Sunday, January 31, 2010

Exciting things are happening ...

I have at last finished my new big 'canvas' and I'm quite excited about the result. I can't remember which TV programme it was where someone regularly said, "I love it when a plan comes together," but that is basically me. I do spend many, many hours of my life planning things - meals, trips, budget and, of course, work. It could be a reflection of the time I spend planning or the determination which is typical of an Aries personality, but my plans usually do come together.

This one's been a long time in the making. Faithful followers of this blog may remember my writing about artist's block and then how I had the answer and the answer is silk dupion. (I know, I know, you thought it was 42.) Well, here is the last sneak preview of my new large canvas showing the silk dupion. What you don't see is that the dupion covers a framework.

This has been an interesting learning experience. I spent some time (while we were in France) making the first three frames for a set of landscapes. Working out how to stretch the dupion over the frame without a line from the inside edge of the frame showing on the front took quite a bit of fiddling about. Then when I went into the art shop to buy card to make my Christmas cards, I discovered that one can buy the sides ready cut, mitred and prepared for joining. This was such an exciting discovery that I immediately bought some of the smallest size to experiment with.

The size of the frames and the time of year and the general theme of irises immediately inspired me and I have now made two sets of three small pieces based on iris reticulata. These little chaps are so joyful - how can you not love them? I'm rather pleased with my two sets as well as the large piece. So then I had seven finished pieces to frame.

The frames do indeed join up really easily. I've since invested in a staple gun to make it easier to attach the silk to the frame. I've dusted off my jigsaw (well, to be fair it didn't need dusting off because I keep it in its original box) and this speeded up cutting the hardboard for the back.

The teaser photos are meant to be just that, however, I am so excited about the new work that I am thinking of posting just one picture of one of the small pieces sometime soon. A little more thought is needed.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The course of true love never did run smooth

I think I will probably end up in love with my Whisper wheel but it has not been an easy start. If I have more than one problem of the same sort my distress tends to escalate exponentially and so it was with the Gremlins. So when my Whisper wheel didn't, I may possibly have overreacted but I may possibly be forgiven for doing so.

The really stressful aspect of the problem was the completely unknowable timescale of getting to speak to someone about the problem. As I mentioned before, the people at the suppliers had been off sick since before Christmas and were still unable to get up and into work. Eventually, though, they were back at work during the course of the week (although still sounding a bit rough, to be honest) and I was able to speak to people who knew things.

I had been adamant that a brand new wheel when taken out of its original packing should have been left in a perfectly working state and therefore I was insisting on a replacement but Mike at Potters Connection reminded me that they had taken the wheelhead off to drill holes for fixing batts and said perhaps they had not tightened it up quite enough, the 'key' for the wheel being still in its packing at the bottom of the box.  He was most apologetic for this and was willing to travel down from Stoke to Stroud to see to it if I had still not been happy.  However, M and I took it all out of the box again and although I didn't really feel there was any tightening to do, after trying, the clonk had gone.  I was really very glad not to have to make the poor man make the journey when he clearly still wasn't feeling his best.

One very happy and entirely unexpected discovery was that at least one of my splash trays from previous Shimpo wheels was compatible.  This is good because I have small strips of stainless steel bolted to the sides for scraping hands and because I like to swap splash trays when changing clays rather than thoroughly cleaning the tray out.  As you can see in the photo, thorough cleaning of splash trays is not my forte.

So - all well and good?  Well, no, not really.  In case your nerves can't stand it, perhaps I should add that it is all well and good now, but it wasn't immediately.  We put everything back where it was wanted, M moved shelf brackets that were now too low for the new wheel to fit under and I started to work.  The previous day I made the first attempt at throwing for a couple of months and although my rib injury was complaining, I had decided that doing stuff might be the way to full recovery now rather than resting it and not doing stuff, so I was keen to follow up by making the lids to go with the casserole dishes of the previous day. 

I could not throw.  I just could not centre the clay.  First, I thought it must be because the wheel is slightly higher and I was working at a different height, but we tried raising the chair on some blocks and it made no difference.  Then I thought perhaps the clay had somehow (though I couldn't think how) become uneven and that was causing the problem.  So I took myself and the clay through to the cold end of the pottery and tried a piece on the old wheel.  Perfectly alright. I was convinced (as was M) there must still be some problem with the wheel.  I phoned a potter friend, who said he thought perhaps it was just that the wheel and I needed to get acquainted and then I phoned Potters Connection who said more or less the same thing.  Give it a few days, they said.  This was not encouraging to someone who could really only do an hour or so a day. 

Eventually I saw that I had no option, so I went back in to try again.  And this is where some kind of explanation formed itself.  I studied what was happening and realised that the new wheel is much faster than the old one.  I had been trying to throw as if the wheel was identical.  Additionally, I decided that the foot pedal, although not appearing particularly light of touch, was in fact sensitive in at least a different way, so it was possible that a very slight increase in pressure as I leant forward was changing the speed.  I made the appropriate adjustments and hey presto! of course I can now throw again.

All of this would make me feel rather stupid, you can imagine, were it not for what I think is the explanation.  I've been aware for a long time that I have a very particular connection between mind and body.  In some ways the connection is stronger and clearer than for some people but in others there's just something missing.  For some reason, noticing an 'obvious' increase in speed had not been straightforward for me. I find it difficult, at this point at least, to explain what I mean by this but I am fairly sure that it's not unrelated to other mind/body difficulties.  How many other people do you know, for instance, who feel motion sickness for the first two or three weeks of driving a new car?  It's always happened to me.  I have other peculiar difficulties here and there which add up to some kind of problem between mind and body.  None of them are too severe, but they can, as in this case, require concentration to overcome.

So here we are, my Whisper and I, after almost two years of my wanting to own one and after so many initial difficulties.  I've always thought Shakespeare meant that if there aren't a few problems, it's not true love so I'm beginning to feel very encouraged by overcoming what seemed like rather serious problems.  The Whisper really does whisper.  Gone are the days of having to play CDs at full volume and needing to select music that does not vary in volume.  I can now once again play symphonies and concertos without losing everything except the ff bits under the twangy buzz of the wheel.  I can choose the music, or silence, that most suits my mood.

It already feels different.  Making pots is not just a mechanical thing - one's inner processes always affect the quality of the work.  Over the last two years my predominant inner process while throwing pots has been a rather tense struggle to ignore the horrible buzzy groaning that filled the pottery.  I had thought that a lot of the tension came from the pressure I was putting on myself to make sufficient work but now I remember why I love making this work and I think I had underestimated the effects of the noise.  There is a particular mixture of physical skill, intention of design and spiritual contemplation that leads to making good pots on the wheel.  I think my Whisper and I might be on the way to achieving it.


We seem to have expelled, or at least calmed, the gremlins for now, but I don't want to say it too loudly.

Photoshop CS4 works just fine on Windows 7, which is on the laptop, which is what I bought it for, so I suppose I shouldn't mind too much.  I do, though.  It's a very expensive product and it *should* have worked ok on Windows XP.  I spent at least two days in total working through various steps and talking to people on tech support and eventually found numerous threads on internet forums where people basically said that none of these workarounds or fixes actually work and this is Really Not Very Good, You Know, or words to that effect.  I agree.  But I have no more energy to pursue the problem since I do now have a solution in the form of a working copy on my Windows 7 laptop.

A very nice chap from the camera repair company phoned me to find out in more detail exactly what problem I was experiencing with the compact camera and discuss with me about the options for repair and that I should check whether my rechargeable batteries were still up to scratch before sending it back to them again should I need to do so.  He replaced the flash unit, though I think he was unconvinced that the problem lay there, but anyway the camera returned pronto and works just fine now.

I had, as usual, a bit of a runaround from Dell.  I don't really blame people who live thousands of miles away for not understanding what the weather is doing here right now but I did rather object to being told that the courier could not collect the laptop because of the difficult weather conditions and no, he certainly couldn't just come the next day but a trip would be rescheduled.  Apparently, someone had to drive to my house with a box and another someone had to drive to my house to collect the box once I had placed the laptop in it.  Naturally, none of this was true.  There were no adverse weather conditions, as I knew, and as usual the arrangement is that the courier brings the box, I place the laptop in it and then he takes it away.  On this occasion, though, I was Very Cross on the phone and Dell said they would send an engineer to replace the CD/DVD drive instead of collecting the machine.  CitiLink, who were the couriers involved on this occasion, phoned me the next day and apologised that the driver had simply run out of time and would be arriving that morning.  They were pleasantly understanding when I said they needn't bother any more.  Sod's law said the engineer was then genuinely stopped by snow a couple of days later!  Eventually another engineer arrived after the snow and duly replaced the drive.  He also spotted a nasty little program called RoxioBurn that Dell like to give away free and that may have been conflicting with Windows Media Player and causing further problems so we removed that at high speed.  CD/DVD drive now working perfectly.

Incidentally, the first time I asked Dell for tech support on the faulty drive, the guy wanted us to go through writing to DVD to find where it didn't work and said to start up this RoxioBurn.  I said I didn't use it and would prefer to use Windows Media Player as usual.  Amazingly, I got the reply, "Ma'am, we do not usually support Windows Media Player and I have never used the program, ma'am, so we should use RoxioBurn."  I pointed out that the thing should work with Windows Media Player and he conceded.  I found it astonishing, though, that someone trained in tech support should not ever have even used Windows Media Player.  For the connoisseur, I'm sure there are plenty of special programs which produce better results but for most Joe and Jane Bloggs, WMP is perfectly adequate.

What else?  Ah yes .....

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Oh boy, is my house inhabited by gremlins at the moment!  The laptop and compact camera have swiftly been followed by Photoshop CS4 which will still not load properly after a day and a half of tech support and delving into the depths of System32 and then to cap it all I unpacked my new Whisper wheel and it didn't.  Whisper, that is.  It went "clonk clonk."  I phoned the suppliers but only reached a hapless bod whose job is not normally in the office but who had gone in to answer the phone as the other two have been in bed with flu since before Christmas.  I'm sorry for them; that's a long time still not to be able to get out of bed.  But I'm probably sorrier for me.

This last has rendered me somewhat indecisive about work.  Should we get the new wheel out of the workshop end of the pottery where we have only just put it and replace with the old one and then try to create some order and eventually try making pots again, or should we leave it in the workshop, optimistic that the flu-sufferers will recover rapidly and help with the problem?  In the mean time I could continue with textiles work full time instead of the planned half days.  I still don't know.  I waver.  It probably partly depends on how much time I have to spend on technical problems.  Today an engineer sent by Dell should be arriving to replace the CD/DVD drive in the laptop, time as yet unspecified.  And I should really plough on with the Photoshop problems.  It's just snowed for an hour or so, which doesn't make the pottery feel inviting.  Perhaps I will leave the decision for another day.

In the mean time I am quite excited about my new work.  Here's another sneak preview.  For the time being (by which I mean this year) I am sticking to the arrangement I've held to for the past eleven years - new textiles work doesn't get shown anywhere until it's been seen at Another Beastly Art Exhibition, but I think perhaps showing small areas one at a time doesn't count.  It's a good compromise between showing you nothing and letting you see what I'm pleased about.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Economy of scale

I am making trousers. Before you start wondering how trousers for a large-scale woman can be more economical, would it have been any better if I had called this post "bulk sewing"? No, I thought not. But put all those images aside and you may understand. It's actually much quicker to make several garments concurrently than one after the other.

You get this effect even more if there are two of you working together. In the late seventies and early eighties, when I was first teaching, I used to go and stay with my parents for a week or so during the school holidays. I would take clothes to make and usually my own sewing machine. Mum and I would make two or three garments for each of us in four or five days. One person would be stitching, one pressing and pinning and we would hand things backwards and forwards between us. It was astonishing how quickly the garments came together. As my art work filled more of my time, sparing a week for dressmaking became too difficult and we got out of the habit. I've usually made more than one garment at once since then, though.

I've never had five things on the go, but as I was trying to decide which of the trousers were the most urgent to make, I came to the conclusion that making five was not so daft. (I'd like to point out that I could probably have made ten pairs if I'd used all the trouser material in my possession, but lines have to be drawn somewhere.)

I am a person who takes naturally to economies of scale. Apparently by no means everyone does. Many friends shake their head in puzzlement at the idea that I will happily set to and make a batch of ten servings of some dish or other and freeze eight of them. To me, the idea that if the day has not gone to plan or I am in the middle of some work that takes me well into the evening, I can easily find something in the freezer that just needs heating up is a real plus.

I miscalculated once. I picked as much spinach as was ready, weighed it and then worked out that there was enough for three times the recipe I had in mind. I bought the ingredients. I did feel surprised at the tins of tomatoes but remembered that the recipe title included the phrase "rich tomato sauce" and that this was achieved by lots of cooking down. I started cooking. As I was turning in all the tins of tomatoes, alarm bells began to ring. I looked at the recipe again. "Serves 10." So we had thirty portions of spinach and ricotta in rich tomato sauce. It was good, though. And I'm often surprised and disappointed to find I don't have any in the freezer any more.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

New work

Well, it's been a funny old week, but I have at last got started on some new work. My rib injury still isn't completely healed but in any case the outer area of my pottery has been too cold to work in and the snow in the yard prevented easy moving of stuff which had been dumped in there so I decided it was best to focus on textiles work. On Monday I found all kinds of essential things to do first because it's always scary returning to something I haven't done for a while, particularly textiles work. I always worry that I won't be able to do it any more. There was a nasty half hour when I got up into my attic studio when I really felt I couldn't, but then I realised that I was just attempting the wrong piece of work and set about the right piece!

I had painted these irises way back in the summer but now the time was come to start adding thread. This small area was the first. I'm happy so far.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Friday, January 8, 2010

Silver and gold

I've always been attracted to shiny things and as a child always wanted to know if things were "real" gold.  Silver and gold have been embellishing my textiles work for a long time and it's probably something like ten years since I've used metal lustres on my pottery too.  Sometimes customers at the market say things like "those stars aren't real gold, are they?" and I'm pleased when they look impressed to hear that they are. 

Do you remember the children's hymn, "Daisies Are Our Silver" ?  I once embroidered some very mini cushions (about 4cms x 6cms) each with the appropriate flower and line of the hymn.  Just one of those textiles projects one does that nobody else knows what to do with ;)  Those cushions were probably the first artwork I made using metallic thread.  Recently I've been working on things that have no glitter or beads but I can't imagine that there isn't something sparkly just round the corner. 

In the mean time, "silver and gold" was the phrase that jumped into my head yesterday morning when the first sun hit the snow-covered, frozen trees.  These photos are some of a set which can be seen here.  More snow pictures are here;  these were mostly taken while it was snowing or just after.  They have a quality of their own and I'm glad I've got them, but the silver and gold images lift my heart in a way that the very snowy pictures can't. 

I must have been a magpie in a previous life!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

O Stroud! Where is thy grit?

I'm sure for many reading this, this picture of a snowy road will look like nothing much.  It's notable, though, because I don't think I've ever seen the road outside our gate in this state.  In fairness to Gloucestershire County Council, I have to say that roads are usually gritted hereabouts. Snow was forecast for this evening here and perhaps that was what led to the problem.  I set out at 11.50 to pick up a friend to take her into Stroud.  It began to snow at about 11.55.  I made my way to my first destination where I was probably for about 10 minutes.  By the time I came out, the roads and pavements in Stroud were covering up with snow and very slippery underfoot so I made my way to Withey's Yard, fired up my mobile and summoned the cavalry.  M and Charlie arrived about 25 minutes later with my Yaktrax.  I was then able to negotiate through Stroud, back to the carpark.

We took J home and then headed for Stroud.  Lots of tail-lights ahead, so we tried a different route.  More tail-lights.  Luckily a helpful chap made his way through the snow to tell us that there was an accident on a junction ahead (accounting for both roads being blocked) and we were near enough to a junction to reverse and find an alternative route.  Having planned a bit of a stock-up, we headed for the supermarket, where the shelves were completely empty of all vegetables except a few potatoes, onions, parsnips and marrows.  Milk was just as low.  Apparently everyone had descended a couple of hours earlier.  We found most things on our list and headed home.

By now most roads were fairly well jammed.  This is one of the delights of Stroud: if one central road has any kind of hold-up, the whole town will grind to a halt within fifteen minutes.  We spotted a likely shortcut, avoiding the queues on the main road and made it home down a slightly snowy road by about 2.00.  Once in the driveway, I need my Yaktrax on again to get from the car to the house.

Just in time.  Barely fifteen minutes later and cars were having problems getting up and down the road.  At least two cars slid backwards into other cars.  Some have been abandoned, as you see here.  Since then cars have gone both up and down the road but often only by snaking from side to side and others have either turned round or abandoned their journey.

I've seen it said somewhere on the web that some people are happy that the UK doesn't spend money preparing for bad weather that would most likely not happen.  They feel it's a waste of resources that could be spent on things which definitely will happen.  I do not share this view.  We are lucky - we got our shopping and all got home without any mishaps and unless there is a power cut, can happily survive at home now for many days.  But many are not so lucky.  There will be people spending the night somewhere other than where they planned to tonight, that's for sure.  There will be others who were planning to shop later who may now not have the supplies they need.  There may be others still who are ill and need medical or other help which is not able to reach them.   I'd prefer that resources were set aside in preparation for bad weather.  If we don't need the grit, surely it will keep till we do?

As I type this (about 4.30) the sound of whining engines and spinning wheels makes its way periodically through the double-glazing.  I can't see things improving in a hurry.

Something to look at

Sometimes pictures are enough.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy. New. Year.

I'm happy.  I hope you are too.  Nothing exciting or exhilarating has happened, but I'm just happy in a quiet, contented sort of way.   The dog and I are up and ensconced in the study with the door shut.  We (M and I, not the dog and I) started shutting the sitting room door when we had opened up the fireplace as it naturally created a draft. The sitting room is also M's domain, in that he has his desk and computer in there.  Recently I started shutting the study door for the same reason and have found the experience remarkably liberating.  I think I've spent the last ..... almost six years!  goodness! ... since M first arrived here, trying not to be too antisocial while at the same time yearning for time on my own.  I seem to have let go of whatever feelings restrained me from simply shutting the door and now realise that this simple action goes a long way to creating a little more space to myself.

I also plan to turn the central heating thermostat down a degree or two.  It's in the hall so this will affect the hall, landing and any rooms which have their door open.  We can then keep the doors shut and the radiators turned up in the rooms we are actually using and need to be warmer.  I had great resolve last January to keep the hatch to my large attic room shut when the room was not expected to be in use but the reality turned out to be that I am always expecting it to be in use as there is always ironing or sewing or sorting or some other work up there that I hope to get round to today.  The hatch stayed open.  It's become clear, though, that the radiators work efficiently when turned up so I hope to reinstate the plan this winter and keep the hatch shut.  When I actually go up to do something will be the time to open the hatch and turn up the radiator.  Not exactly a New Year's Resolution, but at least a plan.  I will report back on my success!

I love the sense of the new that I get on 1st January.  I'm filled with anticipation and optimism that there are new possibilities, most of which I'm probably not even aware of.  It's rather like the start of each new day.  I'm very much a lark rather than an owl (which is why I've been up more than an hour even though we didn't get to bed till after 1.30) and towards the end of the day start running out of energy and oomph.  I'm learning to recognise this rather better and when I feel downhearted and dispirited in the afternoon or evening I try to remind myself of this.  When I get up I nearly always feel ready to take on anything and able to achieve everything.  It may not be realistic but it's a pretty good way to start the day.  Expand that, and you have how I feel at the beginning of a new year.  I have heard all the arguments about dates being a man-made concept and therefore insignificant, but I have always had a very powerful sense of change and possibility with the turn of the new year.  Underneath the man-made number structure is, after all, the natural year and the sense of cycles and regeneration.  Yes, regeneration is more naturally associated with spring, but the fact that we've turned the corner from the shortest day must surely impact on our subconscious animal selves, if nothing else.

The idea of the numerical year itself is less important to me.  I'm not making plans for how things will be just for a year, rather they are plans for how things can be from now on.  It's when I look backwards that the year takes on more importance.  I look back at what was different twelve months ago.  I feel I should say that the biggest change for me in 2009 was getting married, but it really wasn't.  It was a highlight, a lovely warm, fuzzy, loving, sunny friends and family sort of day and I'm really happy we did it.  But I promised M it would not change things and it hasn't.  Things were good before and they still are. 

If I think about what has changed in 2009 there are two main themes.  One is our time in France, my getting a life, now still not being able to make pots even though I really want to and all the other things that connect with lifestyle.  The other is technology.  Starting this blog and joining Twitter have felt like big changes.  I'd be hard pressed to say why so perhaps the reasons are things which have yet to happen.

So here I sit, thinking about happy and new and year.  The photo isn't significant to any of this but it's one I wanted to share.  I know all the negative things about grey squirrels, but still, he's rather cute, isn't he?