahead. It definitely was like giving birth and there’s no way one would want to stop that process midway, no matter how painful it might be.

So I kept going, and before I had even completed The Enchantress:Nomkhubulwane skirt, I had already begun the next one, partly because I needed space from the elusive young maiden that had proved so difficult to capture, but more importantly because I had received a vision in a dream of what the next skirt should look like. Not in its entirety, mind you, but I saw enough to get me out of bed and reaching for my sketchbook, scribbling down the image before it faded into the morning mist. Where that image came from is anybody’s guess, but I wasn’t about to argue when receiving a gift like this. From the sketchbook, I went straight to the sewing machine and eagerly started stitching the colours and textures, still clear in my mind. I was intrigued, but satisfied with what emerged, and accepted it as an enticing foundation onto which I could build the rest of my story.

The sketch I made after seeing this in a dream

On going through my journals whilst preparing for this post, I found a note that I had written to myself about this new emerging skirt:

“She’s been determined to emerge, despite me trying to attend to the Enchantress. She has stamped her foot and sent the little nymph to her rightful place behind her. She wants to speak first – she insists upon it and once I’m done with her, or she’s done with me, I will return and hopefully find the youthful spirit where I left her.”

After the enchantment and flirtation of the little Spring skirt, this fourth one required some gravitas and as conception and motherhood are the logical next stage of the cycle, this skirt emerged as the abundant Mother Goddess, who pours out her strength to all living creatures with maternal love and compassion. She is strong, she is confident, she is The Nurturer, the mother who takes care of her family, providing nourishment to body, mind and spirit. She is all things to all people and as any mother knows, plays the role of teacher, disciplinarian and defender. She is understood by any woman who has been a mother and known to any child who has experienced a mother’s love.

In Nature she is Summer, the season of warmth and plenty.

Amongst animals, she is found in many forms, but for the purposes of this skirt I chose the Lalibela matriarchal elephant herd to represent her.

The Lalibela matriarchal elephant herd

Watching them on a game drive, one damp and drizzling day, I was moved by an overwhelming sense of feminine power, protecting the young and holding close their community.

From the photos I had taken, I produced drawings that I then transferred onto fabric, and appliquéd them onto the skirt. They appear to be moving towards a waterhole, but it’s quite possible that this is just a sprouting seed.

The Nurturer

I thought long and deep about the qualities of a mother, looking first to my own mother and then to my experience of being one. I looked to my friends and women all over the world and then to Mother Earth, who sustains and protects us all and whose resilience in the face of difficulty seems to know no bounds. I wrote at length about her and then sought out ways to visually express her.

Thandi, the rhino who survived a poaching attempt, with her calf Thembi, provide a beautiful example of motherhood

So now to the details…

The waistband of this skirt is decorated with a pattern reminiscent of San bead work and lined with fur, representing the comfort of a mother’s love. Beneath it hang an assortment of mementos she has collected along the way; the battered, flattened metal being symbolic of lessons learnt and hardships endured in the course of fulfilling her role. She has pouches for every occasion; symbolic repositories for the many tools and skills a mother requires for the numerous roles she plays. These womb-like containers carry all that is precious and necessary for her to fulfil her numerous tasks. The bag, an important item in both San and Xhosa traditional attire, not only holds food and herbal medicine, but more symbolically contains centuries of accumulated wisdom, mythology and folklore.

Two of the pouches that were influenced by Xhosa and San culture

The colouring of this skirt, whilst reminiscent of leather aprons worn by the San and the red ochre garments of the Red Blanket people of the Eastern Cape, was in fact inspired by the cool, protective shade of dense savanna woodland and the heat of the sun baked summer of Africa.

But just as we settle in to those endless Summer days, thriving on the warmth and plenty, we see the first tell-tale signs of Autumn coming in, bringing her own particular brand of beauty.

Stay tuned, as I gather up my final skirt…

 

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The Earth Project: Skirt #3

Of all the skirts in the Earth Project series, this little one was the most difficult to capture and like most adolescents, nearly drove me crazy. She is The Enchantress: Nomkhubulwane, who represents the whispering seduction of Spring, the time of pollen, seed and planting.

A time of pollen, seed and planting

She is the Nature goddess as both maiden and princess and when designing this skirt, I drew inspiration from Zulu tales of Nomkhubulwane, the fertility goddess or heavenly princess, who is believed to arrive in the Spring of each year, bringing fertility to both humans and the land. In his essay explaining his epic work Anthem of the Decades, Mazisi Kunene describes her as “the daughter of God and goddess of balance”, and goes on to describe her as “the most central symbol of creation…establishing the female principle as philosophically the primary force of creation”. She represents verdant fields, lush forests and abundance in every form, but she is most often associated with water, the source of Life, and is linked to rain, rivers and rainbows. In Zulu tradition, it is believed that she sometimes appears as a mermaid.

Rainbows are a sign of Nomkhubulwane’s presence. Photo credit: Roddy Fox

By her very nature, the Enchantress cannot be captured, for she is elusive and as intangible as the mist; reach out to touch her, and she will dissolve and disappear.

She is innocent, young, fertile and fleeting, an enchantment to the senses. In Nature we see her everywhere: soft mists, shafts of light, rainbows, spring blossoms and the call of a soft grey dove. She is both light and shadow and is always shifting form.

In human terms, she is the teen who is blossoming, on the cusp of becoming a woman.

Though she may appear delicate and demure, in reality she holds the power to receive or reject the offering. She is both innocent and infinitely knowing. She is in the flow.

The Enchantress is associated with rivers, and like the waterlily, connects air, water and earth

In this artwork, I saw her at the base of the waterfall, in the soft mossy bank beneath the spray.

I saw her beneath the waterfall.
Photo credit: Roddy Fox

 

The third skirt in the Earth Project series: The Enchantress: Nomkhubulwane

The inspiration for the look and feel of the skirt, came from two images that I took whilst traveling to the Kunene River on the Angola/Namibia border in 2002. The simplicity and freedom of these skirts seemed to capture the innocence of these young maidens.

The soft folds of the skirt are flowing and free and the shoal of fish darting in and out of the folds, are suggestive of water and the dispersal of seed and fertility; both connected to the source of life and a reference to the abantu bomlambo, the ancestral spirits that are believed in African tradition, to reside deep below the water surface, most often at the base of a waterfall. Seeds and white beads (symbolic of purity), are frequently left as offerings at the waters edge, and both feature strongly in this design, both around the waistband and as the central motif.

The magical sea bean, (Umthonzima in isiXhosa), which features at the centre of the waistband, is a large brown, smooth seed of a forest climber. These seeds are usually transported down rivers and waterways, often landing up in the sea, where they are eventually collected off the sea shore. They are believed to have supernatural powers that ensure fertility and successful harvests.

The style of the beading around the waistband was inspired by a little beaded Xhosa apron (Inkciyo), worn by a friend of mine when she was very young. This garment is generally worn by pre-pubescent girls, so it’s inclusion in the skirt is symbolic of the maiden being about to leave her childhood behind.

A Xhosa Inkciyo

As I worked on this skirt, I was acutely aware that this is a pivotal point in the cycle, for not only does the continuation of life depend upon Spring and fertility, it is also the time where both women and Nature are most vulnerable and open to misinterpretation. This is where exploitation most frequently occurs and where the Yin and the Yang go out of balance. When the allure of youthful, feminine beauty attracts the hungry male, it can trigger a desire to control and ‘own’ that which has attracted him. It is here that women are frequently debased and subjugated as objects for male satisfaction, and similarly Nature’s majestic beauty is exploited and polluted for monetary gain.

To maintain the delicate balancing act, so necessary for the continuation of Life, the seductive qualities of both Nature and women need to be respected and enjoyed for what they are; life-bringing, free spirited and ever changing.

 

“To see a World in a grain of sand

And heaven in a wild flower.

To hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour”

                                      William Blake. Auguries to Innocence

 

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The Earth Project: Skirt #2

“ I am lying like a lizard on a sunbaked rock, surveying the scene before me. I have never seen a landscape like this before and find myself wondering if this might be how the earth first looked when it was originally formed? It is rocky and rugged and I imagine hot lava forcing its way from the centre of the earth to form the gargantuan boulders that now hunker down around me. I am quite certain that my geology is incorrect, but an artist is allowed to imagine.” An extract from my diary, Kokerboom Kloof, Richtersveld, 2011

In March 2018, when I began looking for imagery to inspire the second skirt of my Earth series, I came upon this picture and remembered that day that I sat on that rock, dreaming about Creation. Only looking at it again, that landscape looked pretty barren, devoid of life and water, which triggered some thoughts about what’s required for new life to begin, which led me to the next stage in the Life Cycle.

Kokerboom Kloof, Richtersveld, South Africa

So, if the first of my dance skirts N/om: The Power, represented the life force, the second, The Creator, represents the Life-giver. She is the explosive spark of creativity; of new life and new ideas; inspired by fertility and the ingredients that make new life possible.

As a season the skirt represents that important time between Winter and Spring, when compost is formed from the debris of the past, providing the rich foundation for life to form and the promise of things to come.

The structure of this skirt was inspired by the Flow; of lava, bringing soil to the earth;

Lava flow

blood, from which fertility and new life arises, air, that enables us to breathe and water that nourishes and sustains us all.

The waterfall

This skirt was also inspired, in both content and appearance, by San aprons and loincloths.

Loincloths and aprons worn by dancers at a wedding I attended in Botswana

One of the most interesting things that I learned during my research of the subject, is that the San believe that the female apron in saturated with supernatural potency (n/om) and is often worn in combination with the male loincloth during the Trance Dance, to boost the power of the shaman when trying to access the spiritual realm. This power is linked to a woman’s fertility, her monthly cycle, which in turn is linked to that of the moon. From their extensive research, Edward and Cathelijne Eastwood have identified several rock art sites in the Limpopo region of South Africa, that contain San paintings of both loincloths and aprons, decorated with spots and spirals, thought to represent the moon. That these images exist on the walls of these intensely sacred sites, suggests that they are of symbolic importance.

So in this skirt, I drew upon this African understanding of male/female potency, and allowed the central leather motif, similar in shape to a male loincloth, to flow over the deep red cloth beneath it, symbolic of the female apron. I appliquéd small shapes that represent male loincloths to the ‘rock face’ on the left of the skirt and female aprons on the right. The intention being that when the skirt is tied at the back, the two will come together, symbolizing the merging of energies that ensure the continuation of life.

The shells, beads and found objects that hang from either end of the skirt, are to make music during the dance.

 

‘The Creator’. The second skirt in my Earth series

I wanted this skirt to be warm, rich, deep and fertile, a positive force for good, so I intuitively reached for the red ochre dye in order to get the colour I felt would capture it. Interestingly, I subsequently learned that red ochre (Hematite, or Iron Oxide, that has accumulated over millennia from decomposing life forms), is the most ancient of ritual substances, symbolically seen as the blood of Mother Earth.  During a trip to Namibia in 2002, I met Himba women, whose bodies were coated in a mixture of red ochre and animal fat and whilst preparing for this project I learned that the same is applied to young San women as they leave their seclusion during their transition rites into womanhood. The mentor scrapes the red mixture off the young woman’s skin and “she may be required to place this mixture in each fireplace in the camp and to touch young men and their weapons to bring luck in hunting”. Edward and Cathelijne Eastwood. In the Eastern Cape, red ochre is used extensively in traditional Xhosa rituals and as far back as 1822, Xhosa speaking people were trading ivory for red ochre powder.

A Himba woman, coated in a mixture of red ochre and animal fat.

The intertwined snakes in the waistband of the skirt, are symbolic of healing, new life and regeneration. My friend, Nozipho, tells me that the appearance of snakes in a traditional African home, is a sign that conception has taken place and that the snakes will reappear when the child is born. “Don’t kill or shout at at them,” she says, “the voice must be soft, so that the respect grounds and calms you. The snakes will connect the two families (clans) together”.

As I look back over what I have written, shifting between inspiration and layers of meaning, I am reminded that the art making process cannot be pinned down, for it is as fluid as the river. This artwork, like compost itself, was born out of layers of life experience.

After finishing the skirt, I read these words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes:

“The river symbolizes a form of feminine largess that arouses, excites, makes passionate… It is the feminine life energy that animates the male principle and the male principle in turn animates action in the world… When a man gives his whole heart, he becomes an amazing force…he becomes fertile, he is invested with feminine powers in a masculine milieu. He carries the seeds for new life…”

…which  lead us to the next skirt in the series…

 

 

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The Earth Project: Skirt #1

“ And you are the artist; you hold it all there at arm’s length and fashion it at will. You have direct access to an unlimited source of power. It is a wonderful and terrible feeling”. Lyall Watson

As I sat at my empty desk early in January 2018, all bright and ready to begin work on the first of five African dance skirts, (see my previous post), I felt a little intimidated by the task I had so ambitiously set for myself. The subject of the Nature/Humanity/ Life Cycle is complex and I had no real idea of how I was going to interpret it.

So I did what I always do when trying to make sense of my thoughts, I reached across to a big black sketch book and started to write and draw…which led to cutting and sticking and much digging in my archives, as the ideas started to flow. I found it helped to have a visual document of what was going on in my head, so that I could isolate images, shapes and symbols that would translate well into fabric.

That process took some time, but whilst I was fleshing out my ideas, I began gathering materials and dyeing random bits of cloth that I found in a stash of offcuts.

Bringing drawings to life

As with all my fibre artworks, nothing is ever straight forward and as the piles of materials began to grow, so did the confusion as to what was going to work. I spent much of my time sitting and looking and thinking, trying one thing, abandoning it and trying another. I got fit, jumping up and down on my table as I reached up to the pin board with scraps of cloth, only to take them all down again a few minutes later. And then I would sit and think again.

Such is the process when one doesn’t have a handbook to show you the way. One has to work on instinct and gut reactions, making errors and selecting what works by a process of elimination. And then, just when I thought I had the answers, things would change, new ideas would come and I had no idea where they came from. This is the art of letting go and succumbing to the process. It is the dance of trust between inspiration and artist.

  1. N/OM: THE POWER SKIRT

So today I bring you the first of the dance skirts, the one that led the way. She is both the beginning and end of the Life Cycle and represents the power aspect of the Goddess of Nature. She is the Life-force, (otherwise known as chi, n/om, prana), the powerful energy that flows through all living things, that has the ability to both create and destroy.  In Nature we see this power everywhere; in the eyes of an animal,

A page from my sketchbook, showing the power in the eyes of animals

the force of a storm

Electrical storm over Grahamstown.
Photo credit: Roddy Fox

or in the stillness of a sacred space.

The stillness of a sacred space.
Photo credit: Craig Scott

In an extract from my diary, written at this time, I read:

“A thunderstorm has just crashed overhead with thick, black clouds and booming sound and cracks of lightning that have taken out the electricity. I am reminded that this is exactly the power I am speaking of in this skirt. Awe inspiring, powerful, frightening, destructive, yet life giving and restorative. The rain returns and sounds heavy on the roof. My garden is happy. My dog is scared. And as another bolt of lightning cracks across the city, I am hugely respectful.”

As a season, this skirt represents the Winter, a time when growing things die back and bleakness reigns,

The cold of Winter

but just as the destruction seems forever, the life which simmers on beneath the surface bursts forth again with renewed energy in the creation of Spring.

For centuries, through ritual, prayer and dance, people have attempted to access this power, usually for rain-making, health or fertility. In researching this subject, I was fascinated by the San, who liken this power to electricity, for when harnessed, it can be useful, but uncontrolled, it can be dangerous. The shaman’s task is to harness and control it for the good of the community. In their Trance dances, women sit in a circle around a fire, clapping rhythmically, whilst the men dance around the women, clapping and singing to activate the supernatural potency that resides in the songs and in the shamans themselves. It is said that when the potency ‘boils’ and rises up the shaman’s spines, they enter trance and move into an altered state of consciousness that allow access to the spirit world, and once there, they plead for help on a variety of issues on behalf of the community. On return to the earthly body, the shaman sleeps and on awakening shares this powerful emotional experience with the people, both verbally and visually, through the cave paintings that are thought to have been done during this quiet time of recall.

The San believe that certain animals (eg. eland) are filled with potency, so when they kill such an animal, “… the potency flowed via its blood to the paintings, where it was stored, and then from the paintings to the trancing shamans. Painted sites were thus storehouses of the potency that made contact with the spirit world possible; that guaranteed humankind’s existence by facilitating healing, rainmaking and animal control and that by flowing between nature and people, gathered up all aspects of life in a single spiritual unity.” David Lewis-Williams

For the San, the physical and spiritual realms are completely intertwined, and nowhere do we find more evidence of this than on the rock face within their shelters, where we see these stories unfold.

San paintings in a rock shelter in the Drakensberg

The imagery that I have used in this and subsequent skirts, speaks of the potent sacredness of this humanity/Nature intersection. The symbols I have used reference the San’s connection to the natural world, but in effect, relate to all humanity.

The colours, black, white and red are used in many traditional African cultures and symbolize: Death and destruction (Black), Life, purity and goodness (White), and blood, energy, fertility and the pulse of life (Red).

I have used broken ostrich eggshell in the waistband, another reference to the San, who value the ostrich for its eggs, that provide nourishment and containers for carrying water, and when broken, are made into beads for adornment.

The ostrich and its egg

The central motif may be interpreted as a ‘spine’ through which the supernatural power boils during the trance experience. It can also be seen as the axis mundi, the Tree of Life, as above, so below, the scaffolding that holds us upright. It also references the central pole (Ixhanti) of the Xhosa kraal, onto which the horns of sacrificed cattle are placed and at the base of which, the community lay their offerings to the ancestors.

N/om:The Power
The first in the series of dance skirts that depict the Cycle of Life

So now that my skirt is complete, I sit here absorbing what she has become, and I am amazed at the process that brought her here. She is strong, self assured and calm and it is in the calmness that I feel her power. She has laid the way for the others that are to follow, and I will be bringing you the next one shortly.

Categories: Fibre Art, Inspiration, Projects | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Making of an Artwork

I’ve been thinking recently about life experience, and what we choose to do with it. Some write books and others start businesses, but most of us use it without thinking about it. As an artist, I realise that all of my work has a direct link to my past. Either I am drawing landscapes that remind me of where I have been, or I’m sewing textile artworks, (a skill taught to me by my mother many years ago), that speak of the earth and the textures of Africa. The content of the artwork is inevitably inspired by my view of the world, which in turn has been moulded by the life I have lived and the environment that has surrounded me.

To rewind a bit, I was born into a large, pioneering family, and raised on a remote cattle ranch in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. I was fortunate to have a mother, a gentle, artistic spirit, who opened my eyes to the beauty of the natural world, and a father, a larger- than- life adventurer, who encouraged me to explore it. This idyllic childhood, free of technology and distraction, developed my connection to the wilderness of our continent and taught me not only to appreciate its mystery, but to find the wilderness within me.

Growing up on our farm ‘Nyangui’, in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

When, in my teens, we moved to Botswana, my passion for the land was sealed, for my father, an airline pilot by profession, regularly took us with him on trips into the Okavango Delta, a lush, marshy expanse of inland water that supports some of Africa’s most stunning wildlife.

A view of the Okavango Delta from the air

Beyond the edges of this delta lay the hot, dry Kalahari Desert, home to the few remaining San, a hardy, nomadic people, whose respect for the land inspired me. My brief encounter with these people was to have a lasting effect upon my work, for they convinced me at a tender age, that it is wise and possible to live harmoniously within our environment.

Bushmen (San) in the Tsodilo Hills 1970. Photo credit: Anthony Stidolph

Since then, I have lived in the ferociously hot veld of Limpopo, the humid, grassy hills of Kwazulu Natal, and more recently the arid, but beautiful Eastern Cape of South Africa. Each has brought with it its own unique brand of mystery and left its mark on my soul.

For those who follow this blog, you may be aware that I was fairly quiet last year and did not reveal much of what I was up to. This is because for the first nine months of 2018, I was incubating and giving birth to a major artwork that demanded every moment of my time and head space. But now, as I sit in this liminal space between what’s gone and what’s to come, I reflect upon my recent work and see that it too gives visual form to an accumulation of my life experiences.

The Challenge

 At the end of 2017, I received a commission to make some original artwork for the chalets of Lentaba Lodge, a luxury establishment that nestles in thick valley bush veld within the Lalibela Game Reserve, 40kms outside Grahamstown. Part of this commission included a brief to make 5 framed dance skirts, that were to be earthy and African in feel and have a story to tell.  Being a lover of Nature, textiles and all things African, this was a dream come true and turned out to be an exhilarating, but challenging project that pushed me to my limits.

The Concept for the Skirts

I was given free reign to make the skirts in whatever way I wished, but I realised that the theme for the skirts needed to be suitable for a game lodge and fulfil my needs as an artist. I reflected on my life and my relationship with the natural environment and settled on the idea of the skirts representing something that we can all relate to: the Cycle of Life, with special reference to the connection between Nature and Humanity. I decided that each skirt would represent an aspect of the cycle, with the one flowing fluidly into the next as the circle rotates.

The Inspiration

With my concept loosely in tact, I then began the exciting phase of researching the subject,  drawing largely from my experience of living in Africa, and shifting between images of nature, places I have been and stories of the indigenous people who have lived here.

Much of my inspiration came from the San, who, as I mentioned above, have fascinated me since childhood. I have always been greatly inspired by their minimal material culture, particularly their bead work, pouches, loincloths and aprons, and still own a beaded necklace and pouch made by the San that I bought in Botswana in the late 1960’s.

San pouch and clay beads

The San are recognised as being the earliest inhabitants on this continent, and were possibly the forbears of modern homo sapiens. The earliest signs of artistic expression, symbolic behavior and human culture have been found in caves and rock overhangs along the Eastern seaboard of South Africa. Much of what we know of San culture has been learned through their paintings and artefacts found at such sites and whilst there may still be some debate as to the exact meaning of the paintings, it is clear that these rock shelters were powerful, sacred spaces that represented the interface between the physical and spiritual worlds. It is for this reason, that for this series of skirts, I dug into my archives to find images of rock paintings that would inform and inspire my decision to make the rock face the backdrop to the story.

San paintings on a rock overhang on the Makgabeng Plateau, Limpopo

Having spent many years living in Kwazulu Natal, I also found myself drawn to the Zulu concept of Nomkhubulwane, the heavenly princess, the daughter of God, who as maiden, mother and crone, is believed to be the goddess who maintains the balance between the physical and spiritual realms. In Nature she appears in various forms, but most often as a rainbow that brings the promise of new life after the fury of a tropical thunderstorm. Often associated with sacred pools, she is seen as the creator, the life force and the one who brings fertility. Throughout the making of these skirts, I felt her strong feminine energy permeating the atmosphere.

Rainbow over the sacred pool on the Baviaans River. Photo credit: Roddy Fox

Water, the yin (feminine) energy of our planet, so vital for our survival on Earth, was foremost in my mind as I entered the flow of this project. It is through the pollution of our rivers and oceans that I see just how disconnected humanity has become from Nature. What I see in the world around us today, is a disrespect for the Mother that has born, protected and fed us. My hope is that through this series of artworks, the energy I invest, will go some way to restoring the balance.

I also hold firm to the African concept of Ubuntu, which is a philosophy of ‘Oneness’, that all life is interconnected and that a thread of goodness connects us all, from the smallest creature to the largest. This thread of Ubuntu, that has love and respect as core values, holds societies together and ensures the sustainability of the planet.

With my intention now clear, I turned to my interest in recycling, and eagerly set about gathering materials, dyeing cloth, and sorting through a mass of beads, bones, and rusty metal in preparation for work to begin. I had a story to tell and needed to tell it in a way that felt authentic.

Hand dyeing cloth in preparation for work to begin

A collection of beads, bones, metal and string. The ingredients for the artwork

What was so interesting to me was that in the beginning, I thought that I was in control, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that in fact I was the conduit and that the skirts were directing me.

In the posts that follow, I will be sharing the five artworks with you and including some of the stages of my creative process.

Please stay tuned and enjoy this journey with me…

 

 

Categories: Background, Fibre Art, Inspiration, Projects | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Picks from the Pinboard

Driving up the hill towards my house this morning, I noticed that the thick carpet of purple Jacaranda flowers covering the verges of the road, are starting to fade. As I turned the corner and pulled into my garage, I was thinking about my university days, and the saying that when the Jacaranda flowers came into bloom, if you hadn’t started studying for exams, you had left it too late. (It was the stuff of nightmares!) Which prompted me to ask myself, as I opened my front door, what date it is, for the signs are abundant that not only have the exams been written, the students have all left town. I’m wakened to the fact that December is here and I haven’t done a blog post since April! It’s definitely time to catch up!!

So here I am, preparing a post in which I will share some of the creativity that has been born in my studio over the past seven months. We’ve been busy, my students and I and it’s been a particularly productive year.

Today’s selection has come from the participants of my Drawing Classes, all adult beginners who are rapidly overtaking their teacher. I am immensely proud of them and eternally grateful for their support. Their regular appearance in my studio each week, is the pulse that keeps me alive and everything else functioning smoothly.

We’ve had a good time, as I’m sure you will see from their drawings!

If drawing is something that you would like to do, perhaps this is the time to sign up? We would welcome you to our group and I am happy to keep you a place. Classes will resume towards the end of January 2019.

In the meanwhile, I’m gathering images for my next post, which will feature some of the work that I have done this year. I have been extremely busy and have lots to share, so will attempt to get it all together before the Jacaranda flowers completely disappear…

Categories: Drawing, My Studio | Tags: , | 6 Comments

Singing Over the Bones

“Her cave is filled with the bones of all manner of desert creatures” Clarissa Pinkola Estes

In Clarissa Pinkola Estes modern classic, “Women Who Run With the Wolves”, she tells, among other things,  the story of La Loba, the old woman who spent her days scouring the countryside for the bones of dead, wild animals. She would gather them up and take them back to her cave, where she reassembled the skeletons and sang soulfully over them in order to flesh them out into the creatures they once were.

Earlier in the year, I had a big cleanup of my studio and discovered some wonderful treasures that I haven’t seen in years. When I opened one cardboard box that had long been lost beneath the table, I was surprised to see my collection of bones, gathered over many trips into the bush. I hauled them out and challenged my drawing students to bring them back to life.

A box of bones

Skeletons in my cupboard

So for the past three months the bones have been the focus of our adult drawing classes and with their sculptural forms and subtle shifts of light and shadow, they have proved a valuable theme to explore. My students, many of whom are still learning the basics, have really had to focus and polish their skills. Today I share with you a selection of their study drawings done during the first phase of this project:

I am delighted with this series of soulful drawings and in the next post, will share a few more images from the second phase of the project.

Categories: Drawing, Inspiration | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

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