In April 2011 I attended Basketry and Beyond: constructing cultures, an international conference held at the University of East Anglia. I’m still not quite sure why I signed up, but it was local, looked fascinating and I had always been drawn to the elemental nature of baskets. In truth, I was feeling rather isolated and lost in my work and was hoping that spending a couple of days with makers and academics would prove inspiring. Above all I had a notion that basketry might be a way of pulling together some of the different strands of my own working life as a maker of ceramic and textile pieces.
Something that has changed since I attended art school in the 1970s is the stratification and separation of disciplines; in those days there was very little blurring between the lines, the fine artists stayed in the painting studio and the ceramics students stayed in the pottery workshop and cross over between the two was rare. But the 2011 basketry conference was all about interdisciplinary exchange and collaboration, with practical makers – willow growers, basket makers, and a coracle maker to name but a few, and academics—historians, archaeologists, experts on material culture, architects and biologists, all coming together to exchange views and learn from each other.
The conference gave me a wonderful glimpse into a world I knew little about and it propelled me into a new phase of work. I was struck by three ideas in particular. Firstly, that basket makers, be they human, animal or avian, tend to use materials that are readily available and gathered locally. Secondly, that these materials, which might be natural or manmade, influence the final product in terms of shape, form, size, color etc. And thirdly, that in many instances the preparation of these materials takes considerably longer than the actual construction process.
These ideas resonated with thoughts I’d been having about excessive consumption, sustainability, slow making, mindfulness, form and function and the role of improvisation in my own making process. At the time I was working on an on-going textile piece Unfinished Mending, which is a skirt I started mending in 2008 while I was working as a counselor and artist-facilitator. With all my energies going into other people’s creativity and healing, my own creative practice wasn’t getting much of a look in, and I noticed that I was feeling envious when I watched others absorbed in stitching; the skirt became a place where I could attend to my own need to sew, mend and heal, accompanied by the rhythm and slow pace of hand stitching. Unfinished Mending and the basketry conference ideas led on to my current phase of work that is best described as material-led. At present I’m making one-off textile pieces, working with remnants from family life, which have become precious through association and memory—the sloughed skins of childhood and adolescence, the clothing of a long dead parent, household linens soft and tender from long years of use; things that have exhausted their first life but that retain their bonds and attachments.
While I work, I’m touched by the feeling of connection with people who’ve worked the materials in the past and those who’ve worn or used them. In a sense the objects I’m making are biographical, so their titles hint that there is personal meaning beyond the new object and its practical use. It’s inevitable that my own memories are contained in the fabric of the objects, but the suggestion is that the cloth itself has an unerasable history that I can only guess at. I hope an observer sees possibility and potential and wonders about their own family’s cast-offs.
I usually work on several pieces at the same time so that I don’t get frustrated by a queue of ideas waiting to be tried out. At the moment, alongside a neckpiece and a new stitched project, I’m getting towards the end of Artists’ socks a large shawl that is crocheted from unravelled socks donated by my work colleagues. It’s very bright and vibrant and reflects the colorful work space and the sock donors themselves. Another sock shawl titled ‘3 ½ ankle socks with striped cuffs’ is more muted, the product of my partner’s worn out socks and a rather startling illustration of how much fine yarn most of us discard when our un-darnable modern socks wear through. It’s fascinating to see how the color and feel of people’s cast-offs carry through to the finished piece and echo the original owner, a sort of unavoidable personal aesthetic. I’ve been collecting old socks from my extended family that I’m planning to use to make a piece about our connectedness; it feels like quite a challenge as I look into the bag of worn greying socks relieved only by an occasional flash of brilliant color and wonder about the threads that bind the family together.
At the end of this year I’ll be spending two months in Australia where Amanda Ravetz and I have a joint Scholars and Artists Fellowship at the National film and Sound archive in Canberra. Amanda is an anthropological filmmaker; her research concerns the crossovers between anthropology and art, the history and improvisatory practice of observational cinema and the role of collaboration in craft. Together we will be looking at archival films which encouraged and instructed World War II audiences in the reuse of discarded and overlooked household textiles. We will be making a film which will include archive material and will follow my textile response to the archive. We’re particularly interested in the ‘thinking hand’, the importance of touch to the making process, improvisation and the collaborative relationship between maker, materials and other sources. Amanda and I are sisters; we’ve worked together on two previous film projects exploring experiential knowledge and improvisation: Beautiful Colour a film made in 2010 about the artist Ian Partridge and Thinking Through Thread (currently in post-production), a film about the artist Barbara Symmons.
We will be presenting work from the fellowship at the Visible Evidence conference at NFSA in December 2012. In Spring of 2013 an exhibition of our work will be held at MMU's Special Collections gallery.
To learn more about Ant’s work, please visit www.antriviere.co.uk; for more information about Beautiful Colour, stop by Beautiful Colour http://vimeo.com/16386572
For more information about the MMU Special Collections, visit http://www.specialcollections.mmu.ac.uk/ and for Visible Evidence, go to http://www.visibleevidence2012.com/