Something profound has happened to me in the last few days and, though I’m not yet ready to share how this came about, things are feeling very different; clearer, lighter and far more embodied. The clues are so subtle as to be almost questionable and yet, for me, there’s no refuting the changes which are as though I am now seeing things as though I am finally “within” a place that I have been dancing around yet somehow not quite able to land upon until now. What’s more, having landed on this place where two aspects of myself meet, I find there is none of the expected friction except where I choose for that “rub” factor to be (because it is useful to me); which is allowing me to create entirely new experiences, going forwards.
Talk of “place” is a fairly good place to start as I attempt to describe this change in me since I have tended to derive so many of my deepest introspections from my energetic relationship with place via ancient landmarks and what feel to me like magnetic pulling-points across time through certain geographical locations; yet one of the profoundest changes in me is how I suddenly don’t seem to relate to place in quite the same intense way any more. I noticed this because, yesterday, I was driving to deepest Hampshire for a one-to-one with a woman who teaches felting, a skill I’ve felt drawn to for some time. Travelling to the New Forest after all these years was like plunging deep into the back-story of my life since I spent a great deal of time there over the first two decades of my adult life and could have been the source of a great deal of inner friction. Even “how to get there” presented a conundrum since it was quite a drive for a full-day’s workshop and yet the themes that came up around this choicepoint became part of this new sense of overview that turned into very fabric of my day.
To get there, I had a choice of two very different routes…the “obvious” fast-moving arrow that is a motorway (though always prone to early morning congestion) or the straight-ish as a bird flies route (with the likelihood of being at a snail’s pace determined by local road conditions and far lower speed limits). Lately, I find I dislike making that more obvious choice of the motorway to get anywhere, even though the drive can be “easier” for the fact you don’t really have to think so very much to get wherever you are heading since all the thinking has been done for you and even the GPS is geared to take you that way. Yet, unless you are driving amidst mountains, like that most-memorable drive we did through he North Italian Alps a few months ago, it’s possible to drive along a motorway for hours and have no real sense of where you are since it all looks the same; there’s simply no connection with place! By contrast, a few days ago I took a train all the way to Devon (for the first time in my life) instead of the car. In that case, the journey made me feel more attached to, and part of, the landscape than any of the numerous journeys I have ever made there by road; almost like my whole concept of “where Devon is” has now has altered due to it reattaching itself to where I live three counties away. That train route closely followed the banks of Kennet and Avon, with its brightly coloured barges, then went through a timeless pastoral idyll at such proximity that I could watch people walking their dogs across dewy fields and see sun sparkles on the silvery ribbons weaving their way through valleys encircled by hills dotted with sheep and emerald-hued fields with horses shaking their manes under the trees. I witnessed the local features of the landscape morph from one location to another and it all felt vividly real and full of the flavour of “place”. Our motorways and their stop-overs have been assimilated to each other such high degree that it is almost impossible to recognise one stretch of road from another; it all looks exactly the same.
Perhaps encouraged by my Devon trip, I chose the far more flowing “country” route for my trip to Hampshire yesterday; knowing (though apparently only 3 miles further to travel than the motorway) it would come with its own set of pitfalls, not least that my GPS didn’t seem to be able to compute my instructions, Still, it felt more “in the spirit” of my outing to take this more playful, more involved journey through all the various places dotted between where I live and where I was heading. So many of the small country roads have been turned into impromptu fords or liberally doused in thick mud and water during these weeks of rain that the journey had a slow and unpromising start, with one or two diversions to avoid road closures or bunched-up traffic. But then, apart from lanes the width of a car at each end, the route was largely made up of relatively long straight stretches between villages and market towns; no doubt grown out of ancient pathways carved by footfall between places of local significance dotted along a landscape determined, originally (as I know only too well), by the presence of rivers, hills and the intersection of leylines. My drive was like a dance of the masculine and feminine…dazzling clear river waters put into service as silk “industry”, gin distillery and, a stone’s throw away, world-famous carpet making. So many clues and associations in the names (Wells-in-the-Fields, Saint Mary and Saint George), a military base, the place notoriously associated with the earliest chemical weapon research, the all-male establishment where my ex was schooled, all those ancient-sacred landmarks latterly turned into masculine strongholds; Danesbury “hillfort”, Stonehenge, Old Sarum and, of course, Salisbury’s cathedral ringed by the gentle watermeadows that used to be my favourite place to walk on the first day of every year.
Yet here is what had changed, as I took what felt like a timely tour back into the root chakra of our (my) past. Our collective history (and my own personal history), in retrospect to me now, from this brand-new perspective, seems to me like a rhythmic dance of yin and yang with the occasional clumsy moment where one stood painfully on the other’s toes but mostly, as seen from this middle route, it all has such a pervading feeling of more give-and-take than we (I) had tended to remember, with our inner and outer masculine and feminine aspects clamped closely to each other’s breast, one perhaps leading more forciby or heavily than the other for quite an elongated time yet all, really, performed as a unit of two parts, however clumsily. This is what is so new in me; an ability to see the beauty in the duality, to forgive all that stumbling about, to stop needing to revisit the scene and, really, just wanting to focus on other things in order to get going forwards. All I wanted to do was drive my car straight through it all; that’s it…no engagement beyond what I was able to acknowledge and simultaneously let go of. The magnetic pull of ancient reminders in the landscape seems to have turned right down to a much lower level for me now and there is a sense of void…combined with such a sense of relief, like a white noise just went quiet and I can hear different things, such as a new and much more promising melody dancing on the wind. There was no compelling urge in me to do anything on this drive but to enjoy the view and observe the flavours, to notice the clues to our (my) past without engaging with them, to know these places were there and to acknowledge the dance we have been through collectively and, yes, my part in it, yet remain completely balanced and almost bizarrely neutral in my response. I found myself speaking words of gratitude and acknowledgement outloud for all the many experiences as they came up and then, simultaneously, letting them go; like a ceremony of release or casting off stitches. I felt acutely aware, yet not taken off route, by anything I encountered and there was no desire to stop. Though I had my camera and long lens with me ready on the passenger seat, my planned 5 mile diversion to take early morning photos of Stonehenge simply withered away on the bough; that urge now felt habitual and, on reconsideration, it also felt “done” (and I’ve already more-than got the t-shirt). I realised, I’m simply not seeking anything those places can tell me anymore or even anything they can activate in me; it all lies within. All that mattered now was my own, particular, chosen route through the landcape as I headed off on a new journey that mattered only to me….here, today, in this moment.
That route got me in good time (in fact, ten minutes early) to destination, which was a thatched cottage deep in the New Forest with wild and woolly ponies, as ever, loitering around in the lanes munching on residents shrubberies, their disheveled manes caked with January’s mud. So wild and free yet contained, for their own benefit, by the efforts of the national park; they too felt like a clue. Back to my own purpose here; I had come to learn how to turn wool fibres into felt and then how to get that felt to adhere to silk; and in this I found the continuance of my larger theme. For in the making of life as a balanced mixture of both the hardy and resilient wool and the softly ethereal silk, we create of ourselves the extraordinarily beautiful fabric that is our next highest expression…and whilst this is what I, literally, hope to do as the next version of my artistic expression, I know it runs far more deeply than that, as me. The woman who spent the day teaching me these skills works mostly with the wool, often as extremely sturdy and large-scale solid forms (paradoxically, her latest installation was a collection of up to 8-foot high megaliths made from felt; though perhaps there is something poignant in the fact that what stood so solidly anchored to location and made of solid stone for all those countless centuries can now be crafted so beautifully, and portably, out of sheep’s fleece…) adding only very small amounts of other fabrics as embellishment. In other words, I went there expressly to learn the necessary practicalities of how wool fibres adhere together and to other things, from an extremely skilled craftsperson with over 25 years experience of working with wool, so I could go away to experiment by myself at home. There, my hope (and it will take some trial and error) is to bring the balance of wool and silk closer to 50:50 in order to – in a sense – paint with the fleece; which is what is known as nuno felting (a case of “best of both worlds”). I sense in this a new vehicle for where I am as an artist who is newly frustrated with paints and veering towards digitally printing designs on silk and yet wanting, still, to be involved in something more physical, involved and “of the hands”. My printed designs on silk feel deeply satisfying and yet they lack something that is all to do with substance and the pith of life. Bringing silk to wool is a method of grounding or embodying, of sorts; you could say, yet another version of bringing the divine into a workable human framework, which calls for resilience, sturdiness and practicality. Meanwhile, bringing wool to silk allows the former to become more expressive, playful, light and (I envision) beautiful; extending it beyond what has already been done in order to explore new territory.
Being this meeting point is where I am at, it seems, in all things. Being, at once, of my highest essence and yet humanly practical and much-more fully embodied is my highest aspiration every day now, across all aspects of experience, inside and out. You could say, being logical, direct, fit-for-purpose, structured, hardy, informed, up-to-date and useful combined with expression and involvement, impulsiveness, flow, beauty, connectivity, softness, spontaneity, receptivity and playfulness. I don’t just want to make things easy and give-in to shortcuts as I still want to get my hands dirty (…just a little); but I don’t want to get so involved in process that it all becomes slow-moving and hard again. In fact, I have no desire for that at all, to the point of feeling wary around any new process that tries to take me that way. And yes, felting, just like life, can be made “all about the rub” (I talked about the topic of life’s “rubs” or friction-points just recently) as it is the friction that causes the fibres to open up and to grab onto one another, thus it can be quite an abrasive and physical process involving much rubbing, rolling and repetition. In fact, many people think of it as extremely physically demanding and exhausting, almost taking pride in how much effort it can take to make “good felt”. Yet, as I learned yesterday, there are also numerous modern shortcuts to this and I know (having come from oil painting…which is just so very slow and arduous) that I no longer want to immerse myself in life’s long-slogs and grind, whatever the beautiful result at the end; thus the more masculine approach of going direct and using technology and “process” can be very useful and appealing to me these days. In other words I find, as in all things, that my joy is in the ability to mix up a bit of both; to take the best from each aspect and then combine them as near-to-equally as feels right in each situation. I was so glad that my teacher was prepared to teach me whatever short-cuts she knew of; in fact, a particuar synchronicity between us, that enabled her to empathise with my health challenges, made her even more prepared to share her tips than she might otherwise have been. It all felt very apt, like I had connected with just the right person to get me started in the best way on what feels like an interesting and appealing new path of exploration.
It was a good day, delivering insight and affirmation on so many levels. Was it really a coincidence that, on the way home, and without any forethought, I combined some country driving with a stretch of motorway, which got me home in very good time and not too exhausted before the rush-hour traffic? I think not. Did I mind that I missed out my planned stop-off at Stonehenge on both legs of the journey because, when it came down to it, I couldn’t be bothered to stop? Not in the least and, besides, spending the day with the woman known in textile circles for makes standing stones out of felt reminded me that we are each our own self-created waymarkers; what we make (of) ourselves is the true focal point of our craft and there simply is nothing else that matters. With no expectations, no baggage, we simply become that divinely inspired meeting point of all that we are in the purely-creative pinpoint of each moment of self-exploration; one moment after another, ceaselessly rebirthing ourselves. Even if we have nothing to show for it but ourselves, we never fail at this task. Even if we seem to constantly change our minds or the direction we are heading in; even when we stop and start, backtrack or hesistate…we are always creating our greatest masterpiece, right here and now. Therefore, I already know that, even if I never felt a thing (what a profoundly multifaceted phrase that is), I will have got something huge out of what it has already shown me along the route of exploration it has taken me on and that is already quite enough.