Saturday 30 April 2022

Art is a dish best served raw

'Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable' - Banksy. 

As I wrote in a blogpost earlier this month, I am a massive fan of what some might call 'primitive art' or Art Brut. This includes Outsider Art and Folk Art. There's something very fresh and exciting about art that comes direct from the imagination and isn't influenced by the tastes and mores and trends of the art world. 

So, for this last post of April I thought I'd share a few video links to artists I'm particularly fond of. We'll start with Shinichi Sawada, a self-taught Outsider Artist who produces extraordinary ceramic pieces. As a child, he attended a school for children with special educational needs where he was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. From the age of 18, he began to attend a local social welfare facility – an institution for people with learning disabilities called Nakayoshi Fukushikai, in Shiga Prefecture, western Japan. This is what he produces.

Sawada has a set routine. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays he works with others at a bakery, making bread and then selling and delivering the produce locally. Sometimes, he also helps out packing small electrical items. In the afternoons, he is driven over to a pottery studio in the mountains with Akio Kontani, another sculptor, and Iketani, the retired facilitator who has worked with Sawada since he first started going to the institution. Sawada works quickly and in silence and takes four or five days to complete one of his ceramic creatures. Each is built around a cylindrical base that is hollow in the centre. Most have faces on more than one side, and some have several faces stacked on top of one another giving the creations a totem pole look. All the pieces are covered in little spikes. These attachments have evolved over time, becoming denser and more rounded. Sawada often applies them in straight, orderly lines across the surface of the clay. 

His work - and the work of other outsider artists - is represented in the UK by the Jennifer Lauren Gallery in Manchester. Sawada also features in an episode of Alan Yentob's excellent Imagine series called 'Turning the Art World Inside Out', which you can watch on Vimeo here. It's a fascinating 60 minute look at the world of Outsider Art, worth watching and very uplifting.

Now we'll look at the work of the late Sulton Rogers (1922–2003).

'Folk Art' covers all forms of visual art made in the context of folk culture and using traditional skills. It's where you find intricately carved wooden bowls and love spoons, embroidered samplers, corn dollies, carved figurines, and much pottery and ceramics. Some items have a practical utility rather than being exclusively decorative. Folk arts are rooted in and reflective of the life, folklore and cultural heritage of a community. 

Sulton (often mispelled as 'Sultan') Rogers was a Mississippi folk artist who spent most of his life in Syracuse, New York working at a chemical plant. He took up woodcarving as a way of staying awake during long night shifts. Rogers claimed that his art was a reflection of his dreams, or what he called 'futures'. He moved back to Oxford, Mississippi in 1995 and lived there until he died. 
He is known for what he called his haints - curious carved and painted wooden figurines. Rogers' haints are primarily carved humans with oversized or multiple features. He would also carve animals but, more commonly, humans that have animal heads or body parts. He would also carve multiple related carvings known as haint houses. These pieces sometimes included dollhouses that would be filled with his figures. 

He also made a lot of figures in coffins, which friends found slightly disturbing. 'I got a couple of friends that come to the house, they don’t go to the cellar ‘cuz I usually have coffins sitting around there,' he told the Artists' Alliance in 1991. 'You know the fellow I rent from, he don’t go down there. He says if anything would break, you fix it because I ain’t going down there. Then if he does come, he says if you gonna make things then cover them up so I can’t see ‘em, put a sheet or something on ‘em. One night he come to the door and I was trying to put a wig on those dead people in the coffin. He told me I was an idiot for doing stuff like that.' 
His haints are now part of permanent collections at the University of Mississippi Museum of Art, the African American Museum, and the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum. His carvings have also appeared in the Dallas Museum of Art, New Orleans Museum of Art, and the American Visionary Art Museum.

It's wonderful stuff isn't it? And all made from recycled materials.

Thursday 28 April 2022

All at Sea

With the recent news that a gallery in my native county of Cornwall wants to display and sell some of my junk sculptures, I've decided to create a few sea-themed beasties. 

I was particularly keen to make a seahorse or two as a way to highlight the fact that ALL species of seahorse are now considered as vulnerable. 

Over 150 million of these beautiful, harmless little fish are pointlessly killed every year for use in the traditional medicine trade despite the fact that there is no scientific proof that they can cure ailments. Additionally, millions are caught to sell to home aquarium owners or are dried for sale as curios and souvenirs. They are also threatened by climate change. Seahorses commonly live in seagrass beds, mangroves and coral reefs which are all highly sensitive to pollution, fluctuations in temperature and acidic levels, and other human impacts.

One big contributor to climate change is, of course, our hunger for electronic items such as smartphones (as I highlighted here). And so, as I still have a massive sackful of old mobile phone cases, they seemed to me the perfect materials with which to make some seahorses. 

So, I made a core shape out of polystyrene packaging, stuck some bits all over it, gave it a spray of black primer, then a light zenithal highlight in gold and voila - brass-effect seahorse.
Then I decided to do something bigger and bolder. How about ... a whale. 

People like whales, right?

So, again, I used polystyrene packaging to make a basic form and began attaching bits and pieces. Fully 16 phone cases and keypads,plus a multitude of beads and other greeblies went into the construction. In fact, I was so engrossed that I forgot to take many WIP photos. I did, however, make one small video before spraying with black primer.

I then used a white spray can to create a two-tone colour scheme, like you see on humpback whales and other species of cetaceans.

I'll show you the very final model later in this blogpost.

Meanwhile, I created a second seahorse. 

A different construction with no inner core this time ... but a fun challenge all the same.I started with plastic pieces from deodorant cans, shampoo bottles and kitchen bleach sprays Then I added a piece of plastic I found on a dog walk as the snout/mouth. I added some wooden toy cartwheels for eyes and a yoghurt drink pot for the lower body. Then I began decorating with lots of phone parts, beads and other greeblies. 

The seahorse was then sprayed with a black primer and an antique copper.

To finish them for display I mounted the two seahorses on some driftwood boards I collected during my frequent trips to Cornwall. 

For the whale I made a custom base from an old cheeseboard and a repurposed wooden finial I spotted in a skip (and asked permission to take). I then gave it a coat of nice blue chalk paint.

So, here are the finished pieces - a whale and two seahorses. I hope you like them.

On a final note I should point out that this urge to make sea-themed art is obviously in the Colgan family's Cornish blood. My late father was an enthusiastic amateur and often painted seascapes. Here's one from the mid-1970s.

And here's a collage made by one of my daughters for her GCSEs nearly two decades ago - all made from fabric scraps, buttons and unravelled old woollens. I love it. And it, like Dad's painting, hangs with pride in my house.

Footnote: The seahorses (and a few owls) are now on display/for sale at the Watermen's Gallery in Falmouth, Cornwall.


Friday 15 April 2022

The Owl and the Pussycat

Having thoroughly enjoyed making a bunch of junk owls recently I was reminded of this painting I did back in 2010. 

Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat is a much-loved poem and many thousands of illustrators have put their individual stamp on it. I added my own comic spin - knowing cats' aversion to water, I decided to make mine suffer a little mal de mer. 

Feeling inspired, I decided to build an Owl and Pussycat diorama. The main figures could have a metallic steampunk look to them. The pea green boat could also be made to look industrial and constructed from steel. And it would be fun making the miniature props - the guitar, the honey jar, and money wrapped up in a five pound note etc. I might even attempt a runcible spoon.

So, first, I started on the owl figure, which was made mostly from mobile phone components and plastic cutlery wrapped around an XPS (expanded polystyrene) core. I used washers and laser-cut MDF cogs for the eyes and Covid 19 testing kit pipettes (suitably washed and sterilised after use) for legs. I then gave it a coat of black matt primer.

Oops! Guess who forgot that spray paint melts XPS foam! You can see the effect it had under that grill area. 

Ah well. Accidents happen. And I'm choosing to go with the idea that the texture probably adds to the final effect! But, to make sure it didn't happen again, I sealed it with a coat of matt varnish before the rattle cans came out again to (carefully) spray the owl a metallic gold.

Now, onto the boat.

I made the basic structure from foamboard. I deliberately chose to make it short and chubby (a) because it would take up too much space if I made it a normal boat shape and (b) because it would look foreshortened anyway when viewed from the front. I cut out the base and worked out the shape of the sides by experimenting with card. Once I had my template, I made the sides and attached them.

I filled the gaps with what Americans call 'spackle' and what we British rather more boringly call 'filler', sanded it back and then decorated it with foamboard panels (as if the boat has been clumsily repaired) and then added dozens of plastic rhinestones - of the kind used in nail bars - as rivets. A few coats of paint, some ink washes and metallic dry brushing later and the boat was coming together.

As you can see, I'd started on some of the props too - but more of that later.

Now for the pussycat.

The body was made from  jelly and yoghurt pots and a plastic disposable wine glass. The head is an old three pin electrical plug. I began forming the face from bits and pieces in my junk boxes, including a couple of old plectrums (plectra?).

Then, several hundred mobile phone components and plastic forks later, I had a pussycat.

I sprayed it with a matt black primer and then drybrushed it with metallic silver and blue. It looked okay ... but something wasn't sitting right with me. So I put the cat away for the moment and concentrated on some props.

I figured a metal owl required a metal guitar so I made a classic 'Flying V' from foamboard and plasticard. I made a travelling trunk from leather (rescued from a dumped sofa) wrapped around an old medicine box with plasticard metal bands. The 'plenty of money wrapped up in a five pound note' was made simply by finding a photo of a fiver online, printing it off at around 50% larger-than-life size, cutting it out, and wrapping it around some scrunched up tissue. And, of course, I sculpted a pasty in Milliput. Plus I had some prop wine bottles and a gramophone rescued from an old doll's house that looked to be the right scale.

I assembled it all ... and then spotted what was niggling me about the pussycat. It was just too tall. 

So, out came the hacksaw and the greeblies to hide the new join ...

And, while I was at it, I replaced the front paws which were also far too big.

A bit more painting was needed so I got on with that. 

Voila - we're done.

As you can see, I decided to leave out the travel case, gramophone and bottles as it just looked too crowded.

But dammit!

I forgot to include a honeypot. And a runcible spoon. 

Ah well, I can always add them later.

Monday 11 April 2022

Great Upcyclers #7: Jaako Tornberg

I'm always wary of posting photos that I don't own because there is a new breed of ambulance-chasing legal parasite out there. They earn their living by hunting down illustrations on blogs and websites and threatening the owners with legal action if they don't cough up for misusing/ pirating/ displaying an image without proven permission. It's happened to a couple of my friends and they were stung for a lot of money - even though they were promoting the work of the person who owned the photo and in no way profiting from doing so. Madness.

It's why I tend to stick with links to Youtube videos as they are in the public domain. In that spirit, if I can't find a video, I will use a screengrab of the person's website for the same reason.
Jaakko Tornberg is a sculptor from Helsinki, Finland. He's also a teacher at Aalto University School of Art and Design and runs junk art workshops. 

I really like his work. 

Here are some images from his art register page.
His website is here.