Friday, 28 October 2016

Etching with 'A Belfast Peace'

When I visited Belfast almost a year ago, I took a lot of photos of the city as it now is, as opposed to when I knew it in the 1970s and 1980s. In those decades, it was a very tense place to be because of the violence that plagued the city and Northern Ireland in general but I'm very glad to say that it is now a much changed place with so much happening socially, architecturally, in the arts and in tourism. The same is true of Derry/Londonderry which I have now visited for the first time. I was here to attend an exhibition opening in the Verbal Arts Centre and I'll be posting about this visit in my 'Thread of the Spirit' blog. In this post, I will include images and details of another exhibition 'Stitched Legacies of Conflict' on at present in the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in Limavady, a few miles from Derry, as I have one of my conflict pieces 'Continuum', in this exhibition.

The photographs I took of Belfast last year inspired me to make a piece within my 'Conflict' work which looks toward a peace which has begun and is ongoing, if still not perfect. Added to the pleasure of thinking about a peace that seemed impossible for so many years - the Troubles are generally spoken of as lasting 30 years - the medium for my new work is etching, something I carried out with such joy as an undergraduate and to which, thanks to the help of Andrew Baldwin in the School of Art, I have now been able to return!

View of presses in the Printing Department, School of Art, Aberystwyth University

The bench I work at in the Printing Department.

I started off with a copper plate  -  I had only worked on zinc before  -  and used the new ground for etching and aquatint called BIG (Baldwin's Ink Ground) that Andrew developed as a non-toxic method for etching and aquatint - when I worked in the medium years ago, health and safety weren't regarded in the same way that they are now! It was such a pleasure to be doing etching and I have fallen in love all over again with the plates, the prints, the method and process  -

Photo of my etched copper plate on my bench.

Inking up the plate  -  the 'Titanic' workers with 'Rise' behind.

The image that you see on the plate has, as its main components, my interpretation of a bronze sculpture in East Belfast of three figures that represent the 'Titanic' workers of 100 years ago and, behind them, a sculpture in steel by the Falls Road known as 'Rise'.

The figures of the three workers, sculpted in bronze by artist Ross Wilson, stand on the Newtownards Road and, unveiled in 2012, they depict the 'yardmen' walking home, a tribute to the industrial legacy and folk history of the workforce of East Belfast. This was made as part of East Belfast Partnership's project Re-imaging the Newtownards Road and some of the most contentious murals in the area were removed and replaced with 'No More' and 'Ship of Dreams' community artwork.

Harland and Wolff's iconic cranes, Samson and Goliath, one of which I have pictured here, can be seen rising above houses in the background at some distance behind the bronze figures. I have not included the cranes in my etching.

This is a night-time photograph I took from the car, using my phone, of the sculpture 'Rise.

Built to represent hope and known locally as 'The Balls on the Falls', it is a structure in white and silver steel, almost 40 m tall and 30 m wide and I think it is particularly effective seen lit up, when its two geodesic spheres, supported on slender stanchions, seem like ethereal lace against the dark of the night sky. The large sculpture stands on the Broadway Roundabout at the junction of the Westlink and the M1 motorway, a main road into the city with access to the Falls Road via Broadway and it is visible from a considerable distance and can be seen by both sides of the community. Artist Wolfgang Buttress, who designed the work, wanted it to be simple, universal and the same when looked at from every angle.

The print showing the sculpture 'Rise' with the 'Titanic' figures.

From plate to print

For the very first trial pull, black without extender was used but it turned out to be much too dark, so extender and Prussian Blue were added. This use of the extender to thin the very dense ink and adding the blue to the black gave a much more subtle colouring to the image. 

Using a single ink mix, Prussian Blue with Black and extender.

Andrew talked to me about the method called a 'double drop' which would involve inking the whole plate in Vermilion, using extender to define and give the desired character and effect in particular areas, then repeating the whole process using Prussian Blue. I thought that Vermilion could give a warmth to the image, so we tried this out on the plate. However, instead of the sepia tones I had been expecting from the mix of red and blue shades, the colour that resulted was very much more burgundy than sepia and I didn't think this tone suited the piece. Vermilion is also a very strong colour and, as well as the tendency toward burgundy rather than sepia, I felt the colouration Vermilion gave with the 'double drop' was much too strong, drowning out the blue shades almost entirely and robbing the piece of the subtler atmosphere the Prussian Blue had given it.

Experimenting using Vermilion as a 'double drop'.

Inking up and printing to find the right colour balance and treatment of the inks.

The solution was to use a recipe of Prussian Blue, Black, a little Vermilion and touch of extender as the initial colour for the entire plate. The plate was inked up using this colour recipe, then extender was applied to appropriate areas where a softening or suffusing of tone was wanted. After this, Vermilion was applied only to sections where it was needed and again suffused using extender. The result was a satisfying blue/black with the vermilion adding hints of warmth to the lower sky and foreground of the image.


The finished print on Somerset paper. I gave it the title 'A Belfast Peace'.

I was thrilled when Andrew said he would like to include my print in his exhibition 'Breaking New Ground'! This is an exhibition of prints using the etching and aquatint ground known as BIG, developed by Andrew. The exhibition features work by artists from all over the world and it opened on Friday 7th October in the School of Art Gallery, Aberystwyth University and runs until Friday 18th November 2016.

I find this is a really exciting addition to my processes and I have now printed onto linen and am stitching the etching on paper  -  next blog will include images for this next stage in my work! 

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Poetry and Sick Children's Hospital

In January, I had a wonderful time recording volunteers reading my poems in the National Library. It was so interesting and moving to hear Colin, Mary, Paul and Mike reading my words, to hear their interpretations of what I have written and to see them moved by one poem particularly, 'Fragments', written out here beneath the photo of Ed and myself.

I had organised the day and poems but Ed came along to act as sound technician and his help here was invaluable. He has a great skill in working out the recording levels so that nothing peaks and each reader's voice comes across really well. Ed and I have cooperated before on the music elements of my installations and we work very well together.

These recordings have given me a lot of material to work from and Arthur took some photos to make a visual record of the day. The Drwm room's auditorium was an excellent venue for the recordings and I am very fortunate to have been able to hire it. The library staff, too, were all friendly, courteous and helpful and I'll be really happy to use it again if I need to do some more work like this.

Self with Ed in the Drwm Auditorium


People morphing in and out of
smoke like clouds,
hides mangled bodies   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

at thirty-five,
    at sixty-eight  -
wandering,     dazed,
shirtless, shoeless  -

‘he was right out of it’

Massive explosion just
removed her from this earth  -
we were screaming and panicking,
screaming but deafened,
     bones slammed tight
    couldn’t hear anything
            no sound    -

as nine-year-olds to die?

devastation, just
     devastation   -
heroes were police and
ambulance crews   -
came to help the dead and
dying, not knowing if
another device would
remove them from this earth   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

he was running  -  shouting!
spotted the thing in the
back of the car,
warn everyone   -


in his teens,
           caught full force
of the blast   -

‘he was blew to pieces’   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

looking for her children,
she drew level with the car  -


removed her from this earth   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

‘no sound, not of bird
        or anything’

he planted the bomb,
        went to the pub,
ordered a whisky   -

she was lying there,
her body full of hacks,
skull of man or woman
embedded in the railings   -

as nine-year-olds,
         as   nine-year-olds to    die  ?

Before this time in the National Library, I had been back over to N. Ireland to go to Belfast to visit one of my old places of work, the Royal Victoria Hospital. I had worked here in the late 1970s and beginning of the 80s, first of all as a student nurse in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children and later as an Art Therapist in the Geriatric Unit of the RVH.

When I returned home after graduating from Aberystwyth University with my initial degree, the Troubles were raging and jobs in the arts were few and far between. I had been led to believe that my university degree would still enable me to work professionally in an art studio but this was not the case. The etching I had done at university was 'as monks had done it' centuries before and I absolutely loved it but I knew nothing of the then modern techniques of photo litho offset, was told that my work was 'fine art' and I was an academic  -  this last said, on one occasion, as if it might be some kind of disease!  -  and so I struggled to know what to do. I thought of further study at Belfast Art College, of teaching there, of teaching at Queen's University but there were differing problems, including no posts available, with all of these things.

I followed a career for a couple of years which, in the end, I decided just didn't suit me and then I thought of that which had also attracted me for a long time, nursing. It seemed a compassionate path to take, especially in light of the bombs and terror that daily plagued Ulster; healing, in the face of destruction, seemed the right thing to do, so I started to do interviews to get into the profession. My own health had suffered over the years, so it was at the Royal that I found a sympathetic ear to my desire to nurse and they gave me a chance to train in the children's hospital, as they thought my physique wouldn't cope with adult nursing.

The position as student nurse, as I possessed a degree, had some problems but I very much enjoyed studying biology and other aspects of the nursing course and found being on the wards so interesting and rewarding. Eventually, however, my health did give out and I had to leave because I didn't have enough resistance to infection. However, I will never forget my time as a nurse, the people I met, staff and others, conversations I had, the job itself which always felt so much more than 'a job' and, above all, the children and their struggles, so very early in life, against implacable illness. I have expressed my feelings about this and written of situations I faced in my poetry and this is all part of my investigations into and interpretations of life in the Troubles.

It was a pleasure to meet Margaret Rooney and Colin Cairns (my maiden name, as it happens!) and I so appreciate all their help in getting me in to the hospital and seeing around. Margaret took myself, my sister, Joyce and Arthur round, gave us lunch and. afterwards, she even gave me a nurse's cloak identical to the one I had during my student nurse days! I loved my deep navy cloak  -  these cloaks were made of  heavy, closely felted wool and were so warm to wear  -  I don't think nurses have them any more, which seems a shame  -  gone, along with caps and the old dresses and aprons which had been the uniform for many years.

The Sick Children's Hospital building  -  a new one is presently under construction.

Statue of small child in the hospital by the entrance hallway

Former Quiet Room

This room pictured is now a meeting room but, when I nursed in the hospital, was where the body was taken when a child had died. It was a part of the training to sit with a dead child for one hour, alone, as, if it happened when you were on night duty, quite possibly alone, you had to be able to cope with dealing with death. I sat with a nine year-old who had passed away with leukaemia  - his body so still, he looked completely at peace.

Plaque for Florence Bostock

This plaque is on an inner wall in the Children's Hospital  -  I stayed in Bostock Nurses' Home during my nurse training period.

A funny little anecdote regarding the Nurses' Home is that an announcement went out one day asking nurses to stop sunbathing topless on the roof, as this was distracting the army  -  so that's why the helicopter was going round and round and round .  . . .!  (I didn't actually take part in this activity myself!)

One thing I did do was wear my hooded dressing-gown with the hood up one evening when I was crossing over to the kitchen to make coffee  -  someone at the other end of the lengthy corridor jumped up in alarm  -  I gave a wave to reassure them  -  at least, I could be a friendly ghost!!

Beautiful stained glass window in the hospital

Close-up of the Good Samaritan

Hospital entrance

Statue of Queen Victoria outside the hospital.

Looks a bit gloomy in the photos and we did have to dodge the rain but the very next day, the sun came out!

Thursday, 26 November 2015

To choose a thread

I have been working with a variety of black threads in the dark areas of my large piece and have written a report on how they have worked out in practise. I find this a useful exercise partly because, although you think you'll remember what has occurred while using a thread or fabric and how they have worked out overall, memory, in this instance, does not usually cooperate as fully as one thinks it should! The notes are useful, then, because I can refer back to them when I next need to make a decision on using or buying black thread.

Here, then, are my findings on the black threads I have been working with.

Little image showing the threads

1.  Splendor   Black  5801

A 12 ply strandable silk, this is a very nice dense black which works well using one strand  -  excellent for building up shapes/forms. Two strands are, as would be expected, denser and heavier but, as usual, I prefer to use the single strand  -  more subtle. This thread is also not too 'springy', so behaves well while working.

Au ver à Soie,  Soie D'Alger          Black 4106   (A)

2.  A 7 stranded silk, each strand slightly thicker than the Splendor, so gives more coverage. Again, a really comfortable thread to use, behaves well in the needle and a good dense black  -  as with Splendor, I think it is worth getting more of this thread  -  its use is slightly different because the thread is slightly rougher in appearance and is a more textured silk than the Splendor.

3.  Au ver à Soie,  Soie de Paris     Black 4106

A more 'springy' thread than the previous two, so needs more guiding through the needle which makes it a bit slower to work with; if it is not carefully guided, it tends to snag. Each strand is very fine, so I am using two to work with, though the single could be very useful for a really small or detailed area. Black is rich and dense, so good colour.

4.  Mulberry Silks Black   W 000

I'm using the fine thread and it is also available in a thicker version. A really nice thread to work with, as are all the Mulberry Silks  -  lies down easily, nor springy in the needle. Slight drawback to this one is that the black is not as dense as the above three  -  like a charcoal black as opposed to a lamp black  -  so not so useful for the present large piece I'm still working on  -   it gets gradually nearer to completion with every stitching session.

         4  a)   W 755

Another Mulberry Silk and this one is a charcoal and a good one  -  makes a very useful hue when shading black to grey, so well worth having.

5.  Anchor Stranded Cotton    Black 403

A nice dense black and, being cotton, no problem with springiness. Difference as opposed to silk is that the cotton does not have the lustre of silk but, this said, it is a good, useful thread.

6.  Soie Crystal  by Caron    Black  56101

This 12-ply silk strands very readily and, like Splendor and the two Au ver à Soie threads, is a rich, dense black. It is comfortable to use, not really springy and, in thickness, each strand is slightly thicker than Splendour but not quite as thick as Soie d'Alger. Have used both one strand and two together very successfully  -  another good thread to have!

7.  DMC Linen   L 310

I inherited this thread from Marion Jones via her husband after Marion's death and it is just one of many that have been so useful to me. I very much enjoy her choice of colours and really appreciate this unexpected legacy  -  very many thanks to Vernon. It seems a shame that I never met Marion in this life, it would have been so good to talk about her work which I like very much. To go back to the thread, it is, as with the silks, a nice dense black and I like the depth and texture of the linen fibres, only problem being that the linen tends to break easily in the needle which is a bit of a shame but otherwise, a very good thread.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Hue of Sorrow

Exciting news is that I have an article published in Embroidery magazine in the present (Nov/Dec) Issue 66 of the magazine. The editor, Jo Hall, asked if I would write an article about the work I am currently doing for the PhD, so The Hue of Sorrow was born.

I really enjoyed writing the piece! It's great to see it in print and here is a preview:-

Courtesy Embroidery magazine

Friday, 16 October 2015

Action and Reaction

So many people suffer in our world, through experiencing pain in all of its forms, traumas physical and psychological, personal and political distress, fear that encompasses young and old. Something that affects me personally is neuropathic pain. It can come in the night, tends to hit my left leg particularly, and is like being stabbed repetitively by an onslaught of sharp knives. This attack keeps me pinioned on its force and jerking with spasms until it finally subsides. I can't go to sleep again until the knives at least reduce to needles and the perspiration makes these 'several night-clothes' nights. I wake up exhausted with both legs aching despite the barrage of anti-spasm and supposedly pain-killing tablets I take daily. Actually, they do work to a degree, otherwise I would be incapable of doing anything in this life and that is not my way. It is so important to occupy the brain with, for me, thoughts of creativity and it is very important not to dwell on pain.

Once I am able, I very often stitch. I found years ago that, when my muscles are acting up, hand stitch is just about the only activity my body can do for any length of time; holding my arms in a position to type doesn't last long, my hands don't want to keep writing, painting is impossible and my voice tires very quickly, so a voice-activated computer wouldn't help, so stitch it is and I have found such a wealth of possibilities with this! Another great thing about hand stitch is that it can be carried out even in bed, so my body can get some rest while I work with colours and rhythms in thread and cloth.

It can still be frustrating, despite my love of stitch, not to be able to carry out other activities when I would like to, even jobs in the house! I used to work as an Art Therapist with the elderly and think of how what I used to say to my patients some years ago now applies to me. Illness often causes, in modern parlance, a necessity to reinvent oneself. My creating artwork with the needle may have come about through illness but it is so important now in fighting against the diminishing of the self. I feel it is vital to turn the negativity of pain, when at all possible, into a positively creative act. My pain is nothing compared to what others go through in this world. To listen to the news or watch it on tv only shows how so many people, from tiny children to the elderly, suffer at the hands of others or through the frailty of the human body.

Through creating my art, I wish to give to society, not just be a drain on those around me. In restoring my own sense of self worth, I hope that my experiences can also speak to others and that is part of the reason for this work in the PhD. I experienced the Troubles with the distress they brought to so many; now there are terrible problems that we all face and the solutions are so difficult to come by. If only human beings could love much more and not hate  -  why must intolerance, suspicion and cruelty reign with such appalling force and seem to be so impossible to eradicate? To speak of universal love eventually winning over all that is evil seems, at least as far as this side of the grave is concerned, a naive dream but people do respond with love in this life, not always hate  -  the dream will just take who knows how long to become a reality but slowly, I hope, we can keep spiralling towards it.

The following are a few photos of details of the large piece I am working on at the moment, in places complete with pins! They are not perfect representations of the work but will at least give an idea of it for the moment. I find it can be quite frustrating in the effort to achieve a really good image of textile artwork with the camera  -  highlights and contrasts seem to get exaggerated beyond what they are in reality. I will stitch a little more then spend some time working with the camera to get truer images of the piece.

This image shows some wreckage from the vehicle. What are we looking at? Are these pieces of  metal tubing bits of the vehicle itself or what it held? It is now not possible to know unless perhaps examination from an expert could gradually discover what function these pieces once had. From the point of view of the artwork, it is not necessary to know this because they stand for the needless disintegration of lives that the violence has wrought.

As you see, this has been photographed in the hoop to show a little more of the work in progress.

This image zooms in on the two trees photographed. The camera has picked up on the edges of the silk-painted organza pieces and mulberry bark and has exaggerated the light falling on these.  This will be addressed in part as I complete my stitching but will probably also need to be adjusted photographically.
I have also used many more 'burnt' colours on the trunks of the nearer tree and on another tree (not photographed) in the full piece which were closest to the exploded vehicle than appear in a colour  version of the original photograph. This is because I want to contrast the fresh green of a July countryside in Co Down, where the incident took place, with the unnatural after effects of explosion.

Another of the strange shapes thrown up by the explosion. What once had a recognisable form and function now has become an alien object.

I have included a final close-up of the tree-trunk to show the form of the stitches. All of the work is being done by hand and this matters to me for several reasons, one of which is that the original incident happened through the hands of the bombers, hands used for destructive purposes. However, the hand can also heal and, medically, stitches are used to close wounds; so as a needle punctures cloth, threads then 'heal' the wounded fabric.
At the same time, as the work progresses, colours and rhythms of stitch are slowly transforming the raw material into the image of the incident. Both the event itself and a photograph of its aftermath happened in seconds but, paradoxically, this stitched image will need thousands of stitches and take months of work to complete. The artwork is also not contemporary with the original event which occurred some years ago. The hand of the stitcher, then, could be regarded as mediator and interpreter between the incident as it originally happened and as it is now re-presented in the present moment. To produce a stitch is both a physically active and intellectually meditative act and the image that results is not so much the portrait of a past moment but a scene imbued with the memories of several disparate events. The new conglomerate exists with its own life and perdurance in time.

That the artwork is beginning to have its own life and meaning was vividly made clear to me just the other day when a friend made a very interesting observation on the work. She said how my use of colour, the burnt browns and contrasting green foliage, made her think of camouflage on an army uniform. This had not been in my thoughts as I stitched but it is only too sadly appropriate to the occasion in that it was rogue elements in the armed forces who carried out both the bombing, killing themselves in the process, and the shooting that followed.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Tools of the trade

I have taken some photos of my little stitching station that comes with me everywhere  -  almost all of the things that accompany me and that I use just about every day in life!

This is the tray that I set my small work tools on  -  scissors, needles etc. It is the top of a shoe box  -  shoe boxes are such extremely useful items!  -  and I covered it in a nice piece of fabric I had bought some time ago. It stays by my side and is transported to uni and anywhere else I go where I can stitch.

To itemise what the tray holds, these are, first of all, a leather thimble, a metal thimble from the Holy Land, some paper bobbins  -  very useful things, these  -  and a new needle threader which I hope is going to last considerably longer than the usual somewhat flimsy kind one finds on sale. I wear the leather thimble on the right hand and metal one on the left. I was very touched to receive this latter thimble as a gift from Angela, a friend in Rugby who had been on a trip to the Holy Land  -  it says 'Sea of Galilee' on it and has a basket and fish designs on it  -  it means a lot to me. I remember my paternal grandmother, who had worked as a dressmaker, saying that you should never be without a thimble. When I first did some sewing/stitching some years ago, I didn't find wearing a thimble at all comfortable and only used it occasionally when I really needed to. Now I do find thimbles indispensable. The leather one has a little metal tip inside and I really couldn't work without them.

These next items are, going in a clockwise direction, first of all a box with long glass-headed pins then a small screwdriver which is excellent for tightening hoops. This screwdriver came with my Bernina sewing machine and Bernina don't make the screwdriver any more, so this one is precious!

Next is my heart-shaped pin-cushion. This, too, is precious but a very different reason  -  Juls made it for me years ago at school and I have kept it by me ever since she gave it to me. She sewed a floral motif on the upper side with 'Mum' underneath. It's getting somewhat worn but I'll keep on using it until it positively falls apart  -  I probably will first! I store my glass-headed pins on it and preserve the little floral shape given to it by Juls' in the colours of the tops. These items made at school can be really great  -  Ed made an ice scraper for Arthur for the car and, as with my pin-cushion, it lives in the car and is used still!

On the right is a needle case that I made when I was starting out to embroider and finally a little mirror given to me by my mother a considerable time ago. It started out as a dressing-table mirror with matching brush and used to have a long handle. I'm not exactly sure, but it may have been when the handle was broken that I started using the mirror as a work tool. Anyhow, it fits nicely on my tray as it is and is so useful when I'm stitching  -  as when doing any kind of artwork, I always find it so helpful to look at the work in a mirror and  if I'm not sure whether a dark or light thread is needed next or when choosing a shade, looking in the mirror always helps me make my decision.

These are the scissors I carry, the largest for cutting fabrics and the other two for both thread and material. The little gold ones came with the rather nice leather case. Both smaller pairs were chosen partly for their sharply pointed ends but these don't seem as good now as when they were purchased. I don't know whether I can sharpen them or will need to buy replacements. The other small tool is for unpicking work and, like the screwdriver, came with my Bernina. As with rubbing out, unpicking is not done often (an embroiderer I met once said she just never unpicks) but I have found that there are times when it becomes necessary and this tool is the best I've found for the job.

These are two of my cloth marking pencils which work very well and the little brush on the end of one has come in quite handy from time to time. The rubber is a specialist one for cloth and works surprisingly well. I always find it useful to have a ruler on hand, even one as small as this!

These are just a few personal items that I keep on my tray  -  on the left, a parcel decoration which comes from the last gift given to me by my mother before she died, then a 'cross in my pocket' from St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. This was given to me by a very dear friend, Margaret, now 93 years if age and who I can't get to see very often any more. She brought the cross back to me from a cruise she made with another friend to the Northern Isles and Scandinavia a few years ago when she was still able to make the trip. Beside this is a pouch for the two meditation beads, also pictured, that Arthur brought back to me from Indonesia.

A few of the tools grouped on the little 'tray within a tray'.

These are two photos of Arthur, Juls and Ed that are beside me at my work station in the living-room at home. I used to keep a favourite photo of the three propped at the back of my tray but it disappeared mysteriously after a trip to St Davids when we stayed in a lovely cottage and I haven't dared keep a photo on the tray ever since! Photos are, however, everywhere else, in the living-room, studio at home, studio at uni, bedroom . . . . . .

Holiday stitching

We went to Brittany at the end of August  -  self with husband, Arthur, daughter Juliette (Juls) and son Edward (Ed)  -  and had a wonderful time. My health was, I am so glad say, decent for most of the time and we actually experienced summer, seeing the light and feeling the warmth of a benevolent September sun.

I always take needle and thread wherever I go, sometimes working on images inspired by wherever I am but this time I was so concerned at just how long my major piece is taking  -  still am!!  -  that I stitched mostly on this large piece. However, stitching outdoors in M and Mme Le Moelle's beautiful garden was such a change on my usual work zones!