Some progress!

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It is certainly not before time, but the collection of pieces for the exhibition are gathering. A few photos below to whet the appetite!

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Q and A…

Below is the transcript of a q and a the gallery asked us to fill in saying more about our process. It was an interesting reflective moment or two spent filling it in. Hope you find it illuminating!

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Question for Michaela and Chris Goan

How has your work and your practice developed over the past few months?

Michaela:  We have tried to create pieces that reflect the work we were already making, but that worked within the theme of ‘where the streams come from’ and that stretched our work into something more conceptual.  Since agreeing to do the exhibition at Tig Gallery, I have learnt an awful lot about what I do. As I have said to Ros, I would rather have saved that learning for another time as it has been difficult when things go wrong and I have had to work out why.

Chris: My learning curve has been less dramatic, in that the creative side of what I do has two elements, the poetry and woodwork. The poetry is a constant unfolding process, and this exhibition uses both brand new poems and ones written some years ago. For me, making things out of wood is often a process of creative play, which for an exhibition means bringing more focus and rigour to the creative process. There is also something in there about scale, in that the pieces we have made are imagined to fill a larger less domestic space.

Your work has become more creative rather than commercial, how have you managed to develop your work in this way?

Michaela: With some challenge! I guess we wanted to make exhibition pieces rather than more of the same of what we already sell. I think too that it would be hard to look at the creative process without pushing further into that creativity.

Chris: I am not sure that the premise of the question is quite right in that we have always got the most pleasure out of the creative rather than the commercial side of what we do. Of course, we need to make a living, and this involves creating some pieces that sell in volume, which always feels a bit like a production line, but we both love those moments when something ‘happens’ and what we make captures something deeper and more meaningful. The problem is that this process is very unpredictable, so making things by date for an exhibition is not without stress! I think we have also learned (thanks in no small part to encouragement from galleries such as Tig) to trust that exploring the creative part of what we do is appreciated by people who buy art.

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What methods of working have you used in the lead up to your exhibition and instalment in Tig Gallery?

Michaela: I have done the same as always when working – sometimes knowing exactly what I want to do and sometimes being led by the clay itself. I think the difference just now has been that Chris and I planned the concept first and tried to develop pieces for the space rather than just making.

Chris: Chuckle, I think Michaela understates this process somewhat! We have been married for twenty-eight years and love working together, but we are very different in the way we approach our work. There are also very different rhythms to the work we do, in that pottery has an enforced set of stages; preparing the clay, working the clay, drying the clay, firing the clay, glazing then firing again. None of these stages can be rushed, and each can go wrong as clay is fickle, particularly in the winter. I on the other hand tend to work in bursts of activity. I get an idea, either a poem or a piece of sculpture and I cannot easily stop till it is done.

How do you find inspiration to continuously improve and develop your work?

Michaela: This has been difficult as we had a really bad spell for the first few weeks of creating for this exhibition. All sorts of things went wrong, with many pieces breaking at some point in the process, as Chris has already commented on. There is nothing that challenges the creative process more than such self-doubt, which I confess to experiencing several times in the throes of all these diasaters. Overall, I guess I would like to think that each time I make something it is a little better than the last one, whether than it is the final design or in stream-lining the process. I have had plenty of opportunity for that this year! In general inspiration just keeps coming as long as I can keep being outdoors. I photograph all the time. I don’t necessarily refer to the images, but find that stopping, noticing and focussing on what pleases my eye helps me to create further down the line. I love the shapes of the hills, the lines on the shore, the seabirds in flight…

Chris: I read that the photographer David Bailey said that no art is possible without confidence. If so, I am incapable of art! My experience is that most artists exist in a state of dissatisfaction, in that whatever we make we are not quite happy with; there is always something or someone else to measure against and find ourselves wanting. This dissatisfaction is itself an engine towards improvement though, even if it is a rather negative one. Of course, there is a craft to creating things, be they ceramics or poetry and this craft requires nurture and long-term application. Both of us are full time at what we do and this makes a huge difference. Finally, in terms of writing poetry, there is an emotional immediacy about the creative process, in that what I write connects with something deep inside myself. In the most extreme version of this, the unfolding of words is so painful that it makes me cry. Perhaps this is not about developing the art as much as it is (hopefully) about developing me.

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What has been your favourite part of exploring this more creative aspect of your work?

Michaela: I saw something online recently that was about the creative process. It was something like this… this is amazing, this is tricky, this is terrible, I am terrible, this is tricky, this is amazing… I think I will be able to reflect better on what was amazing when I get to the end of the process. So far, being free to be a little bolder has been great; it has not always worked out, but it’s been good to try.

Chris: Despite the challenges that M describes, which I very much agree with, quite simply I am never happier that making and shaping something creative. I love to do this in collaboration with others too, even though this can be challenging in that we then have to align our ideas and thinking with someone who may not necessarily see or ‘get’ where we are coming from.

What challenges has this change posed?

Michaela: As hinted at above, we agreed to the exhibition before knowing the difference that winter makes to the making of ceramic pieces. Our pottery studio was built in May and is a large wooden shed. The cold temperatures has made a huge difference to the making and drying process and I hadn’t anticipated that. It has been a slow learning curve…

Chris: Chuckle, once again, M understates! The hardest part for me has been to see her struggle, not just with the technical side of what she does, but with the emotional impact of the same. After all, as an artist doing an exhibition, you are exposing not just a ‘product’ to the public, you are exposing yourself. The challenges of the last few months have then imposed a pummelling on M beyond anything that others might expect.

What are the challenges that come with working in a creative partnership?

Michaela: Chris’s poetry was around for many years before I began making pots and I started putting his poetry in so that I could see my favourite poems, rather than them being tucked away on the bookshelf. The idea caught on and has become more defining in the way the pieces are even made. Chris will comment too, but I know it has at times been ‘interesting’ for him when I have interpreted a poem differently to how it was written. This exhibition has brought us together for more of the planning process too and we have tried to work together on the overall design.  We both love what the ceramics and poetry brings together. And I think we are still talking…

Chris: As I mentioned above, we approach things very differently. I am driven my words and ideas. They come first and I get childishly excited by them. At that point, M will often look at me with a slightly puzzled and exasperated expression on her face because he is going off on one again. M on the other hand is at her best when things unfold. She thinks visually and with her hands. Most of the time the things we make exist in different spaces – we have different workshops after all – so there is room for both kinds of creativity. For an exhibition, these things need to be much closer together. Of course this has resulted in some heated conversation, but I will tell you this, I would not change a thing. It has been a deep joy to work closely with M for this exhibition.

Michaela: I would echo the above. I must make sure I keep a check on my facial expressions though!

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How do you see your work developing in the future?

Michaela: I am hoping that we can continue to develop but I think we will see that over time. Now I have learnt so much, I hope to be able to use that learning to good effect. I am also looking at moving to a different clay which may be more usable for more sculptural pieces. I am still though drawn to making small things…

Chris: To be honest after all those years working in a job that almost killed me, it remains a daily surprise that a creative alternative is possible. The fact that we can make a living making and crafting things might then be enough! However, I am someone who is always looking towards the next horizon. I am interested in art as protest, art as engagement. I love the fact that someone knitted a pink tank-cosy to point us towards the ridiculousness of war. I love the way poetry can hit hard at our own pomposity and can prick at power. Of course, there is a danger that art becomes propaganda, but for me, if art is to be worth doing it has to mean something, it has to stand for something. This is where I hope we will be going!

What hopes do you have for your work and your business in the future?

Michaela and Chris: We hope that we can continue to grow and develop and if ever we get asked to do another exhibition we will be more prepared for the process ahead. It has been an amazing opportunity.

 

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The development of ideas…

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You can’t force it, you just have to wait, which is a problem when the clock it ticking. But in the end, the creative process is all about trusting in a process of becoming, and accepting that along with successful realisation will surely come a number of false starts and failures.

As far as the failures go, Michaela has had a couple of real blows this week. Firstly, she made a three magnificent ceramic surface pieces, meant to be framed. The first problem was that she failed to measure them properly against the kiln, which meant that they were both slightly too big (Doh!) No problem, our friend Pauline has a slightly bigger kiln over at Sea Drift pottery. Of course, it is never quite that simple.

Making things from clay enforces a certain patience, as first the clay needs to air-dry, to remove as much moisture as possible before it goes into the fierce heat of the kiln. If you rush this process, things explode, sometimes with remarkably powerful effect, taking out neighbouring pots in the kiln too. Whilst the clay is air-drying, it is very fragile and prone to breakage, even by just moving them around the studio sometimes, or whilst lifting them into the kiln. In this cause, the pieces survived the journey to Pauline’s studio, but BOTH then fell victim to misfortune in the firing process.

The only possible reaction is to shake ones head, laugh and start again, so that’s what Michaela did.

Sometimes the flow of ideas can come thick and fast and the risk is that you become distracted and lose focus. The danger then is that care and attention to finishing detail suffers and as a result an idea is not quite fully realised and lacks satisfaction. Sometimes you only really feel this when you look at a piece the next day. Others might not  notice that little corner, but you do, every time you look at it thereafter. Sadly this is true of many things that I make! Although this might also relate to another problem…

I once heard a famous artist proclaim that he ‘had never known a good artist who did not have absolute CONFIDENCE in their work!’ Almost as if art requires a kind of masculine bravado and machismo. Think Picasso or Hemmingway.

My first thought was that this must mean that I am simply not a good artist, because any confidence that I feel is a fickle thing. It might come in a glorious burst, either in the making of something, or in the praise of another, but then it is stolen again when I look at that corner that I don’t like, or when I compare what I have done unfavourably with the work of a talented peer. And there is truth in this of course. Art  in our culture is fundamentally hierarchical and driven by critical elitism, but still, there are such incredibly talented people everywhere you look.

There is also the problem of measurement. When can you ever feel that you have ‘succeeded’ as an artist? My experience is that brilliant people often persevere under their own cloud of insecurity and self-doubt. Talented musicians who worry if they have another song in them. Writers who are blocked. Artists who slash their canvasses in frustration.

So, does art require absolute confidence? I do not think so. Rather I would say that it requires three things much more;

  • An idea. A thing that you are reaching for, even though it might not be fully understood even to yourself, and is worked out in the formation.
  • Hope.
  • Perseverance.

At present, we are existing as fully as we can in the second of these two requirements, whilst pushing ourselves hard into the latter.

Whether the art we make is ‘good’ art is impossible for us to answer. That is ultimately up to you!

 

Unfolding…

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A year ago I (Michaela) applied  for and was given a place on creative business mentoring programme called Club 111. It was using a resource called Dream Plan Do and was run by the Design Trust. Patricia van DerAkker coached a group of us through a year of dreams, challenges and celebrations and . I would totally recommend it all. I am very grateful to Emergents for making the spaces available on the programme. It has really turned things around for me, for both of us.

In the first month of the year-long coaching programme, we had to name three ‘big juicy goals’ then start to work on how we were going to make them happen. I realised as time went on that mine weren’t juicy at all; in fact, they were quite dry, sorting out the website and such like. It wasn’t very inspiring. So I joined two together and added in a third – have an exhibition. It was such a ludicrous idea that it would actually happen that year when really we were so new on the scene, but I did think it would be lovely to think it might happen one day and that it was something to work towards – having recognisable work, getting out into as many places as possible, networking, all of those things seemed like good aims for a small business. But that is as far as it went. A kind of distant dream.

Then in November last year, I had a visit to Tighnabruaich Gallery. We sell there and so I often pop in with deliveries. I was admiring the work of Joanne Caskie, gorgeous textile maps – check out her work. Ros was telling me that she had commissioned some Cowal maps from Joanne for an exhibition in the gallery in 2018 and that she was also looking for an exhibition of 3D work and much to my surprise asked if we would consider it. You can check out her recent vlog talking about what her plans are for the gallery and how this exhibition and others fit into new plans for doing something different in the gallery spaces. How exciting!

We met again in December to try and begin a conversation about how this all works – it is very new to us obviously but also a new way of doing exhibitions was a though that Ros wanted to explore – seeing more of the process unfolding and allowing visitors to see how pieces were dreamed of and created. This is why the blog was created and also an instagram page of the same name. It will allow you to follow progress but also allow us and Ros and Neil to share our steps towards this new exhibition.

All very exciting and thrilling… and then I got into the pottery earlier this month, Christmas orders out of the way and got ready to start… Start? How does that happen? Chris has blogged already about the theme and the vision. It all drained out of my head when I sat looking at the clay! I rolled some out and spent a long time preparing it, smoothing it, creating a beautiful blank canvas. Now what? If I am honest I seriously considered changing my mind about the whole thing. It became very daunting.

After some time of thinking, doodling, throwing scraps of paper on the log burner, I decided to doodle on the clay, get it out of my system, just splodge on some colour and see where it took me! Chris had written a poem called I Am. I am all of these things and I am nothing. It has a lot of concepts and visual images. But I saw (eventually!) three themes across the three verses – stars, cosmos and sky, wind and sea, waves. So I created three pieces, all random shapes depending on the size and shape of the clay I had already rolled out. On one I drew with coloured slip some circular star bursts, one another waves and splashes and on the last wind and birds. I added in some poetry. At this point the pieces are drying beneath pieces of plasterboard. In slightly losing my mind I didn’t even measure the pieces of clay and created one too big for my kiln! Can you believe that? So this coming week it will be making a trip to my friend Pauline’s kiln which is slightly bigger than mine.

Here are some glimpses of these first splashes of colour… watch this space for the finished pieces!

 

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A bit more about our title…

We are hoping to have a book out around the same time as the exhibition, also called ‘Where the streams come from’, if we can co-ordinate the publishing date of course. The book will gather together a lot of the poetry used in the exhibition, as well as some other material used previously in this resource;

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Chris has been writing an introduction for the book, talking a bit more about the title. Here it is (needs a bit more editing yet!);

Introduction

 

All streams flow into the sea yet the sea is never full.

To the place the streams come from, there they will return.

Ecclesiastes 1:7

 

This collection of poetry has had a rather unusual beginning in that the poems were gathered together for two art projects, separated by six years. The first of these was an experimental installation used at Greenbelt Festival in 2012. This festival is a long running faith/arts/justice event, held each year in the UK and has long been a gathering place for people who are interested in the meeting place of faith and activism, including environmental activism. We put together some soundscapes combining recordings made in wilderness settings in our native Argyll, Scotland, with poetry read by members of Aoradh, a small faith community of which I am a member. The installation at the festival involved some sculptures and some new-fangled ‘directional’ speakers that delivered the sound along a narrow beam. It seemed like a great idea, although in practice, the technology was rather less effective than we hoped. Ironically, given the subject matter, the weather then intervened. A violent downpour of rain turned the festival field into a quagmire and water ingress defeated the electronics. Still, the soundscapes were lovely and were given a second life as they were made available as a download via Proost (www.proost.co.uk).

 

Step forward a few years and our lives had changed radically. After almost thirty years working in mental health services as a social worker, therapist and manager, I had finally broken out, trying to make a living doing creative things with my wife, Michaela. We started a business called Seatree (www.seatreecrafts.co.uk) making ceramics, often combining beach finds, driftwood and, of course, poetry, into sculptural objects. What Michaela and I were seeking was that holy middle-class dream of a simple life, growing our own food, surviving from what we could make with our own hands. We had been talking about it for years. Even as students back in the eighties we longed for a way to live that had integrity, in terms of our impact on the natural world and the degree to which we participated in the exploitation of other people. Untangling all this is of course a work in progress for all of us, but we hope that what we are doing might be a step or two in the right direction. But make no mistake, this is no easy option. Michaela in particular has worked long days and nights, not just on the fun stuff – the creation of art – but also on the dreadful but essential process of developing a sustainable business.

 

This brings us to the second art project behind the development of this book. We were extremely grateful, as well as greatly challenged, to be given the opportunity to make our very own exhibition at the lovely Tighnabruach Gallery, over the other side of Cowal Peninsula, where we live. We cast around for a theme for the exhibition. We needed it to allow us to say something about the beauty of the area in which we live, but also to reach beyond the postcard-perfect image of wild places. We were interested in ideas of ‘becoming’ and ‘unfolding’ as well as the spirituality and psychology of wilderness. Our thinking took us right back to the old theme used at Greenbelt Festival.

 

The imagery of moving water – rivers, streams, rolling waves – has long been employed by humans as a means of seeking to understand things beyond ourselves. In some parts of the world water is a much rarer commodity than it is where I live, on the western fringe of Europe, amongst the remains of the temperate rain forests. From ancient times we hear of sacred rivers, or shrines sited at springs and wells. In fact, many of these sites seem to have been adopted by the new religion of the Celts, to become holy wells or holy springs. Certainly, the ancient Hebrew texts inherited by the Celts were also full of the same imagery; streams of living water, water springing from rocks, God moving across the face of the waters, water turned to wine, the baptism of new believers and so on. Sometimes the water seems to used to describe God, or an aspect of God, at other times it is perhaps used to describe life itself.

 

It is perhaps the later description that most appealed to me as I began writing for the exhibition; the idea of streams of water as an allegory of the flow behind everything, the flow in the middle of everything, the flow that we are all part of. The sense of connectedness between all living things is perhaps more important one now than ever, standing on the brink of a new ‘anthropocene’ age, when for the first time, the world is being shaped and defined by us- the human ape. Laid down in the strata of rocks will be the evidence of our influence on this planet, for good and ill, but mostly for ill. Our collective patterns of consumption and destruction are perhaps enforced by disconnection from the natural world. We forget that everything we have ever burnt or thrown away is actually with us still and that the plastics we use to insulate us from the mess and unpredictability of uncivilisation might yet choke us all. But what if we could come to realise once again that far from being elevated above the natural world by our technology, we are in fact interdependent on all those other creatures which we share the planet with. We all swim in the same stream after all.

 

Perhaps, a deeper sense of this connection can help us appreciate the nature of this relationship. Perhaps our meat should not come wrapped up in cellophane, rather it should still be furred and feathered, still dripping blood. Our potatoes should still be covered in mud and soil and when we fill our cars, we should do so from an oil well dug precariously deep under our own back garden.

 

But the title of this collection – ‘Where the streams come from’ – suggests something else too; the idea of an origin; a beginning; an uprising; a source. This might be a matter of history- after all, we all live downstream of all that has ever been and upstream from all that is yet to be. It is also a question of science; the explosive expansion of the universe, the accretion of material into stars, orbited by planets, an accidental alchemy that leads to life and the unfolding evolution that flows forward towards us. For many it is a theological question- one that some promote above all others. God is our creator and the universe is his clockwork toy, slowly winding down to a time of his choosing.

 

For poets like me however, it is ultimately a spiritual question, one concerned with trying to see beyond the surface, into the meanings that make everything come alive. Learning how to exist in the flow of all things, not merely to observe and record, or to define and measure, nor to decide between what is sacred and what profane. Not even to save. The flow I refer to is that which we sense in wild places. The flicker that we feel in the pits of our stomachs when an animal roars at a distance. The tears at sunset. The pang at the sight of geese flying away for winter. That sense of staring into moving water and wondering… if. Spirituality like this can arguably only ever be partially expressed and only then using the mediums of poetry and art.

 

The poems collected here may or not be related to things aquatic, but they all are part of an attempt to connect myself to the flow of all things. I hope they are helpful to you too…

 

Chris Goan, January 2018

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Change…

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Things change.

Just over a year ago, I (Chris) stopped my day job. I had been given an amazing opportunity to develop a life that embraced creativity, to focus of writing and developing a business called seatree.

We had no idea whether we could make it work – we still have kids in university and no matter how much veg you grow, life ain’t free – but so far so very good.

I am still writing. I am involved in some fantastic projects. Amazingly, we are getting by; each month that we sell enough ceramics, driftwood and poetry feels like a new blessing. It is the new almost-normal.

Lest I become too self-congratulatory, I should remind myself that this is not really about me at all. Michaela works so very hard. Also, we are ever more appreciative of those who we travel with. The networks of trust we build are vital, because creative businesses are fragile, as are we.

It is less about paddling, more about allowing the water to carry us…

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So, it is with great excitement that I am able to say that seatree have been invited by the lovely Tighnabruach gallery to put on an exhibition. Yesterday we met with Ros and Neil from the gallery, sharing with them our half formed ideas and fully realised doubts and fears, because this will be out very first venture into putting on our very own exhibition.

It will be entitled Where the streams come from and will combine poetry and ceramics. It will run at TIG gallery from the 31st of March until the 22nd of April. (Which doesn’t give us long!)

Some of you may recognise the title from here. An old project that nagged at me.

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I wrote my first poem for the exhibition the other day. Here it is…

 

I am

I am bird, I am wind

I am scaled, I am skinned

I am soil, I am stone

I am flesh, I am bone

I am ebb, I am flow

I am stream, I am snow

I am all of these things

And I am nothing

 

I am love, I am light

I am morning, I am night

I am atom, I am star

I am close, I am far

I am start, I am end

I am stranger, I am friend

I am all of these things

And I am nothing

 

I am silence, I am song

I am right, I am wrong

I am sea, I am shore

I am less, I am more

I am young, I am old

I am iron, I am gold

I am all of these things

And I am nothing

 

Chris Goan