Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Visit with Yuli Somme - Felt Maker - at Her Studio Workshop, Bellacouche, near Dartmoor

Tucked behind a large stone wall, in a 15th c barn at the edge of Dartmoor in Chagford, Devon is the studio workshop of Yuli Somme, felt maker.  Trained as a weaver, she worked at Coldharbour Mill Working Wool Museum as a researcher until, in 1988, Yuli had the opportunity to see an exhibition of contemporary felt making that altered her focus in fiber arts. With a MA in Textiles, her work concentrates on sustainability while holistically educating and reconnecting men, women and children to their environment.

Felt Feet and The Wool Stack

When my dear friend, Jackie Bone, who is also my husband's niece, first emailed me to see if I knew of  Yuli Somme's work, I admitted that I had not, so I did a bit of online research.  Jackie had seen a program on Yuli on television and hoped we might be able to arrange a visit. First I watched a short video tour of Yuli's studio workshop, Bellacouche.

Entrance to Bellacouche in Chagford, Devon, UK

A second joy filled video highlighted her Felt Feet project with teachers and children.  

And a third video, filmed by Devon Open Studios in 2011, demonstrated Yuli's gentle presence, as well as another collaboration project, a felted tree of life, that she has created at various times with children, as well as adults, this time with staff and patients for new hospital wing for patients with dementia.  As Yuli described to us, she works on location with the project's participants felting the naturally dyed wool into birds, flowers, leaves, etc. Back in her studio workshop, she sews and needle felts the colorful bits into one solid piece, ready to be hung and displayed. When working with children, she also deconstructs colorful fibers for the children to apply to their artwork to emphasize the importance and possibilities of repurposing materials that usually go into landfills. For more information about the Felt Feet, or Yuli's other felt projects to make with children or adults, titled The Wool Stack, or to buy educational videos and wool kits, check out her website, Bellacouche.

Jackie and Yuli discussing wool

Since Jackie owned a farm with a variety of animals, including sheep, she and Yuli had a very interesting discussion about the current wool market in the UK.  Taking time from her busy schedule, Yuli graciously offered tea or coffee before she gave us a tour of her studio workshop. What a wonderful space! Much was the same from the video, except now, her husband also has his pottery studio on the ground floor in the area she had stored her bolts of wool. Yuli described how she picks the wool that she personally oversees as it is lightly felted into massive bolts that she now stores in the open rafters above her work space.

View down onto Yuli's work table from the storage rafters and skylight above
Yuli explaining a felted cloak that now hangs from a rafter
Wonderful projects and bits of felt stored overhead
A felted chest of drawers filled with treasures for sale
Lovely things to touch and open 
You may see me wearing one of these hats next winter

Leaf Cocoon

Although I found the Felt Feet and other educational projects interesting, it was Yuli's current work, Leafshrouds, that intrigued me. What began as an invitational exhibition in 1999 called Treading Lightly that focused on the ethical and environmental practices within craft, the experience caused Yuli to reconsider how we humans are disconnected from the cycle of life. Many people have never seen a dead body, although most of us have been touched by the death of a loved one. Yuli researched the history of natural fibers used for burials in the UK, and wrote a paper about her research that was published by Plymouth College of Art.  

Since I teach about the artist, Joseph Beuys, in my classroom, I was taken by a Beuys' quote from Yuli's paper, "People today no longer have a sense of the essence of things, be the meaning of life or the meaning of relationships in the world." Our bodies were made to be biodegradable, yet we do all we can to preserve (why?) and protect the remains. Where I live in Madison County, Illinois, for example, the body is embalmed by chemicals, sealed in a metal coffin, and buried within a concrete bunker.  Or the body is cremated, in which the overall process is also not good for the environment. 

A shroud in process

A sample shroud stuffed with blankets. We were allowed to examine the construction.

Today at Bellacouche, which means beautiful resting place, Yuli makes felted burial shrouds to order, for adults and children, used to wrap the body in strong, but softly padded felt for woodland or natural burials that are legal in the UK.  The large bats of wool used for the main parts of the shrouds come from local sheep farmers and are industrially felted in the UK under Yuli's personal direction. The pieces of felted wool used for details are naturally dyed before Yuli hand sews and needle felts the details. Finally, local tree limbs are cut into small pieces and attached as "buttons" for closure. For more information about the construction of the shrouds, view Leafshrouds, on the Bellacouche website. For more information about the sustainability of wool and the development of the locally felted wool fiber used by Bellacouche, read Yuli's paper mentioned above. 

Jackie watching Yuli work

I want to once again thank Yuli for allowing us to watch her work, and for giving us a tour of her studio workshop. We not only purchased a few wooly things to take along, we also took her advice and visited, Proper Job, the community recycling center outside of Chagford. 

In a cluster of buildings, sheds and compost bins that make up Proper Job, filled with furniture, clothing, ceramic fixtures and textiles, Jackie found some lovely mix-matched china. In another building, I discovered six pieces of handwoven Malian cotton "mud cloth" (for the price of a latte) that someone had donated to the center. Even more reason to return to Dartmoor!

One more thing to go in the suitcase

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pebbles, Paint and Possibilities

St. Ives
This rough and rugged place of pebbled beaches, azure blue sky, teal green sea, deadly cliffs, narrow lanes, iron age circles, tropical gardens, open moors, and herds of wild ponies overwhelms my creative senses to the point of near panic and procrastination.

Ever since I first arrived in Cornwall in 1999, I have been in love with the land, the sea, the history and the people. My husband's people come from this ancient place and still reside in villages of Mevagissey and Fowey, very near the place my husband, Peter, was born in Mt. Charles.


Charlestown Quay down the road from Mt. Charles

For the first 8-9 years of our travels to Cornwall, I was a mad woman absorbing the culture, environment, language, and history as quickly as possible ... while feeling an obligation to made art.

With limited time slipping away, I frantically filled sketchbooks with black and white illustrations of people, boats, historic locations and everyday life.  Or felt the rush, excitement AND panic in my chest as I attempt to capture the constantly changing light as the weather allowed.

Gorran Haven 2008
Rock Pool Series 2008
But in 2008, the abstracted, cubist landscapes of St. Ives artist, Peter Lanyon (1918-1964), made me rethink the way I approach space and perspective. This epiphany changed my approach to painting, as well as my abstract handmade paper constructions. But I still felt pressed to MAKE art.

But this year, I have not allowed myself to stress out about some pre-conceived fictional deadline.  Before we left the States, I gave myself permission - to slow down even more. 
To give myself ... my art ... my relationship with Peter ... and my spirit ... 
a chance to breath. 

This year, we returned to St. Ives by train.

St. Ives

St. Ives
Wandering in and out of galleries down to the Tate, it was Lar Cann's (1943 --) current abstract paintings of the rock quarries of Cornwall that gave us both pause. Simple, beautiful, intense, and textured in glorious colors!

What took me so long to embrace similar intense hues in my paintings? Fear of boldness? 
Thus, I am once again drawn to simplification, minimalization, and abstraction ... with the addition of a more passionate color palette ... allowing intuition to be inspired by the microcosmic landscapes embedded within and upon the beach pebbles themselves.  If you think my choice of colors seem too brash, you have never walked along the surf of a Cornish beach in the sunshine. 

Cornwall 2012 - Painting 1
Add a bit of cubist landscape ...  

Cornwall 2012 - Painting 2
Cornwall 2012 - Painting 3
And perhaps a sea creature or two ...

Cornwall 2012 - Painting 4
Work in progress
I spy from my temporary studio window, 
set high above the Mevagissey quay and the English Channel beyond ... 

pebbles, paint and an array of possibilities for our final week abroad.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In Search of Sherlock Holmes and the Diabolical Hound of Dartmoor

This time last year, my husband and I set off to Port Isaac, Cornwall, UK on a quest for Doc Martin for a dear friend, Pat Vivod, an amazing textile artist in Illinois who loves the ITV show which airs on PBS in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. You can read more about her eco-dying with rust, tea and other natural ingredients on her blog, Sentimental Pentimento. Peter and I carried a silk scarf eco-dyed by Pat to Port Isaac with plans to photograph the scarf on location - only to come face-to-face with the entire cast taping the new season.  Read my 29 June, 2011 blog post for more information about that quest.

This year, knowing that Pat, as well as friends: Denny, Kim, Cindi, Elizabeth, Anne, (shall I go on?) and myself, are also huge fans of the new BBC hit, Sherlock, a new quest was planned!! With ordinance survey map, Pat's silk scarf, and a bag of Cornish pasties with saffron buns in hand, my dear friend, Jackie Bone (Kim's mum, who is also my husband's niece), and I set out across Dartmoor by car and foot in search of the location of Season 1, Episode 2, of the modern BBC version of Sherlock Holmes

Set on Dartmoor, The Hounds of [the]Baskerville(s), has thrilled and terrified audiences since it was originally written as a crime novel by Sir Arthur Conan and serialized in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902.  One can read more about the modern Sherlock version of the Hounds of Baskerville on the blog of Dr. John H. Watson

While we may have hoped to catch a glimpse of the infamously diabolical hound running across the moors, what actually roams the heather and heath are free range sheep, ponies and cattle. One such pony became very interested in our adventure and hoped to get a closer look at our plan.

Not to be deterred, we continued our search!

Through river valleys ....

and golden broom in bloom...

Past pre-historic settlements ...

to ancient stone circles and iron age circle huts.

Beyond sleeping giants resting atop granite tors ...

and solitary monuments dedicated to young soldiers long ago lost in some forgotten war.

The land spoke not a word. Nor the animals that roamed. All was still, but for the call of distant birds ...

and the baaaa of listless sheep.

 So on we travelled ... down into valleys between narrow lanes lined with high stone walls covered with centuries of wild flowers and ancient trees dressed in multi-shades of viridian moss ...

Past the Dartmoor ponies...

and dutiful cows nursing their calves ...

Until we came to our journey's end ...  

without a hound in sight.