Last week I spent two days working with a lovely group of Year 8 & 9’s at Westfield Academy, Yeovil on a large steel and wire Dragonfly sculpture for their Art Park. The Art Park in the school grounds already houses an impressive, growing collection of permanent Art created by students – some pieces made with the help of visiting artists – organised by Art teacher Tamsin Gilham.
I created the steel structure in advance, before we worked together constructing the various sections of the Dragonfly. We also made some wire blackberries on stems to add to the sculpture, all to be installed in a tree.
I’ve been a bit obsessed with Diatoms of late. Sucked into their microcosmic world, it’s become a running theme – versions of diatoms floating and not floating – made of recycled steel, wire, plastic, twine, bottle tops and other found materials. I was thinking about an interesting form for a prototype I wanted to make for a Scraptors project late last year. I had also been previously donated some beautiful large pink glass baubles – cast offs by Sonja Klinger (a glass artist I know) and was looking to incorporate these in a set of work. Something nest-like, primal and related. I was looking at some Ernst Haeckel illustrations I’ve always loved, together with old sketchbook drawings. Haeckel’s intricate drawings of strange and fantastical plant forms and microscopic creatures have inspired me in the past in my own work and art teaching projects with children, though I hadn’t fully investigated their scientific content. The diatom illustrations struck me more than ever before – colourful, ephemeral, sculptural, primal and reminiscent of so many simple life forms and my growing collection of scrap bicycle wheels, tyres and bottle tops etc – a perfect union. After researching the topic, I was hooked – endless possibilities of woven, kaleidoscopic forms. Diatoms live up to their name, with diametrically opposed characteristics and dichotomies that are fascinating. They have inspired others, but still more have never heard of them.
Diatoms are microscopic organisms living in aquatic environments, now sadly becoming endangered, yet essential to our survival as they provide over 35% of our oxygen. Beautiful, primal structures hailing back to the Jurassic era, if not earlier, they are symbols of nature’s cyclical persistence, though threatened by man’s intervention. Just yellowish algae to the human eye, close up they are living glass sculptures, coated in iridescent silicate shells, similar to glass. Shaped mainly as circular, ribbons, zig zags or stellates, their shells display the most incredible range of raised frustules and cavities. They are single celled, yet multiply by splitting in two. Because their shells are heavy, there’s a risk of sinking, yet they need to be on the surface to photosynthesise, so they blow themselves up like helium balloons, to counteract this and to float. Some can move via flagellation. They provide food directly or indirectly to numerous animals. When they die, their shells float to the bottom and become diatomaceous earth – forming a major part of the earth’s limestone, and used by us as diatomite (and here’s another twist – this is used as insecticide and a component of dynamite). We use diatoms to monitor environmental conditions…
I offered a diatom-based design, amongst other drawings/ideas of cocoons, nests and eggs, to our Scraptors group as one of a set of prints to try to raise funds for a planned ‘Scraptorzoic Era’ eco sculpture installation at The Magdalen Project. This led to more diatom drawings and sculpture designs incorporating the pink glass baubles. The first floating diatom prototype sculpture I made (using recycled materials) had a tractor inner tyre tube as its basis for floating. However, the Magdalen Project felt it wasn’t appropriate as it contained friable plastic – not condusive to their eco farm – and the tyre would need maintenance in future years. Having taken several days to make it and with the agreement of Rachel Macleay (fellow Scraptor who’d added some wire & plastic tentacles as a collaborative piece) and her partner Paul (Scraptor) I put it forward for Bristol’s Big Green Week, rather than let it lie listless and wasted in my garden, together with newer alternative designs utilising recycled materials. Accepted as a Capital Green Week Artist, I was kindly offered several orange life rings by Bristol’s Harbour Master and ended up making 8 more floating Diatoms and 1 non-floating (with glass bauble) for part of my exhibition, amongst other new work. Initially exhibited on the harbour by the Arnolfini, these Diatoms are now floating in London’s various Canal Festivals this summer as part of the Rubbish Art Project – being moved to each site in turn. I’ve just made 2 more Diatoms (a little sketchy due to time limitations) to complete a set of 3 non-floating ones – each with a central pink glass bauble for the Devon Recycled Sculpture Trail – showing at Teignmouth seafront until September. I may build on these in the future. The glass baubles seem appropriate – silica being in intrinsic element of diatoms. I will hopefully be making others – different and exclusively suitable for the Magdalen Project requirements (with no plastic content) – later this year for the Scraptors’ project.
I am very pleased to have been asked to decorate one of the Swans of Wells by All Hallows Prep School in Cranmore, a sponsor. The project ‘will feature sixty, magnificently decorated, 5ft swan sculptures, one for each of the sixty years of the Queen’s reign. The flock will be displayed in public locations in and around Wells from June to September 2012. This eye-catching, high profile event is expected to bring thousands of visitors and vibrant contemporary art to the streets of England’s smallest city.’ Our Swan will have pride of place outside Bishops Palace. I have just over a fortnight to do the work, which has a recycling theme and will entail 3-d materials collected by All Hallows and me, including some wire creations by children at All Hallows… images to follow as the work develops.
Update – 27/5
Over a month ago I was asked to decorate this Swan. Luckily the deadline was postponed. It’s been very absorbing and great fun, but incredibly time-consuming! I’ve loved my residency creating the work at All Hallows Prep School (the sponsors), where I was supported by all. The children added some bits (hand-made wire school crane emblems, patterns woven, painted and drawn, and a few stuck on beads, buttons and gogos) and they gave me loads of positive feedback.
We named our Swan Candela. It has relevance in various ways: The Latin word for ‘Candle’, it features in the All Hallows motto: ‘Sancto cuique sua candela’ which translates as: ‘for every saint there is a candle (light).’ Every child is a potential saint and they too have their lights. The Swan has a flame-like, glowing quality in its patterns, colours and bright, luminous objects. The recycled objects have been lovingly collected, donated and created by the children, (+ me and my son, Jack) – symbolic of their individual lights.
The process was more complex than I imagined, as I had to texturise the surface prior to sticking on the objects (all individually cleaned/de-greased), then sand, prime and paint in between all the bits. Varnishing was a huge relief – there was no return. Although not perfect, I think it’s got a charm of its own. The Swan was collected on Friday and will go on display with the rest of the flock next week (after 28th May).
Swans of Wells Launch – 28/5
Some of the flock were displayed on Wells Cathedral Green today for the media launch, including ours, and there was a brief appearance of them on BBC and ITV news. All looked lovely in the sunshine!
Update – 19/6
Visited Candela to give her a clean up. Great to see Ian and the team were already doing some Swan cleaning. Sadly Candela had her eyes plucked out + a few other bits. I will be replacing the missing parts asap. It’s encouraging to see members of the public trying to help by keeping an eye out for the Swans. A note was found inside Candela, together with a missing part, retrieved by some kind person. The good news is that Candela has a new sunny spot nearer the Palace entrance and is still attracting plenty of attention:
Update – 2/7
Gave Candela back her eyesight, replaced a few other bits that had been removed and another wash last week – so all gleaming again 🙂
I helped on the first Swans of Wells stall this Saturday selling Swans merchandise to raise funds. Also revived Candela with another freshen-up as the sun came out on Sunday. Plenty of visitors in the sunshine: