New Ways To Learn

Hello, a short update from me today, as always a little late.

Lockdown here in the UK afforded me a short respite from my part time work as a key worker (food shop), and I wanted to complete 2 projects to further develop the teaching side of my art.

The first (late) update is my fifth and newest Textile Art Box – Jungle – bringing you the most foundational technique in stumpwork embroidery, the detached wired slip.

The small and simple kit nevertheless provides you with some beautiful hand dyed fabrics and threads from 21st Century Yarns, wires and full instructions to create some lovely 3 dimensional foliage.

I created this kit inspired by my love of jungles and forests, and is yet another product of my time in Costa Rica at the start of the year. I can proudly say once again this kit is totally and completely plastic free, and the box itself was diverted from landfill, as surplus soap packaging.

This little kit is £22 and as always includes a donation to charity. In this case, £1 will go to Survival International, an amazing organisation that advocates for indigenous rights and seeks to take the colonialism out of conservation.

Here’s my unboxing video!:

I worked out today that since launching my Textile Art Boxes in September 2018, we have raised almost £500 in charitable donations, going to the People’s Trust For Endangered Species, and Survival International.

EDIT: Some bad news! Here in the UK international shipping charges have just shot up, beyond a level I can now absorb. So from Monday I will start charging a subsidised shipping fee. Still lower than cost, but not nothing. So shop this weekend if you want free shipping!

My second lockdown project was to produce my second class on Skillshare.

In the grand scheme of online tutorials, it’s admittedly a bit niche and not that sexy. But this mounting tutorial is something I wish I had had access too, and it’s for anyone who wants to display their textile art work with an alternative to hoop-mounting.

I take you through all the stages to get a good smooth stretched finish if you prefer to display in a square, or want to frame your work.

You can take this and my original class Embellishment in Textile Art: A How To Guide, for FREE with this link . You’ll get 2 months access when you sign up to a free, no commitment, cancel anytime trial. It’s a great time to learn new skills, so you’ll be able to take my classes and any of the other thousands on there.

To be completely transparent, watching my classes pays me a royalty, at no cost to you. So it’s a great way to support me and my work. And I promise – cancelling is really easy.

Mount Delectable

I made this piece between 11th April and 16th May, 3 weeks of which I was furloughed from my day job and on lockdown at home. As is frequently the case, the influence of our times – pandemic living – played a large part in the ultimate meaning in this piece.

It all started with this little creature – a Halloween crab, seen in the mangrove swamps lining the beach and the jungle, on a magical day, on a magical artist residency in Costa Rica in January.

I was so delighted to have seen this animal that I began to research it to see if there was any interesting narrative around it I could express in my artform.

When googling ‘halloween crab’ the whole first page of results consisted nearly totally links to ‘how to take care of your cool new pet’ or YouTube videos from ‘alt models’ showing off their – again – latest cool/cute/spooky pet crab. Try it now – you’ll see.

I found this deeply upsetting.

Digging deeper, I stumbled across an article in National Geographic about wildlife trafficking. This is an incredibly complex, depressing and anger-inducing topic. Please be warned, this article contains many extremely upsetting images.

There were two main points in the article that struck me. The demand for ‘exotic’ pets (this is anything that is not domesticated – so if it isn’t a dog, cat or rabbit/guinea pig type, it falls into this category) is hugely linked to illegal wildlife trade. The damage this trade does to species, food webs, ecosystems is catastrophic.

The other point is zoonoses – the spread of disease from animals to humans. In the article, CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) says that their research has shown that the factor most likely to get people to stop supporting wildlife trafficking, and in turn the pet trade, animal ‘medicines’ and ‘exotic meats’ etc., is when the risk to human health is emphasised.

I read this article while still on residency in January. Almost exactly simultaneously, reports started coming out of a new disease that had crossed the human/animal barrier, in China, probably from an animal market in Wuhan.

Obviously I realise this little crab is adjacent to COVID-19. But how far away is it? This piece was my personal response to, first observing this beautiful, magical little animal, at home in it’s – also threatened – natural habitat of mangrove swamp.

When we decide ‘oh, that’s so cool and pretty!’, why does it follow ‘I need to consume that’? And therefore a domino effect of cruelty and suffering ensues.

And here we are, in a global pandemic. Everything is connected. All life.

Nature is not ours for the taking.

In Dante’s ‘Inferno’ there is a mountain in one of the circles of Hell called Mount Delectable. It is beautiful and magical and contains all earthly delights.

Man tries to scale this mountain, and can never reach the top because wild animals and untamed natural forces throw him down.

If you are able, I would encourage you to watch this video I made of me talking more about this piece. As my work becomes more and more informed by research and complex narratives, it is my preference to just film myself speaking, than write it all down.

Thanks for reading.

Vote for Benedict!

Just a quick post to say I am delighted to announce that my artwork A Benediction From The Old World has been shortlisted for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation Wildlife Artist of the Year 2020 exhibition!

I am so honoured to be part of this prestigious event with 50% of all artwork sales going to support David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and their vital conservation work across Africa and Asia.
This year’s exhibition and awards ceremony will be a little different, due to the current Covid-19 pandemic the exhibition and awards ceremony has been moved online. Please visit the online gallery to view the
exhibition and if you are interested in buying my artwork.

There’s lots to view and buy including some amazing original wildlife art plus affordable ‘#SketchForWildlife postcards. Mine is already sold!

It’s free to visit the exhibition online, but please do consider making a £5 donation to DSWF to help fund their vital work.

MOST IMPORTANTLY please vote for my work for the People’s Choice Award to be entered into a free Prize Draw! Just scroll to the foot of the page and fill out the ballot – it takes less than 10 seconds!

Winners will be announced at the online Awards Ceremony on Tuesday 26 May 2020 at 7.30pm GMT and you can register to join us here.

I am the trees, and I am you.

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

Sources: The hydrologic blog by Laiwan. The Druid Animal Oracle by Phillip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. Why fish need trees and tress need fish by Anne Post. Atlantic Salmon Trust. Salmon & Trout Conservation.

The Provider

The Provider

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.