This is the first piece of work I have produced since returning from my Artist Residency at The Mauser Foundation in Costa Rica. It represents a shift for me in my work and a deeper realisation of the purpose and message I seek to share through my art. I hope you enjoy this post about the development of this work, I’d love to hear any comments you might have.
It began as a sketch whilst in Costa Rica. The time I spent there really grounded in me a renewed sense of the importance of research and exploring the subject through my sketchbooks. I realised it was my lack of confidence in art-making in non-textile mediums that was holding me back from using this as a planning tool. The time and non-judgement applied whilst in Residency has transformed my willingness to spend time at the start of a portrait externalising my ideas on paper before fabric.
When I returned home, I had a challenging few weeks as I needed to complete my piece The Gateway. The sense of distance I had established from this ‘old idea’ (the bat) was profound; again, the evolution in what I wanted my art to communicate was significant and so my interest in completing that piece was much less. This was a large part of the choice to call that piece ‘The Gateway’, because of what it now represented for me as an artist.
So right from the start with the salmon I was in what felt like new territory. The choice to use a non-plain ground fabric, the use of a dynamic pose in the subject, and other elements all felt fresh.
I began with my fabric ‘underpainting’, and a commitment to have a ‘looser’ hand when it came to making my embroidered marks.
Another leap of faith was to use sequins to represent the shining scales of the salmon. I didn’t know if it would read as ‘magical’ or just ‘homemade’. I don’t know if that makes sense to you.
Anyway, the answer is that I was happy with the choice. It also gave me the opportunity to use some sequins from the Sustainable Sequin Company, made from recycled PET.
But actually the thing I enjoyed the most was the work I did on the fins. I just loved being so free and sketchy with my stitches and the juxtaposition of that with the very constrained methodical work of stitching down each sequin.
In this piece I took inspiration from the salmon as the Divine Salmon of Knowledge from my own British culture. In the Mabinogion (the earliest written prose stories of Britain, from pre-Christian oral tradition) and Irish myth cycles the salmon is the Oldest Animal, swimming in the well of wisdom at the source of all life. In the earliest Arthurian tale the heroes are led to successively more ancient Totem Beasts until they find themselves face to face with the oldest of all, The Salmon of The Lake of The Leader. Only the salmon is able to lead them to find the Mabon, the Divine Child of Druid Tradition – the Christ child who brings eternal life and vigour. In my piece, he is a male spawning atlantic salmon, resplendent and shining with divinity and power, he has travelled thousands of miles to the place of his birth to spawn, die and be resurrected in his offspring anew.
Globally, few animals have been as central to the human experience as salmon. Twenty-five-thousand years ago Paleolithic man carved a life-size salmon into the ceiling of a cave in southern France near the Vézère River. This is the oldest known artistic representation of a salmon in the world and proof that even in Paleolithic salmon was a well known and important totem.
The significance of salmon in indigenous communities in North America and Canada can not be understated. The legend of the Salmon People is told by many First Nations cultures and these stories helped shape the traditions and lifestyles that were passed down from one generation to the next. Salmon are indicator species: As water becomes degraded and fish populations decline, so too will the elk, deer, roots, berries and medicines that sustain the people living in river communities.
Salmon are the biological foundation of river ecosystems and food webs. A keystone species, of the 137 species documented as dependent on salmon, 41 are mammals including orcas, bears and river otters, 89 are birds, including bald eagles, Caspian terns and grebes, five are reptiles and two are amphibians. Not only that but as the bodies of spawning salmon break down, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients become available to streamside vegetation, perhaps up to 70% of it’s nitrogen. One study concludes that trees on the banks of salmon-stocked rivers grow more than three times faster than their counterparts along salmon-free rivers.
Today just 14% of rivers in England are considered to have ‘good’ ecological status. Threats to salmon include pollution of all kinds, man made barriers to the best spawning areas, slowing them and making them easy targets for predators including bird, fish, mammal and human. Chemicals build up in their bodies when in freshwater, weakening them and making them easier targets for marine predators; open net salmon farms and sick, farmed salmon breeding with wild salmon, lice, and climate change altering currents and therefore migration routes.
When we protect salmon and river ecology we honour millennia of indigenous cultures that have evolved alongside salmon. Culture and livelihood are completely disrupted and almost irreversibly destroyed by globalist consumerism and colonial and neocolonial cultures of violence.
In the process of researching this piece, after completing it, I discovered a Squamish First Nations story, in which a woman witnesses the ghosts of salmon floating in and out of the water. She asks them what is the matter and they tell her that the humans have stopped bringing their bones to the water and the salmon are unable to return home. This story reflects the loss of tradition and the need to maintain ones cultural heritage and natural resources.
My instinct to include these ghost fish was a choice to simply more strongly narrativise the ‘ancestors’ leading the salmon home. It was like a little gift to me to then discover this story. I like to think it was a calling I responded to.
How have I watched the waters at the dawn!
How have I peered in the still waters at noon!
How have I scanned them spent and pale at eve!
Started at sudden splash in deep of night!Waiting the salmon-God that never comes. The Song of the Salmon-God by W P Ryan
This is a bit of an odd final project for this year. I mean that reflectively.
I started out with my fabric ‘underpainting’.
This portrait really revolved, initially, around an idea:
I designed this collar on organdie, in chain stitch with machine thread.
Almost a third of this isn’t even visible in the final piece but I like it just the same.
It was then time for me to return to upholstery fringe.
All the pieces in place, it was time to stitch everything down.
Then the work of actually embroidering the portrait began. This was perhaps where it started to get away from me.
It was important for me to challenge myself with keeping my hand loose to describe the fur. I have to admit at this stage I thought this was a very ugly mess.
But it was the eyes I found the most challenging, as if I’ve never said that before. I never felt as though I resolved this detail and as a result I believe this piece to be my weakest work for a long time.
At the same time it was also giving me ‘Laughing Cavalier’ vibes at this point.
I think I was happier with the eyes close up, but really I never fully rectified them.
I called the face a day. I think in the embroidering it had lost some of the essential ‘hyena-ness’ that I felt I had in the underpainting, and I wasn’t able to pull it back to that. It was my first time creating fur with embroidery and although there’s parts of it I’m happy with, I felt there was more merit in not overworking it and later analysing what went wrong and what I could learn from it, than ripping out or giving up.
Anyway, onto the ears.
And that was the portrait complete.
The last stage was the assemblage – I had to render the body fur – I decided to do this fairly simply with straight running stitch, there was enough going on in the rest of it.
Also to do was a little bit of embellishment on the collar with pearls and glass drops.
Then finally, the nimbus.
I wanted the halo in this one to be a bit different than previous ones and to stand for the magic and witchcraft the hyena is often associated with in the folklore of the people they exist near. I went for a fine green metallic thread with a slight geometric motif.
So what went wrong?
In part I think when I started this piece originally I was looking specifically at the brown hyena, as the most threatened species of hyena. In the early stages though, the more recognisable features of the spotted hyena crept in to the face shapes. Unfortunately I think the portrait ended up being a sort of hybrid and so lost the impact a bit for me.
I wanted this piece to subvert the accepted narrative in popular culture that the hyena is a dirty, stupid, cowardly thief.
Hyena live in highly organised maternal/matriarchal societies, where all their behaviour is about providing for their pack. Writing them off as nothing more than a crazy scavenger is to provide a space into which the human threats that are pushing them towards extinction can take greater hold. Perpetuating this narrative allows such persecution to feel more justified, more explicable.
Hyena are some of the most uniquely intelligent mammals in existence. Highly effective hunters in their own right, some species in the genera kill as much as 95% of their food rather than stealing it. Where they are scavenging, they’re driving off much larger predators, like lions, despite their cowardly reputation.
Hyena feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of the humans that live alongside them, going back tens of thousands of years. Negative associations around witchcraft and grave robbing has cast them as demons, witch-familiars, were-hyenas, vampires and jinns, and again these myths have created a space into which their body parts are coveted as talismans in love and fertility magic.
Western perceptions have been equally negative and far more ignorant. A hyena biologist attempted to sue Disney for defamation of character on the release of The Lion King, and another – who had organised the animators’ visit to a Field Station for Behavioural Research, where they would observe and sketch captive hyenas – suggested boycotting the film.
Ironically, hyena are at huge risk from being killed, usually poisoned, shot or snared by farmers who mistakenly believe that they have killed the cattle they are now scavenging, a ‘crime’ equally likely to have been committed by cheetah or the king of the jungle – the lion.
I made this piece almost as a companion piece to The Emancipator, as a comment on scavengers and their typical perception. Both animals are plagued by negative perceptions which lead to harmful beliefs and ultimately deadly threats. ‘Dressing’ both animals in their respective finery is a device to suggest an alternative narrative might be present, rather than an attempt to anthropomorphise on my part.
You can still see The Emancipator at Brush until the 24th, and I have one-off giclee prints available too, with 20% of sales going to Elephant Nature Park.
It’s very rare that I write about anything on here other than my art and it’s creation, so I’ll ease into it with pictures from the recent inaugural exhibition of The Society For Embroidered Work, at The Clerkenwell Gallery in London.
My piece A Benediction From The Old World made his public debut, amongst the best contemporary textiles artists working today. The Private View was absolutely packed and it was a brilliant show all round, and a win in the sadly continuing battle to legitimise embroidered art as Art.
My latest piece The Emancipator also made his debut at Brush Gallery in Brighton this week, where it will appear as part of the Elephant group show until December 24th.
The show is in aid of the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, and 20% of all sales during the show goes to support the work they do there rescuing abused and neglected elephants.
I’m also selling one of my hand-gilded prints of this piece:
I made a post on Instagram yesterday about Black Friday and the pressure we all feel to spend and ‘find deals’ this time of year. As a self employed, independent artist I feel the pressure just the same, and I certainly understand the attraction of a bargain.
But I am going to use this post, and this week on social media, to draw attention to all the work I have done this year to make my original artwork accessible to everyone. We all have a choice where we spend our money, and that has huge power. So I want to encourage anyone reading this to support living artists like me. I know it can feel like we are all constantly being barked at with advertisements, and I don’t want to add to the noise. But when you buy even just a single card from me, it literally helps me pay the bills and continue to raise awareness of the threats to the natural world, along with raising money for charities doing the real work to protect it.
I have several other prints in my shop, but very limited quantities!
This print of Benedict (as I call him), sold out in a couple of hours when I released the first batch on Instagram, so I have ordered a reprint and you can buy now to make sure you don’t miss out. Prints are a big investment for me as photographing my textured work is a job for professionals, but the quality of this is absolutely exceptional, and every stitch is visible.
I’m sitting here trying to remember what it was I was thinking when I begun this piece.
To be honest I think I had just chosen the subject (narrowed down to the male red-headed vulture, from a selection of possible vultures as they’re all sadly threatened), and unusually had a motif of a gold brocade cloak in my mind. The meaning of the two combined came later.
I knew I wanted to work the vulture portrait separately so hooped up a bit of black felt and started with this very ugly fabric collage.
I was working to my watercolour sketch, based on a photograph from the species’ wikipedia page.
And there we go:
I was pretty pleased with him. On to the next stage.
This was a case of pinning and construction and seeing what would work. I decided the best thing would be to make a sample of the goldwork I intended to add to the cloak and work from that.
I basically bought all the gold braid, grecian, russian and brocade and came up with this motif, using little pearls.
Next though I decided I’d need to create a collar to make the two elements make sense together.
That problem solved, I committed to the cloak’s decoration.
The centre strip is ready made upholstery brocade, edged either side in Russian braid, then baby grecian in loops, and finally very fine pearl purl with pearls at the end.
Then I began to attach the head with the collar, fairly open so as not to obscure so much of the neck embroidery.
I say it every time, I am a glutton for punishment.
Once I’d couched the whole halo with black passing, creating some sort of Severus Snape raptor, it all needed plunging and tieing back.
Very much worth all the work.
There are many reasons for choosing the vulture as the subject in this portrait.
The sole member of the genus sarcogyps, the Indian black vulture or red headed vulture diverged 10-11 million years ago.
Hinduism favours vultures, as cows are not consumed, so when they die their carcasses are naturally disposed of by the vulture. However the routine use of antibiotics on cattle turns these carcasses into poison, causes instant renal failure in the vulture. The decline in vultures means that the carcass rots in the field, contaminating local water supply. The digestive system of a vulture is a true dead end for pathogens, but not so for other scavengers like rats, crows and dogs who can carry rabies, anthrax and plague. As these other species proliferate, they can pass these diseases to humans and poultry, huge causes of death in Indian populations, where there is an insufficient vaccine programme.
In Parsee culture fire, earth and water are sacred and so their ancient funerary customs centre on excarnation. They believe that to reach heaven, vultures serve as holy intermediaries between earth and sky. Their dead are placed on a tower where vultures liberate the soul by consuming the body.
But these vultures are so rare now that the bodies are not consumed quickly enough, and their slow decomposition poses a pathological threat to human life, meaning these ancient holy customs have had to cease. Global population of vultures have halved every year since the 90s, and in India there has been a 90% decrease in the last 10 years.
The aesthetic choices in this portrait, emerged in the construction somewhat. I wanted to subvert the traditional idea of a scavenger. A dirty, disease ridden animal. By taking a somewhat glamorous livery and dressing the vulture in it, rather than intending to anthropomorphise the animal, I wanted to raise questions about what role they play in reality. The associations with death and morbidity I didn’t want to necessarily steer the viewer away from, but rather, like much of my work, draw attention to the role they play as caretakers, disposers, ushers in the cycle of life and death and the vital role they play in the ecosystem.
The difficulty in photographing a piece with so much black, means that whilst I have had prints made of this piece,I’ve only had 2 made, and hand gilded the halo as a special one-off edition.