Saturday, November 8, 2014

Paul Cummins – Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Photo: Massimo Crisafi/GuardianWitness

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red has been one of the most popular and successful artists' installations in my lifetime. Created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with a setting by stage designer Tom Piper, 888,246 ceramic poppies have been progressively laid in the moat of the Tower of London to commemorate the centenary of the start of World War One – each poppy representing a British or colonial service person killed in the war.

I was unable to visit whilst the poppies were 'growing' in size, and now that I have the time, the crowds are so immense I cannot get near it! Up to 4 million are expected to have visited before it closes. They have begun floodlighting it at overnight, so perhaps a late night or early morning visit is in order before it is dismantled on November 12th (just after Remembrance Day). However, with the prime minister now jumping on the bandwagon, the 'Wave' segment (which surrounds the entrance to the Tower) will now apparently be able to be viewed until the end of the month whilst volunteers remove the rest.

I discovered Paul Cummins' work back in June 2012 when I was creating my own 'ceramic flowers' from my vast collection of blue and white fragments for an outside installation at Creekside Centre. So I am really pleased his poppies have moved so many people. The piece above was made for Chatsworth House, and below are some of my 'flowers' – blue and white fragments attached to steel rods both short and tall, and 'planted' in the earth.

Since I posted in 2012, Paul has got a proper website – See him talking about the work on the Telegraph's website here. Such a nice guy! And great to see 'art' finally having some relevance and giving meaning to ordinary people.
Even though I had not yet seen the poppies, I purchased two (£25 each) at the beginning of October – one to be a Xmas present for my mother who's had a terrible year (a truly 'annus horribilus') after her home was flooded in February. This week George Osborne actually did something good for a change and decided to 'waive' the VAT so that £1million more could go to the six veterans' charities (Cobesco, Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help for Heroes, the British Legion and the SSAFA) benefiting from the sales. Both her brothers had careers in the RAF, her father served in the 2nd World War as did my father, but one uncle has relied heavily on Combat Stress for some years after serving in Northern Ireland. Plus, my late father's birthday is November 10th, the day before  Remembrance Day. Whether her gift will arrive in time now that part of the show might be extended is another matter!

The other important thing about this piece is that the poppies were made by hand in Derby by local people, using a traditional pottery production line that had to work 24/7 to produce them on time. If such a project had been masterminded by a corporate business (perhaps thought up by a clever advertising agency), they would probably have been manufactured very cheaply in a Chinese city factory and still sold for £25 each. With Paul's project however, there are echoes of Ai Wei Wei's porcelain sunflower seeds, which were not industrially produced but hand-crafted by hundreds of skilled artisans.

Update 13 November:

Yesterday it was a beautiful sunny day, so I finally jumped on the 188 bus and went up the road to see the installation, returning on the number 47. How I have left it so long when it is so near, I cannot explain! It was already being dismantled by lots of volunteers. Later in the evening I returned with a couple of friends to see the floodlit night time display.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Catching up #2...Deptford X 2013

Continuing my blue and white theme, but changing the focus to the local campaigns I've been involved in, my Deptford X project this year was about my town's maritime heritage.

I joined forces with two other artists, David Aylward and Laura X Carlé to produce an "Anchor Fest" under the umbrella title "Deptford Is Forever". (

Our aim was to draw attention to the Deptford Anchor which used to sit at the top of Deptford High Street. It was removed earlier this year by the Council as part of regeneration works being done to the high street. Originally the anchor had been installed in 1990 as part of previous regeneration works, but was mounted on a low plinth that over the years had became a sit-down gathering point for the local street drinkers – in full view of the A2 traffic into and out of central London. Undoubtedly, the anchor's removal was intended to displace the street drinkers. A not very well publicised consultation took place in 2012 asking people if the anchor should stay in Deptford or go back to Chatham Historic Dockyard where it originally came from. Overwhelmingly, the response was to keep it in Deptford, since people had become very fond of it and it was the only visible manifestation of Deptford's rich seafaring and shipbuilding history.

When asked when the anchor would return to the high street, Lewisham Council let on that it might end up as part of the new riverside redevelopment at Convoys Wharf at the north of the high street. Lewisham Planning are currently considering an application for the redevelopment of this huge riverside site, but should the site ever receive the permission its owners want, it would be another five years before even the first phase of building is complete.

So we called on citizens to join us in our demand to Lewisham Council to "Give Us Back Our Anchor" and return it to the high street. I designed two single colour tattoos – one as a logo for the project (above), and the other a design to go on white paper counter bags, of which 5000 were printed to be given free to shop keepers and market traders to hand out to customers with their purchases.

This design also demanded that the Royal Dockyard was "saved". This year is the quincentenary of Deptford Dockyard – originally founded by Henry VIII in 1513 – which is now under threat from Convoys Wharf s.a.r.l., a company set up by Chinese conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, owned by the 8th richest billionaire in the world, Li Ka Shing. They want to build 3,500 luxury flats, with three towers of 48, 38 and 38 storeys and most buildings between 12-18 storeys. All would be built over the historical remains of the dockyard – the slipways, the great basin, the mastponds, Sayes Court Garden (founded by John Evelyn), and other buried structures. Only two structures are to be saved – the double dry dock next to the privately owned (and listed) Master Shipwright's House, and the listed Olympia Shed which covers two other slipways.

A white "ghost anchor" was commissioned from the local florist/grocer High Street Flowers to hang in their window. This wreath was incorporated later into a procession (see below).

A day of "free" tattoos was organised with local tattoo parlour Kids Love Ink in which people could get a little anchor tattoo in return for a donation of up to £15 to a local charity Deptford Reach (who look after people like the street drinkers) and local project Build The Lenox (who want to build a replica 17th ship on the site of the double dry dock).

The Waiting Room coffee shop next door to the tattoo parlour joined in by using our specially stamped takeaway coffee cup cuffs.

And the grand finale was a procession through the high street on market day (Saturday 5th October) with David leading a giant cardboard anchor made by Laura, followed by a band of "rough music" players (brass and drums), and local assorted followers. The procession began at the Dog & Bell pub next to the Convoys Wharf site, and progressed up the high street to the site where the anchor once stood, and stopped along the way at other potential sites – Deptford station and Giffin Square. Eventually the cardboard replica was processed to Lewisham Arthouse, and to Laura's studio where she had originally built it.

We produced T-shirts and cotton shoppers to fund the project. More pix are on the website I designed to document the project.

Catching up #1...May to October 2013

Before and during Deptford X Contemporary Arts Festival 2013 (see next post), I showed work in four places.

Creekery #1 and Creekery #2 were shown at the Master Shipwright's House, Deptford, as part of Open House London 2013 (21st & 22nd September). Also shown here in the perfect setting was The Old Blue & White.

The photos of the two Creekery installations were also featured in the foyer at Arthub's Deptford X show "Boom" (27th September – 6th October 2013).

Apple Tree was shown at 8 Studios From Here, a group show of work made by artists in eight different Deptford studios during Deptford X 2013. 

Postcards from China and Stoke are being shown in Made in Greenwich gallery as part of a group show until mid-November 2013. This show was not part of Deptford X but ran concurrently.

In July, I was also part of a group show "Eight Minutes From Here", which was in turn part of My Deptford, in the Festival of Neighbourhood at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank. I showed an old piece Sixteen Grocers.

In June, I was part of Creekside Ahoy at Arthub Gallery, a postcard auction show for which I submitted three small new linocuts.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

National Maritime Museum Willow Pattern display at the Cutty Sark

Terrible picture of the display in the Cutty Sark shop, taken late the other night after the Tall Ships Fireworks.  The shop is selling EVERYTHING TO DO WITH WILLOW PATTERN, including APRONS, TEAPOTS, CUPS, etc....

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Oh to be in Venice

Jeremy Deller, Ai Wei Wei...

that's enough for me to get on a plane for, only I only just found out. far too late.

I am stuck here, not just through poverty, but also by commitments to supporting projects for Convoys Wharf, ie Build the Lenox and Sayes Court Gardens and I haven't made any art recently except some lino-cutting....

Future Cities who have sketched the 'Creative Vision' that seems to be the only driving force for Convoys Wharf, will no doubt have first class hotel rooms in Venice as I post this.

If only Jeremy Deller knew what was going on here in Deptford, if only Ai Wei Wei knew what was going on here....along the same stretch of river his British agent placed him when he was with Albion and the story is here...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

London Art Fair 2013

A trip to London Art Fair (in the snow) yielded some interesting results: two artists working with Willow Pattern. I have flagged up both of them before, but never seen them at the Art Fair.

First up: Robert Dawson, showing on the Axisweb stand in the 'Art Projects' area. I first came across Dawson's work in July 2010 when he was showing at Jerwood Space, although he has been working with the Willow Pattern since at least 1996. I didn't see this piece then; in Spin, Dawson alludes to the spinning used to make a plate – but the only spinning here was done on his computer, then transfer printed onto bone china. Lovely.

c Robert Dawson Spin (detail) 2010.

Spin as it was shown in the space

Second up: Paul Scottwho I discovered around the same time as Robert Dawson and who was part of the offering at Brighton gallery ink-d, who specialise in mostly urban/street art and were positioned on the mezzanine floor.

Hard to ignore on ink-d's stand was "artivist" (art activist) Carrie Reichardt aka The Baroness with her large politically slanted mosaics.

In the prestigious section on the ground floor near the entrance was Millennium Gallery showing German artist Caro Suerkemper who was working in porcelain and blue and white with an erotic narrative.

Meanwhile, back up in the Art Project space, Woolff Gallery were showing this by Keith Haynes. Not blue and white of course, but I mention it because I was cutting out vinyl records in 1997.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Emma Biggs Mosaic

Back in November 2012, I was preparing my application for Goldsmiths MFA. It was a mammoth task to explain why on earth I wanted to do the course, and to describe my work in terms of critical discourse. I couldn't simply say "I want to be taken seriously, and I want to make full use of the workshop facilities and technicians because I can't afford to do half the things I want to do otherwise."

I got an email last week to say I'd been unsuccessful.

As part of my preparations I looked through my favourite art books. One of those books was Matthew Colling's Art Crazy Nation. It seemed rather dated (it was published in 2001) and I wondered what he had been writing about recently. Google led me to Biggs & Collings where I found the above piece by Emma Biggs.

Not being part of the art world's social network, I had no idea they operated as a couple making paintings together, or that his wife works with mosaics – particularly with found fragments.

At Emma's own website ( I came across her project Made in England. "The Made in England mosaic is a celebration of the Stoke-On-Trent ceramics industry and its history. The mosaic incorporates a range of fragments displaying back-stamps and potters marks, representing a wealth of stories and workmanship."

There is a website for Made In England which describes the project and is now an online resource about backstamps (or 'makers' marks'). Here are some extracts from the About section:
'Made in England’ is a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council. It was conceived by the artist and mosaicist Emma Biggs, but involves the skills, knowledge and generous participation of numerous individuals. It is both a historical record and a demonstration of how signs and symbols influence our understanding of familiar objects and inform how we think today. (...)
(...) Ceramic tableware, the cups, plates and saucers we use every day, is unusual in one respect – each piece bears an identifying mark which tells a story. Although people may have noticed the marks on plates, they are not generally given a second thought, unless it relates to the rarity of the piece and its financial value. Marks are designed to be overlooked, they are on the bottom of plates because the important aspect is on the top – the decoration – but there is a fascinating story to be told from looking at the overlooked, the things we simply take for granted. This project aims to do both aspects of what art should do – namely make us re-examine a familiar aspect of our lives and see it in a new way. It should also be visually compelling.

Made in England begins where industrially produced ceramic began: in the pottery towns of Stoke-on-Trent. An art work in mosaic is to be installed in the entrance to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, which houses a collection of ceramic of international importance, and receives visitors from all over the world.

The marks on the backs of plates – known in the trade as ‘backstamps’ – inadvertently convey a social history of England, and ways in which the English have seen themselves, encompassing technology, classicism, empire, nationhood and the pastoral. The name of the project is taken from these stamps. Ceramic was not marked with the country of manufacture until the nineteenth century. (...)

(...) The plates we will use will not be ones of enormous financial value – it is the fact that the art work draws our attention to a story told by everyday things, accessible and familiar to us all, that gives it its aspect of surprise.

Ultimately the aim of the project is to look at the everyday in a local, a national and an international context. The products of the ceramic industry have a particular meaning to the community of Stoke-on-Trent, thousands of whom have spent their entire working lives in the industry, and many of whom have recently been made redundant as the industry contracts under pressure from the more competitively priced products of the Far East – particularly China.

But curiously the highly skilled workforce is not alone in being displaced by the retooled Chinese industrial giants – the traditional Chinese ceramic towns are also withering, and there are fruitful and supportive links between the two communities. The history of ceramic, more familiarly known as ‘china’, is one which cannot be seen simply in a national context: the word tells you about a trading history.

The first part of this project will be in Stoke, the second will be in the London Underground, and the third will take the project to China.
Emma also writes about the project on her blog. She describes how she came to use ready-made pottery as a mosaic material but found the decorative elements too distracting, so decided to use the maker's marks instead. "The backstamps did what contemporary art seeks to do – they woke me up to new meanings residing in something intensely familiar. These plates – objects we all live with every day – were loaded with all sorts of contradictory and fascinating cultural assumptions (...) Contemporary art is about meaning. It attempts to expose our place in relation to pervasive ideologies of which most of us are only dimly aware...the quest to reveal something new, true and overlooked is what distinguishes it from decoration."
© Emma Biggs – Six roundels from Made in England, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent
"Empire, victories at war, aristocracy (...) once I started to look, I saw it wasn't a story of power alone, but also gave a narrative of the relatively powerless, the people who worked in the potteries – or 'potbanks' as they are known in Stoke. There were batch numbers, and thumbprints, and tests of the brush, made by the 'paintresses' (...) There was a story of technological change (hand painted and underglazed versus 'dishwasher and microwave friendly)."

Emma did what I have failed to do: go to Stoke and meet the people.

In this post, she talks about how Stoke is now among the poorest cities in the UK as the industries based there have been decimated. In the following post, she describes how she got the community involved.

"As the project depended on public involvement, it was essential that as many people as possible knew about it. I contacted local TV, radio and the press. I appealed for pottery fragments and invited anyone interested to get involved. I went to public events — fairs and meetings, and circulated information. I visited clubs (I even went to a Rotary Club lunch). I alerted NORSACA — the North Staffordshire African Caribbean Association, and the local Racial Equality Council. The project was made part of the coursework for second year students from the University of North Staffordshire.  I spoke and held classes at primary and secondary schools. UNITY — the Trade Union — bulletined their members alerting them to the appeal."

She publicised the project with a series of postcards designed by George Walker and Catherine Nippe, which used words and phrases particular to the ceramics industry and well known in Stoke. On the back was an invitation to contribute along with contact details.

© Emma Biggs – postcards from Made in England

My favourite detail from the main Made In England piece is this one with the paintresses' marks:

© Emma Biggs – detail from Made in England

A Cup of Tea

Martin Parr photographs everyday life...this image is from a Tate greetings card.

Just before Christmas I was invited by Deptford X's Matthew Couper to take part in an Art in Shops scheme he was curating in Peckham (I Art Peckham Shops, part of Peckham Space), which ran from 15th Dec to 6th Jan.

It was suggested I put my work in a greasy spoon cafe, Cafe Como. When I visited the cafe owner and asked him if he would like to use Willow Pattern to serve his breakfasts and lunches on instead of his usual crockery, and maybe put up a couple of pieces on the wall, he turned me down. He didn't want to change what he had on the walls, or have anything interfere with his imminent Xmas decorations, and was more interested in another offer to have an artist "dressed as a Victorian lady" sat in the front window for a day who would write notes on passers by.

According to the I Art Peckham Shops Facebook page, the artist who exhibited in Cafe Como was Sally Hogarth. Can't really find much more info on this. But maybe the reason the cafe owner didn't like my idea was because he'd had a look at my website and seen what I did to the crockery in Creekery.

c Sue Lawes, Creekery #1 at Ha'Penny Hatch, September 2010 (photo: Charles Shearer)

See all posts on this blog about Creekery #1.
See all posts about Creekery #2.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Adding to the collection

At Christmas, my sister gave me both a Christmas present and belated birthday present – two pieces of Willow ware to add to my collection. Both are Doulton, Burslem.