Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Monday 30 July 2007

Across the Great Fen – Cambridge Open Studios 2007 : weekend 4

On Saturday we decided to visit some of the studios we hadn't seen before, and as it was such a glorious day we chose to drive to the north of Cambridgeshire and the village of Prickwillow near Ely, where there were four studios open. We approached Prickwillow via the Great Fen Road, coming down from the high ground (7 metres above sea level - you have to adjust to a different scale in the fens, the landscape consists of subtle changes of level and the sky dominates the views) we drove between the fields of black soil planted with lettuces, onions, potatoes, sugar beet and wheat, the road just higher than the fields, we were at sea level or below, 400 years ago water covered this land with only small low islands and ridges remaining dry. Today the water is channelled in a grid of deep dykes around the fields and into larger lodes and levels then into the rivers and out to the North Sea, pumping engines constantly working to keep the fertile land dry.

Prickwillow is at a junction of roads, dykes and the River Lark; the old Victorian steam powered pumping engine house is now The Fen Drainage Museum. The scene was bright and peaceful, the delicate man-made balance of water and land was tranquil today and in the sky a constant procession of fluffy white clouds were a gentle reminder that nature could take control.
We visited a pottery studio and learnt that by using the ash from different species of tree subtle colours could be created - my favourite was the walnut ash which gave the glaze a soft blush of pinky mauve. We went on to a sunny coservatory where we chatted to an illustrator, painter and printmaker whose use of colour and line reflected those in the surrounding landscapes; by contrast the next studio was a stunning modernist house/studio the huge windows shaded on the outside so that inside it was cool and airy, no wonder the artist was inspired by fen skies! Sharing this studio was a botanical artist who also worked in collage and created beautiful textured works inspired by bark and leaves. Our final destination was another surprise and in another amazing modern building, still being constructed this iron clad house looked out across the fields with a constantly changing skyscape, the artworks on display were inspired by forces of nature - rocks, fire and water in Iceland and the air, water and black earth outside the window.
It was the final weekend for Cambridge Open Studios 2007, but there will be exhibitions and events leading up to Christmas and then it will be time to prepare for COS 2008! The Open Studios yellow guide book is a directory of all the artists who took part this year, all the artists are happy to be contacted about their work whatever the time of year.


This is one reason why making space in the garden for wildlife is so important and special - to be able to witness the moment a dragonfly emerges from the skin of the nymph. It takes off it's old clothes - a diving suit complete with transparent eye shields - and is transformed into a exquisitely beautiful flying insect. I have a collection of nine perfect nymphal cases on a shelf in my studio, they remind me that our modest pond is key to the life cycle of these beautiful insects and their amazing transformation from monsters of the deep to brightly coloured masters of flight.

Saturday 28 July 2007

A glorious summer morning - at last!

This morning the sky is clear and bright blue, the light sparkling on leaves and shoots and fruit - it promises to be a glorious summer day at long last. In the vegetable garden the early morning sun was highlighting the shoots of the squash plants - tendrils reached forward and shone as if illuminated from within.

Growing on the wall a verbascum reached high against the brilliant blue of the sky - sunshine yellow flowers and silver velvet leaves.

The hedge hangs heavy with the fruit of the wild plums (bullaces) each tree has fruit slightly different in colour and flavour.

And the magnificent hollyhocks. Ever since we moved here I had wanted hollyhocks in the garden, they are the quintessential Suffolk cottage garden flower - I bought a packet of seeds, I slipped seed into my pockets from pathside plants we passed on country walks and scattered them in a corner of the vegetable garden next to the red brick wall. Despite the unseasonal weather this summer the hollyhocks have been outstanding, tall and strong, covered with large richly coloured flowers.

And today we have more dragonflies - the nymphs just emerging from the water and starting to crawl up the iris leaves at the pond edge. To transform into huge winged dragonflies and fly in the sunshine.

High-rise strawberries

Last night we were standing by the pond, wondering if tomorrow more dragonflies would emerge. "Look - strawberries!" "Where?". I looked in the tangle of geraniums and sedges vaguely remembering a seedling strawberry plant that I'd seen while clearing the border early in the year. "Not there, higher" - I looked across at the variegated holly and the young walnut tree, confused. "No, much higher". And there it was - an alpine strawberry growing on the top of the high red brick wall, little bright red, heart shaped fruit dangling on wiry stems. Accidental perfection!

Tuesday 24 July 2007

Common ground

Since starting Purple Podded Peas in March this year I've 'met' lots of fellow bloggers - all very different but they have one thing in common: they have an infectious passion about what they do. The best bloggers are generous with their enthusiasm and the links they have to other blogs and web sites take you on an enjoyable mystery tour spanning the globe.

So here are some of my current favourites . . .

Book The Cook is Masterchef 2007 finalist David Hall's blog - if you share David's love of good fresh ingredients cooked simply this is for you - he champions all that's good about British food (with a little help from his daughter Cerys). So I was thrilled when Purple Podded Peas was able to share with David the delights of red dessert gooseberries.

Daughter of the Soil aka folk musician Rebsie Fairholm writes about her adventures in 'experimental horticulture'. She shares my passion for heritage vegetables of all kinds and her blog follows her quest to breed the ultimate purple podded pea. In the past week she has also chronicled the tragedy of the 'great flood' currently engulfing the west of England.

The Cottage Smallholder is a diary charting the author's 'haphazard journey towards self sufficiency and beyond'. You'll find an eclectic mix of recipes, gardening advice, hedgerow foraging and (my personal favourite theme) the progress of the 'Interblog Guinea Fowl Breeding event'. I stumbled across this blog while googling for plum chutney recipes to cope with the forthcoming glut of wild plums in our hedge, and I'm hooked. At my Open Studio last Sunday one visitor cheerfully introduced herself "Hello, I'm Fiona - The Cottage Smallholder", it was like a visit from a friend! And she's written about her visit - Fiona, my garden always looks better when the sun is shining!

Musings of a Textile Itinerant by Dijanne Cevaal, an Australian textile artist whose work is full of such colour and richness and texture and pattern it's like walking across the Autralian bush at sunset. She also likes growing veg and cooking - so a virtual visit to her studio on the opposite side of the world is always inspiring - enjoy!

And lastly, not just for cat lovers We three, ginger cats tales is the magical story of three ginger cats living with 'she who paints' aka illustrator Jackie Morris. Sit down with a cup of tea and roam the wild celtic cliff top paths of St Davids in Wales with the ginger cats as your guides - the photographs are beautiful.

Monday 23 July 2007

The dragonfly pond

This is our "Dragonfly Pond" - it has a chainsaw sculpture of a dragonfly in the plants around the shallow pond; but also it is a breeding place for at least three species of dragonfly. This morning I was inspecting the area where the hens had redesigned the pond edge and was considering what needed to be done to clear some of the vegetation, when I spotted an adult dragonfly emerging from its nymphal cast. In summer we often find the empty casts on the iris leaves and sometimes see newly emerged dragonflies resting in the sunshine - but we have rarely witnessed one actually emerging. I ran back to the studio for my camera and stepped carefully on the rocks dividing the shallow pond from the deeper section, it was then I saw not just one but three dragonflies all just emerging! Their wings were still folded together above the body and the bodies looked pale and delicate.

I returned a few hours later, one of the dragonflies had opened its transparent wings which were quivering slightly and the colour of the body was darker. I think this is a female Southern Hawker dragonfly (but I'm not an expert - so please correct me if I've got that wrong).

Thank you for visiting – Cambridge Open Studios 2007 : weekend 3

The studio seems very quiet this morning - I really enjoyed meeting everyone who visited, and I always learn things from the observations about my work. A few years ago a friend from the village who is a fashion designer pointed out little shapes and repeating patterns which recur in my prints, paintings and sketches. This year another neighbour (and hen-keeping enthusiast) observed that the background pattern in the Buff Orpington Hen print was a negative image of the background pattern plate used in the mix-n-match mini-prints – I really hadn't noticed! But I'm delighted, the little framed prints make perfect companions to the Buff Orpington Hen.

I sketched two more of our Maran hens for mini-prints, drawing directly onto a small block is great fun and the block is soon cut. I'm looking forward to adding to the series. All the new prints will soon be on the Gallery page of my web site and unframed prints can be ordered by post.

Saturday 21 July 2007

Mix-n-match mini-prints - part 2

Last weekend I started work on a set of small blocks to use for trying out various inking techniques. Yesterday I printed three versions of the Maran Coucou hen block: the first version uses the hen block on its own with dark grey, pale pink and red ink applied with a sponge and small brushes. Here is the result . . .

For the second version I inked the patterned block and then masked out the area under the hen. The hen block is then printed over the pattern. The third version has a lightly printed background of mottled light grey under the pattern - this gives softer grey tones under the dark grey of the hen. And there's just time to frame some of the prints before my studio opens at 11am.

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Pink and orange and yellow and red – I can grow a rainbow . . .

If you want to add some vibrant colour to your garden grow some Rainbow Chard - and it tastes good too! I couldn't resist picking some to add to a risottto last night, although they will grow a lot bigger if I wait for a few weeks. They are two vegetables in one: cut the green leaf off the central coloured stalk and chop and use like spinach; cut the stalk up and cook as you would asparagus. Combine the leaves and stalks in the same dish - a quiche, pasta, risotto - and you get the full chard experience.

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Cranberry beans and red gooseberries

Yesterday was very unusual - it wasn't raining and I had time to do some gardening. Over the past month or so the heavy rain storms have transformed the well-ordered plot into a jungle of plants that have gone to seed and weeds.

I discovered that the dwarf french beans Vermont Cranberry were ready for picking. This was one of my selected vegetables from the Heritage Seed Library catalogue - nine plants grew from the ten beautiful cranberry red cream flecked beans. Why do I select a particular variety? I like unusual coloured varieties; unusual names; and vegetables with an interesting history. Vermont Cranberry is an American heirloom bean form New England, dating back to 1876. I just noticed that the HSL catalogue mentions "very attractive red flowers" but the flowers on my plants were cream!?

Now for the taste test, looks and a good story are all very well but I won't save the seed for next year if it's not worth it's place on the plate! The green beans were difficult to spot among the leaves, so I was surprised how many I picked and some looked as though they may be too mature for eating as green beans, but the cooked beans were very tender and a gorgeous emerald green colour - top marks. The catalogue claims "a unique sweet taste" and I agree, not a normal green bean flavour - more delicate and sweeter. Definitely one to save seed from. I dressed the cooked beans with a little cold-pressed rape-seed oil and chopped savoury and black pepper - delicious!

We've two varieties of gooseberry in the garden, Invicta - a green cooking gooseberry which has a slight mildew resistance; and Whinhams Industry - a red dessert gooseberry which in previous years has suffered so badly with mildew that we have considered digging it up. I chose it because the fruit was burgundy red; it has a great name; and I'd never grown dessert gooseberries before. Well this year we've had some pretty unseasonal weather which has taken it's toll of the crops (onions and potatoes especially) but the soft fruit has been magnificent - strawberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, green gooseberries, and now the red dessert gooseberries! What fantastic looking berries and they taste like gooseberry slightly sweetened with honey, like a ripe kiwi-fruit in tartness - Whinhams Industry has earned its place in the garden at last.

Monday 16 July 2007

Mix-n-match mini-prints - part 1

Here's another good outcome of the studio tidy-up - I found lots of small off-cuts of lino and decided that I should use them for some experiments on a small scale, and they would be perfect to have as "work in progress" over the Cambridge Open Studios weekends. I usually plan a print in detail before I start cutting, with the mini-prints I would try out various techniques I'd gleaned from looking at other printmakers work.

I chose two pieces of lino and cut them to exactly the same size 10 x 13cm. On one block I cut little lens or leaf shapes - subconsciously this shape recurs over and over in my pictures, it seems to have become my signature. Between the little "leaves" I cut swirling lines like the brush marks in a sky painted by Van Gogh.

I printed the plain block in a pale grey, dabbing the ink onto the block with a sponge (it was too close to opening time on Sunday to get out the sheet of glass and roller, besides it was only a tiny block). I pressed the paper onto the block using the palm of my hand. The result was a texture like lichen on old stonework.

I inked the patterned block with pale green and positioned the block exactly over the now dry grey mottled background. This time I pressed the paper against the block with the baren - to achieve a more definite impression. And here's the result . . .

On an even smaller lino block I did a little pencil sketch of one of our Maran Cocou hens who was standing by the studio door. I don't usually sketch straight onto the block as the result will be a mirror image and I like to visualize how the finished print will look. It was fun to start cutting the 'hen' block before I had any real plans for how I'm going to use it - but there are lots of possibilities. These are the start of my mix-n-match mini-prints series.

Open to visitors – Cambridge Open Studios 2007 : weekend 2

11 o'clock Saturday morning and I was ready to display the Cambridge Open Studios' yellow flag and open my studio door to visitors. There's a school of thought that says artists taking part in "open studios" shouldn't tidy their workspace as it gives a false impression to visitors – but I like to display my work well, so I did give the studio a spring clean. Not just for visitors - I like it tidied up - the fact the studio was to be open to the public was the catalyst which made me get down to sorting things out.

So for all of you who can't get along to the open days, here is my desk where I cut the blocks and do the printing.

And this is my giant plan chest for storing paper and finished prints, on the top is my toolbox, inks. Also displayed on the plan chest are sketchbooks, working drawings and trial prints.

The pictures on the walls are two ink paintings of coleus seedlings: Variegations 1 and 2; and a selection of watercolour sketches and photographs of the Western Isles from our holiday last September - beaches on the west coast of South and North Uist, studies of colours and textures. I am pleased that they are now on display - I'm sure having them on view will inspire some new work. Tidying up is not just for the benefit of visitors - it is good for the creative process too.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

Artists and their studios – Cambridge Open Studios 2007 : weekend 1

Cambridge Open Sudios 2007 is now underway - there are studios open during 4 weekends in July. As my studio isn't open until this Saturday, I took the opportunity to visit other artists' studios. As well as seeing the finished work and the all the working sketches, tools and materials, I find it fascinating to see the buildings where people have their work space. On Sunday I visited a stunning modern artists house/studio, a collection of studios in a warren like building tucked away from "tourist-Cambridge", a redundant church at the end of a shady lane off one of the city's busiest roads, a little gallery in a village high street and a wooden summer house in a garden overlooking cornfields.

My studio was once a Victorian billiard hall, a retreat for the men while the ladies chatted and drank tea. The hall is now divided into smaller rooms, and the glazed porch which overlooked the croquet lawn is now a little corridor behind by studio - I've hung the walls with digital illustrations from the series of GCSE History books I have been working on. There were so many pictures I thought this way of displaying them will show visitors the quantity and diversity of images. A check through my job-sheets confirmed there were 367 pictures which had taken 600 hours work.

Summer evenings in the garden

At last we've got some summer weather, warm enough to eat dinner outside in the garden and afterwards to spend some time tidying up the tangled vegetation after the recent storms. The hens are allowed to venture through the green gate in the wall and spend the evening in the vegetable garden and under the fruit trees. There aren't any young seedlings to peck and there are plenty of slugs and bugs to eat. They are in hen-heaven!

Ruby has discovered blackcurrants and picked lots for her supper! She also discovered the patch of sorrel and called the others to join her - they shredded the leaves in a frenzy of pecking. Blackcurrants and sorrel converted into eggs!

The french beans and courgettes will soon be ready to pick. These beans are a dwarf french bean from the Heritage Seed Library called Vermont Cranberry from New England. The dried beans were beautiful - cranberry red with cream flecks. I'll sample some of the green beans soon to see if they are a good variety to save seed from for a larger crop next year.

I grow the Green Bush courgettes on little mounds of soil surrounded with large stones, this makes it easy to water the plant in dry weather (not something I've had to do lately!) The leaves are splashed with silver patterns which shine in the sun. I'll have to keep a check on those little courgettes - in a week they'll be marrows!

Sunday 8 July 2007

The studio assistants

Cats are the perfect artist's pet. They don't demand attention or walkies and they are perfect for lightening the mood when deadlines and artist's block are making the studio atmosphere tense. My studio assistants are Chester and Chloe, brother and sister and like chalk and cheese in character.

Chester is a gorgeous ginger boy with amber eyes and the most whiskery whiskers I've ever seen on a cat. The observant among you will have noticed that Chester's tail is not all that a cat's tail should be, and thereby hangs a tale...
A month ago Chester had some territorial disputes with a neighbourhood cat and the result was some very nasty bites on his tail, the vet was consulted and in order to save his tail the end was amputated. His uniquely sculpted tail is pretty stylish I think!

His brindled sister Chloe is more of a gardener's assistant, but she does make an appearance in the studio now and again... to announce that it is raining and to demonstrate how wet her paws are, or to remind me that it's time for supper!

Wednesday 4 July 2007

Peas from purple pods

Last night I picked some of the Purple Podded Peas - the pods were plump and had a beautiful texture like expensive Italian leather. Inside the peas were tightly packed in a neat row, as the pod is split the peas remain on alternate sides of the pod - neat! I cooked the shelled peas with some pasta to go with a tomato and lamb sauce, they had a soft sweet flavour. The young purple pods picked as mange tout may look cool but to be honest they are a tad stringy (not a good attribute for a mange tout), as mature peas these definitely make the grade. I'll pick a few more to cook, but I'll make sure I save lots to dry to plant next year.

Monday 2 July 2007

Making an impression

The paper is positioned carefully over the inked block, making sure the block will print precisely over the painted backgound. I then use a baren to rub the surface of the paper against the inked block, this is done with a firm pressure but carefully so the paper remains exactly in position.

... And then it's time to peel the paper off the block - it one confident movement so there is no smudging. I make a note of the order the prints are made so I can keep them in the same order when writing the edition numbers on them, and leave them to dry.

The stickiness of the ink

I apply the ink to the cut lino block with a roller - the ink is rolled onto a sheet of glass to load the roller and to judge its stickiness. This is so hard to describe in words, but I judge whether the stickiness is just right by the sound that the roller makes as it rolls across the inked glass; and the friction between roller and the glass.

The ink is then rolled evenly on the block. Too dry and it won't cover the surface evenly and will be patchy when transferred to the paper; too wet and it will ooze into the carved lines on the block and squash out when pessed onto the paper making the lines unclear.

Spring green

For the "Garden" series of linocuts I am printing the block onto hand-painted backgrounds. I use a wide flat brush and acrylyc paints mixed with an iridescent medium, which gives the paint a pearly sheen. I mix various shades of green and use the brush to blend them on the paper - all the backgrounds are slightly different.

Sunday 1 July 2007

Watching me watching you

Just outside our kitchen window is a large patio table - the hens have decided that this is the perfect place to sit and watch me prepare dinner (for us, not them!). But they know that soon someone will go out to get them some mixed corn for supper.