In 2019 I was privileged to work as poet in residence for Secret Severn Art Trail. I spent time visiting artists, attending workshops and developing a series of poems, Yes to Tigers, published in 2020.
As part of my work I wrote a series of blog posts showcasing the artists and their work.
Baobab to Beech trees – Sandy Densem
I’m enjoying my work for Secret Severn so much! Yesterday I spent a couple of hours with Sandy Densem, who’s work I’ve admired for many years. She explores texture and tone and creates pieces that are intrinsically multi-layered. Sandy describes how growing up in Zimbabwe has given her the lens through which she sees the world and it’s fascinating to see this in action.
Much of Sandy’s work is inspired by trees, expecially the mighty Baobab. This is a tree that lives for thousands of years, but if it’s knocked down can fade away in a fraction of the time. The pull between permanence and fragility is interesting thread to me and it’s reflected in the range of materials Sandy uses.
For yesterday’s visit we focused on creations built from collage and print. Sandy begins with lino and tissue to conjure her starting shapes, then uses oils, water and oil pastels to layer, define and refine the images. The layers reflect what Sandy describes as an internal landscape, and seeing her work build and grow was a captivating experience. I was amazed at how quickly she works, and how much work is that combination of instinct and deliberate action that gives an artist their own style.
We talked about Sandy’s recent work in Uganda as part of the Xavier Project, which provides sponsorship to refugee children in East Africa. She showed me her concertina sketch books, produced by the light of a mobile phone, as well as artwork produced by her students which she hopes to auction as part of a fundraising exhibition.
Sandy explains, “I’m originally from Zimbabwe, where I lived most of my life. I’m fortunate to have been born with the right to a British passport, unlike so many millions of others who now spend their lives in the ‘no-man’s land’ of refugee camps around the world.”
Sandy’s produced a series of works called Migration, that are rooted in the refugee crises around the world. There’s an intensity and pull to these pieces that I want to spend more time with, and I’m already putting together plans for another visit.
From background, to process, to product, for me this was a writer’s dream. Ekphrastic poetry is a joy to create, and I’ve come away with layer upon layer of notes to fashion into finished poems. A good day.
As ever, please share this if you’ve enjoyed reading it, whether you’re on twitter, Facebook or you just want to reblog. It’s a great way to support me and build interest for this project and for the art trail.
To discover more about Sandy’s work go to http://sandydensem.com/work/
To discover more about Secret Severn go to https://www.facebook.com/Secretsevern/
I’m fizzing with ideas after spending the morning with Jayne Humphreys a.k.a. The Strolling Stitcher. I spent my time surrounded by fragments of memories, which Jayne transforms into beautiful story boxes, wearable art and intriguing pictures, and left with a host of thought and images to put into words.
Jayne is influenced by her Grandmother, and by her environment, especially the River Severn. She explains more below.
Jayne is passionate about breathing new life into precious things, and many of her pieces feature things like safety pins and curtain hooks from her late grandmother’s sewing boxes. I asked her how she felt about giving away these things, and she responded gently that she like the idea of passing them on. There’s an thread of continuity though Jayne’s work, of harnessing and sharing the life of things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
One of the most common images in Jayne’s work are swans,which have been a major inspiration to her since she moved to Ironbridge three years ago. There’s an anthropomorphic quality that is enhanced by the story boxes she creates for each piece. Continuing the practical element, Jayne’s swans double as brooches and the story boxes are designed to display jewellery.
If you look closely at Jayne’s work you’ll see fragments of journals or scraps of receipts. One of the most fascinating things she’s found is a notebook acting as a photo journal from the WWII campaign in Egypt. Looking up at her window I see a flock of house martins made from the deeds of her old house, and inspired by visits to the Squatter’s Cottage at Blists’ Hill. Reinventing finds that would otherwise be lost in a drawer or attic brings a new aspect to make do and mend, and brings a real depth to Jayne’s work.
As befits a collector, Jayne is constantly gathering inspiration for her work. She loves exploring flea markets, which are brimming with fabrics and oddities that are crying out to be part of her creations, and she’s also inspired by the Back to Back houses in Birmingham. Jayne showed me books, chatted about films that have had an impact, and we talked about her travels, most recently to Romania. One of the most fascinating influences comes from the work of Maud Lewis, a folk artist from Canada, famous for her painted house which has been reconstructed in Nova Scotia art gallery.
On a deeper level, Jayne is inspired by visits to the Foundling Museum in London, which tells the story of the first hospital for foundling children. Jayne talked about the tokens mothers left so their babies could be identified, if circumstances changed and they were able to reclaim them. This fits well with Jayne’s eye for rescuing scraps of life that would otherwise be lost in a drawer.
Visiting Jayne has given me yet another aspect to my writing as poet in residence for the Secret Severn art trail. I’ve connected with Jayne’s work on a more personal level, and it’s tapped into my tendency to be fascinated by the things that get thrown away (I sound like a womble don’t I?). The swans in particular have sparked my imagination, and the poems that are bubbling up have a feel of a dark fairy tale journey. I was particularly inspired by the piece above, a swan with a pocket for a poem. I’ve named her, and I’m enjoying exploring her journeys. It makes for exciting writing, and has given me a new swathe of inspiration.
You’ll be able to see Jayne demonstrating her skills alongside Caris Jackson in the Art Zone in Dale End park during the Festival of Imagination on 21st September, and her work will be on display as part of the Secret Severn Art Trail from 20th-29th September.
Thank you as ever for reading. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, please share on social media, like any posts you see, and give me quick comment on Facebook – it all helps beat those pesky algorithms.
You can find out more about Jayne’s work on https://www.facebook.com/strollingstitcher/
For maps of the trail, and details of workshops go to https://secretsevern.co.uk/
Do you know how sea urchins got their name? No? Well here goes. Hedgehogs used to be called urchins, sea urchins are spiny (like hedgehogs) and live in the sea (unlike hedgehogs), so the logical name is, of course sea urchins. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s a cheery fact, and it was part of my research for my fifth Secret Severn visit, to Emma Brownlow, a ceramicist based in St Georges.
Emma explained her skill as a ceramicist is about actualizing the image she has of the end sculpture. Part of the joy for her is puzzling out how to make this visualisation into reality, and her work shows an incredible range. She showed me her Shrewsbury pot, a homage to her home town, resplendent with images of the duck race, timbered buildings and the much maligned market clock tower. It’s a three dimensional collection of memories that brings the town to life.
Emma showed me the first piece from her newest project, a series of elemental pots exploring the power and complexity of the earth.
I’ve been a bit in love with Emma’s sea urchin sculptures since I first saw she them, and I loved having chance to see one being made. They start life as a lump of clay, which is shaped into an urchin-like sphere. They’re then marked out with what I grandly called dowel (Emma later told me it was a kebab stick – ceramicists are experts at finding just the right tool for the job). Spaces for spines are marked out, and texture is added with slip. The whole process is deceptively quick.
After their first firing, the urchins are ready to be glazed. Emma uses a combination of colours and takes care to show a hint of the natural bisque, so there’s an echo of shell shining through.
We talked about the ancient nature of pottery, and I was taken by the inherently environmentally responsible nature of the process. Emma showed me how any old clay is reused. It’s smashed up, rehydrated in an old pillow case, and then wedged, an exhausting type of kneading, so it can be used again.
This was another different visit for me, and it was great to see each aspect of the process, and see the preparation too. The thing that shone out was the amount of love that goes into Emma’s work. She spoke of wanting to honour the sea urchin, and this really comes through, and sits well with the sense of this being an ancient craft.
I came away with a strong sense of what I want my finished poem to look like – it’s going to take a little while to emerge I think, but it’s been yet another level of inspiration for my work.
As ever, please, please help me get the most from social media. Please like the posts on my pages, add a comment, and share them. It helps more people see what I’m doing, and helps boost support for my work. Thank you all so much!
You can find out more about Emma’s work here https://www.facebook.com/Emma-Brownlow-Ceramics-714814132207188/ and see her beautiful sculptures at the Footprint Gallery in Jackfield as part of the Secret Severn Art Trail which runs from 20th to 29th September.
I’ve admired Maggie’s paintings for several years, so I was really excited about the chance to spend some tine with her. Maggie’s studio is unassuming and bursting with beautiful work. She showed me her huge range of styles, moving from vivid, almost abstract pieces to delicately detailed country scenes and charming festive illustrations.
Two of my favourite pieces are in this downstairs gallery; a piece based on her experience of a choral rendition of A.E. Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills, and Shadows of Moon a swirling image of the hills. Both of these pictures make me feel as though I’m travelling through the landscape, and give a sense of there being a world waiting to be discovered beyond the frame.
Maggie explained that her career began as a ceramicist and she has produced many ceramic murals all over the country, including the fabulous blue dragon that welcomes visitors to the Dragon Theatre in Barmouth. Working with clay takes it’s toll however, and Maggie now works with oils, as well as creating detailed line drawings and illustrations.
One of Maggie’s many ceramic murals
I also spent a little time in Maggie’s beautiful garden, which is a paradise for bees and nature as well as humans. She explained that she loves to be here in the early hours – that secret time of day before people are up and about.
Next, it’s up the stairs to Maggie’s work room, past a mural of geraniums that covers a patch of less than perfect plaster. There’s a sense of energetic chaos in the room, enhanced by a soundtrack of Mahler, which Maggie described as mirroring her work with its combination of movement and precision. Maggie showed me some of her most recent pieces, based on a friend’s memory of seeing swans in Prague. I really fell for these, and Maggie was kind enough to let me spend some time just sitting with the paintings.
There’s a mystical, magical quality to Maggie’s work and it’s this that I find captivating. As we talked about various pieces, she explained how they evolve and develop, and create their own dialogue. This chimed with me as a writer – creating a poem or story is very much about allowing the words to emerge, and allowing the poem to breathe itself into life. There is an idea and an inspiration, but there also has to be a sense of trusting the work itself.
You’ll be able to see Maggie’s work as part of Secret Severn Art Trail in the Footprint gallery at Fusion, where she will also be Artist in Residence, no doubt wearing a marvellous hat. To find out more about her work, visit http://www.maggie-humphry.co.uk/
Kathryn Anna Marshall is poet in residence for Secret Severn art trail. Find out more at https://kathrynannasite.wordpress.com/secret-severn-art-trail-poet-in-residence/ or on https://www.facebook.com/KathrynAnnaWrites/
Mike and Suki White
My last visit before the trail was to Mike and Suki White. They’re multi-talented, working with print, clay, and porcelain as well as being part of Wrekin Writers group. Their studio is tucked behind the Belfrey Theatre in Wellington, and it’s shared with several other ceramicists on the art trail.
On the day I visited, Mike was throwing pots, and Suki was working with porcelain paper clay. Mike explained the type of clay he was using, and about “grog”, ground up fired clay that’s used to give extra strength to pots.
As all good artists do, he made throwing the pots look effortless. Having taken up the invitation to have a go, I can confirm it’s not effortless. My attempts were hilarious, but I can see there’s something addictive about the feeling of creating something that manages to be useful and beautiful from a simple piece of clay.
There’s no fancy equipment, the finished shape and look of each piece depends entirely on the skill of the potter, and I think there’s something pleasing about this. Rather than something uniform and a little soulless, each piece that comes off the wheel has the imprint of the maker and is inherently unique.
Suki’s work porcelain paper clay enchanted me. Porcelain is white, delicate and fragile – Suki takes all of these qualities and creates pieces that have movement, and a sense of rebellion. They’re alive with texture, and the oxides she uses mean they have depth and tone. She prefers to leave her pieces unglazed, and the matt finish increases the sense of fragility.
We chatted about the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, the art of seeing beauty in imperfection. Suki showed me some pieces she’s applied this to, where cracks from the kiln have been repaired with gold, creating a piece with a unique beauty.
I’ve a good collection of material from this visit. I made good notes about the sounds and physical sensations of throwing a pot, as well as spending time looking at the contrasting beauty of the porcelain paper clay.
Over the next week I’ll be going to several workshops as well as spending time in the galleries. This is the next phase of my inspiration gathering and research, where I’m going to capture the responses of viewers to the art they’re seeing. I’m looking forward to this phase, and to seeing the exhibition as a whole.
You can see Suki and Mike’s work at Footprint gallery as part of the Secret Severn art trail, and find out more about their work on their Facebook pages https://p.facebook.com/sukitelford/ and https://www.facebook.com/MikeWhitePots
For details about the Footprint gallery, and the rest of the trail which includes workshops and open studios visit https://secretsevern.co.uk/
Thank you for your kind support and encouragement during this project. It’s great to get such positive feedback. I’m looking forward to the next week, but I’m especially looking forward to being able to hide away with my notes and write.
Yes to Tigers
Yes to Tigers was published in September 2020. It’s a set of poems inspired by my work as poet in residence for Secret Severn Art Trail, and was a joy to create. You can buy Yes to Tigers in Ironbridge Bookshop, or direct from me, just email firstname.lastname@example.org