Wednesday, 29 September 2021

A fantasy Train Project - Part 1

I took on a new project recently for a shop window. It's essentially a toy shop but also caters for crafters and people who make models or create and run train sets. Could I perhaps turn recycled materials - augmented by some of the supplies sold in the shop - into some sort of a train maybe? 

Challenge accepted! 

I started by rummaging in my collection of recycled waste and found a couple of ribbed squash bottles that could be turned into the boiler and chimney base. Then I added a piece of copper pipe, a ping pong ball and the lid from a milkshake for the chimney stack and glued the whole thing to an old cigar box.
I'd been given some sheets of balsa so I'd also started to to build the shape of the cab. Meanwhile, I made the armatures for the two crewmen from aluminium wire and silver foil. Then I started to add the greeblies - plasticard that I'd punched from behind to give the effect of rivets, small bobbins, parts from old models etc. and built up the body. I then took some wheels - laser cut for me by a chap on Etsy for just a few quid - and attached them. Then I sprayed the whole thing black.

(And yes, I know that the wheel arrangement makes NO sense in the real world but this is a fantasy train after all. And who says that it isn't a land train - like a traction engine?)

While this was going on, I began work on the coal tender and the two crewmen. The wagon itself was made from Balsa with all manner of greeblies underneath (including a toothbrush and two scoops from household stain remover tubs). I added a roof made of card and coffee stirrers mounted on kebab skewers. An oil dispenser was made from a Yakult bottle and some bits and pieces and a sack of tinder made from bits of wood and hessian. Then I turned to the coal itself. I considered chopping up some pieces of balsa, gluing them into a clump and then painting it. But then, while out walking my dogs, I was walking along a tarmac covered path when I noted that the edges had crumbled. The little piles of broken off tarmac looked just like coal. So I gathered some up and voila!

The driver and engineer were, in the meantime, sculpted using Super Sculpey and baked hard before painting.

I then returned to the train and made a firebox for the cab and then began drybrushing all of the metallic parts with bronze and silver paint.

It was at this point that I decided that I really didn't like the roof of the cab. And so, in a sudden rush of impetuosity, I decided to replace it with a gabled roof covered in tiles. This then made me wonder if I shouldn't give the cab a really retro Tudor-style look. And, my word, it seems to have worked! I really like this mash-up of styles and eras.

And, as the design was becoming more ludicrous by the minute, I also added a bronze swan - actually a shop-bought plastic swan that once belonged to my grandkids that I gave a lick of paint (it's okay - they're teenagers now and not terribly interested in plastic animals). 

And we were done!

Bonkers isn't it?


Now that the shop window display is over, I'm returning to the train to see what else I can do to augment it. 

Watch this space ... 

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Blue Peter - The Original Trash Bashers

Long before terms like 'upcycling' or 'scratchbuilding' were in common parlance (or had even been coined), Blue Peter was already teaching us how to do it.

If you're not familiar with the name, Blue Peter is a weekly children's magazine-style TV show that has been running for over 60 years. In fact, it is the longest-running children's TV show in the world, having begun in 1958 and is still showing on the CBBC channel every Friday. The show usually goes out live - which has led to some famous incidents such as when Lulu the baby elephant visited the studio in 1969 and caused chaos by using it as a toilet. But there have been many others as this short video shows.

The show also includes pre-recorded segments. These are often educational and feature historical people, places and/or events. Other segments show the presenters taking part in various activities that have included cleaning the statue atop Nelson's Column or swimming with whale sharks, or rather more mundane but interesting things like driving traction engines or taking part in British folk festivals.

But perhaps the show is best known for its 'makes'. Having begun during the post-war 'make do and mend' era when many families were short of money, the show championed using ingenuity and inexpensive household items or waste to make things that were too pricey to buy. The makes section was always hugely popular and even spawned several well-used phrases and cliches that have entered the language, such as 'Here's one I made earlier', and 'And now for something completely different' (which was later adopted by Monty Python's Flying Circus). Over the years the presenters showed us how to make everything from Christmas decorations to desk tidies to pies and cakes. The makes became so popular that the BBC released compilations on VHS videos, such as this one:

But their most famous make was undoubtedly Tracy Island from the 1960s puppet series, Thunderbirds.

In the early 1990s, Gerry Anderson's iconic TV series enjoyed a huge revival in popularity and the toy companies responded by bringing out a range of die-cast vehicles and a model of International Rescue's island HQ. They became the must-have Christmas toys of 1993 but demand far outstripped supply and you couldn’t get a Tracy Island for love nor money. 

So Blue Peter came to the (international) rescue and showed you how to make your own version. This proved so popular that the BBC re-broadcast the show and released an extended video of instructions (see below). 

The same thing happened again in 2000 with another resurgence of interest in the show. So Blue Peter did another demonstration. The fact sheet from that make is still downloadable here.

I grew up with Blue Peter (and even earned myself a coveted Blue Peter gold badge during their 50th anniversary year for running community art projects) and it's undeniable that the show had some influence in inspiring my love of making things. I quite enjoyed things like Airfix model kits and Lego but, for me, the real challenge was always building from scratch. It's problem-solving and inventiveness and artistry all rolled into one. 

So thanks Blue Peter

I'm one you made earlier.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

The Doodle that became a Monster

I found this doodle in an old sketch book a few days ago. 
Okay, so maybe it's not the most original idea. A quick image search will turn up plenty of examples, such as this terrific piece of work by Sarah Trummer on Pexels (used with permission).

But I thought it might be fun to build. So, out came the junk boxes and I started work.

The shape of the house was dictated by what I had to hand - which was mostly old boxes, lots of card packaging and wood such as coffee stirrers, chopsticks and tongue depressors.
I made the basic shape of the house and covered it in thick card for strength. I then added lots of Tudor style beams using the wood, and roof tiles made from card. Then, on a whim, I added a loo roll tower with a base made from a plastic powder scoop.
Then I sprayed the whole thing with white primer before turning to the snail/slug thing.
Mr Slug was going to get very expensive if I made him entirely from something like Super Sculpey. So, I found a suitable piece of dead wood while out dog walking, bulked it out with tin foil and masking tape and then covered the whole thing in a cheap air-dry paper clay. It took a couple of days to fully dry but, while I waited, I sculpted the head. 

However, once I'd placed it, I realised that it looked better upside-down! So I remounted it, added a couple of extra eyestalks and then sculpted the neck and baked it onto the clay body. Slug Part 1 completed!

Now, back to the house. I decided on blue roof tiles as I figured they'd go nicely with the colour scheme I had planned for Mr Slug. Then I painted the walls with actual wall paint (upcycled paint samplers thrown out by a DIY store).

I finished covering the slug in Super Sculpey and baked it. Then I added some teddy bear eyes and gave the thing a white primer coat followed by washes of green with highlights in pink and cream. 

I then made a kind of saddle for the house to sit on. This was made from coffee stirrers, twisted wire to simulate ropes and 'bones' - Super Sculpey over a wire armature.

And he's done! Hope you like it.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

What is art?

I will use this blog to occasionally discuss broader subjects related to art and the work of the artist. And I thought I'd start today by asking the biggest question of all ... 

What actually is art? 

It's a toughie isn't it? 

‘Art’ is a curiously difficult beast to pin down. 

For a start, it depends on your perspective. Here, in the West, the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls art: ‘The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others’. What’s interesting about that definition is that applies as equally to artwork produced by primary school children as it does to works by Rousseau or Kahlo or Klimt. Children make aesthetic judgements, as do amateur artists. Most people make art for the sheer joy of doing so and to share that joy with others. The only difference between a professional artist and anyone else is that they get paid for their work. But they all create equally valid art. 

However, there is a lot of work we call 'art' that doesn't fit that definition. We don’t know for sure why our ancestors painted images of wild beasts on cave walls, but it's doubtful that they were doing it purely to express themselves. Most probably there was some ritual or magical element to it (many were painted inside caves where they were hardly 'sharing with others'). Or perhaps it was an early form of visual record keeping that existed before writing? After all, many ancient writing systems - such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cuneiform, Ogham and Chinese Kanji - use characters that are more like drawings than what we would recognise as letters. And, when we look at the beautiful frescoes and ceilings of churches and cathedrals, we have to ask ourselves – were these paintings done as 'art'? Certainly, in the ancient world, artists were viewed in the same way as plumbers and carpenters - they were simply artisan makers and technicians. Things had changed by the time of the Renaissance but, even then, the artwork was rarely an extension of the artist's personality. It was more about reflecting the desires of the patron and, in the case of large religious pieces, to cement the power of the church.

The online Farlex Free Dictionary says that art is, ‘Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature’. That's an interesting one. Rocks that have been sculpted into curious shapes by wind, rain, sea and volcanic upheaval can be beautiful but, without conscious effort to create them, they are just happy accidents. They are not art and Nature is not an artist. Of course, artists can incorporate them into an artwork or be inspired by them but they are not art in their raw form. Similarly, flowers are not art and nor are butterflies or decorously coloured coral reef fish. Their colours and shapes have evolved for a purpose - the fact that we find them beautiful is neither here nor there. And, on the subject of animals, they may be able to splash paint onto a canvas but they are not creating art - there is no conscious aesthetic decision-making going on. They're just having fun - the same fun they'd have if you replaced the paints with water. Be very wary of videos showing elephants that supposedly can paint - it's been proven time and again that they are reacting to silent commands from their handlers. It's all done for the tourists.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that art is ‘the products of human creativity’ and the Miriam-Webster Dictionary describes it as ‘the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects’. Skill, creativity and imagination, eh?   You can’t tell me that you haven’t ever employed all of these things to make something that looks nice. Maybe you’ve made a birthday cake and decorated it. Or you’ve arranged flowers at a loved one’s wedding. Or designed a garden. Whatever you’ve done, you’ve used some form of artistic expression. So did you make a work of art? I reckon you probably did. Art is not the sole preserve of people who get exhibited in galleries. Every human is capable of artistic expression. 

I’d argue that it’s impossible to sum up what art is in a single handy definition. Some thinkers and academics have suggested that we don’t even try. 

Leo Tolstoy insisted that what makes something art is how it is perceived by the person experiencing it; in other words, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And it’s true that there will always be art you like and art you don’t. But does that mean that the stuff we don’t like isn’t art ... even if it is art to someone who likes it? 

Famously, two dissident Russian artists called Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid set out to discover what a true "people's art" would look like. Using a professional marketing firm, a survey was conducted to determine what Americans wanted in a painting. The resultswere then turned into a painting called America's Most Wanted.

And it's pretty awful.   
Komar and Melamid proved a point here - you can't create art by committee. Art is all about individual expression and individual taste. One person's masterpiece is another person's trash and no single piece of art is ever going to be universally loved and valued.

The Institutional Theory of Art states that art only becomes art when it’s labelled as such. For example, no one thought that a urinal with ‘R Mutt 1917’ written on it could be art until Marcel Duchamp placed it within the context of art. But even then, I imagine many people still look at it and think ‘But isn’t that just a urinal?’ Well, yes it is. But Duchamp was using it in an artistic way. If you think about it, things like clay, paint, marble, pencils, fabric, wood ... they’re all just ‘things’ until someone uses them in an artistic way. Then it becomes art. Whether the viewer likes it or not is neither here nor there – it’s still art. 

And then there's the Functionalist movement. They suggested that art is only art if it performs an artistic function, which is an interesting idea. It would mean that a Henry Moore sculpture used as a doorstop would therefore no longer be art. 

Yet another theory – the Proceduralist Theory - suggests that art is defined by the process the artist went through to create it, regardless of public reception or the use to which it is put afterwards. 

There are many many more definitions and theories, some of which even contradict each other.

So how do we define what art is?

If we must insist on some kind of a definition, we can at least pull together several common themes:  

1. Art is something created by Man. It's not made by Nature or natural processes. There must be a conscious, guiding hand behind it. It's possible that very smart animals - such as our closest relatives the apes - may have a rudimentary aesthetic sense. But, if so, it's very underdeveloped. Animals rarely make things that have no obvious purpose or use. 

2. Art is an extension or expression of the artist’s personality. Give three different artists the same commission to create an artwork - even if the brief is very tight - and you’ll get three different pieces. 

3. Art is Aesthetic. This is a word that comes to us from ancient Greek and it means ‘to heighten or stimulate feelings’ (the opposite, incidentally, is ‘anaesthetic’ which means to shut them down or numb them). Art doesn't have to be beautiful. But it should be something that provokes a reaction, even if it is only a sense of satisfaction or pleasure in the person creating it. Art can make people angry. It can make people cry. It can make them wonder. Art is all about feelings and emotion. 

Interestingly, despite all of my reading and having asked lots of people what art is, no one – not one single person so far – has ever suggested to me that art is the sole preserve of professionals. Nor has anyone ever claimed that art isn’t art until it has a monetary value or critical acclaim. And no one has ever said to me that art is limited to certain kinds of expression or specific subjects. Anything goes. 

So, there we go. Some people make art with paint and canvas, some with icing and marzipan. Art is wood and stone, wool and felt, photo and video, pastels and pencils, even frozen bodily fluids or dead sharks in tanks of formaldehyde. Art is formal and informal, permanent and transient, figurative and abstract. Some art is photographically precise while other pieces are seemingly unfathomable. It’s found objects assembled in new ways. It’s a beautiful ballet, a sculpture, a wedding cake or a posed photo of your grandmother gamboling in a field of poppies. 

Art is whatever you decide it is. And an artist is someone who creates art because they are driven to do so - it's as simple as that.

As Dale Carnegie once said, ‘The essence of all art is to have pleasure in giving pleasure.’ 

I can't argue with that.