Working to a theme

If you have started to follow my Urban Scrawl diary over on my Facebook page, you will know that my show in May will have a Liverpool theme. Working to a theme is something I have done ever since my first art quilt ever, made for the dandelion challenge with the Twelve by Twelve group. Recently though, with the need to both choose and execute a theme on a grand scale, I have been thinking about what this means to me. But before the conclusion: the background:

Story telling has always been important to me. As a child I read so much I was given an adult library ticket so I would not run out of the meagre child allowance of books mid-week. As a teen, I never had a traditional Saturday job but I did make a bob or two writing articles for an American magazine on a manual typewriter my Dad rescued from the skip at his Police station, it was that antiquated. I then became an advocate telling other people’s tales. I took up blogging when it was a very newly invented activity. So it was probably inevitable that when I discovered my artistic bones, I used fabric to tell tales. And, given that art is an outer expression of our inner selves, no one scratched their head in surprise when my art themes reflected the issues that ran through my work life. Social justice, immigration, families.

My early Twelve by Twelve work was best described as narrative-representational. Until the 20-12 series when I began to challenge myself with surface design and a little more abstraction crept in. Of course around then I was taking an abstractions call from LIsa Call, but still, those quilts had a story behind them. Human trafficking and the tale of a night club in South Africa, the grabbing of and from Kenyan tribesmen, apartheid era history. I couldn’t even start without knowing the story. It was back to the journalism of my teens.

And then came the graffiti. It started with a theme. Transitions. And a broader more sweeping story. The epic of Brick Lane with its waves of immigration. I went down there to take some images of the area, thinking I would work with the architectural details, found all the graffiti tagging and fell in love. Finally I found the ‘voice’ that all emerging artists seek and found something that was uniquely and consistently mine with the graffiti and reconstructed painted fabric. I made a quilt simply to play with the fabric and it was chosen for the SAQA Wide Horizons exhibit and is still out there somewhere touring. (It’s an independent quilt – I have no idea where it is right now!).

I was thrilled by that acceptance of my new work style and inspired to keep going with it. Yet, it was also the start of a growing unease. That quilt had no story behind it. Not even a 144 character tweet type story. Nada. And so, was it really my voice? Had I found a unique way of speaking, a new language, but at the same time lost the stories on which to use it?

It felt that way at first. Still does really. And that sits uncomfortably. There is certainly nothing at all wrong with art that is merely decorative. But it’s not really me.

With the opportunity to do a solo show in a big room there was not even a question in my mind that it would be the graffiti based art. But I had already worked in several small sub-series with the graffiti. So I added the Liverpool theme which was also obvious given the location of the gallery and the fact that any research needed could be done easily as that’s where I work. And using a whole city is not exactly going to be over limiting! One thing I learned ( of many) doing the Working in a Series class was that limitations are freeing. Decide once on a theme and that’s a plethora of other decision and options ruled out on which energy need not be spent. I know the theme Urban scrawl is wide enough to allow a variety of art ranging from representational to pure abstract. It is narrow enough to make the art in the room look cohesive.

And yet.

It’s not a story.

I have decided not to stress about it. And not to be distracted. (The longer I work without stories in my art the more I get tempted to go back you journalism or write a novel). I think it maybe that I am just still in the early stages of learning my language and later, when I am fluent, the graffiti will naturally evolve full circle back to stories. Maybe it will come with this show if I take time to do some reading research. Maybe it will be another time.

And in the meantime I am satisfying my story telling urges by writing the Urban Scrawl Diary to tell the story of how the show builds, and the tale of how I lost my stories!


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