As part of Curious Things, our Christmas show of contemporary craft curiosities, woodworker Richard Keal, felt worker Barbara Keal and automata artist Jack Stiling discuss their respective ways of making and share thoughts about their work.
Richard: One of the things we all have in common is our use of recycled materials. Jack, where do you source your materials?
Jack: All over the place, it depends on where I am. My latest work uses up parts I’ve collected over a few years from junk shops, skips, hedges and antiques places. My workshop had a few piles of stuff outside it from a friends hoarding habit, so I did him a favour. But there’s a subtle science to it – getting the ‘right’ rubbish. Older objects generally have more interesting and better made parts, whist with new tech I’m only able to get a handful of usable bits. Do you two find your ideas change in relation to the materials you have at the time? I’m subject to that quite a lot.
Richard: I have a stash of logs myself, of all different shapes and sizes, with different twists and ‘nobbly nirks’. Sometimes, as one bit of log sits well on another bit of log, I find ideas grow organically.
Barbara: My felt work has become more like this of late too. In the case of the Hebredian Bison you can see how that fleece was perfect for the job, but I’m also interested in associations and memories held by certain materials: the grasses of a particular summer in a particular place, a bit of horse hair caught on a fence or the feather of a dead crow. I loved pondering the history of the limbs of “The Doll Jack built”. Jack, do you think about potential associations when choosing which parts to use?
Jack: I find the history of each piece quite fascinating, and being able to list what each bit is, and how I got them, is a great conversation starter. When I’m making things it’s a balance between groups of objects that work well together visually, and also which parts magically fit together in a mechanism. Eureka moments, like finding out a bit of a lawnmower fits exactly to a cog from a shredder, are priceless. The Craftsman is all about that: it being made of everything that was surrounding me at that time is the embodiment of this profession in a way. Sometimes it can be a massive pain using only found objects though. Recently, for complex things I’ve been making mechanisms from scratch out of stock steel, and brazing it all, which is a life saver. And I’ve got some random, exceptionally pleasing bits which I just can’t bring myself to use, for ridiculous sentimental reasons. Do you get some materials that you just become too attached to?
Barbara: Not a very sentimental chap Rich. At least he would never allow himself to be. I don’t really get attached to fleece but I can do with other stuff. I have a single feather which fell from a crow with a broken wing whilst it was in our kitchen. I took the crow to the vet who to my great sadness put the bird down. I felt terrible because I’d soothingly told the frightened creature that I was taking it to find help, talking and humming to it all down the road held tight in my hands. It was an unintended betrayal. I kept thinking I should have taken it in as my pet, paid for it to be treated and let it live in our back yard , but perhaps it was true when the vet said afterwards there was no other option. So that feather is precious and will need to become part of a piece that I will keep, I think. There are definitely finished pieces that I find hard to part with. I made a pot once whilst driving round the country in a van, pregnant with Abednego. I would add a few coils each night and keep it wet, and later used it as a singing vessel in a performance. Then I sold it. Now I hate the thought of that pot’s history being unknown as it sits doing nothing somewhere in America. Letting go makes space for new things to be made, though. Does your workshop feel empty now, without those big pieces from our show?
Jack: Actually it’s a great feeling having all my space back again; a fresh slate and room for a new set of ideas. I spend so long working out my projects that I’m thinking about the next project pretty soon after I start the making process. I like to go through stages of creating different things to keep my ideas fresh, so I’m thinking about doing more performance orientated work next, collaborating with puppeteers or street performers. Have you ever thought about putting your work and skills into a new area?
Richard: For some time now I have felt that making things was mostly ‘for the maker’, meaning that we are the ones who stand to gain the most from our activities. It’s a sort of freedom that doesn’t happen in any other way. Of course one can share this freedom by experiencing other people’s creations and being inspired to see the world around them in a different way, but I think it’s through the act of making that one works with the world and it’s materials in a less than totally conscious way. This is what I consider the most fruitful aspect of creating objects. So yes, I have been thinking for a while about working with other people and their ideas – people that maybe find it difficult to express themselves freely because of the narrow value system of our society – helping them to create works or to simply play freely.
Barbara: I suppose I feel that by sharing my own creativity in an authentic and unselfconscious way I can encourage others to do likewise. This is my aim in all the kinds of work I make (and I always hope for these to be diverse). It’s an impossible challenge to make work that is at once archetypal or aiming at the transcendent in some way, and yet utterly grounded in the reality of the matter I’m presenting, be it animal hair or my own self. But perhaps these things belong together? Just before coming to set up Curious Things in St Ives I made a feltwork of a sky lark rising past the sun, to adorn the coffin of my great aunt, a lifelong Franciscan. This is what St Francis of Assisi said of his favourite bird: “Our Sister Lark has a hood like a religious and is a humble bird, who gladly goes along the road looking for some grain. Even if she finds it in the animal dung, she pecks it out and eats it. While flying, she praises the Lord, like good religious who look down on earthly things, and whose life is always in heaven.”
Jack: What I aim to do is revive the innate imagination we get distracted from in modern society, and as time goes on. The pieces I put on display were made for as broad an audience as possible, and aim to dispel preconceptions of a gallery being a solely commercial place. Automata is a good way to round up a lot of interests, materials and disciplines. Throughout the process of making, as well as from a finished piece, I get a brilliantly diverse range of people talking to me about all kinds of aspects of my work, some of which I hadn’t even seen myself. This, for me, is when the work fulfils its purpose. That makes selling it irrelevant and a bit ironic considering my values! I agree with you Rich, I think that being an artist can be a selfish endeavour, but one of the main focuses for me is allowing people to see alternative perspectives. Making things and understanding them first-hand has always been more valuable to me than relying on technology to do it for me, and I want to open up more people to that way of thinking.
Curious Things is on show at New Craftsman from 5 December to 8 January.
Images – Top: Portrait of Barbara Keal with felt works | Middle: The Craftsman, Jack Stiling| Bottom: Chair, Richard Keal