Beloved – the story of a print
I want to share the creative process of making my recent piece called ‘Beloved’ because with this one the idea grew, taking on its own shape, and the final work emerged in a satisfyingly natural way. This doesn’t happen every time, but when it does it is a cause for celebration.
Unpicking your own creative process is always interesting, as it can give you more insight into how and why you create art. The aim is to become aware of our own creative process and trust it to guide us while we give it time and space to develop. The challenge is avoiding the pitfalls of cliché, or settling back into our own comfortable groove.
The graveyard theme
This wonderful site is full of atmosphere and wild nature, a lovely peaceful place to wander and explore.
During lockdown we got into the routine of making a small print on a shared theme every two months; we decided to take ‘graveyards’ as our collective theme to coincide with the 2022 print fair. That was the startion pint for this piece of work.
Don’t go with your first thought!
When we think about the idea of a graveyard there seem to be some common tropes that pop up – things like ivy, decay, spookiness, and sadness. I wanted to re-set my thinking, and decided to just go to the cemetery with no expectations, spend a bit of time, and see what happened.
Taking photos is a good way to explore a subject and get some objectivity on the things you notice. At first I focussed on the obvious gothic aspects of the setting; ivy, cracked and crumbling graves, and Victorian angels, but once these first impressions subsided new ideas emerged.
The gravestones looked like people; I imagined it as an alternative city filled with the memories of York citizens from the last couple of hundred years. I started to look more closely at the inscriptions on the gravestones and felt the sadness in common with all the families who commissioned the gravestones for their relatives.
Recognise the moment of enlightenment
My moment of enlightenment came when I realised that all the inscriptions were about love and friendship, in fact the whole graveyard was a giant repository of the love people had, and have, for each other. So not sad, but actually a wonderful memorial to love and connections between people over generations.
Sometimes this moment is a physical sensation, like a sigh of relief when things fall into place, at other times you can feel it as a tingling excitement as the next new thing emerges from the fog into a sharp focus.
Finding your direction
I love it when you find the heart of something you’ve been searching for, it’s like a light going on, or a door opening. This was my concept – a celebration of the connections, kinships and love expressed on the headstones in a graveyard.
This stage of making new work is the truly creative part – I think it is so important to remember to suspend all your existing expectations and allow yourself to be open to new possibilities.
Don’t rush it! Once you connect with the idea the work starts to flow, you may expect some hiccups but you know you are travelling along the right road.
The gravestone inscriptions sometimes list the relationships from the perspective of the person who has died, (a loving Dad, Grandad, husband, father etc) or they mention the way the people left behind are connected to the deceased (from his loving wife, daughter…)
Either way the more you read them the more the networks of connections become interchangeable.
The relationships flow in all directions, through generations past present and future, as well as sideways through families and whole communities.
If you place yourself into this network, you may find you have more connections than you realise.
I started off by taking rubbings of the words describing relationships on the graves. If you follow this blog, you will know that I have been experimenting with rubbings combined with mono prints recently.
It is a great way to explore the surface textures in a particular place, and a nice way of freeing up your thinking as the results are rarely what you expect…..
I hunted for the words ‘beloved’ and ‘loving’ to start with. Eventually I decided to stick with just ‘beloved’ as it holds different meanings, it feels old fashioned and somewhat timeless. We all need to ‘be loved’, add the accent and someone is belovéd.
Stone masons’ favourites
I used to work as a signwriter and am fascinated by lettering. Through exploring different inscriptions and looking for a variety of fonts, I started to recognise the masons’ favourite ones, these altered over time, presumably in response to requests from customers, and popular taste.
With recent mechanical carving processes infinite fonts are possible; machines make it cheaper but the digital lettering definitely lacks the life and soul of hand cut letters. Most contemporary masons use a combination of sand blasting, mechanical cutting and hand carving; the remembering project has an interesting post on this.
Graphite and Chinese paper
For the rubbings I found that thin Chinese calligraphy paper worked best as it is soft and flexible enough to show all the details. Brass rubbing paper is stronger but on the textured stone it didn’t pick up so much.
Brass rubbing wax was just too hard, the best material I found was graphite in stick form. This is a bit messy, (black fingers) but lovely and soft so it picks up lots of information without tearing the paper and can easily be graded to fade from dark to light.
Some gravestones are gilded and I felt ‘Beloved’ needed gold, being rather heavenly as opposed to the day-to-day words describing connections between people.
To produce gilded lettering I use toner foil, the technique is described in this blog post. It meant photocopying the words because laser toner, when heated, will stick to toner foil.
Bringing it all together
I had no idea of the final size when I started this – it just took its own shape and form. (The original themed prints were, in theory, postcard size)
I sorted through the rubbings to get as wide a range of relationship words, fonts and sizes as possible. Each word is torn so the edges are frayed. I tried a number of different arrangements, still feeling my way to making something that would express the idea of celebrating connections and love.
Starting with a cloud of people, the circular form seemed right. I didn’t want them all rigidly stuck down so they were tacked with glue then sewn to the backing paper with a continuous cotton thread, continuing the idea of connections.
I originally arranged the ‘beloveds’ as a block above the cloud of people, thinking this best, but when I stepped back to look at it, it appeared like a gold lampshade over a chunky round base. It is always good to make time to stand back and have a look frequently, and also to check what other people see in it, because you can get so involved you miss very obvious things.
Mounting and hanging
It ended up being 70cm wide and over a metre long, and a frame with glass would have been both heavy and expensive.
I wanted it to have a sense of life and movement in the air, not be shut off or restricted in a frame, so I kept the hanging method as simple as possible. It is stiffened at the top and hangs like a textile piece.
The challenges of the creative process
The challenge for artists in creating work that has meaning has at least three aspects;
– to remain alive and awake to all possibilities, while at the same time managing the practical process of making.
– immersing yourself in the process and also keeping enough objectivity to recognise false starts and wrong turnings.
– allowing the work to take on a life of its own, but still guiding it along the thread of your original concept.
When this juggling act works the expression shines through the finished work and has the potential to connect with other people on many different levels.
Creating this work felt like an exploratory walk; I didn’t know what would happen next, but by keeping the original idea of connections and love as a ‘compass’ I found my way.
When I exhibited ‘Beloved’ at the York Print Fair in the Cemetery it did have a profound effect on people, with some in tears, and others sharing stories of death and the importance of personal memorials. I found this very moving and humbling, (while I don’t mean to judge the success of a print by whether it makes people cry), this visceral emotional reaction feels as though the work is making connections on a satisfyingly deep and real level.
I think this is due, in a large part, to trusting in the creative process. I’d be really interested to hear about work you have made where you feel you found a balance between the concept, the process, and the finished piece.