Sunday, 7 August 2011

Dirty knees climbing trees

The St Helen's Four Acre project of making and remembering is near to a finish and the work finding its shape. Memories have become drawings and writings, which have in turn become embroideries, postcards, cakestands - and now ceramics. In editing we've tried to walk a line between the playfulness of childhood reminiscence and the narrowing poverty that people described.

There's a tenderness in this material which finds many expressions. 'Nauty boy settle down/nauty boy settled down' tells a world in two simple phrases. They could be the voice of a mother settling a baby, they could be mischievous young man come into the settled state of adulthood. The fact that one line is present tense, one line past puts the two statements in continual dialogue. The spelling mistake 'nauty' evokes classroom boredoms and class divides.

That balancing act between play and hardship, which we've tried to find in the artworks, was a very real part of many people's lives. How do you become more than just a 'survivalist' (as one of the homeless men we met described himself)? A touching aspect of this project has been the optimism and humour we've encountered. Despite the cramping effects of economic reality, most folk recounted their childhoods with great warmth and even glee.

The ceramics are a kind of finale for the project, a formal frame for the picture of these lives. The pieces are the result of many try-outs on paper plates, which we used for maquettes. Because we only had time and resources to make enough ceramics for one teaset, we had to shortlist. I thought of the pieces as circular poems - texts carrying an idea that works happily as a loop. We drew on the concrete (or shaped) poetry tradition for this, particularly the recent circle poems of Alec Finlay, son of the legendary Ian Hamilton F.

The originals were handwritten and we transcribed from them using tracing paper. We also used some of Lois' collection of tourist memorabilia as a source for fonts and layouts to guide us. Cup and saucer sets were the simplest, using a keyword or words and splitting them between the two objects. So for instance, one of my favourites 'Tuppence' was divided between a cup and saucer Tup/pence. The plates became much more complex, with longer stories unfolding and even spiralling. One of them replicated the circularity of progress through the year in a child's life - familiar waystations like easter eggs, walking to Sunday School, a favourite coat come round again and again, indicating a movement through time and yet also hinting that time when you're young is infinite, an endless wheeling of summer bicycle adventures.

Some of the pieces melt past and present together. A nice joke about this is a poem by Joan Ashcroft, which has also become a plate: 'I am blond, beautiful, in the midst of youth five foot ten a natural fashion PLATE alright! alright! I will tell the truth I'm five foot two, mousey and pass my sellby date. The end.'

In the photos you'll see the embroidered napkins that are companions to the ceramics, like the piece by Marian White that gives the title to this blog. But the unseen presence in these works is time itself and how we all move through it, with whatever grace or grimness we choose.

A very few of the ceramics are in these photos, there are more on flickr and best of all the pieces can be viewed as part of a teaparty at Four Acre later on this month, or at the Street Art Festival in St Helens town centre, early September.

A huge thanks to Claire Parker all her help, advice and use of Kiln. More photos of the hand-painted ceramics can be found at

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