Last summer (2017) I was asked by a potter if I would like to collaborate and go and work in her studio on Mull. Charlotte Mellis had seen my painting and the marks resonated with her as a painterly approach, something she applies to tile and thrown or moulded surfaces. It took us a year to find a mutually convenient time and so eventually, this summer, in June, I went to the Isle of Mull to stay with friends and to work with Charlotte for ten days.
We had an extremely productive time. Charlotte had inherited some moulds from her aunt, the potter, Ann Stokes. Arcadian moulds for charming animal and bird tiles which Charlotte now decorates in a lively naive style. She has resurrected them and makes tiles again in memory of her aunt.
When asked what I would like to do, I thought tiles were a good beginning; not too much technique required so I could focus on decoration. I took a series of linocuts I had made twenty years earlier and had cut them whilst doing a ceramics course in Bath, where I applied print to clay as a form of embossed decoration. I began by using these blocks whilst at the same time carving a mould with the motif taken from a piece of embroidery given to me in my childhood.
Aunt Mary was my fathers eldest sister who lived near us when I was a child. She always took an interest in me from an early age as I too am the eldest in my family. We developed a close relationship early on. At some point in my early teens, she sold her house and moved to Wiltshire. She gave me a desk which had belonged to her mother, my paternal grandmother, whom I never met as she died long before I was born. To my amazement inside the desk, she had placed a number of things which I am sure she intended me to have although to my embarrassment I don’t think we ever discussed it later. It was like a treasure trove to a young woman and I continue to cherish them still. There was a shawl, green silk with woollen embroidery which I wore until I spoilt it by washing, but still have. There was an oval portrait profile of an unknown man framed in a domed glass, later broken by an uncle who wanted to see if there was a name inside; there were some Victorian fashion plates of models dressed in themed costumes like shells, vegetables or fish and the last thing I found was a delicate piece of embroidery wrapped in plastic and stretched over card. It is a charming stylised natural scene, tree, flowers, butterflies, snails and a slug reminiscent of a detail in medieval tapestry. I have subsequently discovered it is a Jacobean book cover. It is delicately coloured and is stitched in silk.
When working with linocuts, years ago, I transferred the design of this embroidery with the intention of cutting another block. This I found amongst the other plates in an old carrier bag and it has now become the subject of a series of tiles. The series will be called a Tribute to Aunt Mary and now form part of a new project.
Whilst with Charlotte on Mull she invited me to work with her on a painting project, applying slip, a liquid pigmented clay, to a large flat surface. We rolled out the slab in sections, joining them to cover a table top and laid onto of pieces of torn sheet giving us a way of moving the slab. We chose a palette and some lovely new brushes. Charlotte had bought the brushes ten years earlier, made from Yak hair and mounted in horn to make the handle. The hair of the brush was a foot long and when charged with slip made a florid mark. We decorated the slab in under ten minutes using our fingers to add more detail. Later, when dry, we cut the slab and laid each piece carefully into a mould where they stayed to harden and for us to finish the edge. It was an exciting experiment and I enjoyed the process but we soon learnt that clay retains a memory and when fired, they resumed their flattened form and so we inadvertently now have an interesting collection of cheese boards. I cut the remnants into squares as coasters for our holiday let and now have a fine dish exhibited on a stand at the top of our staircase.
Now we have embarked on another project, a set of tiles based on insects and amphibians.
Our intention is to have an exhibition of “A Hundred Tiles”, hung like an installation on a large wall.
As the summer wore on Charlotte took me to lunch to meet some friends from London.
We had an interesting conversation about creativity and one of the guests was an art therapist.
Our conversation made me realise how anxious I had become about my painting practice and they reported that the recognised way of unblocking creative problems was to change media. Inadvertently I have stumbled into another material which has proved to be very relaxing and enjoyable.