Meadows at Muker

For anyone that is new to my blog, I’m currently working on a project with the Dales Countryside Museum. I’ve been printing up their archive of Marie Hartley MBE’s wood engraving blocks that were used to illustrate her books about Swaledale, Wensleydale and Wharfedale written with Ella Pontefract. I’m now in the next phase of the project which is to carry out research in the form of looking at the archive of her notebooks, diaries and sketchbooks and going out ‘into the field’ to get inspiration for a new body of my own work to be exhibited at the museum gallery in 2020.

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Today I’ve been sketching meadow grasses and flowers for reference for new prints inspired by the glorious upland meadows (of which the Yorkshire Dales National Park has a few). In the 1930s, Marie and Ella wrote about ‘haytime’ in the dales, of a time when whole communities were involved in the cutting and collecting of the hay, machinery was pulled by horses and the hay was then stored in the famous stone barns (often known as cow’us or laithe) ready for feeding the overwintering cattle and sheep.

(A selection of Marie Hartley’s wood engravings depicting aspects of hay making)

“When hay-time comes, generally towards the middle of July, everything else is put aside. All the women help, extra daughters appear miraculously from service. Irishmen are sometimes employed by farmers with small families. In a very wet summer much of the hay has to be left to rot in the fields, and some of the grass is never cut. When hay-time is well and safely over, a wave of relief goes through the upper dale”. (from Swaledale, 1934)

The meadows were not only fragrant, extremely beautiful and a rich source of food they were also very important ecosystems supporting a wide variety of invertebrates which were then fed on by numerous birds and animals. Unfortunately, as agricultural practises have changed and intensified, over the last fifty years 98% of meadows in the UK have been destroyed.

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The Yorkshire Dales have also lost a proportion of their traditional meadows but, fortunately, due to the work of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA), Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust (YDMT) and Natural England alongside committed farmers and landowners, the last twenty or so years has seen the conservation and restoration of species-rich meadows. This is a subject that I’ve been interested in since moving to the Yorkshire Dales and further information can be found at the websites of the YDMT & YDNPA. Times are very different now and ecology and economics mean that we’re unlikely to go back to the days of meadow-strewn Dales but what is being created is a network of species-rich meadows that everyone can benefit from and that are being managed with the help of modern machinery alleviating some of the hardships that the farming community of Marie’s time would have suffered. They are not only useful as a fodder crop of animals but attractive to wildlife, the local community and a visitor attraction which helps the local economy.

Due to Ella and Marie’s obvious love of the area, I’ve been visiting and revisiting locations around Kisdon fell (I am a fellrunner after all)  which include Muker, Thwaite, Angram and Keld. The meadows at Muker, which have been given Coronation status, are currently at their most stunning.

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This is the perfect time to visit. They are colourful and smell amazing, swallows and swifts swoop over them to feed on the many insects that they attract and there are so many different plant species. You can see yellow rattle, pignut, red clover, wood crane’s bill, eyebright, rough hawkbit, cat’s ear, meadow buttercups, lady’s mantle, crosswort, speedwell and melancholy thistle to name but a few!

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“In this grave sweet valley of the Swale meadows like the flowery meads of medieval paintings burgeon in early summer. Perhaps nowhere else in the dale does the yellow of buttercups splash the fields more boldly, or the pink of crane’s-bill tinge them more deeply, or wayside bushes shower sprays of pink and white roses more freely than here round Gunnerside and Muker” so says Joan Ingilby and Marie Hartley in their book, The Yorkshire Dales, 1956.

In the Footsteps of Marie Hartley MBE

Back at the beginning of 2018 I was contacted by Fiona Rosher, Museum Manager at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. The Museum was celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the book ‘Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales’ which was written and illustrated by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby who founded the Museum. Within their archives was a collection of 130 wood engraving blocks created by Marie Hartley MBE and Fiona wanted to know if I would be interested in printing them so that they could have a set of prints for use within the museum. This sounded intriguing and what followed was a series of meetings with Fiona where we discussed the possibilities of the project. It soon expanded and developed into one that would culminate in an exhibition of my own work in the summer of 2020. We agreed that I would begin the project by printing the blocks in the museum so that visitors could watch and I could talk to them about their memories of Marie, their experience of the Yorkshire Dales and about printmaking. I would then carry out research about Marie Hartley which would take the form of reading all of her books written in collaboration with Ella Pontefract and Joan Ingleby and I would be given access to the archive of sketchbooks, notebooks and diaries that the museum owned. This would help to form a picture of the woman herself and help me to find an angle for my own work. I would then go out ‘into the field’ to draw, print and develop ideas for a series of brand new works. In other words, a dream of a job!

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Anyone that knows me will know that I work very hard to make a full-time living as an artist and I am often so embroiled in various exhibitions, shows, teaching workshops, running art groups and the accompanying admin that’s involved in doing those things that I often feel that there is very little time and headspace for making new work. It is one of the reasons that I disappear off to Ålgården Studios for a few weeks every year so that I can have uninterrupted time to develop my printmaking. With that in mind, we realised that I’d need some funding to allow me to take a bit of a step back from other commitments for a while and really make the most of this opportunity. Fiona was brilliant in campaigning for the project and we are so fortunate that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and the Friends of the Dales Countryside Museum have provided the necessary support needed. In return, I am printing the blocks within the museum to allow the public to see the process, will be giving a talk to the FoDCM and will be running a number of printmaking workshops at the museum in 2020. I’m also updating the archive records for the wood engravings as I progress through the printing, making notes of any damage and any links to preparatory drawings that I discover in Marie’s sketchbooks.

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Most of the wood engravings that have been published were created for three books that Marie wrote with Ella Pontefract: Wensleydale, Swaledale & Wharfedale. I’ve decided that I will concentrate my own research on those areas of the Yorkshire Dales. I’m a keen fellrunner and my plan is to run some of the routes described in these books, get to know the places and then I will identify particular points of interest that I would like to return to for sketching and printing. I’ve got a tentative plan to take my campervan on some of my excursions and set up my portable press so I can actually print directly in the landscape. I like to feel that it would be in keeping with Marie and Ella’s explorations of Wensleydale carried out in their little caravan that they christened ‘The Green Plover’ (see a sketch of Marie’s now held at the Leeds University Art Collections by clicking here)

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I shall be writing regularly about the project and sharing snippets of research, images printed, anecdotes from the people that I meet and anything else that I find interesting. In the mean time, if you would like to see me printing some of the wood engravings, I will be at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes from 12-4pm on consecutive Tuesdays up to and including the 7th May 2019 (excluding Tuesday 16th April when I’ll be there on the previous Sunday 14th April, 12-4pm). Do come and see how exquisite Marie’s work is and I’d love to hear anecdotes from those that knew her and stories from your experiences of the Yorkshire Dales (please note, museum admission charges apply).

The Installation of ‘Within These Walls’

So now I had five hangings printed, sewn and perspex rods ready to be inserted (thanks Ian Whyte for drilling the fittings!). Ian Harland, the owner of the barn, had worked really hard to clear it and get it ready for the installation. I’d been up there to sweep up, do a risk assessment and cover the shelving with hessian (I bought a 42 metre roll!). Now there was just the small matter of reaching the beams, which are 4 metres from the floor, to fit the screw eyes and tie the rods in. Ian managed to borrow a builder’s ladder and I was going to give it a go myself but I have to admit, despite being a fellrunner and (briefly) a potholer, I was feeling nervous. I really don’t like being up ladders. Its not a fear of heights because I love standing at the top of a mountain, I think its a fear of precariousness! I have been known to get cragfast on rocky ledges when the wind is up.

Fortunately, I got a text from my friend Matt, an arboriculturist and former tree climber extraordinaire, offering to give me a hand. This actually meant he came along and did the whole thing. My mum and her partner Ian were up for the week so they came up too and kept an eye on Matt’s little boy and wrangled his gangly pointer puppy. I was in charge of passing him the pristine white voile hangings and was responsible for making sure that nobody trod on them or got tangled up!

It was a bit fiddly and we’ve come up with all sorts of ideas to make it easier next time I hang them but essentially, the rods and line did the job and Matt made it look very easy. In the meantime, Ian Harland was mowing the grass and making everything look lovely. He has been cultivating two meadows close to the barn and they are glorious. Ian Whyte then pinned up the rest of the hessian which helped to minimise the distraction of the rack of shelving.

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After installing Within These Walls, I distributed the flyers I’d had printed and put direction signs up. I’d also had postcards of four of the plant monotypes printed. Selling them at 50p each not only gives people something to remind them of the installation but also helps recoup my petrol costs for being up at the barn each day. The Grassington Festival team made me a lovely A-board to direct people up the lane and I’m turning a blind-eye to the fact that I’ve been renamed ‘Heather Cox’ 😀

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So that’s the logistics and the installation has now been up for over a week and open for 6 days. I’ve had 138 human visitors so far and 14 dogs! In my next post I will talk more about my personal feelings about the installation now its finished and some of the visitors’ reactions to it but I think its fair to say that I’m not only relieved to have pulled this off, I’m totally delighted with just how well the prints work in the space.

NB thanks to Paula Cox and Ian Whyte for taking photos of the installing part!

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Monotypes on a Large Scale

Well, as is typical with my working life, I am back home and it has been one big whirlwind of printing for gallery deliveries, teaching workshops and planning new work but the installation is simmering away in the background and I’ll soon be back working on it again.

The good news is that I have been in contact with the director of the Grassington Festival and ‘Within These Walls’ will definitely be a part of it. I’ll be at the barn daily from 12-4pm and I’ll be printing on my portable press whilst there which will be good fun.

So, where was I? Ah yes, reduction monotypes on a grand scale. So the installation  will consist of two hangings featuring block-printed birds, two hangings featuring my reduction monotypes of the meadow flower shadows and one enormous collagraph as a centrepiece which I aim to create to appear as if you are lying in a meadow and looking through the grass. I am excited about working on such a massive scale although it will be a logistical nightmare and I am only hoping that the studio where I’ll be printing it has a suitably enthusiastic and supportive technician who doesn’t mind me taking over the big press!

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Making the monotypes in Sweden was an exhausting but lovely experience. Working on an old lithographic plate (80x100cm), I rolled it up with an oil-based black relief ink (Gamblin) and then I worked from tiny photocopies of my shadow photos. I carefully selected the images so that they would work well as a big design and also reflect the diversity of the plants in the meadows. I decided to work from very small images because I didn’t want to slavishly copy the photos but interpret them and work with the shapes to give myself more freedom. The monotypes were created by wiping away the ink using kitchen paper and hundreds of cotton buds. I must have got through about 500! It was a slow and painstaking process with one of the images taking 13 hours to produce but there was also a meditative quality to it and I think that is reflected in the final imagery.

Working at that scale was surprisingly physical and I was stretching and bending all over the place whilst creating the work. It was one of the reasons why I ran every morning, it helped set me up for the day, energised me and loosened off the stiff muscles from then day before. The woods and lakes were a stunning monochrome winterscape of ice and snow which totally reflected my mood and the work that I was making.

Making the prints consisted of spending most of the day wiping the ink away whilst listening to podcasts followed by some wrangling of the big press and printing onto the fabric first. Strangely, the reverse of the normal monotype process happened by which I mean that the fabric took a small amount of the ink and I was able to create lovely ethereal prints but it left lots of ink behind so I took a second print off on a full sheet of Fabriano Rosaspina paper and got a stronger image (normally the second image is weaker and called an exhaust or ghost print).

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I hung these up as the week progressed and they received a lot of interest from the other artists which was really encouraging. In fact, by the end of my two weeks an artist friend at the studio, Torbjörn Damm, had decided that he wanted to buy two of the prints in his role as art buyer for the region’s public spaces. I was thrilled and he has selected two paper monotypes to be displayed at a hospital in Alingsås. This not only boosted my confidence but has helped generate some decent income for a project that I am funding myself. It has also given me an incentive to expand the project to create a body of work that can be toured in galleries as well as barns…but let’s not get ahead of myself, I haven’t finished the installation yet!

Making the monotypes was so different from my usual collagraph printmaking. I spent ages creating the images on the plate but after I printed each design twice, I then wiped it all away so nothing remained. I like the ephemeral nature of reduction monotype making. It suits the subject matter too.

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Before I left Sweden, I had to pack all of the work that I’d created so that it was safe and protected for transporting by plane. I’m getting better at this and have devised a system of rolling the work around a cardboard tube and them bubble wrapping it so that it doesn’t get marked but isn’t too tightly coiled. In layering everything up, I started to see the printed images overlaid through the translucent cloth and it has given me further ideas for prints.

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So now I am back home and the next stage is to design the collagraph part of the installation. I will create the design on paper and then scale it up to be cut from four full sheets of mount board. Then they will need to be printed in succession on one of the hangings so that the design fits together as a 4 metre image. No mean feat but if it wasn’t a challenge, it wouldn’t be so rewarding!

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Well, the progress report from Sweden is that I’ve completed the prints on two of my 4 metre hangings but I’ll rewind a bit before I talk about that.

On deciding to do this project I had to face up to the fact that I am not a ‘textile person’ and I don’t own a sewing machine. I know nothing about fabrics and I had a few weeks of complete indecision and confusion about what material I should use for my hangings. I am fortunate to have friends that are very good textile artists so I sought their advice on what they thought might be good to print on. My stipulation was for something that would be a bit translucent so that the light would play with the prints, preferably have some stiffness so that it would be easier to print onto and hang nicely and not be too expensive. My friends didn’t let me down, they came back with organdie, organza or cotton voile. I then ordered some metre samples from a textile mill in Bradford called Whaleys. As I don’t have funding, cost was an issue and the voile comes in very wide lengths which could be cut up the middle to make two hangings for every four metres whereas the organdie is lovely but very expensive and too wide for a single hanging but too narrow for two which would mean a lot of wastage.

15995279_1257605010994160_405090192798362724_oThe organza was gorgeous but printing on it with reduction monotypes didn’t work at all so I chose the middle ground of voile and ordered 16 metres (the above image shows a monotype and a collagraph printed on voile). I then had a trip to the mill to pick it up the day before I headed to Sweden and spent a ‘fun’ two and half hours trying to lay it out and cut it into 4 x 4m lengths which I then had to divide in half and cut up the middle. I am so glad that I bought some rather expensive scissors for the job and didn’t try hacking it all with my kitchen scissors!

So, off I trotted to Sweden with a roll of fabric carefully packed inside my new giant kitbag. Last time I was at Ålgården I had had reactive arthritis in my knee and was unable to walk properly so I’d been confined to the studio and the immediate surroundings. Frustrated by my inability to explore further, I’d looked close by for inspiration and had collected some plants to photograph the shadows against my bedroom wall. I worked with this imagery in the studio creating reduction monotypes and photopolymer plates. I also made one very large print of a rosebay willow herb shadow and fell in love with the 1x2metre etching press.

Back in August last year, it occurred to me that I’d like to work with the shadows of the meadow flowers in a similar way but I’d missed the boat somewhat as most of them had either died back, set seed or been cut. Fortunately I managed to gather a few stragglers and took as many photos as I could using my head torch and the spare bedroom wall. It was these that I worked from in Sweden.

I started with a bunch of grasses and I made that print first but then realised that I really ought to design the hangings properly and work on the composition so I spent a day sketching and moving bits of tracing paper about on graph paper until I came up with a good design for two hangings that will hang either side of my 4 metre collagraph. This wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds as I spent an afternoon trying to create graph paper on the computer using word because the studio’s version of adobe was out of date and wouldn’t open the free downloads I got off of the internet. It meant I had to keep using google translate to understand the Swedish commands and it was something of a challenge but I managed it and got an A3 copy done (whilst the photocopier jammed repeatedly). I then went into the framing room and was searching for a ruler and came across a lovely pile of graph paper…I did feel slightly stupid. It’s things like that that make the ultimate success all the more sweet!

More on the reduction monotype process in the next post but before I go today, I’ve had some interesting conversations with some of the artists here and found out that buttercup is smörblomma (butter flower) and wood cranesbill is midsommarblomster (midsummer flower). I’ve also discovered that the meadows are as much under threat here as at home and that our upland meadows have the same species of flowers. Not that surprising really but quite a good link between the two countries that I may be able to use in the future.

Within These Walls

So, apart from continuing Collections and also making some work for the next Printmakers Circle show (at Sunny Bank Mills in April), I am currently working on a large-scale print installation. This is a huge challenge for me and something that is both exciting and daunting in equal measures. The story behind it (abridged to prevent boredom) is that in 2015 a printmaking colleague asked me if I’d like to join her in creating a print installation in a field barn for the Grassington Festival (highly popular and well-respected arts festival). Never wanting to turn down the opportunity to do something different I immediately said yes. She met with the organisers of the festival who suggested some possible barns and we went on a reconnaissance mission to check them out. This involved yours truly wading about in sheep and pigeon poo to see if the barns were suitable for our idea.

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We found one and duly contacted the owner who was very keen and agreed to let us use it. Roll on to September and I took my colleague over to Sweden to visit the Ålgården studio and we enlisted two of my Swedish artist friends to take part in the project (which was to have a Scandinavian theme). Due to the fact that I was getting married during the 2016 festival and already had a large workload on for 2016, we agreed to work towards the 2017 festival and the idea was to try to get some funding.

Unfortunately, in November 2016 my colleague said she no longer wanted to go ahead with the project and it looked like that was that…except that I have always wanted to work on a large scale and had a head full of half-formed ideas. I realised that I couldn’t ask my Swedish friends to be involved with something where I had no funding, nowhere for them to stay and no real idea of what I was doing or how it would work so I thought I’d see if I could do a scaled down version on my own with a view to expanding on it as a collaboration in the future.

Its safe to say that my ideas have grown and I’ve met with Ian (who owns the barn) a few times and, being a fellow fellrunner and also a keen conservationist, we have hit it off and I’m really excited about what I might do in his barn. Roll on to the present day and I have just completed the first of 5 (or 7 if time allows) 12′ long hangings! But let’s not get ahead of myself as I want to document the whole process.

Firstly, I needed a theme. I didn’t actually need to look that far because I was already documenting and making work based on two meadows close to my house. A Yorkshire Dales upland meadow is a thing of beauty, a habitat for abundant wildlife, a valuable winter food source for livestock, has a rich cultural heritage and, unfortunately, is also seriously threatened by modern agricultural ideas and methods. We have lost 97% of our meadows! Ten years ago, the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust, in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, set up the ‘Hay Time Project‘ which aims to work with farmers to protect and restore meadows across the Dales and the Forest of Bowland (there’s a very good book available about the project). A good meadow can have up to 130 species in a field whilst the best meadows can have up to 40 species in just a square metre.

Anyway, I’ve been slightly obsessed not only by the abundant species of flowers and grasses in my local meadows but by the drystone walls and field patterns that form our local landscape. The barn that I will be presenting my installation in is a traditional eighteenth century field barn with a mewstead for storing hay and a shippon for winter housing of cattle. I am developing ideas and imagery that I have been exploring via other projects such as in my bookmaking and via Collections. So that’s a bit of background. Next I’ll be writing about the logistics of getting from cluttered headspace to printing 12′ lengths of fabric!

(NB: Within These Walls is the title of my project for obvious reasons)

Collections Update

cox-h-the-collectionAs I am not a very prolific blogger, I need to post a project update before I can tell you about what I’m currently doing in Sweden! Collections opened at Masham Gallery in November and has just come down after a very successful first run with lots of visitors, great feedback and plenty of sales. What more could we ask for? I’ve updated my website with a gallery featuring all of the prints that were shown. Above is a piece called ‘The Collection’ which is inspired by my own collections and features collagraph prints on wooden blocks in a traditional printer’s type case. The prints are sealed with acrylic wax to protect them and the whole piece can be hung on the wall.

The above pieces (two of which have sold) are collagraph prints on blocks displayed in box frames with found objects. The one featuring Pen-y-ghent came about as a result of me finding some skylark eggshells whilst running the Yorkshire Three Peaks Route! I carried the shells nestled in an emergency bivvy bag and was totally amazed that they remained undamaged for the remaining 19miles of the run. It was a glorious day and the larks sang at every step.

Our next exhibition of Collections will be at the lovely Ryedale Folk Museum Gallery and will run from 27th May – 16th July 2017. We will be supplementing the Masham exhibition with new work and also some pieces inspired by the museum’s own collections. We were very fortunate to have a guided tour by museum director Jennifer Smith and one of her colleagues. Soon we were handling ornate fragments of green glass made illegally in Rosedale by French Huguenots fleeing from religious persecution at home; leafing through a scrapbook full of amazing fragments of historical handprinted wallpaper & admiring the eclectic objects in the Harrison Collection.

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I’m really looking forward to starting on the new work but in the meantime…I’m back at Ålgården Studios in Sweden and I’m working on the first of 7 x 12′ hangings for my print installation in a field barn for the Grassington Festival in June/July this year. More on that next time.