Leaf of the Day: Cotton Bols, the Associations of Objects and a Blog Break

Today warm sun returned and we have been cycling and even had a bite to eat outside and it looks as though the coming week will be fine and warm too. If that is so I will be OUT, down to the Gardens where I have not been for over a week or just out and about with a book or two in the sun. So I have decided to take a week away from the blog, well this blog anyway.

Over the last few months I have received some very interesting emails from all over the world regarding my Darling Popsy Blog which is about my grandfather’s time in Kenya . Some have even been able to identify one or two of the people in the photographs. So far I have only transcribed the Kenya letters and am anxious to get on to the letters from India. Also, my ” very-urgent-without-which-life-will-stop ” to-do list has got so long, that life may well stop in the next 2 days if I don’t tackle some of them…you just can’t hide behind the feckless artist image forever.

Cotton Bols, Cotton and Objects
But today some more cotton bols… some sketches and not quite the full sheet watercolour, but a half sheet sketch. Drawing and re-drawing one thing makes for a different relationship with it. This has stopped being just a cotton bol but becomes an object in its own right. I have been considering “The Object” as I have been painting these and how, separated from their normal environments, objects become such potent symbols. This cotton bol is an interesting case for me. I, who had never seen a cotton bol before, first saw it as just a beautiful “thing”. Then on knowing it was a cotton bol, my whole appreciation of it has to carry with it the history of cotton, the implications of cotton, its good and its bad. But I am still very drawn to it. It is the most beautiful thing in its juxtaposition of soft/hard elements, and in these contradictions maybe it is the perfect symbol for cotton.
I am struck with how often themes come back into my work, tools and their relationship to work, is one. Some time ago I had made some pieces to do with the Victorian cotton industry in the UK where workers in mills were vulnerable to byssinosis, a lung disease, and weavers passed on tuberculosis by ‘kissing the shuttle’ to draw the thread. For as long as I can remember I had an old weaving shuttle. Our family are originally from Leeds and at one time involved in the cloth trade so this was an important item to me with some family and historical resonance. It’s a beautiful object with its brass fittings and smooth wood, but this too carries with it some old problems. The photograph and the print (excuse about copyright symbols) say something about the plight of the women and children who were working in the factories, caught in the warps and wefts of the job, themselves just tools of the trade.

Caught” Valerie Littlewood 2004: Photograph

“Tools of the Trade” Valerie Littlewood 2004 : print on detail Paper

Once you know something, you can’t “unknow” it ..and sometimes that is a problem when looking at objects and their associations, sometimes ignorance is bliss. But I can still appreciate them as beautiful objects in their own right.

And just a last word on “objects”, if you like design and objects, see the info about “Objectified” the new film about to be released by Gary Hustwit and a companion to his wonderful “Helvetica” about the universal typeface. I will leave you, for now, with this thought from his introduction to the film here ..
“The term objectified has two meanings. One is ‘to be treated with the status of a mere object.’ But the other is ‘something abstract expressed in a concrete form,’ as in the way a sculpture objectifies an artist’s thoughts. It’s the act of transforming creative thought into a tangible object, which is what designers in this film do every day. But maybe there’s a third meaning to this title, regarding the ways these objects are affecting us and our environment. Have we all become objectified?”

I will be back soon ….

Cotton Bols

Leaf of the day: Cotton and Paper

This is my last look at the gorgeous Pima cotton for a while, but I am so looking forward to seeing the flowers go through the development stages and turn into fully formed real cotton bols .. how very exciting.

I found this very neat time line from a good educational site with a concise and interesting account of the history and cultivation of cotton at Cottonsjourney.com here It looks as though I have another 10 weeks to wait.

As well as being the friend of sensitive skin, cotton is a true friend to the sensitive artist. Possibly non artists don’t realise that the top quality watercolour paper is made from cotton, and of course many canvases are cotton too. I remember a tutor, many years ago, telling us penniless students that lack of money to purchase top quality “canvas” was no excuse for not painting, as Mark Chagall during his impoverished early days in Paris painted on his shirts and bed linen.
And here he is .. a “Self portrait with 7 fingers” in his bare Parisian atelier dreaming of his home.

But paper, beautiful paper, that inspires such passion in artists, collectors and historians, has a wonderful and fascinating story, inextricably bound up with cotton and hemp. Like many other fine and beautiful things paper originated in China, in AD 105 where it was made from hemp, and mulberry bark and far from being rough and crude was of the finest quality, comparable with the best handmade papers today.
It seems the process was kept secret until AD 751 when three skilled Chinese papermakers were captured during a battle in Turkestan.They started making paper in Samarkand and the process gradually made its way from the Near East to North Africa and eventually to Europe probably via the Muslim conquest of Spain. Incidentally the word “ream” meaning 500 sheets of paper, has its roots in the Arabic word rizmah meaning a bundle.

Just as I admire and am daunted by my sheets of pure pristine watercolour paper, white paper was then a luxury and also much admired. An image and poem from a German book of Trades with woodcuts by Jost Amman from 1568.

The translation;
Rags are brought unto my mill
Where water turns the wheel
They are cut and torn and shredded
to the pulp is water added
Then the sheets ‘twixt felts must lie
While I wring them in my press
Lastly hang them up to dry
Snow white in their loveliness.
from “Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft”
by Dard Hunter –

This unidentified image from the British Association of paper historians UK site here

Britain’s first paper mill was on the River Darent in Dartford built around 1588. It was set up by John Spilman and was immortalised in another excruciatingly long 352 line poem by Thomas Churchyard. Here is a very small section:

The Mill itself is sure right rare to see
The framing is so quaint and finely done
Built of wood and hollowed trunks of trees
The Hammers thump and make so loud a noise
As fuller doth that beats his woollen cloth
In open show, then Sundry secret toyes
Make rotten rags to yield a thickened froth
There it is stamped and washed as white as snow
Then flung on frame and hanged to dry, I trow
Thus paper straight it is to write upon
As it were rubbed and smoothed with slicking stone.

I love “sundry secret toyes”, paper making as a dark art!

Paper making was slow to get going in the UK due, in part to fears that the rags needed might be carrying the deadly plague virus and artists found it hard to obtain good paper to work on. It wasn’t until 1780 that James Whatman first marketed a fine handmade watercolour paper with a smooth finish. I have 2 sheets of treasured Whatman paper dated 1952 which is probably unusable now but is nice to have.

Paper from wood pulp is relatively recent, its development due to the observations of French entomologist Rene Antoine Réaumur, around 1719, who noticed a wasp making its nest from chewed up paper. There is a lovely paper nest that some wasps have been building on one of the cactus plants at Leu. I am hoping they will vacate it and allow me to draw it sometime. I am unfamiliar with Florida wasps but they all look large, alarming and ferocious.

Just to contradict my post of yesterday there are some very good resources about paper and paper history on the Web, the various papermills have interesting historical accounts and if I ever get to Atlanta and have some time to kill I will be heading for the Robert C Williams Paper Museum
Both of the papers I use, Arches and Fabriano are termed 100% rag ie 100% cotton giving them the absorbency and strength of .. well , an old cotton shirt I suppose. Will I be making my own paper from a few cotton bols? I might just try..

PS… ** We are 45 miles from the coast here but I just ran outside to watch the giant red flame of the space shuttle tracing an arc over the big low yellow moon in a clear dark Florida sky . It was completely and utterly beautiful and awe inspiring.

Pima Cotton Flower

Leaf of the Day: Internet Rubbish, Copying, Beauty and Pima Cotton 3

There are some days when you read or hear something that makes you question things you are doing. Recently two things have made an impression on me.

The first was a debate with Andrew Keen a critic of the Internet and champion of the professional creative artist (in the widest sense of the word) who he feels has suffered because of plagiarism and stealing on the Web.
His criticism is also to do with the acres of rubbish than slosh about in it, and his concern is that there is “less and less authoritative or beautiful ” content and that it has descended into “a cacophony of unregulated, personalized, often anonymous and generally worthless opinion in which everyone is talking simultaneously but nobody is listening to anyone else. Rather than a democratic utopia of creative amateurs, this self-broadcasting Internet revolution is actually leading to mass ignorance and to a pervasive culture of digital narcissism.

I have to say that I do agree with much of this and it was a very interesting debate. I find it increasingly difficult to find really good accurate information on the Web and am profoundly depressed by the amount of copying that goes on especially in art. It gets harder to protect your work and I thought quite seriously about all this when I decided to start the blog. But what can you do ? Very little really. Many artists just shrug their shoulders because even if you could prove someone had used your work, you ideas, or your words, the chances of bringing a successful legal case are very slight and could you afford it? I was reading a poem one day on the Internet and came across a heartfelt plea from the poet. “If you like my work and would like to give a poem to a friend, please buy the small book, don’t just download it…this is my living.” I am constantly amazed by artists who copy someone else’s photograph then put it up for sale as their own work. Don’t they realise they have used someone else’s eye for form, composition and colour and it is unethical and illegal. Be influenced of course, copy to learn, but be sure that what you hold up as your own is truly your very own.
But if I am disheartened by the rubbish and the copyists on the Internet I am delighted by the serendipity of discovering some wonderful things and people purely by accident, and that is its joy.

The second thing that made me think, was about beauty and striving to create beauty. I was reading about Arthur Wesley Dow who was so important to Georgia O Keefe’s ideas and development. She wrote that he had one dominating idea: “to fill a space in a beautiful way”, whatever that space may be.
That is something I should be considering more. It is a very good maxim for an artist and one that many disregard. Beauty is a difficult word and I know that the beauty I see, is very different from many other people’s ideas of beauty, for instance I find the cotton bol more beautiful than the flower.. but its a hard choice.
So my thought for the day is to try to make the whole space more beautiful and to try not to contribute too much to the morass of rubbish out there on the Internet and even if it is rubbish be sure it is my own rubbish!

But back to the indisputably lovely Pima Cotton. I have one flower which I have to draw quickly as the petals are delicate but I am torn between the sculptural shape of the bud which is called a “square” and the colour of the bracts and the yellow flowers. I have only got as far as sketches and the one watercolour “square” today, but I will be painting the flower tomorrow I hope. … but now I am worried about the beauty of the space. Sometimes a sheet of white paper seems far more beautiful to me than anything I have ever put on it!

Pima Cotton

Leaf of the Day: Peruvian Cotton; Pieces of Cloud, Sun-Warmed Hummingbirds and a Bol

I have been to the gardens today and went very much “off path”. It has been a beautiful day and I have found many new things tucked away in corners and scrambling over chain link fences. There is quite a bit of clearing and cleaning up going on and this makes more plants accessible and visible. I found a huge magnificent fig tree of some kind, tucked away and out of general view, which must have been an old specimen tree as it is close to the old main house. Three climbers, new to me , the pretty Butterfly Vine the beautifully scented double Rangoon Creeper and the very garlicy Garlic vine. Three more edibles, the Muntingia Strawberry tree, the Mysore Raspberry and the bizarrely named Jaboticaba. I wonder if I will ever get round to drawing them all.

Meanwhile, the variety of cotton I am drawing which is growing at Leu is Pima cotton, Gossypium barbadense, also known as Extra Long Staple, South American Cotton, or Sea Island cotton, and is the same species as the luxury Egyptian cotton. These cottons have extra long silky fibres, the staple, which yield a thread that can be woven multiple times to create a dense, soft fabric. It originated in Peru and at Ancon, a site on the Peruvian coast, cotton bolls dating to 4200 BC have been found. In 1991, a 125 acre complex of huge stone structures at El Paraiso, on the central Peruvian coast, was excavated .The site had been occupied between 1800 B.C. and 1500 B.C, and discoveries of cotton artefacts and simple clothing indicated that the settlement was founded as a cotton-producing center.
Pima cotton is called ‘gamuza’ by the Peruvians, meaning suede in Spanish because of its silky soft feel and brilliant luster. Here is a detail of beautiful ancient Peruvian weaving from a funeral mantel.

Mantle border fragment, 1st–2nd centuryPeru; Nazca. Cotton, camelid hair;

Among the most celebrated textiles from ancient Peru are the spectacular, large mantles that swathed the bodies upon burial of important individuals living on the south coast of Peru more than 2,000 years ago. The dry climate in the region preserves many of the textiles, whose complex structures, intricate designs, and range of brilliant colors attest to the inordinate talent of ancient Peruvian weavers and embroiderers.
Metropolitan Museum of Art here

The South American peoples developed high levels of technical and artistic ability using cotton. The Paraca, Moche, Nazca and later on, the Wari peoples, used cotton to produce knotted looped, woven and embroidered fabrics which were coloured by painting or dyeing and cotton was used not only for fabrics, but also for fishing lines and nets. I read that the ancient Peruvians believed that cotton was fragmented pieces of clouds fallen to earth as a gift from their gods to clothe the people.
I got completely and utterly sidetracked by Peruvian fabrics and way off the track of cotton .. but their work was so beautiful .. here is another, again from the Metropolitan Museum.

Sleeved Tunic, 12th–15th centuryPeru; ChimúCotton, camelid hair;

The production of cloth was highly developed in ancient Peru. Textile garments conveyed important social, political, and religious messages depending on the materials and the imagery elaborating them. Andean weavers were full-time specialists. They worked in a wide range of techniques, including twining, knotting, plaiting, and weaving. This shirt is woven in tapestry weave, a technique in which the wefts are so tightly packed that they completely cover the warps. Tapestry was considered a high-prestige cloth in ancient Peru as elsewhere in the world.

Below is a delightful detail from another mantle, from the University of Illinois collection here

This exceptionally well preserved textile from Nasca (c. 100 B.C.) shows a monochrome cotton center. Around its borders have been positioned numerous needlework hummingbirds, most likely made of alpaca wool and created in a technique called needle-knitting, related to embroidery. The ancient Peruvians considered the hummingbird a symbol of regeneration, possibly suggested by the behavior of this tiny bird. In the Andean mountains–the habitat of some kinds of hummingbirds–the nights are very chilly. The hummingbird sleeps at night, and to revive its energy, the hummingbird needs to be warmed by the rays of the sun. The ancient Peruvians interpreted this peculiar behavior as a resurrection of the bird, a rebirth to a new life.

I admire these fabrics so much; the colours, the techniques, the imagery and most of all the “story”, the symbolism and narratives .. just fabulous.

I have loved drawing this cotton boll. What a strange and beautiful thing it is. The soft cotton contrasting with the sharp curved spikes of the bur.

Pima Cotton Boll

Leaf of the Day: Pima Cotton

I only “noticed” this lovely shrub last week but it is another I have walked past many times. It grows by one of the main paths, set back in the border and has been masked by a showier thing until now, when it is coming into its own. The day I saw it, the low autumn sun was illuminating the tops of the spiky bracts, and I had no idea what it was. Sometimes I am amazed at my own ignorance because this plant has played an important and comforting part in my life. Allergic to wool and many other itchy scratchy fibres, cotton has been my very closest friend for as long as I can remember.

Had I seen a fluffy white “bol” first I think I would have guessed
but coming from northern climes I have never seen a cotton plant. I was interested to discover that Andalucia province, where we lived in Spain, has quite a large cotton growing area around Cordoba and Sevilla and that Spain was instrumental in the history of cotton as a commercial crop in America, the Spanish being the first Europeans to grown cotton near St Augustine in Florida in 1556.

Image from plants of Hawaii here

But I don’t really know how to write about cotton. I have already spent too long today reading about it and not working. It is the most wonderful plant with a fascinating early history dating back to 3000BC, but its more recent history is fraught with exploitation, slavery, and terrible working conditions, not only in the cotton fields but in Blake’s “dark satanic” cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution. Even now there are questions over its production, its ethical and green credentials. Buy organic if you can is the message. See Sustainablecotton.org here

From an artistic perspective this is a very beautiful plant and I am spending a couple of days with it. The leaves, the lovely big yellow flowers, the spiky bracts containing the buds and the seed pods are all fascinating.
Today I drew a leaf. It is big, 11 inches from top to toe and the lower lobes curl back on themselves…quite beautiful.
More tomorrow ..

Pima Cotton Leaf