Bird Life in the Dales

I’ve just been to the Dales Countryside Museum for the ‘big handover’ of all of the prints that I’ve taken from Marie Hartley’s wood engraving blocks. There are two sets of 129 prints made from 127 blocks (2 were double-sided!). I had to leave the linocuts unprinted because they’d degraded over time and become hard, cracked and warped. I didn’t want to damage them further and, although I tentatively tried to print one block, I wouldn’t have been able to get a decent print from them. I’m really happy to have played a part in this important archive and to help realise one of Fiona Rosher’s dreams for the museum. I then spent a couple hours reading some of Marie’s diaries that she wrote when she was working and living with Ella Pontefract and then Joan Ingilby.

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The diaries often contain illustrations, poetry, natural objects, christmas cards & other ephemera.

I have just read the heart-breaking entries from the time of Ella’s death and the year anniversary of it. I will write a little more about the women’s lives and the important part that Joan’s friendship played in helping Marie to recover in another post. The diaries that I have just been reading were written before, during and after the second world war and provide a fascinating insight into how it affected the people living in the Dales.

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An entry from 1950 which included petrol rationing tokens.

I’m currently visiting different areas of the Dales (written about in Marie’s books) with a view to collecting ideas for new work and I’m taking photos and making notes of what I see. I’ve got various lists of all the wildlife that I’ve been seeing and I was delighted to find numerous entries in Marie’s diaries that record the birds that she saw each year.

IMG_6152IMG_6153IMG_6158IMG_6154I think that one of the most poignant things is the fact that she refers to seeing corncrakes near Askrigg and these have now vanished from the Yorkshire Dales. I’ve been out and about and seen some really amazing wildlife. Here are some collages of photos taken on my visits to Muker, Keld, Penyghent, Plover Hill and Semerwater.

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Top L-R: lamb on Kisdon, eggshell at Snaizeholme, Lapwing above Stalling Busk. Middle L-R: Red squirrel at Snaizeholme, Curlew, fox cub. Bottom L-R: pied wagtail at Malham, me on Kisdon!, sheep on Kisdon.

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Top L-R: primroses on Kisdon, cloudberry on Plover Hill, Birds Eye Primrose near Yockenthwaite. Middle L-R: Saxifrage on Plover Hill, Bluebells on Kisdon, Mountain primrose on Penyghent. Bottom L-R: cotton grass on Plover Hill, Purple Saxifrage on Penyghent, meadows at Muker

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Top L-R: Oyster catcher at Keld, Wheatear at Muker, Ring Ouzel near Plover Hill. Middle L-R: Sandpiper at Kisdon Force, Lapwing above Stalling Busk, sported flycatcher at Muker. Bottom L-R: Meadow Pipit on Penyghent, canada geese with goslings on Semerwater, grey wagtail at Kisdon Force.

I often run my routes because it means that I can go further and to places that I wouldn’t get to when walking. I don’t mind getting wet in bogs or scrambling through heather when I’m in my running shoes and I also find that I see far more wildlife and the animals and birds seem less bothered by me. I often spot things and hide out of sight so I can watch without disturbing. For me, these times are some of the most joyful in life. I gain a clarity of thought and I often solve solutions to my printmaking conundrums as I’m running up a hill or across an open moor. Running can be meditative and it is the perfect counterpoint to my sedentary days in the studio.

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A golden plover seen near the cairn at the summit of Kisdon yesterday.

I carry a small Canon Powershot camera that fits in my hand or a bumbag and I chose one with a powerful zoom lens. I’m really enjoying sketching from life for this project and am looking forward to doing more landscape studies ‘in the field’ but it is virtually impossible for me to draw fleeting encounters with birds and animals and so I have always spent time watching to get to know them and then used my huge reference library of photos to help me get accurate details in my prints. The rest is then left to my imagination, my memory of landscape and artistic licence! I have enormous respect for the likes of Robert Gillmor who has spent a lifetime studying and drawing birds from life in order to make his exquisite prints.

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Top: Studies from life of grasses and meadow plants which were made to understand the structure for when I am cutting my collagraph prints. Below: lapwing studies made from my photographs to help me understand how they fly so that I can make prints that capture the essence of their behaviour.

Marie, Ella and Joan spent their lifetimes getting to know the Yorkshire Dales and their books are as much about the people living there as of the land itself. Marie’s diaries have many entries about time spent with fascinating people learning about life and traditions in the Yorkshire Dales. Whilst I’m not aiming to write a book about the people of the Dales, I do hope that the artwork I make will show how the landscape has been shaped and moulded by the farming, mining and other human interactions with the land and how, in many cases, that has made incredible habitats for wildlife to thrive. As a result of this project, I’ve already met some really interesting farmers and landowners who have made conservation a priority in their work and I hope that will be reflected in some of my prints.

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.

Large-scale Collagraphs

Its been a long, long road to get to this point but as I write, I’m just about to cut the final blocks for my last two hangings and will be printing them in Horton-in-Ribblesdale Village Hall later in the week. Grassington Festival is a week and half away and I’m up at the barn later today to do some final clearing up. Most importantly, I have also successfully completed my 4-metre collagraph!

I should also mention that I spent a day at ArtisOn Ltd in Masham thanks to the lovely Gaynor and Sue letting me use one of the studios for hemming the five hangings. I am also totally indebted and eternally grateful to Lorraine Garlick and Sheila Smith who gave up their free time to sew 47.5 metres of fabric for me. That is true friendship! I don’t have a sewing machine and I have very little sewing experience so what could have been a total nightmare, was actually pretty straightforward and the results are beautiful.

When I embarked upon this project, I don’t think I fully understood the implications of attempting to print a continuous 75 x 400cm collagraph but I’m glad that I didn’t let all of the set-backs and logistical problems put me off. Working on such a large scale has been challenging but really exciting. First I had to sort my design out so I worked on four pieces of cartridge paper that I divided into 1 inch squares (7 1/2″ x 10″) with the idea that I could then apply a grid to the large pieces of mount board and redraw the design using the sketch as a guide. This did work but the initial drawing took two and half days to do and then each plate took a day to draw out not to mention a day each to cut.

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The finished drawing (hard to photograph!).

My idea was that the collagraph would be a close-up study looking through a bit of meadow with a number of different flower species represented. I chose to include eyebright, yellow rattle, birds foot trefoil, bush vetch, red clover, wood crane’s-bill, meadow buttercup, pignut and sweet vernal grass. These are all species that I’m familiar with and that are found in upland meadows here in the Yorkshire Dales. I’m a bit of a stickler for accuracy and detail so each plant needed to be researched and I wanted them to be accurately in scale with each other. FullSizeRenderUsing the grid system to upscale the drawings worked really well and took me back to my college days. I used four full sheets of mount board to make the plates and mainly used cutting, wood glue and gesso to create the collagraph.

I soon realised that printing at that scale, it was best to keep things quite simple but it was still a bit of a challenge to work out how to do the veins on the leaves and pignut is a such a delicate and frothy plant that it did take a lot of work to get the look just right. In the meantime I had been searching for a place to physically print the work because I needed a press that could accommodate a 75cm wide and metre long collagraph plate. No small task and I actually found myself waking in the night and having panic attacks about not being able to print the plates once I’d made them. I even found myself trying to work out how I could get such large pieces of card over to Sweden as I know Ålgården’s press would have been perfect. Fortunately I found out that Northern Print in Newcastle have a lovely big intaglio press and I made an appointment to have an induction and to print the first plate. It is a 2 1/4 hr journey to get there on a good day (with no traffic & no accidents) and my first visit saw me getting up at 5.30am and hiring a dog walker in order to get there on time and not leave my furry pals crossing their legs all day.57F6D87A-07E4-4F88-9D71-6811EE094C84

It was an unbelievable relief to discover that when I book to use the large electric press, I have sole access to it for the whole session and so can work slowly and methodically whilst not worrying about anyone else needing the press or having to reset it. I am now a member of the studio and have plans to go back and create more large-scale collagraphs there.

Each plate initially took an hour to ink and forty-five minutes to wipe in order to get a paper proof. I needed to do that for each one so that the plate would ‘settle’ and I could check it was printing exactly as I wanted it to. It meant that I had to book the press for 2 x three-hour sessions in order to print one section of the hanging. I won’t go into the entire process here as it was lengthy and stressful but imagine trying to handle an inky metre-long piece of card and print it onto a pristeen white piece of four metre voile and you’ll get a bit of an idea. I also had issues with the pressure on the first print and lifted a corner of the fabric to discover that the collagraph was pale and ill-defined. Fortunately I was able to lower it again and tighten the press to get a good print from it. After my first visit with the first successful section printed, I returned home triumphant to recount my exploits to my husband who then asked ‘but how are you going to make sure the plates match up and how are you going to get them all the same tone?’ To be honest, I hadn’t considered this but chose not to think about it too much and just to hope that I could work these problems out as I went along.

It took another two sessions (with the last one being from 10am to 8pm) to actually complete the design but it is fair to say that I’m really happy with it. Sure, there are a few flaws and I know that I could do it better a second time around (which I may have to if my Swedish contact does want to buy one for the hospital) but it is how I pictured it and I can’t wait to see it in situ.

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The first two prints successfully through the press.

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One left to print. Here I am rolling up the previous prints to protect them and make it easier to handle.

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The final print! All ready to roll up with tissue paper for transportation home.

Now I’m working on two flights of swallows that will be block-printed using screen printing inks designed for fabric and won’t require a press. Mind you, there are plenty of other factors that could go wrong but I’m choosing to ignore those for now too!

 

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!

Smörblomma and Midsommarblomster

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.