It was clear early on in part 3 that I wanted my old family photographs, rediscovered through a long lost relative, to form the starting point for my assignment series. The exchange of our family history has grown in recent weeks. From having next to nothing I now have a store of photos from the late 19th century up to the 1970s, an extensive family tree, a new family of relatives through my cousin, and now renewed contact with a childhood family friend who forms a strong unbroken link to my mother.
My interest in this family archive material has also been kindled by reading Walter Benjamin’s Archive, and seeing how he valued highly a wide range of material, some lofty, some quite prosaic, and how he carefully arranged the appearance of pages, as well as their content, to look ‘right’.
There are so many photos, but I want to focus on my parents and my brother and sisters. As my thoughts continued down this path I remembered I had some documents tucked away for years; some handwritten poems by my father; some written on the back of his employer’s stock sheets; a book of family accounts, handwritten by my parents; and some handwritten letters of condolences on the death of my mother and my father’s replies .
I feel these photos, poems and letters define who I am more than anything else; they witness the catastrophe of my mother’s death in 1966, and my father’s response to it, leading to the disconnection of our family. There is an insightful article in The Guardian here, describing the effects of traumatic loss on families.
So my portraits will be of Mum, Dad and the children. In some way I’d like them to reflect the memories; my mother’s light; the happy togetherness of the family before the death; the loneliness as we each grieved in our different ways – and how we all became different because of it.
There will therefore be many portraits in this project, and I want the fervent poems and letters, and the humdrum old household accounts and business papers to form part of the work. As my tutor suggested in my part 2 report, why not have writing as background, aligned systematically and deliberately with the paintings. All this might suggest a multi part work, maybe even 3d. I toyed with the idea of a book – intended to be handled – or a cardboard box theatre stage with layers of moveable scenery and curtains; or a dolls house; or if a book, with pop-up elements, like a child’s storybook. All of these are connected with elements of our early family life of reading and childhood play.
I could make one book documenting the family growing together and then later apart, or three separate books, representing mum, dad and the children, each made with materials that reflect them as individuals; so my mum’s love of fabrics and dressmaking would be reflected by using a dress fabric support; my dad’s love of sailing by using canvas. I could explore how painting processes, including materials and supports, can work in tandem with subject matter.
On reflection i thought the theatre, dolls house and pop up book ideas, may prove too complex to develop in an assignment context, while a simple book – call it a Family Album – seemed to connect organically with the idea of documenting a period of life in a family history.
Supports and processes
As well as their connections with fabric, both my parents loved paper in its various uses; for reading the bible, poems and literature; as a support for drawing and for writing poems, stories and notes of everyday observations. My tutor suggested using cloth and different papers in my work. I had some lengths of silk and Irish linen and other fabrics, left over from my days of dressmaking and embroidery, which I could try as painting support for pages of my book. I found a supplier of Japanese papers and ordered some Kozo (Mulberry) and other handmade Japanese papers, which are fine, light and natural looking with lovely soft edges and slightly irregular but smooth surfaces, one delicate 10g Kozo reminiscent of dressmakers interfacing, light, gauzy and semi transparent.
Oil and watercolour will be used. The fabrics, and maybe the papers, will be very absorbent, and I could use this property to soak and stain the support, trying to work loosely and experimentally. I have to decide how to use the semi transparent supports, maybe layering them over another paintings on a more opaque support (I’d already played with this idea in the exercises) and think about how to compose the colours, tones and subjects of these.
See my post here to follow my experiments in soak-staining, monotype and other processes for painting with oil and watercolour on these fabrics and delicate papers.
The script of my fathers poems and letters will be a crucial part of the work. I can’t use the documents themselves as artefacts; I have to find a way to transfer his handwriting to my painting supports without damaging the originals, and to use passages or extracts deliberately in the background or foreground or in the margins of paintings, in such a way that the script is integral to the portrait, so that the two are inter-connected.
See my post here to follow my experiments and development of a process for transferring script to fabric and paper supports using my inkjet printer.
The process of putting together a book is completely unknown to me at this stage – how to cut and fold the pages, how to make a cover, how to bind it, how to fasten it. I have to consider the back of each page – paint will soak through the supports, more or less, and this may or may not be wanted as part of the book. I made a mock-up based on a handmade notebook that caught my eye on a crafts stall last year. This seemed to work, so i made a larger trial version with more pages.
The book is a good size for my Family Album, 25×35 cm. Bound by stitch and string, the cover has a wrap around flap and is fastened simply by string. I like the fragile, simple look of it, and the way the pages, alternate leaves of fine paper and fabric, turn.
I considered what support I’d use and the painting I’d make for each page, and made a rough list as a starting point, although I was feeling my way along and knew my ideas would change as the work progressed. Then I started on the first portrait.