I wanted to share the process of my work with you so I thought a short film might make it more interesting - enjoy!
There comes a point (hopefully) that all of the research and thought comes together and the artworks you need to make become clear. I have already told you that, for their own safety, many of Axbridge Museums documents are held in Taunton. Unfortunately, this means that there are issues with them being seen by the public. This accessibility problem is something I felt it was necessary to resolve quite early on in this project - but the question is how?
During my recent visit to the Somerset Heritage Centre to look at some of the documents I also saw for myself some of the issues with deterioration to the documents which furthers the problems of accessibility - if you can't see the words - how do you know what they are saying? Combine this with the fact they are all in latin, well, then you are starting to see my problem.
So it seems to me that whilst the original words need to be present in the artwork, they shouldn't be very easy to see, unless there is a different way of accessing them - don't worry I am aware that this probably isn't making much sense at the moment - just bear with me.
Pictured at the beginning of this post is a detailed image of a screen print I have created using the wording from the original story of Dustan & King Edward, purposefully difficult to see but I will show you how the story becomes clearer in my next posts.
I have been focusing on a small, slightly unglamorous document held by Axbridge Museum. Dated c1400 the small pamphlet is a chronicle of Axbridge, written in latin which contains an account of King Edmund's escape from death whilst hunting in Cheddar and his subsequent reconciliation with Dunstan, the story itself is dated c1042.
I spent some time examining the document, but couldn't identify the pages that contain the story so I did the next best thing and looked for any words I recognised. I am hoping you will see a latin version of 'Axbridge' on the third line of the image below.
So the question is how do I take these lovely stories and make them more accessible to the public? I will let you know more in my next post.
I spent a fascinating day yesterday visiting the Somerset Heritage Centre to view the Royal Charters that they hold for Axbridge Museum. The staff where extremely helpful and didn't mind unpacking the charters for me (I was terrified I would damage something).
It may be wise to remain impartial when it comes to Kings and Queens as I think that favouritism would be unwise, but I think it is fair to say that Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603) knew how to produce a very impressive charter.
The Charter was a lot bigger that the others and was heavily decorated with drawing of fruit, trees, and animals. You can also make out the portrait of the Elizabeth that is positioned within the E of her name (shown above). I cannot tell you how much skill the artists displayed in the creation of this manuscript. I understand from the Heritage Centre Staff that pencil drawings were permitted prior to inking over the work, but there are no mistakes and the calligraphy is breathtaking.
I have also included a close up of the royal coat of arms featuring the the words 'Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense'. These words are still featured on the royal coat of arms and are the motto of the order of the garter - I have done some research and can tell you this is written in old french and means 'shamed be (the person) who thinks evil of it' although there seem to be several slight variations on the translation but they all mean the same.
If you want to see a modern version look on the front of your passport!
I am scratching my head a little over the corrosion that oak gall ink causes to paper. I have already mentioned the metaphor between the document being a container of memories and the subsequent damage being similar to forgetting. However, what I am really struggling with is - how I can damage paper in a few weeks to speed up corrosion that took hundreds of years - it might be a long day!
During this project I have been struck by the paradox of collecting facts/memories for hundreds of years then locking them away to preserve them. However, as the museum owns a large number of extremely old documents the only way to keep them safe is to keep them off site at the Somerset Archives Offices - it's a a quandary for any museum.
Memory and its preservation has long since been a source of fascination in my work. To me, there seems huge links between the preservation of historical documents and our own process of remembering and forgetting. . I have explored this further with the kind help of Winscombe Art Group who agreed to take part in a workshop about memory.
I led the group through a number of warming up exercises then I asked them to draw something from their childhood. I did warn the group that this can be quite a frustrating task as the hand does not want to cooperate fully with the minds eye but they were all extremely helpful and committed to the task 100%.
When I hold workshops like this I like to ask the artists to discuss their work with me, as I feel the process helps them to unlock their memories further and the group kindly agreed to let me record their memories to share with you. We also allowed perspective to be bent a little and colour to only be used if it was remembered, not guessed.
The film that follows is only the memories of one of the group members. However, I have chosen this recording as you can hear frustration several times in the speakers voice when she tries to place her memories on the page. Interestingly if the memories had been recorded at the time of their creation it would, of course, have been much easier to capture a likeness, as in the case of the Axbridge Manuscripts. So the images have diminished over time and, as the number of people who share them reduces, access to them also diminishes - brain or paper, its a container of amazing things!
John very kindly invited me to look at some of the old manuscripts he had collected from the Taunton Records Office last week, which was a real treat.
There are many beautiful scripts to look at but one had a series of fine drawings illustrating the text. However, try as I might I couldn't work out what the strange plant, shown above was. As usual John was full of information and told me that the document was a Royal Charter issued by Queen Mary and King Philip II. The strange plant is a pomegranate which was used to illustrate King Phillip II links to Spain.
All of this got me thinking about some of the research I have been doing into ink making. Historically pomegranate was used to make ink for manuscripts, I believe the British Museum has several examples. However, I would think pomegranate was hard to come by so whether any of the Axbridge Museum documents are made using pomegranate ink, I am afraid I do not know. But, I did think that in honour of King Phillip of Spain sending his charter to Axbridge I should try making a batch, and see how it compares to the more traditional inks - I will let you know how that goes.
I spent most of yesterday making various forms of ink which was really rewarding, I have always enjoyed making my own artist materials, it's a good way to really understand the media you are working with and it gives me thinking time to develop the project.
Unfortunately the afternoon did not go so well as, after curing a selection of feathers, I tried cutting the quill pens, which was tricky. However, the final disaster was trying to write with them, they were too weak - and my dogs kept stealing them!
Whilst doing a bit of research, to discover where I was going wrong, I found the quote below, which I think sums up perfectly my thoughts every time I look at the museum's manuscripts.
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."
[Carl Sagan. Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory (1980)]”
I was extremely lucky to be invited to attend the leavers ceremony at the Town Hall. John had requested a number of the Museum's manuscripts from the Archives Office and they were available for the children to see (and me to photograph).
Seeing the documents close up has really made me focus upon how they were created and to that end I have started a number of experiments of the making of oak gall ink, lamp black ink and walnut ink, details of which I will post in the tutorials section soon.
I am trying to use this blog to give you an idea of my process, which can sometimes be difficult to vocalise, so bear with me.
During past projects I would sometimes read something or meet someone and it would be almost like divine intervention. However, if I am really truthful I think that one of the great things about working on a project of this nature is that you can really open yourself up to ideas and immerse yourself in your thoughts. Rather than divine intervention breakthroughs actually come from a greater awareness or paying attention, to put it simply.
I know many artists who use sketchbooks like its their right arm but for me I have never really got on with writing my thoughts and ideas down in a traditional way. It might be a dyslexia/visual thinking thing or maybe its just the way I do things but I like to keep all the thoughts and ideas in my head, sort of floating around. Although, and this might sound a bit crazy, I can visualise them all and I keep each topic separate, a bit like a huge mind map in my head. If I am lucky, they will eventually start to join up and you get a breakthrough, its a bit like matching socks.
I have had a couple of weeks with lots of ideas floating about. Mostly, I keep coming back to the similarities of the manuscripts, holding all those stories, memories, information etc and the process of human memory. But, I can't quite get to the bottom this idea and I am still researching like crazy.
On Tuesday I left my reading on the dangers of gall ink destroying manuscripts and all my floating thoughts to join John Page at the Town Hall for a recording. But, as we went in the hall we met the local Alzheimers Society Singing for the Brain group (You may have heard that even when the brain has been badly affected by Alzheimers the words of songs remain preserved by the musical pathways).
The meeting immediately reminded me of when I was still at college I had a Saturday job working in a local old peoples home. There was one lady who couldn't talk and would spend most of the day walking around seemingly unaware of her surroundings and making noises but not forming words. She was a very gentle soul and seemed quite happy, so we would busy ourselves caring for the residents around her and getting on with the day. But, every now and then she would stand in the middle of the day room and sing opera, and it sounded amazing.
Everything would stop as we all listened to her beautiful soprano voice and then she would finish and resume her wandering and we would return to our work. Apparently she had been an opera singer when she was young and I still marvel at not only all of the words and tunes that were still with her but the extreme joy she received and passed to us in those few moments. In telling you this story I have also realised that of all the people I cared for I can still remember her name and see her face yet it was many years ago and we never exchanged a single word.
So there is my lightbulb moment. My joining up of ideas. To me there exists a very obvious metaphor between the page and the brain. Our memories are written across the pages though over time some of those words may get damaged but, it can only take a few of those words that remain to spark a new memory of its own - I will share a bit more about that next time.
The work created for the Muse project will remain in the Museum until 31st October and can be seen from 1pm-4pm daily.
Andrea Oke is a Somerset based artist who is fascinated by human behaviour and its links to memory. For more information please to to my website