7th March 2021: Sunday morning ramblings… An Artist Walks into an Archive…

I’m having trouble focusing. The thing is just too big – I’m trying to think about what the core of this research is. I keep coming back to the same thought – it reads like the start of a bad joke:

An artist walks into an archive…

And then what?

Just what the hell is this about? Think about the title: RE-EMBROIDERING BLACKWORK – what am I doing? I think the thing might be that I AM an artist – is this actually about what an artist does in this situation? How our approach differs from other types of research? (What are these?)

Lets start there (for lack of anywhere else to begin).

What am I doin when I study these objects? My primary thing is very close look – taking photos & making drawings & diagrams. These are my way or studying -drawing is close, detailed looking. I’m interested in the visual, decorative nature of the object. But I’m also looking at technical things – technique, how the embroidery has been made, the types of stitches….

There are my study notes, & I use the term deliberately. These are not the kind of observational drawing where you are trying to capture an exact likeness (photos do this better anyway) but they are accurate, observational sketch-notes – an attempt to record technical & aesthetic details for reference later. (Technical drawings as art? Anni Albers?)

OK. Then what? What are you doing once you’ve gathered this material? Well, I suppose you are thinking – can I make something, new with this? What does it inspire in me? Can I take the stitches & patterns & motifs & ‘style’ (this term needs clarification) and use it in a new way? There is certainly ONE thing I have discovered so far: HISTORICAL BLACKWORK IS MORE COMPLEX THAN THE CONTEMPORARY CONCEPTION OF THE TECHNIQUE. So, there is something I have found & something I want to express in my work – an expanded Blackwork technique for contemporary embroidery.

Tied to this is the EVOLUTION OF BLACKWORK. It’s not a fixed technique but one that went through dramatic changes. This is something I observed in the objects – notable differences in style & technique. The problem is that there are no exact dates for the objects – so how to know if this is a stylistic evolution & not just different style of Blackwork that were used concurrently?

There is a sort of accepted idea that the style DID change from the geometric infills to the later speckle stitch (SN has a theory about it reacting to changes in print) but nothing detailed. So, alongside looking at the objects, I began looking at portraits. Hundreds of them – scrolling through digital image archives & saving copies of any that looked like they might show Blackwork. I wonder it there is a term for this type of visual dynamite fishing?! – Is this actually a research method? There’s nothing particularly systematic about how I went about it – I just looked at as many painting as I could through online searches… but I gathered enough images & begin to see similarities in style & application that corresponded to the dates of the paintings – meaning I could see that a particular style/application was used & fashionable at a particular time. Not only that, I noticed that when I placed the portraits chronologically, I didn’t just see different styles but how these changes were adaptations of the previous one, often responding, to changes in the garments to which Blackwork was applied.

This method of visually comparing many portraits allowed me to get a clear idea of how Blackwork evolved. And comparing them to the objects gives some indication of their possible dates.

This is all interesting & does tell us something about the history of Blackwork – but what does it mean for my research as an ARTIST?

Well, I find it fascinating in itself because I find Blackwork fascinating.

But that’s not really an answer – what am I going to do with this or is this a piece of artist research itself? I suppose, in one sense, knowing how Blackwork changed, shifting in style & application, further ‘enriches’ the technique… I’m not expressing, that right – a more historically informed ‘palette’ of stitches, motifs and styles? I suppose I * could * argue that my reading of the paintings was one informed by a familiarity with the Blackwork technique -as a practicing embroiderer & one who has closely studied the objects? (This speaks to a point I want to make in more detail at some point about the tricky, tangled nature of artist research – its a triple-folded thing: it’s the skills & knowledge you bring, it’s your way of doin the research, AND it’s the outcomes of that research)

I think there is a method here -visual comparison? visual reading? Its about looking for echos – seeing how things are similar & how they are different – inflections & assonances & resonances but in sight instead of sound… (a duck is a duck until its a rabbit – where the hell did that come from?! I’ve been rambling too long, I should probably do something else…)

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