A Year with Sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon
It was formed using my ‘framework’ method. In much of my work, this framework, which is made by curling and knotting the willow into layers, is very densely woven in – creating a thick surface layer. Murmuration, however, existed entirely of many layers of framework, with each section or ‘panel’, as I refer to them, twisted and tied into position. This means the finished work had willow curls and knots running right through it, like a thicket – a billowing mass or cloud of thousands and thousands of hand-tied knots. There is a subtle language in the way the material is used, no curl or knot is identical and each supports the unity of the cloud. My idea was to create a form that had a sense of flux, blur and movement, feeling akin to the instinctive turns and mesmerising motion of a starling murmuration.
The panels were made largely by an enthusiastic group of thirty-five volunteers, coordinated by the staff at the Holburne Museum. I then assembled each panel and worked on it myself on the façade from the scaffold which was erected across the front of the building. This process took approximately four weeks.
My Diary Entries
1st June 2015
First day on site and I’m full of energy. The scaffold is up. It is quite immense really and overshadows this beautiful landmark building, so I’m filled, as usual, with a mild fear. Confidence accompanies that fear in time but there’s nothing as daunting as the beginning of a project. I’m keen to meet the volunteer team again. The weather however is not being kind, we’ve all been on the lawn blasted by cold winds and rain whilst reviewing the required techniques. The volunteers in their wet weather gear seem cheerful and keen to get started and I’m deeply grateful. It’s a gift to have their support, especially under the dark clouds. I’m accompanied onto the balcony and the scaffold boards by museum staff and I begin to feel quite different. Nerves fall away a little and although my working position is vastly exposed, it’s also a place I can make home for the next few weeks. I know it will become wonderfully familiar and that I’ll become accustomed to the ebb and flow of the passing traffic. Feeling the wooden boards beneath my feet on the scaffold is reassuring. They’re not quite straight and move slightly and clap and bang when I walk across them – I’ll get used to that too. The museum have kindly accommodated me in a flat over the road, so I can view the work long after the gates have shut. Gorgeous, gorgeous Bath…
3rd June 2015
Now I’m getting used to the height of the ladder. Striding about on the big boards on the scaffolding is no worry but climbing the high ladder and having to step left into the safety gate of the scaffold barrier gives me a strong rush of adrenaline. I feel rather self-conscious, but right now anybody who might be curious will just assume that building work is taking place and I feel apologetic about that – it’s a beautiful building, currently covered by obstructive scaffold lines.
I’m really enjoying sitting with the volunteers on the lawn and working with them, as I’m trying to accumulate enough sections to begin the work. Each section, or ‘panel’, is about a metre wide and I require hundreds. Everybody is keen to tot up the number of sections they have made, even hourly, and the quality of each panel is superb – they’re highly conscientious and productive, this team! Whenever I’m making a piece, I always remember the music I was listening to when I was working on particular areas, like an invisible surface layer of texture to the whole piece, but in this instance, it’s the conversations between people that I’ll remember. It’s lovely to witness how much peace and contentment goes into the work through the volunteer group, like having a big pomander of happiness infusing every fibre.
5th June 2015
Alastair Rzeznicki of Sunflower Films has been here this week filming and encouraging me to describe the project to camera. I don’t know he’s there most of the time, which is a blessing. His cheery face emerges above the scaffold boards from time to time and always at a good moment. He is commissioned by the museum to capture the making of the work so it looks as though there will be a good record of the entire project. Summer is now upon us and I’m regretting having no shorts, it is utterly roasting up here. Smiling faces thoughtfully hand me jugs of water through the balcony at intervals, while the volunteers are working in sultry sunshine on the lawn below.
9th June 2015
I now regularly hear eager volunteers shouting up to me with their bundles of panels and when I see them looking up and clutching their labours, they are like Mr Messy from The Mr Men children’s books – this makes us laugh! I hear their shouts (most of the time) then I throw down a long rope, asking them to tether their panels to it and I haul them up. It genuinely feels like hauling in a catch. They’re quite heavy and I have to pull hard on the rope to lift them on to the scaffold, flinging them over the inside of the rails, releasing them onto the ‘deck’ of the scaffolding boards. All freshly made, the hundreds of tied willow curls in the pile each have a gloss to them. The pile lies as a big, matted arrangement of trip hazards until I work them in, so swift arrangement or storage is vital. Too many panels at one time and I’m in serious danger of catching my foot in one of their hundreds of loops, so I have to curb the number of stored panels ‘on deck’ or arrange for storage at ground level. Great, we are ahead of schedule.
12th June 2015
I’m nervous because my every move is massively exposed, but I do love zoning out and staring up Great Pulteney Street. It is a wonderful to see from this viewpoint. I’m drawn to the haze and regularity of the patches of black ironwork railings at the entrance to each house that nestle at the edges of this wide and elegant street.
The sun is hot! I’m currently working into the ironwork at the front of the balcony and the lead that covers the stonework below is too hot to sit on, I am shimmying around those areas until the evening.
Each day I’m concentrating on detail, then outline. The motion of tying knots in willow, tying hundreds of sections into place is repetitive; curving and twisting them each time, making a dense, layered mass. I’m also trying to keep a sense of the overall vision, as it’s easy to get absorbed in the detail and the pleasingly rhythmic state of making can run away with itself. Sometimes it’s quite uncomfortable to stop the rhythm and start assessing the success or otherwise of certain curves. The work needs to be constantly viewed from all angles, and some wringing of hands may ensue. It also needs to be continually drawn out again and again, sometimes on paper, sometimes with my hand in the air . I have to see where each swell should go and then this has to be locked into position in my head. Observation has to happen. Listening to music while I work keeps me focused too. It’s a maddeningly self-conscious experience sometimes to work on view for all to see. Of course, most people who pass by probably don’t care, but revealing work that is in the process of being made is crippling sometimes – it’s not ready yet! Having work on a plinth and unveiling it when it is absolutely complete is a luxury I’d like – but can’t have. To regain the feeling of the privacy of the studio, I stop making and begin drawing in my sketchbook. A proven trick of mine to both recapture a notion of privacy and keep track of the growing curves – both are vital.
17th June 2015
I’ve been able to work much later today, as there was an event this evening. Working into the evening is a huge luxury, the sun has been so, so hot in the afternoon and in the evening it’s balmy and calm up here, giving me a real peak of energy. The stone in the building is warm to touch and I just feel extremely lucky to be able to spend time here. I walk down Great Pultney Street regularly now to see the work as there are more curves to view from a distance and analyse every day. The mass is building, the blur is extending and the cloud is showing momentum now.
Just slowly closed the door on the flat I’m staying in, staring at the view of the work from the door, trying to eye up every curve…
June 25th 2015
Completion! In recent days I have effectively sealed myself out of the balcony area, finally being locked out for the last time and can now see inside the haze of it all from the peaceful interior of the museum. It is suitably otherworldly to stare through the elegant sash windows into this vast thicket that comes right up to the glass and see the movement of the tour buses and taxis outside through the willow. The texture of the work feels like the rusted inner coils of a vast mattress, or a formed, soft-looking cloud of weightless, but unpredictable barbed wire.
This moving cloud of momentum, made by many hands seems to have been frozen briefly in time, as if on temporary pause, with a hum of voices, a language of materials and human connections within.
Funded by WWF-UK, Course, was part of the Watershed exhibition at Hall Place beside the River Cray at Bexley Heritage, Kent which included work by Gavin Turk, Tania Kovats and Martin Parr. Course was very dense, being made from a hand-tied willow framework woven into with thousands of sticks (fig.3). It was created from a willow variety called Dicky Meadows and was made during August and September 2015. A short film by Steve Hickey shows the work being created.
My Diary Entries
18th August 2015
The first of two days of sketching. I began by drawing the geese. It’s essential for me to draw a site to gain familiarity with it and a kind of foothold. The movements of the geese seem to be a good place to start, or at least, they’re a good warm-up exercise. Animals are never the subject-matter of my work, not figuratively – ever, but I do enjoy the form of geese. Their bodies are so full and firm and smooth and strong. They stand on such wonderful big feet with a graceful weightiness.Momentarily, they often pause and look to one side, just long enough for me to draw the poise of their full chests and the fold and flow of their stored wings. So, a bit of whimsy is expended on some drawings of geese and then I’m away, sufficiently warmed up to begin my sketchbook.
20th August 2015
I like the rhythms and noise of the birds, when there is nobody around, we (the geese and I) seem content with our steady outdoor pursuits, although I beat them to it on arrival time. The geese seem to fly in every morning about 9.30am in an orchestrated, procedural way. An occasional argument between two or three birds is sometimes noisily resolved with some chasing and pulling of tail feathers, then they all seem to begin their grass-inspecting waddle or they drop into the stream and generally turn about looking gracefully sculptural.
25th August 2015
Robert, my husband, is here, bringing me tea and watching and helping. He seems to understand the rhythm and application of the materials well. He is able to understand my lines on paper and how they should translate into volume. I got into a good working rhythm today, quite a relief as yesterday felt a bit creatively stilted. Occasionally some days don’t seem to have the right working vibes and it’s such a relief when a new day starts and things fall into place. I don’t really know what changes that make one day more successful than another; sometimes it feels like trying to swim in treacle and other days it feels like swimming with the current. Anyway, I’m having a ‘swimming with the current’ day and I’m reminded that some of the happiest moments in life are the quiet days of active work, accompanied by birdsong and a warm inner smile. A few days ago, some people from a local group, Centrepieces, came to see me and three art students too. Each of them was able to assist for a while with the making of an area of the framework. It’s always great to watch people become absorbed in the knotting and handling of the material. Conversations still happen between those involved, but it’s always with head down and concentration fixed on the hands – great to witness.
27th August 2015
The crucial element of the work here is the curve; the winding nature of it, the silken, serpentine feel and the descent towards the water. The curve has been repeated through the pages of the sketchbook in many drawn versions, but the best means to get the right curve seems to be in the stream. I’ve been holding a willow stick into the stream and am able to use the flex of the willow and the current of the water against it to ‘draw’ the curve perfectly with the tip of the willow. Obviously the drawn line lasts but a second, but the film maker, Steve Hickey seems delighted with this and so it seems it will become a part of the film. It is very useful for me to repeat this movement in the water over and over, but may seem a little strange for wandering visitors to witness. My alternative stance on working out a curve is to stand in front of a site, shut one eye and then draw the curve in the air upon the view with my finger; so drawing in the water is at least less odd than that.
1st September 2015
Tremendous amounts of rain today. I am totally encased in waterproofs and it still gets in down my sleeves. Robert is here and is drenched too, but as ever, I quite like it. Things are really peaceful when it rains, people are absent and there’s a great sense of calm. It’s as though nothing much is happening in the outside world, other than bad weather, which leaves a wonderful vacant void to make quiet progress. Having a hood up and tied taut around the face is strangely pleasing. Robert and I can hardly hear each other through our hoods and the noise of the rain shaking the leaves of the huge tree above us, but the fact that we need to shout to each other makes us laugh. The chalk stream rises in height throughout the day and objects start to appear in the grass at the edge; a ping-pong ball, various plastic bottles and pieces of broken sports equipment. I’ve made enough progress today for the stream to meet the work; high, grass-strewn water pools around the unfinished raw ends of the extending form. Tomorrow will be a waders day (fig.4).
3rd September 2015
The last couple of days I’ve been in the stream in waders. Such a great aspect of the working process. Climbing into the water is enjoyable, feeling the weight of the water compress against the waders and my body is a weird but exciting sensation, very different from getting into water in other ways. The stream comes up to my waist, which is really exhilarating. I actually want to walk from this side of the stream to the other, but it gets a bit soft in the middle of the stream bed and I chicken out. Being able to weave the sticks into the water (and crucially, under the water) is great and means that I have to crouch down in the stream. Thankfully the heavy rain of recent days has stopped and today my arms are free of heavy waterproofs.
5th September 2015
A clear, warm day to finish the work. I’m able to introduce the work to passers-by with Caroline, Chief Executive here at Hall Place. The school holidays are almost over and the sense of sadness and excitement is quite palpable in the younger children. It’s good to distract them with this strange object in their locality. Some visitors have returned to see the work after several visits to the various stages of construction and others are bemused to witness this strange new mass for the first time. Some people are keen to show their dislike for this weird new form that has appeared on their way to the tearoom. Many pass by without interest, but some people really do engage and get lost just for a moment in the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the work – an exhilarating encounter.
My work here is about the flow of the stream; its turns through the land, its energies and encounters, areas of resistance to push against and open shallow lands, the things it gathers on the way, and its onward journey. I hope abstractly to raise perception of the life of this precious stream, where it has come from and where it is going.
Along the Lines of Happiness: Milan Design Week
From 12 -17 April 2016, I found myself in the fortunate position of creating an artwork for Milan Design Week with award-winning furniture maker, Sebastian Cox for the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC). My previous experiences of working in public proved valuable, as Sebastian and I, together with his team, were a deliberate live attraction at the Milan Design Week, purposefully constructing our work in front of hundreds of circling visitors. Creating work in public sometimes becomes an essential element of my practice and although rarely happening intentionally, it is a happy realisation that the process potentially offers something of value to viewers.
Our experience in Milan involved the creation of a huge sculptural form that grew everyday within the architecturally impressive and historic setting of Porticato Largo Richini at University Estatale of Milan. The work entitled Along the Lines of Happiness evolved from our previous collaboration on The Invisible Store of Happiness in 2015, initiated by AHEC, which was exhibited at Clerkenwell Design Week. We met designer, Ron Arad, whose work was exhibited next to ours and witnessed the mounting excitement as the event took shape across the whole location.
Invited to install this new work as part of Interni’s Open Borders, we decided to develop ideas coming out of The Invisible Store of Happiness, focusing on the making process and revealing the technique to passers-by. The installation was designed to explore the potential of under-used American Hardwoods – Soft Maple, Cherry and Red Oak. We used steam to bend the wood and constructed our work by hand, partly as a performance, constantly handling wet American Red Oak and twisting and easing it into a crafted structure. It was a great benefit to our creativity to be given the chance to experiment with the materials and then have the chance to express their characteristics within the finished form.
It was such a unique atmosphere to work in, with Italian voices drifting past and warm light streaming into the portico. Our individual viewpoints were of the materials, the growing structure and the sun falling on the ancient stonework; but our working line of sight always included glimpses of the colour and gloss of shoes, shoulders sculptured in fabric, and intrigued, quizzical eyes suddenly appearing between the wooden curves. We became accustomed to this quite quickly and viewers seemed genuinely refreshed to see something actually being made by hand in front of them.
Our huge structure was immediately visible as viewers turned a corner into the long portico, but they also saw the dust on our knees from kneeling and the secateurs in our pockets. They saw the look of concentration on our faces as the strands of oak were twisted into flowing form and the working drawings on our workbench. The gentle creak of the twisting wood was sometimes audible beside the ‘clack clack’ of the fanning, loose strands as they were handled into shape. We were open for all to see and the lack of barriers brought a freedom that was widely felt.
I prize privacy, but there is something rewarding about the adventure of making in public. It is an adventure, to form one’s ideas and create the work itself in front of observing eyes.
Main image: Laura Ellen Bacon, Murmuration detail, 2015, Flanders Red Willow, façade, Holburne Museum, Bath (photo: Nick Smith, courtesy of Holburne Museum, Bath)