A Celtic Mystery

A Slow Stitch Story…

It’s not every time I make a piece of stitched textile art that I could tell you for certain where the inspiration came from, often they seem to evolve from a process of stitching meditation, but that’s not the case with my latest work, this one definitely has a story…

In 1939 a small bronze disc decorated with exquisite spiral whorls, was discovered in the sand and gravel when the River Bann was being dredged near Loughan Island, Co. Derry. it was probably made by a Celtic metal worker in the first century AD and it was this, the Bann Disc which gave me my inspiration.

Who owned it, how it was used, and how it came to be in the river are all mysteries, but this one small artifact (it’s about 10.5 cm diameter) encapsulates everything enchanting for me about the Celts and especially their art.

The design itself is an enduring mystery. It’s three entwined spirals is known as a triskele. People have been using this style of design for at least 5000 years. It appears on many pre-historic monuments, including the spectacular entrance stone at Newgrange. It continued to be used extensively throughout the pre-Christian era, particularly associated with Celtic art. For me the freedom of line, the organic writhing of the curves is at its best in the early celtic period.

What it symbolised to the people of those times can’t be certain, many ideas have been and continue to be discussed – perhaps we’ll never really know.

It appears again in Christian symbolism, usually associated with the Trinity. And now is once more being extensively used by neo-paganism, again with a variety of symbolic interpretations.

What happened to the Bann Disc in the 2000 years from its creation until it was re-discovered is another unsolved mystery. As with so many artifacts we see in museums, we can only imagine their precise histories.

But although we may not know their exact stories, looking closely at these remarkable artifacts you can see layers of history, a patina built up over long years, a burnishing. Most artifacts come down to us damaged or incomplete, but for me this often adds to their enchantment. It lends them a fragility and delicacy, offering us a thin but tangible thread back through time, as here, it gives us a physical if vulnerable link direct to the hands of a Celtic metal worker, a gift from the Iron Age.

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In creating my own version of the Bann Disc in threads, fibres and silks, I’ve tried to show the piece both as a powerful symbol with a strong metallic essence, but also an accumulation of layers, an iridescent shimmery patina, appearing to change according to the light, a fragment decayed by time.

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A Celtic Mystery – Ann Pawley 2017, approximately 13 x 14″ (32 x 34 cm).

Do you think it works? I wish you could see it glinting at night under the lamps or by candlelight, it really does change what you see with the metallic stitches catching the light in different directions.

There’s nothing better than talking stitchy or historical (unless of course its historical stitchery), so please do leave a comment. How would you display this? I’m thinking mounted onto canvas without glass, what would you do? I’m trying to decide what’s best, so any suggestions gratefully received.

Anny x


More Information

  • The original Bann Disc is displayed at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. 
  • There are many sources of information and images of various triple spiral symbols, if you want to read more, start here.
  • To read more about Newgrange, try this website.
  • The photograph of the Bann Disc is from the book ‘Celtic Mythology’ – Proinsias Mac Cana.

Most days you can find me posting on Instagram and Twitter. Do follow me there for a daily dose of hedgerow watching, stitchy updates and a smattering of castles…

Catching up…

Phew, what a few weeks it’s been. I’m happy to report that we’ve come through the  delight of both daughters simultaneously sitting ‘A’Levels and GCSEs, relatively unscathed. The emergency escape to a tent in the garden wasn’t required and now we have the prospect of a few tranquil weeks before the results arrive…

As you can imagine, I managed to do a lot of stitching (always my go-to method of stress reduction) while the exams were happening. Ever since I visited the Indian textiles exhibition at the V & A, I’d wanted to try out some new ideas and textures, and having also recently read Claire Wellesley-Smith’s ‘Slow Stitch’, I decided to free myself from the tyranny of the ‘one hole, one stitch’ edict to try something different.

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I have to say this has been a revelation in many ways. It certainly takes a meditative stitch practice to a new place as far as I’m concerned. My only problem now is trying to decide when it’s finished.

In other news… I’m just back from a short trip to the Scottish Highlands and Islands courtesy of my extraordinarily generous flying friend. This time I achieved a huge ambition and visited some of the neolithic sites on Orkney.

Having been a rampant medievalist for most of my life, I’m something of a late-comer to things pre Anglo-Saxon, but I suppose having watched so many Time Teams over the years, it’s gradually crept under the skin. Also, I’ve read so much now about our Celtic past and much of that references theories about the people who preceded them, and so it is that before you know where you are, you’ve reached that wonderful hinterland where history melts into legend and legend into myth.

And I find that I am entirely entranced by this mythic realm.

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Detail from the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

This is where, I’m afraid to say, the history junkie in me ceases all scientific, factual thought and instead wholeheartedly embraces the possibilities of myth. Because, really, faced with something like the Ring of Brodgar, how much can you actually say for certain. But stop thinking and instead stand there and simply feel and I defy anyone not to be affected emotionally. To know that humans, so much like us, went to the effort to create these structures, but to understand so little about why they did so, is both baffling and mesmerising. The gulf between our time and their’s opens and all we have is our minds and tantalising traces of archaeology to bridge that gap.

I did rather max out on the photos on Orkney, so once I’ve sorted through, I’ll write a separate post about it.

So, relaxed and refreshed, it’s back to the needle now. I have some fairly nebulous ideas running around my head, which I need to get down to planning out. The textures of our wild places are, I’m pretty sure, bound to wheedle their way in.

What are you working on at the moment? Does history, myth or landscape influence how you work? Do tell.

 

 

 

 

 

Slow Art In Action…

Growing a tree…

Once upon a time there was a woman who was fascinated by trees. She went out almost every day taking photos of them, and when she wasn’t snapping pictures, she’d be gazing at trees, and occasionally talking to them…

It just happens that the same woman is an obsessive stitcher (yes, it’s me – you guessed).

So she decided – not for the first time – to grow one in stitches.

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She didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like, but she had an idea – a touch of awen– which she sketched onto the canvas.

A riot of colours were swooshing around in her mind, and eventually she chose the ones she was going to use.

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It was autumn and lots of things were happening in her life, but gradually, stitch by tiny stitch, the tree began to appear.

2016-02-02 11.21.40She took the initial lines and gradually elaborated on them with the threads, letting her imagination decide where to take them.

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Sometimes, when there were dark days, the repetitive, meditative process of stitching took her mind away from problems and sadness, and gave her peaceful, mindful moments. And all the time the tree continued to grow – watered just a few times with her tears.

2016-01-15 13.29.24But there was a lot of happiness too. She thoroughly revelled in cosying up on the sofa when it was cold outside, thick woolly socks on her feet, listening to the radio or TV while on she stitched.

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Time passed, Christmas came and a new year began.

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The tree took shape.

2016-02-02 11.23.16And all the unknown spaces, all the blank areas on the initial design, were filled with silk, wool and metallic threads.

Until at last, one day, there were no more spaces to fill…

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January stitching…

Nearly the end of January and I hope everyone is now getting back into some sort of ‘normal’ routine. (Oh yes, I can hear the cackles from here…).

Around here, things have been going quite well. I’ve somehow managed to get back into a semblance of a domestic rhythm – which is not something the feminist in me would ever have expected to write – but still, there’s no escaping the fact that for me at least I function better and get more creative work done when the boring bits are under control.

But I eased myself in gently. A visit to the V & A at the beginning of the month to see the Fabric of India exhibition, was a great way to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve decided that 2016 will have more Artist Dates* – it’s too easy to get caught up on the hamster wheel of daily life and we need to step off and recharge from time to time.

Fired up by the trip to London I’ve managed to get back to stitching properly this month. Unusually for me, I started the month with two pieces in progress. The first is an experiment with a different style of stitching, inspired by a summer’s day on a Scottish beach.

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I remember sitting on the beach (at Sango Bay to be precise), looking out at the sea and sky and realising that there were distinct bands of colour running horizontally and suddenly thinking that it might make a good subject for a stitchy piece. I didn’t have the phone with me, so instead, I scribbled notes about the different colour bands in a little book I was carrying, and hoped it would be enough description to enable me to interpret it when I came home.

When things were a bit rough before Christmas, I started putting this idea together, and I think having a completely different, ‘see-how-it-goes’ approach made it easier to pick up when I felt able.

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detail from ‘Beach’

But although it’s definitely producing the look that I was after, I have to say that I don’t find I enjoy long periods of stitching this way. Dare I say it, it’s almost like weaving, in as much as I have to progress from line to line, working lineally. Which explains two things – first, why it remains only about half stitched, and second, why I am now totally concentrating on the other piece – yes, yet another tree…

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I am much more ‘at home’ creating tree pictures, especially if they contain lots of spirals.

While I’ve been curled up, stitching away at this latest specimen, I’ve been thinking more deeply about this addiction to trees. I thought that if I could go back and collect up all the drawings, pictures and doodles I’ve ever done, I’d hazard a guess that well over half would have featured trees. I have no idea where this all started, but I know I was already doing it when I went to secondary school.

My Instagram feed is full of tree pictures – my own and those of the many other people out there who also share this fascination. Last week I met another lady, also an embroiderer, who does exactly the same thing and takes a daily picture of a favourite tree – it’s a small world.

You don’t have to be obsessed with trees for long before you become engaged in exploring the mythology surrounding them. I had originally thought I might write about that in particular, for instance the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, Druid oak groves, that sort of thing – but it’s such a huge topic, these are just Western mythologies, and trees feature in the mythos and cosmology of cultures all around the world – I wouldn’t know where to begin or end.

So if trees speak to you too, then I’m sure you’ll have your own thoughts on why you’re attracted to them and there’s a very good chance the enchantment goes right back into the mists of time. Something to ponder as the needle goes in and out…

And I shall carry on with this one and wish you all happy stitching!

* Artist Dates: Julia Cameron’s suggestion in The Artist’s Way that artists should have a weekly ‘Artist’s Date’ to charge their creative batteries.

 

 

 

A Day In The Life…

There was a short series of programmes on the BBC a while back, called ‘What Do Artists Do All Day?’ Be honest, you wonder about it too don’t you...

I thought it would be a fun thing to describe a typical* day in my arty life.

So, here’s the answer to what this particular artist does all day…

Beginnings

Oh how delightful it would be to rise before dawn for an early mediation as the sun rises, to soak up the peace and quiet of a new day, write 3x A4 Morning Pages** to clear the mind and after 20 minutes of yoga, to eat a breakfast of mixed berries…

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My Grannie’s flat-iron, my mum’s enamel jug and my steam iron…

However, in the real world, I do get up pre-dawn, but then it’s straight into the ‘getting the girls off to school’ routine, which you’ll be familiar with I’m sure, (that or something similar). It generally involves the domestic pleasures of making packed-lunches, coffee, ironing, vacuuming, taxiing and if by some chance I’m very organised, deciding what we’re going to eat for dinner…

After that, my day begins again

I don’t write Morning Pages, but for me, the daily walk with the Delinquent Dog is a form of meditation and the time when I clear my mind. We take the same route every day, which is a wonderful way to tune-in to the changing seasons, watching subtle changes and feeling the immediate connection with the weather. It’s simultaneously grounding and relaxing.

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Followers on Instagram may remember that I photographed the same oak every day last year, an exercise that taught me much more than just how an oak changes through the seasons.

I pause most mornings at my Thinking Gate – sometimes I am actually thinking when I lean on the gate, sometimes I’m just listening, just being.

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The ‘Thinking Gate’…

I’m not consciously looking for inspiration on those walks, but I’m sure something seeps into my unconscious which probably finds expression in my work.

Middles

Back home, and I try to do the things that need brain power…

My trusty accomplices are the Mac, my Filofaxes, my pencil and my smart phone (with which I take all my photos – I don’t own a camera).

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And then, it’s time to stitch…

Stitching is wonderfully meditative. It isn’t long before I’ve drifted off somewhere in my mind. Most of my work is only lightly planned, with the details coming as I go along. If you’re familiar with the Druidic concept of Awen, that’s very much how I feel about inspiration and connection, which for me expresses itself in my stitching.

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I’m fuelled by coffee, strong and black, which I take a break for, every couple of hours or so.

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Once the family are home again, I slip back into the domestic routine.

Working from home can make it difficult to separate work from home life, and I used to suffer a lot from feeling resentful at having to keep stopping to change roles, but gradually, I’ve found the balance that works for me, and now I try to give myself entirely to family matters until after dinner, when usually I’ll have time to relax with my stitching buddy and embroider for a couple more hours.

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My stitching buddy – the Delinquent Dog – he likes to help me by putting his head on my lap while I’m sewing…

Ends

Finally, I’m an avid bedtime reader. I’ve recently acquired a bookshelf to go right next to my bed, which is better than having huge piles of books teetering on the bedside table. I have a postcard picture of Bess of Hardwick which I use as a bookmark. I love Bess, she’s my historic heroine, a strong woman living in a man’s world, a loving mother and a brilliant needlewoman – I often wish her goodnight when I turn off the light…

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* Obviously there’s really no such thing as a typical day – just typical elements, but you know what we mean.

** Morning Pages, as many of you know, is part of Julia Cameron’s Artist Way. Although I don’t do them now, I did do something very similar a couple of years ago and found it extremely helpful.

Rock, Water, Cloth…

Being a slow artist has its challenges – not the least of which, is how to blog about a ‘work in progress’. I quickly realised that a weekly update here on my stitched tapestries would end up more like a ‘spot the difference’ competition.

In recent months, I’ve gravitated towards Twitter and Instagram as the places to share occasional stitchy updates, where it feels more natural to post a simple picture as I settle down to stitch with the Delinquent Dog curled up alongside.

If you use these platforms, please do keep in touch that way – it’s always lovely to receive messages ‘in real time’.

But today is one of those special days – a day to share for the first time, a work no longer ‘in progress’, but finished! 

Very often I find it difficult to know where the inspiration for a particular piece comes from, but at least with this new work I have a pretty shrewd idea.

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It all begins with that ages-old fascination for watching water moving over stone. I wonder how many generations of people have felt transfixed by watching waves glide over a pebbly beach, or have felt the hypnotic power of staring into a pool of still water at the edge of a river flow, or indeed have been caught up in a fountain’s magical dance.

I for one, can easily lose myself, simply staring into the water.

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Now, clearly only a lunatic would attempt to capture that watery, mercurial sensation in a medium as distinctly static as thread – ahh well…

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But as ever, the process of stitching has itself been a meditation, a way to drift into a flow of sorts, an escape to another realm, if not a watery one…

Stitched between June and September 2015. Wools, linens and silks on linen scrim.

29 x 39 cm

If you’d like to see it ‘in the flesh’, I’ll be showing it at the Discover Original Art Fair on November 28th & 29th 2015, at the delightful Ivinghoe Old School Community Hub.

 

 

 

New Friends…

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I had the great pleasure of visiting Fibre East last weekend at Ampthill, Bedfordshire – happily for me, very close to home.

Not usually the sort of person who enjoys big events, I was persuaded to go by the lovely lady at Art Van Go, who mentioned it in passing to me, the last time I was over in Knebworth.

We had been discussing the difficulty of finding the range of yarns we wanted locally and the demise of shops selling any worthwhile selection of tapestry threads.

And so off I went to Ampthill, armed with high hopes and a fairly bulging purse.

What a brilliant day I had! I was delighted to find that Fibre East was big enough to have a fabulous choice of suppliers, but not so huge that you couldn’t get up close and personal with the yarns and have a good talk with the stall-holders.

For me, one of the most fabulous things about becoming serious about textile art, has been discovering a whole new group of people, many artisans or very small business owners, who are producing an amazing range of threads. Access to such a variety of colours and textures is what has transformed my version of needlepoint/embroidery to the art practice it is, so I was enormously pleased to see so much variety available from people who all seemed to be passionate about their products.

It was also a pleasure to be able to touch and test out so many silks, wools, cottons and linens. Most of my purchases are made online these days, and although this works well enough, there’s nothing quite like being able to stroke the threads, and see for yourself their true colours.

One of my main objectives, was to identify suppliers that I could go back to online, throughout the year, knowing that they had yarns, strong enough for me to use for my canvas embroideries.

Of course, there were far more goodies than my purse could cope with, and so feeling a little like the woman who goes to the rescue home for dogs and wishes she could bring them all home with her, I had the horrible job of deciding which ones to bring away with me. There were many I left behind – I know there were lots of other kind-hearts/yarn-junkies, doing their own bit to re-home the entire stock, so not too guilty! And I have noted a number of people who although I didn’t buy from at Ampthill, I expect to go back to at some point.

But for the record (and as a reminder for me too) – these are the champion suppliers whose threads are even now being stitched into my latest tapestry…

Black Bat – http://www.blackbat.co.uk  – Exquisite natural woollen yarns – the lace weight Wensleydale works wonderfully as a tapestry thread!

Weavers Bazaar – http://www.weaversbazaar.com All the colours I wanted in worsted…

Midwinter Yarns – http://www.midwinteryarns.com I went a bit goo-goo over the coloured linens.

Namolio – http://www.namolio.com Another wonderful range of linens – already using these…

Whimzy – http://www.whimsy.co.ukIrresistible colours and the lovely Ling!

Thank you’s to all the stall-holders who made the event so fabulous – especially as the second day, it rained so heavily – you’re doing a wonderful job, and this textile artist for one, is very grateful x