seam member Joy Merron has been working with ceramic artist Gill Bliss for 18 months on the Mud and Thread collaboration project, funded by Somerset Art Works (SAW). The funded project is now complete and this blog post is the final evaluation of their partnership. There are exciting possibilities and opportunities arising from this project and both artists have agreed to continue developing the collaboration for some time yet.
The Mud and Thread Project Proposal:
The following paragraph, taken from the proposal for Somerset Art Works, sums up the initial ideas that set the collaboration going:
‘The project will work through practicalities of bringing textile and ceramic materials together, and spark new synergies. The exploratory nature of the project will allow things to evolve and grow organically. The aims of the collaboration are to reach a balance of design artistic integrity, to devise new problem solving approaches with materiality, and to form creative connections with the natural and built environment.
Joy and Gill will continue to work together until outcomes are achieved that take the work to potentially new audiences through digital and live exhibition. It is important to the project that work in progress and development ideas are to be shared at different stages, as well as more resolved outcomes towards the end of the timescale. At this point there is no intention to predict what finished outcomes may be, thus allowing a truly experiential journey combining textile and ceramic processes and materials.’
The following questions provided a research framework:
In what ways do the coming together of ideas and processes in a mixed material collaboration help to extend the creative practice of each maker?
- How can materials of ceramics/clay and textiles/threads be combined in experimental artworks (to explore creative outcomes)?
- What processes (eg. call and response, show and tell; framework of themes; workshop visits) have proven to be of benefit to the collaboration and what processes were less effective?
- How can digital platforms be used effectively for practice based collaborative processes?
- What means of reflection, feedback and evaluation are helpful in practice-based collaboration?
Achievements over the 18 month period:
- A range of practices to inspire creativity were experienced including: swapping of work; working with source material such as photographs and drawings; using a list of words for inspiration; working together with clay and drawing; working separately in own studios.
- Several ways were used in which textiles and ceramics were successfully brought together to create mixed media work including: cushion forms with emerging growths; sculptural forms and vessels particularly based on water bottles; wonky combination columns; hag-stones; mosaics of ceramic fragments and textiles.
- Ideas around sustainability, working with nature and a sense of place were addressed by using foraged and recycled materials such as wild clay, reclaimed clay, wood ash for glazes, fragments of fired clay, tea bags, found wool, reclaimed textiles.
- Different forms of digital communication were explored including regular Zoom meetings to keep the two artists in touch with each others’ work, feelings and reflections. An online Instagram site and website blog were maintained with regular updates of images and written reflections – these sites served to communicate to a wide audience (with local, national and international followers), and were a way of building a record of progress.
- The work was exhibited in a range of galleries throughout the collaboration period (including at ACEarts, Somerton, and The Brewhouse, Taunton); starting with ‘the journey of process’, and later with final outcome pieces. Gill and Joy also contributed to a residency (seam collective Research Residency, The Holburne Museum Open at Andrew Brownsword Gallery, Bath.) and two open studios (SAW Open Studio 2021 and 2022). At the end of 2022 sculptural forms were accepted for ACEarts, Black Swan Arts, and Royal West of England Academy (RWA) Open Exhibitions. This has led to being awarded a Residency at the Round Tower gallery, Black Swan Arts, and an exhibition at The Princess Theatre, Burnham-on-Sea in 2023.
I enjoyed thinking about the collaboration as a journey and the initial depth of experimentation with materials. I valued the regular contact with Joy very much; the discussions, encouragement, and inspiration from seeing the ideas that Joy brought forward. This gave me a greater interest in exploring a range of textures and surface qualities to bring nuance and contrast to sculptural work. I was particularly drawn to using found objects to make textures, thus giving items a ‘site specific’ identity. These are things I will carry into new work.
For me the ‘to and fro’ of work between us was the most inspiring element. I did find the word list useful, to be taken as metaphors for overarching themes, but I also realise that I lost contact with the contextual ideas quite quickly once the physicality of working the clay took over. What became more important then, was to set up resonances between the different materials and the different forms. One thing I had not anticipated was how much I would struggle with technical practicalities of making ceramic elements that needed to fit with Joy’s textile elements. How much would the clay shrink in the kiln? How would textiles be joined to the hard material of ceramics? If holes were needed, how big should they be and where? I think we did find several ways to resolve these problems and make work that combined the materials effectively. I had to let go of prescribed and ‘usual’ modes of ceramic practice and see what possibilities for development and display then evolved. For example, allowing sections of sculptural pieces to be glued in place instantly created more freedom.
As the collaboration came out of the SAW Somerset Reacquainted project, I was initially happy to work with foraged clay, which was dug from my garden. Towards the end of the 18 month period I was finding this restrictive – the time involved in processing the clay to a workable state, and the fact that the sticky, terracotta colour pervades everything it touches, spreading across tools, working surfaces, wheel etc. I began using up all my odd leftovers of grey clay, as a way to cling on to the idea of using only reclaimed/recycled materials, but for me this has run its course and future work will be undertaken with my usual porcelain or other bought in clays. I have, however, maintained my resolve to have as sustainable a practice as I can, and to this end I have joined The Green Makers’ Initiative, based at MakeSouthWest, Devon.
I am feeling ambivalent about the benefits of social media at the moment. I think it has been a good way of keeping a record of our journey, our thoughts and our achievements and shows a certain level of professionalism and commitment. Using Zoom to keep regular contact with Joy worked very well and often boosted my enthusiasm for the project. However, it takes a lot of time and effort to keep a minimum of regular postings on social media and a regular blog. It can be a boost to have others comment that they have seen your work, but I do not like the feeling of being ‘sucked in’ by Instagram algorithms. I learnt that I must accept what I can do, and not try to compete with other creative’s who use these platforms for different reasons.
The partnership with Joy broadened my outlook and opportunities to show work. Joy has a wide circle of professional contacts in Somerset and beyond, and I have felt the benefit of her abilities to develop networks. Both Joy and I have developed our own sense of how materials and forms resonate together for successful practice-based work, but having the approval of galleries and creative bodies does raise the level of feedback, and gives a connection to a wider range of viewers. The textile community has been welcoming of our mixed-media work, for example our inclusion in the seam collective residency at The Andrew Brownsword Gallery, Bath. (I would like to test the response of specifically ceramic opportunities to our mixed-media work in the future.) The talk with Will Cooper (Curator of Contemporary Programmes for The Holburne Museum) coming out of this was instrumental in reframing our thinking about collaboration, so that we could enter exhibitions as a single artist would – a very important step that has led to exciting opportunities in 2023.
Gill and I were introduced to each other through SAW and the Somerset Reacquainted project. I have a great respect for Gill’s approach and ability as a ceramicist and was delighted when it was suggested we work together. Our early stages were quite tentative as we looked for a mutually respectful approach. Sharing words and then exchanging a small group of objects started the ball rolling and we began to find common ground to explore ideas from. As we began our collaboration there was much to-ing and fro-ing of ideas and discussion about materials, sustainability and what we were aiming to achieve.
Ideas flowed and it became apparent that time scales would be different as the ceramic process can have many more stages than textiles does and I came to value the inbetween stages as a time to reflect and explore ideas.
Our starting point was an ‘otedama’ cushion I’d made previously, that offered some experimental opportunities. It’s based on 4 rectangles twisted and stitched together so it felt like a fairly neutral starting point. Gill made a mold and produced a series of bases with different finishes and it was exciting to see them for the first time – the fabric texture and details she managed to achieve were exceptional. We both explored ideas using the theme of ‘emergence’, adding and extracting, experimenting with texture and form resulting in a series of four. These became part of the Somerset Reacquainted exhibition displayed at ACE Arts in 2021. Alongside these, Gill produced smaller pieces, textured in different ways and I was able to weave threads through and across them.
Connecting materials was an area that was potentially problematic but we overcame this to an extent by me weaving across smaller hagstone objects, Gill piercing holes that I could stitch through and making openings in the textiles allowing protuberances to be pushed through. We found similarities in our practices’ terminology – twisting, coiling, trimming.
In keeping with our intention to develop sustainable practices, while Gill was foraging and reclaiming local clay, I was primarily collecting and reusing tea bags and threads and fabric from my offcuts box.
The conversations continued and the work developed legs and grew in scale and ambition. How can we interconnect clay and textiles? Are there ways we haven’t tried? Are we truly collaborating or just working alongside each other?
To answer this, I would say that the development of my current work would not have happened otherwise. I witnessed Gill’s skills as a model maker in her detailed work and a certain humour emerged in the combination as the ‘wonky vessels’ series evolved.
It began through a mishap in the firing process where some small pots exploded and I incorporated the fragmented neck and shoulder onto a cloth pouch. This inspired me to research historic portable vessels and materials. Costerels, amphoras, pilgrims flasks have been made of wood, leather as well as clay. Both our processes rely on the elements, water, fire earth and air to produce the base materials and vessels seemed an obvious connection.
Alongside the blog and Instagram account, we reached a point where we needed to show these developments in gallery spaces to gain some feedback. Through seam collective, we were able to take advantage of a short residency at the Andrew Brownsword Gallery at Bath University and receive some valuable feedback from fellow seam members and the public. Will Cooper, Curator of Contemporary Programmes for The Holburne Museum, talked through our work and gave some sound advice on the importance of anthropometrics and the relationship of scale in our work and how to find an audience.
Since then, we have gained confidence in our combined work and been accepted to three Open Calls at ACEarts Gallery, Somerton; Black Swan Gallery, Frome; and RWA in Bristol. We were also asked to be the inaugural guest artists at no 6 Bruton High Street, a new pop up venture run by Dovecote Gallery Framers to promote the work of local artists.
Looking back at social media and digital platforms, Zoom has been a fantastic way of communicating and keeping up to date with each other. We have an Instagram account and kept a regular blog to record our progress. This we will use to reflect back on the experience and consider whether we both feel we have truly collaborated.
In summary, it seems there is not one definitive way to collaborate but the opportunity to work alongside another artist, sharing practices, techniques, approaches and critical feedback are the outcomes that enable enrichment of one’s own practice. Gill and I have respected each other’s work and that has enabled an organic development, research and integration of ideas resulting in unexpected art pieces. We will continue this process as long as we both feel we are pushing our own and each other’s boundaries.
Do check out our work in person in A Visible THREAD at ACEarts, Market Place, Somerton, Somerset TA11 7NB until 24 December 2022, and in the 169 Annual Open Exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy, Queens Road, Clifton, Bristol BS8 1PX until 8 January 2023, and follow @mud_and_thread on Instagram to see how our collaboration develops further.
Joy Merron, Gill Bliss
A version of this blog post first appeared on mudandthread.wordpress.com and will eventually be archived as a section on Gill’s website at: www.gillbliss.com. The @mud_and_thread Instagram site will be continued with further updates.