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Preparing for my MA Fine Art Graduation Show at Central Saint Martins

Since October 2022 I’ve been keeping a regular blog about my work for my MA in Fine Art on a separate site.  The course is assessed by specific assignments alongside a curation of that blog to show how learning outcomes have been met, therefore keeping that one regularly updated has rather distracted me from this blog.  With the assessments complete I’m now returning to this blog with renewed vigour and (hopefully!) more to write about. 

I thought I would start by charting the making of the pieces I plan to exhibit for the ‘final’ show at Central Saint Martins.  It seems fitting to start ‘here’ exactly where I left off ‘there’, since the show itself is not assessed but is a culmination of the past two years work so my 'MA blog' ended just as I was starting to finalise this piece. I've got used to putting my thoughts about making into writing, although usually in a very immediate way so forgive this slightly drawn-out version as I work towards finding a new way of writing about my printmaking practice here...

I had an idea of what I might want to show right from the start of the course, initially it was going to be tall hangings, likely collaged prints, to represent the trees of the Swinley Forest which I had decided would be my focus for the duration of the course.  I envisaged viewers walking through thin, fragile paper hangings which might move, alarming the viewer into taking care around them; the opposite of the strong and sturdy tree trunks you might lean against in a forest.  This would suggest the fragility of the forest by taking the usually solid part and making it incredibly fragile. My working title was 'Under Pressure: A Fragile Forest'. I particularly liked the inclusion of the word ‘pressure’ since printmaking relies on taking an impression under the pressure of a barren or press. 

As I delved more deeply into my research about the Swinley Forest specifically as ‘place’, I discovered that 10,000 tonnes of timber are extracted each year.  This seemed an enormous number.  I played with how that could be visually represented: my hangings began to turn into tree trunks, should there be 10?  Would they be hanging or should they be in a log pile?  Or maybe hung horizontally suggesting a pile, but with space between then to suggest they were just part of a bigger whole?  I did a lot of pondering and noting of ideas.

I started looking more closely at the log piles when an area I walk near each day was harvested in the winter of 2022/23.  I photographed the labelling graffiti, I stood next to some of the piles to record the enormous scale, I photographed and sketched the churned-up mud, the enormous tyre tracks, the marks on the felled logs from the machines stripping branches and bark.  I found the scale of it all overwhelming, whilst realising that compared to other areas of the world this scale is tiny! 

I also felt an immense sadness at all the creatures that must be displaced, hibernations disturbed, over-wintering habitats destroyed.  Then I watched as the cleared area was replanted surprisingly quickly and I looked more closely at the areas replanted a few years ago and noticed all the different habitats created as a direct result of the felling and read about all the different species and eco-systems that responsible forest management can support.  Recently the King has decreed that all Crown Estate lands should be reviewed to ensure maximum biodiversity.  For the Swinley Forest this seems to be resulting in more mixed deciduous planting alongside the areas of pine monoculture required by the timber industry.

Alongside the field work in the forest and book learning about ‘place’ as a concept I was also working hard in my studio (OK, it’s actually my kitchen!) teaching myself new printmaking techniques alongside experimenting further with techniques I was already familiar with.  I can now use etching with soft, hard and soap grounds and apply aquatint.  Etching on zinc informed my linocut techniques as I started playing with caustic soda lino etching and multiple plates.  I turned to Mary Dalton to learn about lithino - lithography on lino as a result of mastering the basics of lithography using poly (or pronto) plates.  I extended my knowledge of drypoint etching into engraving with the help of Chris Orr who also encouraged the use of multiple techniques within one print and taught me offsetting techniques using tissue paper to isolate areas to be transferred.  I soon realised that the learning of new techniques was informing my thinking about old ones, and that by teaching myself several of these I was free from the ‘rules’ which might have held me back (although the odd session with the amazing Paul Dewis at CSM was also incredibly fruitful to improve technique!).

For the Postgraduate show at the end of my MA it feels very important that what I present isn’t just a summary of the work I’ve done about the forest over the past two years but also reflects the expansion in my printmaking skills therefore I wanted to use all of these techniques within my piece.  I also wanted to reference the bookbinding I’ve learned and present ‘print’ in an installation rather than in a traditional frame on a wall.  Overall, I wanted something that could be displayed in the forest as well as in a gallery.

I decided to create one large hanging tree trunk, one log that would have graffiti on both ends and a concertina ‘log book’ which will be presented in a circle.  The pages have been dyed with tea, the edges dyed multiple times to darken them slightly so they resemble bark.  I’m calling the whole installation ‘Timber Farm / Forest’ since the idea is that it questions what we really want to get out of this land, is it a valued forest or is the real value of the land actually that it produces timber and the ‘forest’ is a by-product of these commercial activities?  I believe the answer will differ depending on who you ask.

Having decided to include every printmaking process possible I the needed to find paper that would be light but strong and decide on colours.  I went on many, many ‘colour hunts’ in the forest throughout changing seasons, looking at overall views and for unexpected colours.  Orange was the main colour that jumped out as being unexpected but everywhere, dull pink is also easy to find once you start looking.  These colours combined with the greens, ochres and browns that you would expect gave me a palette to work with.  Next, I needed to explore textures.  I knew I had a draw full of test prints and experiments that could be included but I needed to make the majority of the prints specifically for this project.  I discovered soap ground etching at just the right moment and combined with some layers lithino and caustic soda etching on lino thought I had a nice mixture of abstract textural marks that would look ‘tree-like’ and provide colour.  The final idea was to use mud prints gathered directly from the forest.  After the wettest winter possible the weather warmed at just the wrong moment and the mud disappeared, then it rained but the water just sat on top of the dried mud so I couldn’t get any good muddy impressions of tyre tracks and footprints.  Finally, the water sank in and the mud returned and after a couple of days wandering around with lots of huge muddy pieces of paper (and getting a lot of funny looks!) I had collected some fantastic textures – tyre tracks from bikes and vehicles, boot prints, doggy paw prints and several deer prints.

The children had an *interesting* half term as I commandeered the extended kitchen table and set-to with the sewing machine, breaking more needles than I care to remember and covering every surface in a fine sprinkling of muddy dust.  Eventually a tree emerged and with the help of my children, parents and the dog we suspended it from a first-floor landing to test out whether and how it would hang. 

Photograph looking up a the hanging tree installation

Delighted with the success of the ‘big’ tree (as I call this one) I set about making the log and log book.  We went for several walks during half term hunting for suitable log ends that I might be able to raise the grain on, the one I found for the log was about twice the diameter I’d planned so my felled log is rather enormous; 2m in circumference, so that took a lot more sewing! 

I really enjoyed making my concertina ‘log book’ (I enjoy sailing so this pun rather makes me chuckle!).  I raised the grain on two different log ends and printed them using tissue paper to take the impression from the log, then placing the inky tissue paper onto soaked and blotted Somerset Satin paper and running it through my etching press.  Once they were all dry I folded them and stitched them into another piece of paper I’d folded and glued into a concertina pattern.  The idea is that this book should be reminiscent of a chopped log in size and shape and have ‘rings’ created by the construction of the concertina spine and pages. 

Concertina log book during its creation

With the prints I had left I made what will become four ‘skinny’ tree trunks.  These reference the replanting and younger trees planted close together in the forest. I took the first one I made to a log pile in the forest and photographed it in various different positions.  I was stunned by how beautifully it sat in the environment that inspired it.  I placed it over a trunk on a log pile, wrapped it around a tree trunk and even draped it over a branch and let it blow in the wind.  It felt like the project had come full circle and that it belonged there. 

After the show at CSM I plan on taking all the pieces to the forest and photographing them in-situ.  I think this is where they will look best, make most sense and speak the loudest to me to inspire new ideas. 

You can also watch a five minute film about my practice over the two year of the course and see my UAL Showcase page.

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