Background

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 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…

 

 

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Survival – A Lesson from the Veld

I have recently been sorting through my aloe paintings, and one in particular stands out, for its universal message has a personal story attached…

When I was a young girl, we lived on a cattle ranch in Inyanga, which is situated in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, in a magnificent mountain range that borders with Mozambique.

There were seven children in our family and we roamed pretty wild and free, spending our days either helping with the farm or exploring the rivers, kopje’s and bush.

On top of the mountain, looking over our 14,000 acre Nyangui Ranch, 1975.

The hillsides of the farm were littered with mysterious ancient ruins and stone terraces that we loved to scramble over and explore, as we disappeared down tunnels, into unexpected enclosures, picking up shards of pottery, imagining who might have once lived there.

Exploring ancient ruins on our farm. 1975

It was a blissful existence for kids growing up without television and all the mod cons of today. We learned to appreciate Nature on both macro and micro scale and this laid a firm foundation for the creativity that was to follow.

Sisters catching tadpoles in one of the many rivers on the ranch

 

Playing in the stream, siblings Sally, Anthony and Penny, 1967

But then war came to that beautiful area and we were forced to move, leaving our playground behind. We all set off on our respective paths and life taught us some serious lessons.

On a nostalgic return trip to the old farm, many years later, I took my two young sons to visit a ruin that lay embedded in a commanding position at the top of a hill. The countryside was hot and dry, and in the grip of a ten-year drought. The rock hard ground was stripped bare of grass and the termites were eating the trees. A veld fire had recently removed whatever dry grass remained.

Nyangui Ranch in the drought. 1991

As we clambered up over the multiple layers of terraces, sweating and panting in the heat, we finally reached the ruin. Memories of my childhood came flooding back as I surveyed the landscape around and as I sat on a warm granite rock, I felt the earth’s energy seep through my body like a much needed blood transfusion. Oh, it was so good to be home!

In my desire to share my youthful memories, I attempted to ignite some enthusiasm into my sons, who both looked somewhat confused as to what all the excitement was about. I was beginning to wonder myself what the purpose of this visit had been. I mean this was my childhood and these were my memories, so how I was hoping that my boys would get it I really don’t know, when their reality was based in the city and the lush green hills of Natal.

My two young sons visit the ancient ruins for the first time. 1991

Then, as I wandered around with my camera, I came upon two small aloes, side by side, both scorched from the fire, parched from the drought, but doggedly standing their ground. I was riveted by this image of survival, and in that instant, I knew why I had needed to be there.

I took that photo with me into the turmoil of my life and kept it as a clear reminder that no matter how great the heat, the thirst and the flames, when one is well rooted and grounded, one can survive pretty much anything. With a belief in one’s ability to survive, one can emerge stronger from the experience, with spirit and light intact.

‘Nyangui Aloes’ by Sally Scott
Medium: Chalk Pastel

Last year I translated that photograph into a chalk pastel painting and was reminded once again that Nature is the great teacher and Creativity, the therapist. Or is it the other way round?  Whichever way I look at it they seem to work in tandem and I am very grateful for both.

 

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Easter, Eggs and Influences

It’s Easter morning and I am alone in my kitchen, cooking a breakfast for one. I am watching myself prepare the tomatoes as they go into the pan, satisfied that they have just the right amount of seasoning, and are spread evenly beside the bacon for maximum exposure to the heat. I reach for the eggs, and am fleetingly startled  by their beauty as they nestle harmoniously in the bowl. I hesitate before taking one, aware that it’s removal will affect the balance of the whole, but I must eat and the anticipation of the meal overrides my moment of uncertainty.

A moment of being in the moment

A moment of being in the moment

I pick up the largest egg and hold it in the palm of my hand, closing my fingers around it briefly to feel its sculptural form. I look at it carefully, marveling at the perfection of it’s shape and the colour and texture of it’s shell, and I have a sudden  flashback to my childhood in Harare, where as a very young girl I would go into my brother’s bedroom and stand before a bank of beautifully made, wooden specimen cabinets …little chests of drawers, with two rows of small round knobs that went vertically down either side. The drawers were slim and inviting, and I would hesitate momentarily, deciding which shelf to pull out first. I remember the sound of  the drawers sliding open and the moment of delight as the contents were revealed. The entire drawer was divided into small compartments, and in each were small nests of perfectly coloured eggs, some speckled, some plain in a whole array of hues, all neatly labelled with the name of the bird that produced the relevant egg. It was one of those moments of childhood, where the perfection of Nature was magically,unexpectedly revealed.

So as I return to the egg in my hand, I realize that this appreciation is not something new, but has always been there and was nurtured by the small, pale blue, speckled eggs that to me were the best in my brother’s collection. With the splatter of popping bacon, I am pulled back to the present and remember it’s Easter and that out in the world today, there are many more people thinking about eggs of different shapes and sizes.

As I eat my meal, I smile at my recollections and think about some of the other things I remember about growing up in a family with six brothers and sisters, each with their own particular collection of interests and fascinations, and I realize how much they have influenced me, often in ways that are so subtle they might never even know.

In a flash of clarity I realize that there’s no such thing as an insignificant word, action or moment, for everything in life, no matter how small, has the potential to influence both our own lives and that of those around us.

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My Roots: Part 2

My mother, Monica Stidolph (nee Bridgen)

My mother, Monica Stidolph(nee Bridgen)

The history of my mother’s family is not as clearly defined as that of my father, but the earliest records of the Bridgen family go back to the 18th Century, where the family originated from the Hampshire-West Sussex border of England.

Monica was one of four children born to Helen and Sidney Bridgen. He was a headmaster at a school in the quiet little village of Cassington, near Oxford, and later in the villages of King’s Somborne and Herstmonceux.

Helen and Sidney Bridgen

Helen and Sidney Bridgen

Sidney’s father had come from Midhurst and his mother, Sarah Pusey, from Wandsworth. Helen was the daughter of Patricia and John Perkins of Ockham, Surrey, and most of Helen’s childhood was spent in Leicester and Rutland area where her father owned a large cabinet making business. According to my mother, Grandpa Perkins was very musical and played the cello, had a lovely bass baritone voice, and was much sought after to entertain people at parties.  My grandmother’s sister also had a good rich singing voice and played the piano. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit any of this musical talent.

Perkins, Long and Tyler. My great grandfather, John Perkins on the extreme right

Perkins, Long and Tyler. My great grandfather, John Perkins on the extreme right

My mother had two sisters, Barbara and Marguerite, and a much beloved brother, Harry, who was a pilot, tragically killed during the war. It was through him that she had met my father when she was still a schoolgirl.

My mother’s side of the family was generally blessed with artistic, literary and musical talent. Her sister, Barbara was a very talented writer, and my grandmother, Helen, was known for making richly coloured rugs, a fact that I had no knowledge of when I began working in textiles. It was only after I had started researching and making my own fibre wall hangings that my mum made the connection between my work and my grandmothers. Although I had never seen any of these works, she said that our colour sense was very similar. I find this a significant and interesting link and my regret is that I never got to see her work.

The Bridgen Family

The Bridgen Family. (Monica third from the left)

The village of Cassington

The village of Cassington

Monica’s childhood was spent living and playing in the gentle, English countryside, an environment that probably influenced her interest in the arts. She was extremely talented artistically and apart from writing poetry, was very good at drawing.

Monica, 1934

Monica, 1934

The poem below was written by my mother when she was only 15 year’s old:

'The Seagull' by Monica Bridgen

‘The Seagull’ by Monica Bridgen

A drawing of her sister, Maggie, done by my mother in 1937

A drawing of her sister, Maggie, done by my mother in 1937

Although her first love was art, Monica’s father had wanted her to become a teacher and so she registered at Goldsmith’s College, but her stay there was cut short due to the escalation of the war and the fact that she was soon to be married to my father, the adventurous pilot from Africa .

Reg and Monica's wartime wedding. Herstmonceux

Reg and Monica’s wartime wedding. Herstmonceux

They married and had two children by the time the war had ended, and in 1946, Reg and Monica decided to return to Africa and settle in Rhodesia. My father traveled by air, whilst my mum, with her toddlers Patrick and Paul, went by sea on the Carnarvon Castle. They were met at the docks in Cape Town by my father and his uncle, Randolph Nesbitt, a colourful character who had led the Mazoe Patrol and won the Victoria Cross for the rescue of the beleaguered party at Mazoe Mine, Rhodesia, in 1896.

My father, having gone ahead of his family, had in the meantime acquired a Humber Super Snipe, and so he collected his young family and they traveled to Salisbury in style.

Monica and Reg, with their sons, Patrick and Paul

Monica and Reg, with their sons, Patrick and Paul

And thus began their African adventure…

(To be continued…)

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My Roots

In order to understand my artwork, it helps to know a bit of my background, so in the next few posts I will be unearthing a little family history and will explain how I came to be born in Africa, the continent that is so central to my work.

On my father’s side, I come from a long line of pioneers, and as they were responsible for bringing us to Africa, this seems an appropriate place to start.

The history of my father’s mother’s side of the family can be traced back as far as the 14th Century to Robert the Bruce and the Royal House of Scotland, and through the female line to the Royal House of Norway, but for the purpose of this story, we begin in the 19th Century in the Orkney Isles, where my great, great, great grandfather, Benjamin Moodie, a larger than life character and the last Laird of Melsetter on the Island of Hoy, was preparing to leave for Africa.

Melsetter House, Hoy, Orkney Isles – owned by the Moodies from 1500’s – 1820

Melsetter House, Hoy, Orkney Isles – owned by the Moodies from 1500’s – 1820

He set sail in 1817 for the Cape Colony of South Africa with three shiploads of artisans from N. England and Scotland to start a new life on a continent he knew little about. Shortly after he landed, many of the artisans abandoned him for better opportunities, but despite this disappointment and the financial implications, he settled on a beautiful farm called Groote Vadersbosch, near Swellendam and helped establish Port Beaufort (now known as Witsand) on the Breede River.

Groote Vadersbosch, Swellendam

Groote Vadersbosch, Swellendam

Benjamin Moodie's grave, Witsand

Benjamin Moodie’s grave, Witsand

Benjamin had three sons, the eldest of whom, James, fell ill and was nursed back to health by Susannah van Zyl from Cradock. They fell in love and moved to Grahamstown, where they were married, and from here they moved to Bethlehem in the Free State.

The Pioneer Trek to Melsetter

James’s son, Tom, and daughter, Margery and her husband Edmund Coleman, were part of the famous Pioneer Trek to Melsetter in Gazaland (now Zimbabwe). With them on the trek were Margery’s daughter Sarah and her husband John Nesbitt and their three young children, one of whom was my grandmother, Josephine, who was 3 years old at the time. We have a fascinating account of this experience written by Sarah, (after whom I am named), as she bravely set out in an ox wagon into the unforgiving wilderness with her husband, children, livestock, a few personal possessions and Persian cat.

The trekkers stop for a picnic on the banks of the Shashe River

The trekkers stop for a picnic on the banks of the Shashe River

The 17 wagons and 59 members of the Trek finally reached their destination eight months after having set out on this treacherous journey, with Tom settling in Melsetter, (named after the Moodie family estate in the Orkneys) in the Eastern Highlands and Margery, Sarah and her family going on to Salisbury (now Harare), which at that stage was made up of a few mud huts. An extract from Sarah’s diary says: “There were only eight women and a few children in Salisbury then, not counting the R.C. nuns and sisters”, so they truly were amongst the first pioneers to arrive in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

Inspan

Inspan

According to Sarah’s diary, her mother Margery lived in a pole and dagga house and started the first boarding house in Salisbury. Meanwhile, Sarah and John Nesbitt went to Umtali, where he became the District Commissioner, but he died in Penhalonga of Malaria, and soon after that Sarah moved back to Salisbury.

The family’s first home in Salisbury

The family’s first home in Salisbury

Josephine, Sarah and Norah

Josephine, Sarah and Norah

Meanwhile, on the male side of my father’s family, my great grandfather, Harold Edward Stidolph, who had been living in Ealing, UK, was also having thoughts of leaving for Africa, and in 1884 he immigrated to South Africa with his 6 children, including 7 year old Alan, his aunt and sister-in-law. His wife Ada had died in childbirth in 1879. Harold was an organist and Professor of Music and they settled in Cape Town.

In the early 1900’s, Alan Stidolph, who had trained as a land surveyor, bid farewell to his family and moved north to Rhodesia. He soon met and married Josephine Nesbitt, and they settled on a farm, which they named Tudely, (after the family home in Kent,UK) situated in the Avondale/ Mt.Pleasant area of Salisbury. Part of this area is now occupied by the University of Zimbabwe.

My father, Reginald Stidolph, was the third of five children born to Alan and Josephine. He was a bright and rebellious spirit, and after leaving school, against his father’s wishes, went to Britain to train as a pilot. His brother Jack also became a pilot and they both participated in WW2. Jack was killed during the war, but my father went on to become a highly decorated Bomber pilot, earning himself a Distinguished Flying Cross, and becoming a Wing Commander by the time he was 28.

My father, Reginald Stidolph

My father, Reginald Stidolph

It was while he was training to be a pilot that he met the lovely Monica Bridgen, sister of his best friend, Harry. She was to become my mother, though at the time they met, was a shy 16 year old schoolgirl.  The relationship blossomed and they were married in 1940, the year she turned 20.

The war continued for another 5 years, with my father being away much of the time. My eldest brother Patrick was 2 1/2 years old by the time my father saw him for the first time! Fortunately my mother was a strong and resilient woman, characteristics that stood her in good stead for the journey that lay ahead of her.

Wing Commander Reginald Stidolph at Shepherds Grove 1945, seated in second bottom row, directly under the nose of the Lancaster Bomber

I will be taking a look at my mother’s family in my next post.

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