Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Textile Taxidermy at West Dean

The minute I saw this short course in the booklet last August I knew I had to do it.  There was a photo of this greyhound by Donya Coward, a young textile artist whose work took my breath away!  The title too was intriguing - Textile taxidermy.  Was it stuffing dead animals with fabric?  Oh no, it was creating beautiful representations of animal heads using fabric, lace, buttons and embellishment.

My photo of the postcard doesn't show it off very well but it looked stunning.  So I've had months to get excited about it.

So a week last Sunday I headed off to West Dean college again.  It was a ghastly day and my 2.5 hour drive was in torrential rain all the way.  When I'd signed in and taken my luggage to my room, the first thing I did was take a photo before it got dark -

The line across the centre is a 'Haha' to keep the sheep off the lawn!
Then there were the obligatory shots of me looking excited and anything in the room that caught my interest.

Me looking excited!

Pretty carving on my wardrobe

Lovely turquoise tiles in the cast iron fire surround
The first evening is always just an introduction to what you'll be doing throughout the course and a chance to get to know your fellow students.

Donya showed us her earlier pieces she'd made and then some examples of the various stages we would follow to build our chosen animals head.  There were 10 of us on the course with a diverse variety of animals - 5 different dogs, a donkey, a camel, a stag, a deer and my cat.  

If we'd all realised how complex the process was then we'd have been worried right from the outset as we only had 3.5 days for our course!

These first pieces by Donya were designed as brooches but really they were far too big.  The cat, for example, was about 4 inches across.  When someone said that they would like to mount it on a board to display on the wall she had the idea to start making 3 dimensional heads.  She then concentrated on perfecting her own unique technique.

Having made the shape of the animal she then embellishes the head with lace, beads and embroidery to create a luxurious texture.  So here we have  beautiful Scotty dog.  He's really quite large and being black with black lace and embroidery doesn't photograph very well.

Detail of his eye showing the wonderful beading and embroidery work
This full figure model of a dog is covered in beautiful lace and beads and is simply stunning.

Close-up showing beading and lace
She also makes what she calls banners, mostly depicting dogs.

Stunning work isn't it.

But this is how it begins - as a mass of blankets/socks/old tights and anything soft that can be used as stuffing to form a shape.  But I'm getting ahead (no pun intended!) of myself.

The beginning of a dog's head
The next morning I went for a shortish run of just under 6 miles along one of the lanes nearby.  It was quite hilly so I felt at home!  When I got back it was a bit brighter and the rain had stopped so I had a quick look around the grounds before brekkie.

The water had drained away and the sheep had come to graze
This multi-stemmed birch by the car park looked stunning
Snowdrops were just coming into flower

After breakfast we were split into groups - 4 of the people making dog's heads on one table, the people making large heads plus the little deer on another table and finally Debbie and I had our own table.  Debbie was making a pug's head 'cos she has 2 gorgeous little pugs named Frank (remember 'Men in Black'?) and Suki and the construction would be similar for my head of Tinker our beloved cat.

We'd been told to take photos of our chosen animal from the front and sides and I'd also done lots of close-ups for his markings.  The instructions also told us to measure their head and features so that we could reproduce a life-size model but in the end the models were much larger which was quite disappointing.

I laid out my photos of Tinker and gathered together some of Mike's old socks to start making the basic shape of his face.  
Lots of views of Tinker's head
The pieces of fabric/sock were attached to a canvas block and twiddled and tacked until I had a sock monster.  The buttons are there to help get the placement of the eyes right.  I think they look really creepy!

Tinker - front view
Tinker - back view
Then it was all about pulling, pinching, stuffing, stretching and moulding first of all using a soft fabric to unify the whole thing.

An ear and the start of his eye sockets
The nose is padded and the base of his mouth is formed using crochet 
Time to unify it all with the penultimate layer of fabric

Starting to look a bit more like a cat
That's as far as I managed to get in the time given and it was obvious that the course should have been longer, with less people and with a restriction on the selection of animal.  

The problem was that there were too many of us, with so many different animals which each needed a different approach.  Poor Donya found herself overstretched which was such a shame as she was a good teacher and I learnt a lot.  On the penultimate evening she spent some time with me making sure that I knew what to do next and I wrote loads of notes.

I'm really looking forward to adding the final layer - I have the most beautiful rust coloured velvet, lot of beads in shades of ginger/rust and some lovely old lace for his white bits.  I'm also looking forward to the embroidery part which I'll use to shade the various sections.  

I don't want it to be a realistic representation of Tinker as that's what photos are for.  Rather, I want to capture the essence of him in all his magnificent gingerness.  This has been made all the more poignant as he may have to undergo more surgery to remove some aggressive fibrosarcomas, like the ones he has had removed previously, so we are very anxious at the moment as at 17 years old there is no guarantee that he will make it through the operation.  The vet has said there isn't a right or wrong thing to do in this case so  we'll be thinking long and hard over the new day or so. 

Tinker inspects my efforts!
I've been searching for just the right eyes which is proving difficult.  I know now exactly what I want - cut glass domes in a vivid green.  I'll find them eventually..............

Here are some photos of some of the other projects that people produced to show their diversity.

Debbie's pug

Debbie's initial construction layer was slightly different to mine in that she used cut up pieces of fabric to form her basic shape.  You can see how she's tapered the snout and started to form an eye socket.

The Mummy?
Here's the little fellow himself.  Isn't he gorgeous?  That tongue is so cute!

Each day Debbie made me smile with new puggy goodies - 

The pug handbag
The pug slipper

The next three photos show the different stages.  The covering and formation of shape, form and muscles.  The addition of the nose and then the decorative stage (Debbie skipped one of the layers I used because there was no need to unify the surface).

The buttons she's used for the eyes came from Donya and they are stunning!  I can't wait to see how he looks when she's finished decorating him as he looks amazing already.

Cindy's little deer

Cindy's construction was quite different.  She had purchased the deer horns complete with a bit of the skull and her dad had mounted it on a metal pole so she could eventually put it on a shield to go against the wall.

As with the rest of us, she had to create the shape of the face but she also had to create the neck.

 Cindy used crochet for some of the construction layers - around the eyes and nose I think.

I'm loving those pretty deer's ears!

Again, I can't wait to see how she chooses to decorate him as I think she's really captured the face beautifully.

The Big table!

Here we see Donya helping Suzanne with the initial construction phase of the camel which consisted of about 3 blankets cut and rolled together - he was massive!  On the other side of the table is Philippa who will forever be known as 'Donkey Lady' as hers was the biggest and most unruly animal head in the group.

On the left we have Philippa's donkey and on the right we have Anne's stag (yes, I know they look like rucksacks made of blankets but this is just the foundation layer!).

I think that Suzanne deserves the medal for determination as she struggled for ages to get the pile of blankets into anything resembling a camel's head. 

But just look at this - she finally captured the essence of him! 

So what's next?

Well, my hunt for eyes will be ongoing and I shall be adding the decorative layer bit by bit over the next few weeks.  It is not something I feel the need to hurry, rather it is something to pick up and play with when the light is good and I have some quality time to devote to it.  Watch this space!

1 comment:

Shan said...

I love the turquoise tiles, and I love Donya's samples.

I'm surprised at how much frustration I feel, reading through and looking at the photos! Man, that art-form would be HARD to do.