Round Up – Georgian Theatre Project II
I’m trying to find a bit of time to reflect on the projects that I did last year; in the constant pressure to make work, I’m worried about what gets lost…all the ideas that flow while in the middle of a project, the discoveries made that I don’t have time to record or pursue. So this is one in a series of intermittent posts, reviewing and reminding myself of my major undertakings last year. I wrote in my last post on this about how I arrived at focussing on the text, through a combination of being in the Theatre, drawing and photographing it and then reviewing what I’d selected, almost unconsciously.
I realised how important words were – to me and also in the Theatre. The words that are spoken – from my research the thing that had struck me was the idea of knowing what the first plays performed at the Theatre on its opening night were. I found that remarkable – to know what that first audience who sat in that space in 1788 had listened to. From sitting in the empty theatre, listening to footsteps outside and the voices of unseen passers-by, the murmur of visitors, the hum of traffic, came the sense that if only I listened hard enough, I might hear those first words echoing across the centuries. So it became about memory too, and my own memories of the first play I ever saw being in that Theatre. From my observations while there, I focussed on tiny details – places where the paint had peeled away, or been deliberately left to show the flakes of the original colour.
It felt like layers of memories, holes in time….looking at old Theatre posters too with spots of age and torn edges – all this led me to include some of my own imagery – to use moths to suggest a nibbling away at the fabric of history. The idea of the vulnerability of structures to decay – of physical things like fabric and paper being susceptible to being eaten away and crumbling also has a parallel with memory and its qualities. So I took text from the opening night and also from the night the Theatre re-opened in the 1960’s, words spoken that spanned three centuries. I used the archive of theatre posters as inspiration for the look of the text and all these ideas formed the basis of a triptych.
Pursuing these ideas, of using words and layers, I also wanted to bring in another source of inspiration – the painted scenery in the Theatre Museum. It’s a woodland scene, and all the trees are identifiable. Remarkable when you consider that the audience probably wouldn’t have been able to see that detail. This suggested another series of pieces – that incorporated specific trees, with text and layering. I wanted to do three – to use the three sections of a poem that was specifically written for the reopening of the Theatre – but only managed two as I realised I was running out of time. The trees I chose were Oak and Rowan (also known as Mountain Ash) and I intended to use Thorn as well. Again it’s related to my own memories – much of my work comes out of my childhood reading; these three are repeated over and over in Rudyard Kipling’s work. Without realising it I seem to have become steeped in folklore.
All of these pieces presented new technical challenges – it’s very difficult to do a large piece when you can only just reach to the middle of the paper! I couldn’t see the whole piece at once as I didn’t have the space so had to work out the composition on the computer screen first, which was tremendously helpful. I cut all the text first and then positioned it on the paper and used it to anchor the rest of my freehand drawn composition. As I used it I stuck it up on my studio doors so I gradually became surrounded by words:
With my layered pieces, I worked out a way of pinning the top layer of paper so it floated over the background, something that I’m pursuing now as it gives more life to the paper than sandwiching it between glass. I tried a range of different paper weights – one important thing this commission gave me was time to experiment – this tends to be missing when the pressure is on to try to make a living. It’s the freedom to try things that won’t necessarily work; I initially started out thinking I’d use thin rice paper, to try and capture a sense of fragility and lightness, but I simply couldn’t make it work for me. It was just too delicate to cut. Doing a bit of research, I found other artists who use rice paper often have it backed with something, or cut several layers at once, or use scissors rather than a knife. So sometimes it is important to stick to what you know ! The paper that I use – Fabriano cartridge paper, in a range of weights from 120 – 200 gsm can sustain a lot of cutting away.
It was a wonderful breathing space and a chance to experiment; to push myself technically, and to challenge myself to produce a body of work centred around a particular place. To start, literally, with a blank sheet of paper. But for it all still to be recognisably ‘my’ work. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity, via Chrysalis Arts, and it’s definitely something I’d love to do again. Developing a relationship with a place, delving into its history, becoming part of it, and making work in response to it, feels just right. There’s more about this project on the blog I kept while I was working on it here and this is the leaflet I produced to accompany the exhibition: A Theatre of Words.