I had a truly incredible time on my residency in Cordoba, Spain. ‘Orange and Green II: Skills for Sustainable Futures’ was organised by Beam in Wakefield and funded by the Leonardo Da Vinci lifelong learning programme. We were hosted by Academia Cordoba and my host organisation was Escuela De Arte Dionisio Ortiz, Cordoba. Cordoba has to be one of my favourite places in the world now and I feel I’ve made some life-long friends. I loved experimenting with ceramics, exploring Cordoba, experiencing Spanish culture, and meeting great people. It actually was a life changing experience.
I began my work wondering how I could explore sustainability through making ceramics. I have always been interested in bushcraft and have recently returned to my fascination with shelters. During our ‘wave’ there were seven participants in Seville and seven of us in Cordoba, four artists and three architects. Spending time with architects also made me keen to explore built structures further. I love anachronisms so thought it would be fun to make something that was in some way modern and in some way primitive. This brought me back to my fascination of the imagined puzzles that an archaeology of the future could provide.
Using the geodesic dome as a starting point seemed the obvious choice since it is almost a symbol of sustainable living with its minimalist design and the social, environmental, and political ideals attached to its philosophy. My plan was to make the structure from natural timber and cordage and to suspend ceramic tiles within the triangular gaps. Whilst I wanted to make it large enough to crawl into, so as to explore it from the outside and experience being inside it, this design was never intended to be a solution, but a work of art. I have difficulty with the pressures of art and activism. Whilst I would love to promote sustainable living, I don’t personally think it’s the artist’s responsibility to do so. I find art made to directly try to influence people can be preachy and unconvincing. Some people differentiate art from craft as art having no use value. I do like to challenge that notion but I wanted to make something poetic and beautiful, a site for experience and exploration.
Unfortunately I immediately hit a stumbling block. Whilst I’ve frequently made sculptures in parks and woodland in Britain with natural abundant timber, in Cordoba, at that time of year, all the pruning had been done and the wood had been disposed of. My mentor Valle kindly offered to bring me bamboo from her garden since the bamboo in the art school’s grounds was protected. Before I was permitted to make the large structure anyway, I had to make a scale maquette. The teaching system is very different in Spain. They teach craft techniques strictly and properly. It is a long apprenticeship and both learning art history and learning your craft come above self-expression or contemporary approaches. As such, the students make technically excellent work but the conceptual side can be lacking at times. In Britain we have more freedom and contemporary contextual knowledge but very little teaching, especially of technique, and little knowledge of old art history. If only there could be some compromise between the two!
On my first day I was given some cardboard, a ruler, a craft knife and tape to make my first rough maquette from. It was fortunate that I had sketched a geodesic dome the night before since I had none of the complex mathematical angles and measurements to hand, no internet, and no protractor. I love a good spatial logic problem though and managed to work it all out by cutting and folding circles. My cardboard structure was not proof enough, however, and I was still encouraged to make a ceramic version. I was happy to do this so that I would have a smaller sculpture too.
Things happen slowly in the south of Spain. Work began at 9.30am and at 11.30 we could have a half hour break for second breakfast (bliss) before then finishing the working day at 2.30pm when the seven of us would reunite for lunch. Add to that all the delays of waiting for kilns and despite my manic productivity (except for post fiesta days) progress was a little slow. It became clear to me that my plans of making the larger shelter were looking a little unrealistic in the 10 week time frame. I made the decision not to pursue this initial plan. I loved the idea of leaving the structure in the grounds of the art school but I also knew that I could make the wooden structure anywhere and having made the small tiles, the process would have become somewhat routine. I had more exploring to do!
I love the aesthetic of decay and was massively inspired by the wonderful peeling and crumbling walls all over Cordoba. I was really enjoying experimenting with ceramics and to my delight, I was allowed to just play and make mistakes in my making of these ‘ceramic paintings’. I think that making mistakes is just as important a part in the creative process as the successes.
Embracing mistake making, process, material, and my new surroundings led to more creative discoveries. At one point, it was suggested that I make my geodesic sculpture entirely from ceramics, since I was there in the ceramics department and had the facilities and technical guidance to do so. The string element was important to the aesthetic but I liked the idea of making the structure from bone-like ceramic pieces along with the ceramic tiles as originally planned. This would make the structure both more rigid, and ridiculously fragile, and I enjoyed the poetry of that.
I made these ‘huesos’ (bones) from a ‘paperclay’ cocktail of paper mulch and porcelain. Of course they were much more difficult to fit together than wood, would have been. The lashing techniques I used to fit all the structural lengths together required a calculated excess at each end. In natural timber, these lengths could have been forced and bent into shape. It took some calculation to fit the porcelain hexagons and pentagons together. I had always intended for there to be gaps to create a shadow pattern inside the structure. The brittleness of the porcelain just added to this. The sculpture did not come together as the perfect, strong, geodesic dome but I was no longer intending this anyway. It looked vulnerable, natural and primitive, despite its mathematical beginnings. I was very pleased with the hauntingness of this outcome.
Upon making the huesos, I discovered that one of their most beautiful qualities was the sound they made as they rattled together. Another of my recent artistic obsessions has been pigeon scaring. I like the make-do-and-mend aesthetic of the weird pigeon scaring contraptions in cities, the countryside and particularly on allotments. In Cordoba, however, where nearly everything is ornately crafted and there seems to be no such thing as too much pattern, I wondered if I could make a beautiful bird scarer.
I had been keen to make sculptures which somehow used the elements, so using the wind and light to play off the porcelain seemed perfect. I set to work making hundreds of ridiculously fragile clay sausages which would form my ‘tree necklace’. I planned to tie them together and form a crazy wind-chime like piece to hang from the bottom of a branch. Many of them broke in the first firing, many more in the second, and more in the assembly of the sculpture. I enjoyed this fragility and the idea of these delicate white spear-like fragments falling to the ground when the wind blew in Spain’s bright sunshine. I enjoyed playing with the material and testing it to its limits, and beyond.
The by-product of this, of course, was hundreds of porcelain shards that didn’t make it into the pigeon scaring sculpture. Thinking again of fragile environments, both cosy and threatened, I was reminded of all the incredible stork’s nests I’d seen in the area. I wondered if a human could make one from tension and balance alone from such a delicate and rigid material. It turns out that I could! It felt like a performance just making it and I was pleased with how it looked. There was talk of glue, glazes, or just firing it to make it more permanent but in the end, I just left it on a wall in the school grounds, abandoned to the elements. I prefer the honesty of that.
I enjoy this process of not being too rigid about my ideas in order for new discoveries to be made. When I was about to photograph my bird scarer in one of the trees in the school grounds, I saw the stone sculpture of a female bather in the old empty swimming pool and thought I’d try it on her first. It felt so perfect, there it stayed. And I did get to leave a legacy in the school’s grounds after all.