This is the slide lecture given by Jenny at Higham Hall in 2003 (unabridged)
In this first half I will be showing you slides of my work and describing how the work came about, some of the processes, how it develops along certain themes and try to show you the sources from which the felts particularly were drawn. So slides of work will be interspersed with images of what I was looking at of the real thing. I hope this won’t be too confusing. Then I will demonstrate the making of a small sample of felt to show you the very simple techniques I use. After I would like to talk about how commissions fit in to my work, how they may be sustained and grow out of my studio work but also how a commission brief can set off a quite new direction for me. This will consist of a rather shorter talk with slides but also looking at other materials such as enamel on steel and also at the egg /oil tempera I use in painting.
A word about the images
I shall take you through the work in partly chronologically and in partly by subject grouping. The two do not quite work together as you will see because the groupings overlap, ideas and studies are sometimes re-used years later. Also I will sometimes use statements I wrote at the time about what I was doing, or trying to do. After all perceptions change and ‘reasons for doing’ relate to the younger artist I was then.
A word about myself.
I had trained at Brighton and the Royal College of Art, graduating in Painting in 1966. Painting was my chosen area after the first year, and I deviated not at all from it at the two Colleges, but my eyes were opened to two other art forms when I came upon the Tapestries of the Apocalypse in Angers during a holiday in France. To see such powerful drawing and composition in the tapestries and the huge scale affected me deeply, but so also did the Stained glass in the Cathedrals. However I remained undeviating from studio work for ten years after leaving college. The potential and possibilities in the scale of art for architecture lay dormant until I was ready and the opportunities arose.
After teaching on a Foundation Course for two years in Sheffield I moved to Cumbria with my partner, also an artist but trained at the RA schools.
My own painting, by 1970, was reflecting this move to Cumbria and our pre-occupation with turning a row of three tiny houses near Aspatria into living and studio space; somewhere we could paint and live cheaply. Having spent 18 long months on house renovation - domestic architecture the dominant thought and activity and with painting suppressed totally - there emerged, I suppose inevitably for me, several paintings of interiors. You see this interest in these three slides.
Doors and Windows tempera on board 1970 122cm x 183cm W.Cumbrian terraces and our own interiors
Beams Oil on board 122cm x 122cm and ceiling with a pattern (looking into a ceiling with beams) between which is based on beams but painted to look like patterned wall paper.
Pattern was becoming interesting to me, but pattern which reciprocated or reflected its own setting; this is a theme which recurred.
Weaving too was introduced at this time as a likely medium for playing with the idea of interior furnishings whose patterns reflected the setting. Here I was teaching myself from a book by Peter Collingwood, only taking what I needed for the work in hand.......again
The Beams and beams pattern. Weaving 140cm x 70cm is taken over but into woven form.
drawing on Walls Couch covers folds as a simplified drawing as though projected onto walls, again looking at furnishing, but playing with it to describe perspective in an interior architectural space
And then from 1973 the interest in pattern developed and I was looking at pattern structures more in their own right, the size of the repeat and how this could be extended by different colour ways. 5.
Pattern, oil and wax on board 122 cm x 122cm.
I will be expanding on this series of patterns in the second half because I developed it in three commission proposals.
I had been studying a book on the patterns of Escher interpreted and explained in terms of crystal structures and became absorbed in it for while. I found this akin to bell ringing which I did when a student for a while. How to extend a simple peel of 8 bells into something which lasted an hour without repeating itself! I was not good in the practice but I enjoyed playing about with it in notation form!
Painting with weaving restrictions 1975 76cm x 56cm
Here, just to show how closely related were the different media I was using, is an oil painting on canvas where the colours are restricted as though by warp and weft! The medium of painting is used to display the problems of weaving. Whereas earlier in the Beams tapestry the weaving was used to describe painting. So also in the next slide....
Felt Weave Knit. Matrix. 1976 50cm x 50cm
Where felting weaving and knitting are compared, and I try with each to medium to describe the look of the others. ......The wool of the fences the dyes were dylon
1976 ten years after leaving college I knew little about any of these crafts but this piece pointed the way towards felt. I’ve not woven or knitted since.
One piece of writing I came across recently must have been written for a grant award application in 1979. I had written
“At present I am picking up from one small sortie into feltmaking made in ‘76, (Felt Weave Knit matrix) and am preparing some large felts based on skies. This intention was spurred on by seeing the ‘The Art of the Feltmaker’ at Abbot Hall, and by experimenting with the medium. I hope to have ready three largish felts (6’x 6’ approx) for the exhibition, together with the sky studies.”
Sky Felt 1 1980 183cm x 183cm
So that was written at the time of making the first of my big felts in 1979
I believe my application for a grant was successful; N. A. in those days was very supportive of artists.
Let me explain about the Art of the Feltmaker. It was an important exhibition with a catalogue/book of the same name which Miss M. Burkett, then director of Abbot Hall Kendal had researched, collected and curated. For me to see it at that time was fortuitous, and gave me enough impetus to get going on this quite new body of work. At that time the medium was pretty unknown in this country, hence the importance of this exhibition, and the interest it generated. Now 24 years on that interest has flourished and there are many feltmakers, many ‘how to felt ‘books, an International Felt Association, and numerous offshoots of applications and methods. I am glad I started in the early days without these influences. The Original Book, the Art of the Feltmaker is still available for sale.
At the same time I had to find where to get wool (I had passed the phase of picking wool off the fences) finds out how to dye the wool in a controlled way. All this took some time of research and experiment.
Partnered with this interest in felt in 1979 I had begun looking at skies, and did many drawings and fast watercolours, studies to use in the felts. I had decided that felt was bold, and required bold treatment so I had to find subject matter which would allow me the freedom that the medium promised.
Sky Felt II 1980 183cm x 183cm
I dyed the colours I wanted, learning that too and feeling empowered.
Miss Burkett gave me my first exhibition in 1980 at Abbot Hall and in it I showed the first two felts, just finished, together with my previous ten years work I do not have slides of them there, but here are four of the felts at Tullie House a year later.
Felt 3 1980 1183cm x102cm
They had also been shown at the LYC Gallery at Banks where I showed felts 1-5, and where Sky Felt 1 was sold and went to the States.
At Gawthorpe Hall. 1980 183cm x 183cm
And at the Bromsgrove Arts Festival. This is 6’ high by 11’ long.
For the past two years I have been involved with felts and skies, which, for me, is a dialogue between a new medium and a new subject. He desire to work in the medium came first; to look at skies second. Excitement with looking at skies became foremost; their integration with felt became natural.
Confidence growing I managed to interest Victor Margrie the Director of the Crafts Council by taking my first few 6’ square Sky Felts down to London and unrolling them on his small office floor. He called in the then editor Crafts Magazine and they agreed to do an article. I was enthusiastic and excited with this new medium and because of this they asked me to write it and they would get the work professionally photographed. The following quote is the first couple of paragraphs for the article in 1981:
Craft Magazine article
Felt 20 at The Whitworth Manchester 1981 183cm x183cm
Crafts Magazine 51
Jenny Cowern - Sky Felts
For the past sixteen months I have been involved with felts and skies, which, for me, is a dialogue between a new medium and a new subject. The desire to work in the medium came first; to look at skies second. Excitement with looking at skies became foremost; their integration with felt became natural.
I am a painter in thought, training and discipline; my work has evolved slowly and consistently during the last sixteen years since leaving the Royal College of Art Painting School. Under laying all the work, though taking on very different forms is an engrossing interest in structure: in the early seventies this manifested itself in paintings of architectural interiors and pattern related to its architectural setting and then, from 1973-75, in a series investigating pattern structure. In 1976, I produced what has become a key work: “Felt Weave Knit”, a nine-piece matrix which focused on the transformation of a raw material into the three media in order to show the language and capabilities of each. Three aspects were demonstrated: the structure of each medium, the ability of each to represent its neighboring medium, and the patterns held to be the conventions of each medium. This was a key work not only in the mainstream of my ideas about structure but also in pointing the way to felt. Then, in 1977, 1 did a mural design to cover 6,308 square feet of brick surface. The design, a painting about brickwork structure, was totally in harmony with its proposed application.
The work though absorbing required me air. Two years ago, I saw The Art of The Feltmaker, an exhibition of felts, and realised immediately that this medium should be used by a painter. The exhibition was of mostly Middle Eastern ethnic felts, using the traditional volute pattern intrinsic to felt-making. Though beautiful, this was not the aspect that interested me. It was the mural scale, the freedom, unfussiness, even crudeness, the directness which appealed. From my first small pieces in “Felt, Weave, Knit” matrix and knowledge gained from further study, I was able to make pieces on the scale I believed to be needed.
Felt is bold, and requires bold treatment. I had to find subject matter which would allow me the freedom that the medium promised. I began looking at skies and did many drawings and colour studies. The felts followed on pretty fast. They were less intellectual than my work hitherto, but more taxing in their demand for direct response I was astonished by the impact; they had both the effect of huge, freely worked watercolours and the colour in depth of frescoes. They were seductive in their quality, and for this reason I was wary, but they were also giving me a new.
Jenny Cowern September 1981
“They were seductive in their quality, and for this reason I was wary, but they were also giving me a new freedom in my work and this was incentive to go on” All that was from the Crafts article in 1981.
They were less intellectual than my work hitherto, but more taxing in their demand for direct response. I was astonished by the impact; they had both the effect of huge freely worked watercolours and the colour in depth of frescoes.
Here, to give you a bit of an idea how they are made, is a sequence to show the process of making a large felt. This the progress of a commission for the exhibition Presences of Nature curated in 1982 by Neil Hanson of Tullie House
Dyeing, carding, 3 weeks, turn over, backing, soap water rolling, rinse
Felt 12 1982 183cm 335cm Presences if Nature At Tullie House
Here is a sequence to show the making of felt 12, a felt made especially for the exhibition Presences of Nature in 1982. Apologies to those who may have seen this sequence before but it is the only in progress set I have photographed. To see this sequence go to methods.
The making of felt 12
The Skies exhibition was toured by the Mac Robert Arts Centre having seen it in the Crafts Magazine article in 1981 touring Scotland and the north of England, and soon I explored other subjects, as well as abstract work which had only to do with the process and no outside reference.
Let me now return to 1985 or so. It was simply the re- using of the sky studies which have brought us so up to date. Back to 1985. Up till then I had managed to give each felt a number. This is Felt 17. I began as a grey felt shot through with coloured lines; I was dissatisfied but reluctant to abandon it so I began to cut it into shapes and tried refelting the shapes onto a bed of white fleece. I had not done this before and it worked,
In 1983 or about this time I made an abstract grey felt run through with coloured lines which totally failed to satisfy.” It didn’t work at all.”
Felt 17. Reluctant to abandon it I cut it into shapes and tried re-felting it onto a bed of white fleece. It was a discovery coming out of failure which opened up further developments enabling cutting and re-felting, both abstract and referencing natural forms
And was a discovery which opened up experimental possibilities and an ongoing series of abstracts abstracted sky, completely abstract felt which is now in the V & A Textile study collection. London felt (because I made it there) Happening
Right up to the present I sometimes find the need to balance my observational work with completely abstract work, developing it alongside. Some of these may begin as small samples or demonstration pieces and later become integrated into an abstract composition, many being cut into, reorganised and feltted again’
In a written statement for a group exhibition in Mouzon, France in which I showed. These two felts:’ My work has two main directions: my natural surroundings and abstraction. Sometimes the two are present equally, sometimes one more strongly than the other. The two Pieces which I have made for the exhibition at Mouzon are completely abstract. I have played with the rules of composition, of positive and negative, and I have alternated Edges which are cut with edges which are natural. The felt entitled Mouzon 1 is concerned with complementary colours and composition.
Mouzon II with the natural greys of wool. Both works simply play visual games throughout the making process.’
This statement in 1992 is in contrast to the Crafts article where I claimed disinterest in the more sophisticated cut patterns in the Art of the Feltmaker exhibition; here I am looking at them again through a developing interest in the process.
(Abstracts) V and A.
With Mouzon 1 where I was playing with opposites: left and right positives and negatives, complementary colours and alternating edges which are cut with edges which are natural. The abstracts were very much to do with the process and order of making.
Series of pebbles. Each pebble is translated into felt in a way which echoes its own development and weathering --- the layering of a piece of sandstone, or the soft and hard intrusions making a gully or ridge through the stone they were made separately and then felted together as a composition
A parallel group is that of pebbles and sea rubbed fragments of pottery.
Each pebble is translated into felt in a way which echoes its own development and weathering ---- the layering of sandstone, or the soft and hard intrusions making either a gully or ridge through the stone.
When each was individually made, several were composed together and then felted finally.
These are pebbles and sea-rubbed fragments of pottery picked up at Allonby, our nearest bit of Solway coast. Each “pebble” was translated into felt in a way which echoed its own “making”-the layering of sandstone, or the soft and hard intrusions making a gully or a ridge cutting through the stone. When each was individually made, several were composed together and then felted finally.
Pebbles larger and later (cutting)
Other examples of this process of making, cutting up and rebuilding the fragments are
Hydrangea’ which is not really concerned with the whole hydrangea head but with
The petals and the change of colour from blue to brown as it fades. This is in the Shipley art gallery collection in Gateshead. And
Bark a large hanging and a smaller framed bark both of those are also a composing together of patterns of tree bark.
Hydrangeas. Shipley Gateshead concerned with the change of colour from blue to brown as it fades.
Hydrangeas 2. Interesting to compare with this made a decade later of the same subject but the emphasis is on the translation into felt from a pastel drawing. Here there is no cutting and re-felting.
Change of theme. Real light. Patches of light
In this exhibition the works are interpretations in felt of five different patches of light: - on concrete floor, carpet, and coloured papers. Firstly an appropriate palette has to be created: the wool is dyed, and from these colours further adjustments and variety are achieved by carding together in different proportions, or overlaying semitransparent “tissues” of coloured felt, as in the “Patch of Light on Carpet”.
The special felting characteristic of the wool fibre allows a homogeneous image to emerge from parts which are in quite differing stages of felting: loose fibres; partially felted shapes of varying thickness floating on or among the loose fibres; partially felted adjacent areas joined to sharpen a line, etc.; all means at my disposal to produce the desired visual objective.
Light through blinds onto blue stairs. I cannot help delighting in transitory patches of light. They have to be caught with a camera.
Light falling onto coloured papers, a set up to look at colours in light and shadow
Light on a yellow door, both reflected light and direct light
On a red jumper hanging over a chair
Light on Concrete Floor
Very little cutting
Again the themes have leap-frogged each other and I have to go back in time again to the start of a series of Trees, beginning with drawings to get to know the subject:
The varying relationship between trees and sky, affected by changes of weather, seasons, light and position, is my present pre-occupation. Studies in various drawing and colour media are first put down as direct experiences. The felts which follow are interpretations. A simple statement, a drawing, interpreted in a more complex language, a painting or felt, grows as it assimilates other meanings, relationships, even misunderstandings and corrections, on the way. A lengthy conversation occurs between me and the developing felt.
Ash Trough Hazel
Trees in wind 1988
Nut and Quince
Copper Beech. Sketch book page idea suggests a device in the form of a matrix to incorporate different times of year and skies into each detail. So I photograph the tree through the year.
Stop For Cup of Tea or to continue click here