Egrets: I Have a Few.

Ever since I came back from Florence I’ve been thinking about egrets. In fact, I’ve already written about them here: The Lake of Lettuce

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The one pictured above is a lesser egret – you can tell by the black beak and the snazzy yellow feet. There are lots of greater egrets too. I took this picture some distance east on the south side of the river.

These beautiful birds had disappeared from the Arno but have recently returned and are now flourishing. There is one under every bridge, seemingly unfazed by the traffic and tourists and they have made a large roost to the south east of the Ponte Grazie, which they share happily with other heron species.

White Heron Painting by John James Audubon; White Heron Art Print for sale

White Heron Painting by John James Audubon; White Heron Art Print for sale

The great wild life painter, John James Audubon painted egrets many times. He gave his name to the Audubon Society which is dedicated to bird conservation. They adopted the egret as their symbol because of the bird’s resilience and its ability to overcome the harsh predations of people who killed them just to get their crests of feathers for fashionable womens’ hats. At one time they sold for five dollars a go; the body of the bird would just be thrown away.

But the birds survived and I still have a fascination with them which I have been exploring in my sketchbook and sculpture.

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It’s very easy to make fanciful drawings of these fragile, elongated beautiess; so, so much harder to make the ceramic piece I had in my mind’s eye. Every time I tried to make the damn things they drooped and dwindled. But then I hit on the idea of holding them in place until they had stiffened enough to keep their shape. I used strips of thin bin liners as a sort of ‘hammock’ and it worked really well. I’m pleased with this technique and I shall use it again.

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I’ve reverted to my favourite conical structure for this piece and the ‘egrets’ have lugs that slot into the holes.

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The ‘crown’ was made separately in one  piece and sits nicely in place aided by an overlapping rim which stops it rocking.

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Various elements before assemblage – you can see the holes I made for the supporting wires on some pieces.

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I used Alasdair Kettles’ white earthenware, transparent glaze, Scarva underglaze colours and iron chromate gave the intense black. The whole piece is hand built.

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So all the elements were made separately and then slotted in – some of them have been wired in place internally to make them more secure but I have to say I’m not very happy with the finished piece and I want to remake it on a larger scale. At the moment it’s really not working for me.

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Have I mentioned that I’ve been accepted for a twelve week residency at Sundaymorning@EKWC – that’s the European Ceramic Work Centre at Oisterwijk in the Netherlands? I’m so thrilled about this fantastic opportunity and I mean to get the very most out of it and that is going include making larger work than has ever been possible for me before.

Watch this space!

 

 

 

 

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Forget What Did.

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‘ Forget what did. Have decided not to keep a journal anymore.’

So wrote Dorry, the younger brother, in ‘What Katy Did’ by Susan Coolidge. After a few short, sweet days he gave up the unequal struggle between recording the immediate past as opposed to living in the constantly enticing present. How I know that feeling.

Incidentally, I love the crickets on the cover and the play on words. A katydid is a common name for type of American grasshopper deriving (I think) from the sound the insect makes.

I love diaries. Nella Last is dear to my heart – more of her in a later post. I took my darling Samuel Pepys to Glastonbury (and enjoyed him more than Oasis) and Cecil Beaton’s private revelations have cheered many a darkening hour. I have often murmured to myself his thoughts on Coco Chanel: “She was a great genius, to whom all may be forgiven.” and found them strangely comforting.

However.

I have resolved to ‘keep a journal’ so many times in my life, and like Dorry, usually given up after a day or two. I always felt that if I didn’t record the day’s events I had failed so I would give up sooner rather than later. But why? Even Samuel Pepys confessed to writing up his diary in hindsight, even though he got up at day break and rarely went  to bed before midnight. (The hyperactive bastard). Incidentally, he looks more than a little like my husband in his younger days!

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But then I began to see that even before I kept this blog, my sketchbooks were a form of visual journal every bit as vital as a daily diary. And I have been making sketchbooks (although I didn’t call them that) since I was knee high to a Moleskin.

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I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realise that a sketchbook kept over a year or so is as least as valid a diary as one written with a quill pen lit by candle light. Or that my blog has become a very accurate record of my position as an artist –  if I feel qualified to call myself one. And I have decided that a) I am an artist and b) I’m the only person who can make that decision. The sketchbook pictured above was part of my life from 2013-14.  I used to feel twitchy if it wasn’t adjacent to my thigh. Now I have moved on and it can happily stay on the shelf (unless I decide I need  it for reference).

This is a strange thing. Starting a sketchbook and being committed to it is (at least) as hard as commencing a new relationship. Right now I have a a cheeky new Pink Pig sketchbook and although I’m fairly confident I will grow to love it there is a problem about becoming comfortable with the yet to be broached blank pages. I’ve made a few tentative forays but I’m not at home yet.

I don’t use sketchbooks just for drawing. A vital part of my practice is about making the connections between what I feel / see and what I know /read. I started trying to express this by making actual networks in my studio.

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I used sheep wire from my home on a remote croft in north west Skye as a framework to underpin my thought processes. I pinned ideas, statements and books on the wire netting and laced them together with orange ribbon. There was a reason for using orange (possibly  my least favourite colour). When the Studio Jamming Symposium took place at the Cooper Gallery in 2014 I was lucky enough to be invited to take part. the show was curated by Marcus Miessen and he used certain key colours to identify  the main artists. Orange was not one of those colours so I used it as a connective strand in the sketchbook I was working on at that time.

Incidentally, it also brings back the gut wrenching stage fright just before I had to give my performance. I had not realised that the audience would be that big.

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I also use arrows to demonstrate how my thought processes flicker back and forwards. Sometimes this only becomes clear to me as I start the mapping process.

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And when you are thinking about Jean Francois Lyotard and his thoughts on sublimity it can be quite vexing to have Para Handy’s phrase ‘it’s chust sublime’ continually edging its way into your head. It helps to put it down in front of you and try to tease out the connections.

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I’ve recently been rereading Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther. Originally published as a series of weekly columns in The Times, the book has a journal like quality because it follows the course of a year or so in the life of the eponymous heroine. (I do like an opportunity to to use that word legitimately)!

This book would appeal to me anyway without the crystal clear prose and its engaging central character because of the diary element. And Mrs Miniver herself knew how important a diary was and took pains to choose the right one. She considered it to be ‘apparently trivial, but momentous by reason of their terrible intimacy’ and remembered once having bought a cheap and nasty engagement book that ‘annoyed her for twelve months; everything she put down in it looked squalid’. How I know that feeling – a sketchbook does not have to be expensive but it does have to feel right.

Mrs Miniver thought of the book as a ‘skeleton map of the year……glancing through it help months hence, would be  able to fill in many, though not all, of the details.’ And so it is  with my sketchbooks.

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The page above includes a receipt for the ‘goblits’ – my adorable, long coveted Siamese cats which I have already written about. I bought them from a now defunct antique shop on the Perth Road and I can still taste the triumph of finding them and later bringing them home.

Here are are two pages documenting some of my pronkstilleven research.

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I notice it includes some rather weedy notes about using Publisher – I can also remember the frustration I encountered when I had to use this programme. I ended up paying someone to do it for me!

More pleasant memories come from the sketchbooks I made in Florence.

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A halcyon day in late September climbing up to the Piazza de Michelangelo where I took a fortuitous picture of the bridges and noticed later that there was an egret fishing under the Ponte Vecchio. I have already written about egrets and there is more to come so I will refrain from banging on about the birds of the Arno just now.

Another page documents my experiments with poke weed ink, already faded since I tried it a year ago. If you look at the small photographs you can see the richness of the colour at the time.

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I don’t think the American Declaration of Independence can really have been written with it.

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Like Mrs Miniver, these sketch books were my intimate friends and form a sort of road map charting my artistic and personal experience. Below is a later one.

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Looking at it makes me want to go back and revisit some of those ideas which I don’t think I have finished with as yet. It also recalls the stress of the Masters Show install.

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still haven’t made that Quey Calves sculpture!

Bibliography

What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge, 1872

Mrs Miniver, Jan Struther, 1939

Tales of Para Handy, Neil Munro

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Jean-Francois Lyotard, 1994

Nella Last’s War:the Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife, 49.’

The Unexpurgated Beaton: the Cecil Beaton Diariess.

 

 

 

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Lares et Penates II: Knick Knacks

The Oxford dictionary defines a knick knack as a “cheap ornament, trinket, trifle, bauble, bric-a-brac, bagatelle, gimcrack, gewgaw, bibelot or kickshaw.” A sample sentence in the dictionary uses the word thus – “Her flat is overflowing with knick knacks.” But what is the significance of these charming (or not so charming) trifles? Do they have the power to influence an artist’s practice?

 

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Just one of the cluttered windowsills in Colbost House – overflowing with knick knacks!

I have already touched upon the significance of the objects we have about us to demonstrate status, sentiment and superstition. Now I want to examine the apparently eternal appeal of  of mass produced pottery. It may be that the permanent nature of a ceramic piece or the pliability of the material that allows it to take almost any shape and colour has an inherent appeal but whatever the reason there is something about pottery that is very compelling.  And I am not alone in my addiction.

Mark Twain wrote “it is the failing of the true ceramiker, or the true devotee in any department of brick-a-brackery, that once he gets his tongue or his pen started on his darling theme, he cannot well stop until he drops from exhaustion…. the very “marks” on the bottom of a piece of rare crockery are able to throw me into a gibbering ecstasy’.”* And although I’m more of a maker than a collector I know that I am not immune from the charms of a budgie shaped thermometer (yes, really) or yet another curiously shaped teapot.

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I bought the budgies in a junk shop in Crouch End in 1976. I believe they originated in the Dutch Jema factory and were probably made in the 50’s.

It seems that not a few modern ceramists have been drawn down the slippery slope by looking at their auntie’s collection of china pugs or the neighbours’ Beswick Siamese cats. Incidentally, how I craved these latter as a child but was never allowed one because my mother considered them ‘nouveau riche’. Now I have both the china pieces and the living felines, as well as the unfortunate addiction to ceramics.

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It was a joyful day when I found the Siamese cat hanging from the goblet. I found it (and its cousin) in the now sadly closed antique shop on perth Road. Notice also the fish gravy boat – it’s part of a whole service that came from Brick Lane Sunday market at least forty years ago.

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The other Siamese goblet – (I don’t like this one so much but it must be displayed adjacent to its cousin).

The rubber bambi was left on the railings outside my flat. I haven’t liked to throw it away. The clay mannikin was stranded in the MFASSP studio and I felt it needed a home. A dear friend sent me the Little Plum postcard and because I love both her and the book I have kept it. Rachel Hurdley has argued that “the cultural norm is to display things in the home for moral reasons.” It seems that I am compelled by some moral imperative even though I am not sure what it is.

The ceramist Richard Slee remembers “I had two spinster aunties. They lived in a terraced house that was full of pottery….terrific. I was fascinated with their knick-knacks…. ;but I’d gone to art school and had been imbued with Modernism, so that one felt almost guilty looking at this stuff.”** I often wonder about this; after all I’ve been to art school too (although I don’t think I have been imbued by Modernism). So it seems I’m far from being alone in my penchant for a ‘dainty rogue in porcelain’ – just as well – my mantelpieces are littered with the evidence of my weakness. I have serially collected ceramic fish, teapots, frogs, birds and anything glazed in green.

I came upon this enchanting piece in Perth. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the shop was closed because I know I would have had to buy it if only to find out that was so rude about the reverse side.

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And in the same shop – a Scottish Darby and Joan!

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Apologies for the quality of the last two shots – taken on my phone in quite difficult weather conditions. I would like to know the story of these pieces; who they used to belong to and how they ended up in the shop. Similarly I always wonder about pottery in charity shops – why are there always so many china bells, miniature teapots and pottery boots?

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There is an infinite pathos about these left over knick knacks. Perhaps they were once cherished and lovingly dusted by their owners or perhaps they were unwanted gifts that were kept (and displayed) to avoid giving offence. I will never know their stories but I will continue my ruminations in the next post.

 

*Twain, Mark, ‘A Tramp Abroad’.

** Houston, John, Richard Slee – Ceramics in Studio, Bellew Publishing 1990, p28.Richard Slee is an influential contemporary ceramist. His work has been exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum and at the Tate, St Ives.

*** “And still she may be a dainty rogue in porcelain.” – from The Egoist, George Meredith’s tragi-comical novel.

 

 

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Lares et Penates.

Henry Willet* once described the commonplace pottery ornaments on our mantelpieces as a ‘kind of unconscious survival of the Lares and Penates of the Ancients.’ The lares and penates were the household spirits of the ancient Romans. They were represented by small figurines and carefully kept in a special cupboard. The lars familias, the family spirit, was the most important. The penates were the spirits of the larder – they were often brought out at each meal and placed on the table. When the family moved house, their lares and penates moved with them.

I find myself intrigued by this idea; it seems to me to be as true today as it was a century or so ago. The Nelsons and Garibaldi’s of yesteryear have just been replaced by One Direction money boxes, Twin Towers memorial plaques or Barack Obama teapots.  I think I must agree with Henry Willett; the everyday pottery in our homes has as much to say about us as any ‘real art or grand design. It is important because it forms the surroundings of ordinary people, by which they identify themselves and mark the important moments of our lives.’

Last week I stood in front of a shop in Reform Street and counted ceramic Disney characters (by the score), dragons, various maidens and angels and a particularly nauseatingly twee collection of romantically themed pieces by Willowtree. My opinion is immaterial however, people buy this stuff because it means something special to them; these objects are latterday household gods and as such are treasured.

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I find these faceless figures both mawkish and menacing, but many people not only treasure them but attribute special powers to them. A cursory glance at the Willowtree website shows many gushing endorsements attesting to the powers of these figurines. Apparently they can do anything; cure a broken heart, attest to true love, even provide some consolation for the loss of a child. I was going to include some quotes from the site but have decided not to because if people find them important and comforting, it doesn’t matter that I think they are ugly, tacky and gimcrack; cashing in on the gullibility of the tasteless.

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I’m not alone in my dislike. There is a blog called “Stuff Christians Like.” (!!!!!) The author, one Jon Acuff goes rather further than I do. “when I see those “Willow Tree” figures Christians book stores sell. Those chill me to the core.
How come they don’t have features? How come they all look like they’ve had their noses smoothed away by some serial killer called “Mr. Sandpaper?” Honestly, I know I have seen horror movies where featureless people slowly hunt you. You can run, you can run as fast as you want, but they’re still coming. They’re still chasing and they always catch you even though they just walk with a slow plodding pace.
I don’t know where Willow Tree figures came from either. It almost feels like someone said, “Hey, let’s take those Precious Moments dolls, shave off their faces and carve them out of wood. That won’t be creepy, right?”

I don’t know the dolls he’s talking about but I’m with Mr Acuff all the way about the creepiness. But I’m still interested in why people collect ornaments and what they mean in their lives. The objects we have about us have greater value than strict functional utility; they are signifiers  of beauty, status, prestige and the reasons for their presence in our homes are complex. Ornaments may be acquired as gifts or to indicate social status, they may be part of a collecting habit (of which more later), bought just because they are fashionable or even be believed to have “special powers”. And sometimes they are kept purely for sentimental reasons even though their owner doesn’t actually like them.

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Vide this rather noisome trio of Toby jugs which live on a shelf in my mother’s kitchen. I had never really looked at them until I started researching what people have in their houses. I asked my mother why she had kept such an ugly set of ornaments (I was quite surprised because they look quite grubby and she is a fanatically clean housekeeper). She replied “Sentimentality.”

My younger sister brought them home as a present when she had been at Brownie camp some fifty years ago. During the course of the camp parental visits were allowed. My sister asked for 3/- to buy ‘something’ – apparently it was these jugs which cost a grand total of 4/11d (about 25p), she had the 1/11d already saved.

You can still read the price on the base.

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My mother doesn’t like the jugs much – indeed, she does think they look a bit grubby but she will never get rid of them. They are an important (if generally unremarked  part of her personal landscape).

Lares et penates indeed.

*Henry Willett (1823-1905) was one of those indefatigable Victorian collectors. His major passion was for pottery and porcelain, often of the cheapest and most mundane nature. Willett collected ceramics in order to tell the history of the British people. There are some 2000 pieces in his collection, most of them dating from 1600-1900. He catalogued them under 23 themes which cover all aspects of British history; royal and political, military and economic, social and cultural.

 

 

 

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Fiat Lux.

It looks like I still have more  to say about Florence. This time I’m thinking about chandeliers.

Like these two delicious confections from the Porcelain Museum in the Boboli Gardens.

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It amuses me that they both have wonky not to say defective light bulbs despite their swanky abode! It seems appropriate to give the view from the window of this room; a veritable Tuscan paradise.

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But I found a rich source of chandeliers and chandelier spare parts in the homelier environs of the Sant’Ambrogio flea market.

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Not such salubrious surroundings!

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Indeed, this fellow in the red shirt looks positively shocked by the juxtaposition of chandelier and rusty old garden table.

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Perhaps this one doesn’t strictly count as a chandelier, but I like the fish scale effect.

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And this one reminds me of the collected hooves of some glass herd of deer.

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There was an infinite variety; how I wish I could have  brought one (or two) home with me. And there was no shortage of spare parts!

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Some of them look almost like a  type of delicate armour or ice sculpture.

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And others resemble delicious sweets or even parts of a bouquet.

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Glacier mints?

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Coffee and peppermint.

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Actually the above look a bit like something I was once given as a laxative when I was about to give birth.

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Are those frozen peas in the background?

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Good enough (mostly) to eat!

 

I’ve been wanting to work in glass for ages; and  a ceramic chandelier would be possible if the frame were sturdy enough, I think.

Let there be light indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Plant on Plant Parasitic Action.

This is probably the last (or nearly the last) post about my time in Florence. I think I’ve just about squeezed it till the pips squeak!

But I thought I couldn’t let it go without writing about yet another interesting plant that I found in huge quantities growing by the Arno (which seems to be a veritable hotbed of vegetable parasitism.)

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This is the European dodder or cuscuta europaea; a rather attractive plant that wreathes it way through others with delicately spiralling tendrils. It looks quite inoffensive at first sight. What possible harm could it do?

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Well it’s dodder by name but not by nature. There is nothing weak or failing about this particular marvel of nature. Those dainty tendrils twirl around the stem of their host plants and probe into their vascular systems, stealing their water and nutrients. The dodder is a very clever and successful plant. After germination it has very limited resources and unlike other plants it cannot photosynthesize, so it must very quickly find and attach itself to a suitable host. It’s not surprising therefore that the dodder has an amazingly efficient host – location mechanism.

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Dodder uses airborne volatile organic compound cues to find their host plants; it could be said that they literally sniff out their favourite food. In  an experiment, dodder seedlings were observed to exhibit ‘positive growth responses to volatiles released by tomatoes and other favoured species – the tiny plantings send out tendrils in that direction. Apparently  they particularly fancy a nice tomato although they’ll put up with others plants if they have too. In the picture above they are infesting a wild geranium plant.

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There were great swathes of dodder all along the Arno. Many plants wore it like a toxic feather boa. I’ve seen it growing in the UK, but it was always much smaller and insignificant.

In Italy it seems the Day of the Triffid is not just a nightmare fantasy.

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Pleionexia

It has suddenly occurred to me that although I bang on about pleionexia (and have already made several posts about it) I have never yet defined what I mean by it nor posted any finished pictures of the piece. It’s still a work in progress, but here goes.

My artistic research led me to Harry Berger’s Caterpillage. In this elegant and witty book Berger deconstructs the traditional interpretation of insects and other small creatures in seventeenth century paintings that until recently ‘have traditionally been interpreted as agents of decay, underscoring an abiding sense of transience, slow yet unavoidable.’* Instead Berger argues that vanitas iconography is the ‘McGuffin of still life’ and that is a distraction from rather darker meanings in the paintings; below the exotic food, flowers and valuable gewgaws ‘lurk untold narratives about the production and distribution of foodstuffs, about corruption, oppression, and slavery’**

Berger prefers the term rapacitas – he considers the caterpillar a signifier for greed, rapacious appetite and ‘the shadow of pleionexia that falls across the embarrassment of riches in the time of tulip mania.’*  This neatly coined sentence happily brings together the titles of two very successful books on the Dutch seventeenth century which both deal (albeit slightly differently) with the flourishing economy and accompanying desires of the Netherlands during that period.

 

P1020244Pleionexia (the spelling may be incorrect but no one exactly knows how Ancient Greek translates into English) : the desire to consume or have ‘more’; also the need to be bigger, better, superior than others. It means never being satisfied because one aspires to complete and immortal self-sufficiency, even if that means draining the world of power, wealth, pleasure and being. Pleionexia also has a defensive aspect in a society whose members are aware of competing with each other and taking from another before someone takes from them. It might be described as a model for capitalism. Nowadays we would probably use the word ‘greed’ as a simple definition for this complex concept; but the idea of pleionexia was known in the Ancient world. Plato argued in the Republic (359c) that it is natural for every creature to pursue self-advantage, ‘strive to have more’ (Georgias, 483c) and to ‘overreach others’. (R, 344a).P1020242

My sculpture examines this compulsion which has been known throughout history. I confess (unwillingly) to an unpleasant fascination with this repellent fact of life. The sculpture uses organic/natural imagery arranged in hierarchical structures to examine themes of greed, desire and consumption.

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The metaphorical use of hierarchy echoes my fascination with taxonomy – I seek to make flesh the tiered and logical progression of an evolving idea.

* Berger Jr, Harry. Caterpillage, Reflections on Dutch Seventeenth Century Painting. (Fordham University Press 2011) p22. Berger’s critique of Dutch vanitas paintings interprets the image of a caterpillar as one of rapacity, destruction and ‘disordered desire’

**In ‘Still Life and Trade.’ Julie Hochstrasser argues that the paintings leave untold the ‘disturbing truths about the acquisition of the various objects they picture’. These ‘troubling complexities’ (which include Dutch colonialism and slave trade) are described as ‘absent presences’ which are ‘glossed over in these elegant renderings’.

***Berger, Ibid.

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