After my last post someone mentioned threshold theory to me.  This has its roots in anthropological studies of rites of passage, but in educational theory a "threshold concept" is one that, once understood, changes the learner's view of the subject: 

... there are certain concepts or learning experiences, which resemble passing through a portal, from which a new perspective opens up, allowing things formerly not perceived to come into view. This permits a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something.
— Ray Land, JHF Meyer, Caroline Baillie, preface to "Threshold concepts and transformational learning" (2010)

These are the difficult bits - the things that are hard to grasp and challenge the learner's existing ideas or understanding.  But they are also the parts that make the difference between a working understanding of a subject or true mastery.  

Difficulty in understanding threshold concepts may leave the learner in a state of “liminality”, a suspended state of partial understanding, or “stuck place”, in which understanding approximates to a kind of “mimicry” or lack of authenticity.
— Meyer, Land & Baillie - as before

This totally makes sense to me in terms of where I find myself.  I have these individual pieces of inspiration, skills and knowledge and a sense of reaching for an understanding that will bring them all together .... that is tantalisingly just out of my reach.  And to reach it, I may have to let go of some of my existing approach ... which is discomforting.   In the meantime, there's that sense of dissatisfaction - that nothing is quite in its place.  

A threshold has always demarcated that which belongs within, the place of familiarity and relative security, from what lies beyond that, the unfamiliar, the unknown, the potentially dangerous. ... all journeys begin with leaving that familiar space and crossing over into the riskier space beyond the threshold.
— Meyer, Land & Baillie, as before

But while it was fascinating to me to come across this thinking and to see how it relates to what I'm doing, the real lightbulb moment related to a different aspect.  I realised just how strongly I'm attracted to things that encapsulate that liminal edge - the space "in between" where one thing becomes another.  

Tide turning.  Snettisham (June 2014)

In the landscape, it's where the tide alternately reveals and conceals the land; 

all the edges disappearing ... Holkham Bay at sunset with the tide turning (July 2014)

... where the sky merges into the sea so that you can hardly see the horizon;

Blakeney Channel (March 2014)

... where dry land merges into mud and then water on the marshes.  

It's also those other transitions - where one season begins to turn into the next, changing light at dawn or dusk, marks of ageing or decay ... I could go on but you get the idea.  I like the fact that the edges between these things are not clear or distinct.  There is an ambiguity, in which you know that something is changing but it is a pattern of one thing flowing into another - not a clear stop / start.  

And these are just the visible manifestations.  I can also see links to ideas that are important to me about the boundary between knowing / not knowing; processes of change and transition; and the nature of our relationship with the wider natural world.  

Salts Hole at Holkham.  (September 2014) 

Salts Hole (above) used to be connected to the sea via a network of saltmarsh creeks.  It is now cut off by a ridge of sand dunes and pine woods that has taken many years to form.  The water is salty enough to support saltwater creatures such as sea-anemones, even though it is now almost a mile from the sea.  The brackish water both reflects the sky and conceals what lies within the pool.  It is both transparent and opaque.  It is the essence of a liminal space.  In many cultures, pools have been seen as gateways (thresholds) to another place - the underworld, underwater lands - and as a symbol of the unconscious.  So many layers of liminality.

I want to develop this.  It's already there in my work, but I think I can do more with it.  Which suggests a way forward.  

More about threshold concepts (pdf)

More about the anthropological origins of ideas about liminality 

A sort of hiatus

I don't think I really know what I'm doing at the moment.  I'm questioning lots of things about my work.  And pondering several, as yet unresolved, ideas.  I'm not sure - yet - where my work might go next; but it feels as though something is shifting.  This is not exactly the most comfortable place to be.  

I know the worst thing I could do would be to stop working.  That would just increase the frustration.  So I figured I might as well use the time to try new things and prioritise the experiments and play - rather than force myself to make more of the same just to satisfy my need to feel I'm "Working".   So while I'm in this awkward between phase, here is a round-up of what I have been doing recently.  

Colour mixing.  This is partly preparation for another colour study.  I figured that while I'm not doing anything else I might as well progress this.  This puts me in research mode - logical, analytical - rather than creative, but it's all part of building the underpinning knowledge.  

Experimenting with folded forms.  I came across a book, aimed at graphic designers, that looks at many different ways of folding printed material.  So I tried out a few.  I liked the different ways pages were revealed or concealed.  They suggested different ways of telling a story.  I was thinking about book forms.  

Painting pages with ink.  Sometimes this is all I feel like doing.  I used scraps of lining paper, newspaper, packing paper and painted them with washes of ordinary fountain pen ink.  Diamine make this in lots of different colours.  It behaves a lot like dye, which is probably why I like it.  I enjoyed just washing one colour over another and seeing how they changed as they ran together on the paper.  Turning wet pages over and laying them on top of each other meant that they stained and marked each other.  I like these accidental marks.  

I also like the accidental marks that end up on the sheet of paper I always lay underneath to protect my work surface.   Accidental drawings.  

Then I started playing around with the painted pages.  Folding and layering different textures, colours and marks.  

Until I ended up with all these on my studio wall.  I like the way the paper behaves compared to cloth - more structural.  Inspired by my earlier paper folding experiments, I was folding and wrapping pages around each other to hold them together.  Then I stepped back and looked.  

The middle one with the leaf print was one of the first ones I did and it bothered me.  Although I like this kind of imagery in other people's work, it confirmed for me that in my own I prefer the imagery to be more ambiguous.  In fact, studying what I had done, I could see that it was all about lines and edges, overlapping colours and textures.  I like the way many of the lines emerge from and disappear into the background.  And, as with the folding experiments, I also like the sense of things being hidden and revealed between the different layers.  

I doubt these paper pieces are particularly light fast but I am wondering whether they could be developed into "work" in their own right.  Perhaps they will influence what I do next with cloth too.  

Drawing.  In between all this, I've started drawing my flint collection.  Using different media, different scales, close up details and larger more abstract impressions.  Just observing and playing around with the marks and colours.  Lines, edges and marks again.  

I'm sure all of this will feed into my work one way or another.  

Summer school

I spent last week in London doing a Summer School course with June Fish at Central St Martins.  Aside from the fun of getting to work in CSM's fully equipped dye and print studio for a week, this was an opportunity to explore different types of dye and application techniques.  We covered lots of ground.  Not everything will make its way into my practice but there were two techniques that really appealed to me and have potential for development.  

The first was painting directly onto the silkscreen with thin dyes - a technique I knew about but hadn't tried before.  It's a form of monoprinting I suppose.  Now I have done this with thickened dyes ("breakdown printing") but those need much longer to dry and the effect is quite different.  I really liked this and could see this being a way to interpret some of my ink drawings.  

The second technique involved wax.  June demonstrated basic wax resist using batik wax, which I found frustrating to iron out of my samples.  However I knew I had some soy wax and began to wonder about combining this with clamp resist (itajime) or pole wrap (arashi) techniques.  I know other people have had success with this.  

Now, because soy wax has such a low melting point I had to iron out the wax before the dye could be steam-fixed.  When I removed the clamps and pulled the cloth out flat, the effect of the wax against the (damp) dyed cloth was just stunning:  

After processing (removing the wax, steam-fixing, washing out) the effect is more subdued - the inevitable difference between damp versus dry cloth - but still interesting.  Clamp resist is ideal for workshop conditions because it can be done quickly - but I'm not sure how I feel about the geometric patterns.   

So much to explore, so little time.  The whole point of doing workshops like this is to expand the range of techniques and knowledge I can draw upon but I also need to keep focused on the things that will really help my work and not get too distracted.  When I consider all the different things I want to explore, I am quite daunted, given the time I have available.  However making time for this developmental work alongside simply making more work is important - otherwise I'll end up just making "more of the same".   So I need to select the most promising ideas and set aside some time to experiment intensively with them.    


Edges, threads and traces

I have been in stitch mode for a while.  I have finished several new pieces of work for Bircham Gallery and have more work ready to stitch in the studio.  Work is flowing well at the moment so I'm making the most of this.  Never know how long it will last ...

Over these blue mountains

I think I have a new favourite piece.  Over these blue mountains was all about edges.  Lots of minute stitching.  I felt as though I was conjuring the forms of the mountains out of the marks left by the dye on the cloth.  Two posts back I reflected on how the marks on my flints have their own cause, but when I look at them I interpret them in certain ways according to my own memory and experience of similar marks.  And now I found myself following the same process with the marks on the cloth - their true origin relates to dye chemistry and application but through selecting and emphasising specific edges and marks over others I was drawing out their resemblance to something else.  

In the top and bottom sections, stitching became a game of defining and dissolving edges.  In some places lines of stitch hold down actual cloth edges; in others they merely create the illusion of an edge.  I was making decisions every time I selected a thread colour, placed a stitch or ended a line as to where the "edges" were and whether they were strong or faint.  Sometimes I was following marks in the cloth so indistinct that even I was not sure whether they were really there.  

It dawned on me that I was playing directly with Tim Ingold's distinction between traces and threads.  Ingold argues that most lines can be classified as one or the other.  "A thread is a filament ... that can be entangled with other threads or suspended between points in three-dimensional space. ... threads have surfaces, however they are not drawn on surfaces."  In contrast "the trace is any enduring mark left in or on a solid surface by a continuous movement."  

I was using the traces left by dye on the cloth as a guide to where to place lines that I was making with a continuous thread.  And while I was focusing on what was happening on the front - the way the stitches were interacting with the dye marks - something else was happening on the back.  My thread was marking its pathway across the cloth with another pattern of stitches, livelier and more random than the carefully considered choices I was making on the front.  Conscious, deliberate decisions on one side; unconscious, accidental effects underneath - but each a direct consequence of the other.   It's a pathway - in the sense that it traces a route - but it's different from the line we would mark with our feet or draw on a map because it's marking the spaces / movement between each stitch / step rather than the steps themselves.

I like the freedom and liveliness of these accidental stitches and I'm pondering ways of recreating the effect.  If I simply turn the cloth over, I will lose a lot of control over how each stitch relates to the marks on the cloth.  If I copy the pattern of the stitches on the back, they will lose some of their spontaneity.  This is interesting in itself!  Need to experiment with this.  

If this seems a particularly introspective post, this is how it is with me when I am stitching.  While I am very focused on what I am doing, my mind is free to reflect.  I think this is why I prefer hand stitch.  It is a physical process that keeps the mind engaged in a way that's different to when I sew with a machine.  Each stitch is an individual decision but there is time for the mind to explore different trains of thought.  It is when I am stitching that I spend the longest period with each individual piece (and this is usually when I work out what to call it).  I notice things I didn't see when I constructed the piece, new ideas emerge, new links and associations are made and I come up with new things I want to try.  


More on Tim Ingold's thinking on lines here.

Looking back and thinking ahead

Several pieces of my work can currently be seen in a mixed exhibition at Bircham Gallery in North Norfolk until 2 April.  

Then I realise (detail) - currently at Bircham Gallery

Then I realise (detail) - currently at Bircham Gallery

Below is the artist's statement I wrote for them: 

Helen Terry creates abstract textile works using dye, mark-making and hand-stitch.

She grew up on farms in Hertfordshire and has spent most of her life in East Anglia, dividing her time between the Essex estuaries and Norfolk coast and marshland.

Helen works with cloth because of the way it can be manipulated and changed and hold the traces of what is done to it. Generally beginning with white cloth, she scrapes and paints layers of dye onto it and experiments with shibori processes to add layers of colours and marks. Helen then tears, folds, layers and stitches pieces of dyed cloth into a larger whole that conveys a sense of a story or journey.

Helen is inspired by found marks - whether natural or man-made - particularly the kind that reflect the wear and tear inflicted by time and the environment and suggest something about the history of the object. A recurring theme in her work is the way we interpret fragments and traces to create our own stories and meaning.

Trying to sum up what I do in those two paragraphs forced me to think hard about my work, my process and my intentions.  And now with the finished work hanging in the gallery, I'm pausing to reflect before moving on.  Although, having said that, the next pieces are already in progress; the ideas for the pieces after that are already developing.  This isn't a neat, finish-one-thing-then-start-the-next kind of process - the work overlaps and grows out of what went before.  But it's important to me not to automatically do more of the same and to have a sense of where I'm going with this.    

I'm wrestling with ideas at the moment.  I'm not sure whether I have something I want to take further - or how I might translate my thoughts about it into cloth, dye, stitch.  

I'm conscious of the risk of making work that is dominated by the process - the pure, undeniable fun of just playing and experimenting with cloth and dye.  And there is a place for that.  But the risk is of ending up with work that lacks depth.  Personally, I need to have some sense of what I want the work to be about, what I'm trying to convey, so that I can make the right choices and decisions and refine those accidental, organic effects into a strong piece of work.  

But at the other extreme, I know there is a risk of labouring the underlying idea at the expense of the work itself - which ends up seeming stilted or unconvincing because it comes second to the idea.  There needs to be a balance.  I think the most successful work makes expressive use of materials and process but conveys something more.  And that "something more" is drawn from an underlying body of ideas, concerns or interest.  

So alongside all the practical studio work, I'm constantly looking, reading and thinking.  I'm interested in many things - natural patterns and processes; ideas about connectedness; the way the mind works; communication.  I don't always know how all this will translate into my work but I do it anyway.  I know that it all influences my choices and the decisions I make, even when I'm not consciously thinking about this when I'm absorbed in the process.  

Clearing out my studio, I came across a file of preparatory work for a piece I made nearly ten years ago.  It was salutary to recognise some of the same interests but think how differently I would approach the same source now.   But there's a lot I still like about the piece that came out of it.  

Rebecca Crowell has interesting things to say about this and other aspects of the creative process.