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  • Writer's pictureRachael Prime

Exploring the Familiar - Project Blog

Project Overview:


“Exploring the Familiar” is a project funded by Arts Council England, awarded in February 2023 under the Developing Your Creative Practice programme. 


The project was created to facilitate exploration across various new areas aimed at developing my art practice. This included collaborations with scientists to draw inspiration from scientific techniques and data, acquiring new creative skills such as natural dyeing and traditional rope tying to promote sustainability in my practice, and revisiting textile manipulation techniques previously explored during costume creation. 


Each of these key aspects enabled me to artistically depict the natural green spaces that begin right at my doorstep and extend into my local green spaces. 


Personally, 2023 did not unfold as planned for me, and the project similarly encountered its share of challenges, serving as a reminder that our creative processes are as adaptable as the life they seek to capture.

Photo Credit: Lauren Quayle


Spark #7 Session:


One of the initial engagements  participated in for this project was the 7th Spark session:


“Spark #7 is a seventh in-person meeting for Greater Manchester/North West based artists who want to intervene in the trajectory towards climate breakdown, and is an opportunity to meet other artists and to share information and ideas.”


The session was led by artist Louise Clarke, who invited attendees to explore Alder Forest, an ancient woodland near her residence. Unfortunately, parts of the forest have been cleared for drainage purposes related to the M602 motorway, with the highway agency acknowledging they were overly aggressive in their approach to this work. 


I found the event to be incredibly uplifting and inspiring. Witnessing artists unite to try to repair a natural area and advocate for its preservation was energising. This shared purpose resonated with my involvement in the Old Town Bloom project at Hazlehurst Studios. 


Moreover, the session provided a wonderful opportunity to connect with fellow artists, who like me, draw inspiration from their local surroundings, incorporating them into their artistic endeavours. It underscored the importance of tapping into the natural world right outside our doorsteps. 

Photo Credit: Rachael Prime


Natural Dyeing:


I explored switching from plastic-based paint to natural dyes, and I encountered some challenges in the learning styles needed for these techniques. My initial delve into natural dyeing involved an indigo bath, known for its deep blue colour. Enrolling in an online course with The Wild Dyery, a Merseyside artist specialising in natural dyeing techniques, provided valuable insights into the historical and practical aspects of the craft, starting with indigo dyeing.


Unfortunately, as I delved deeper into the process, I realised it wasn’t as straightforward as I had hoped. Pre-dyeing steps such as fabric scouring and mordant application were necessary, and I discovered that my second-hand cotton fabrics would usually be a poly-cotton blend, limiting the depth of colour absorption.


Despite trying various elements of the process with 100% cotton or silk fabric and experimenting with natural dyeing substances like dandelions and madder, I found the procedures time-consuming and not aligned with my limited studio availability due to other commitments.


While I plan to revisit natural dyeing in the future, particularly in experimenting with reclaimed fabrics to alter colour tones, I recognise the need for more hands-on guidance to overcome previous challenges. 


Mersey Gateway Environmental Trust - Initial Conversations:


A significant partner in this project has been the Mersey Gateway Environmental Trust. Following a chance encounter with one of the charity trustees, the trust became the primary source of scientific inspiration for this project. 


Following an initial meeting with the Trust’s Chief Executive, Andrea DreWitt, I began collaborating with the entire Trust team, including Andrea, Andrew Wolfenden (Biodiversity Manager), and Stephanie Harrison (Conversation Officer.)


The team facilitated my exploration of the familiar green spaces around Runcorn and Widnes, initially broadening the project’s potential inspirations and later assisting me in focusing on the smaller habitats created by the Mersey Gateway’s construction, particularly those found in the local green space, Wigg Island. 


Exploring Wigg Island with individuals who perceive the world differently allowed me to shift my perspective and uncover narratives that the local community may not yet be aware of.


I visited various green spaces in Runcorn and Widnes with the Trust Staff, engaging in different activities and skill-sharing sessions, including a collaboration day at Spike Island with a Local Sound Artist. 

Photo Credit: Lauren Quayle


Wigg Island Documentation Visits:


Following my exploration of Wigg Island with the staff from MGET, I explored the island independently, focusing on specific areas, highlighted by the trust. 


Due to the Mersey River’s tidal nature and the presence of the Mersey Gateway Bridge, the landscape is uniquely affected by these and other various factors. I aimed to study a mosaic habitat area, typically found on brownfield sites such as former industrial works, slag heaps, and quarries. These areas can support a diverse range of ecology. I selected a spot overlooking the river, bridges, and flood zones, aiming to connect these significant construction and natural events with the often overlooked microhabitats at ground level. 


Inspired by discussions with MGET, I revisited a basic survey technique, survey squares, reminiscent of my days in GCSE science. This method involved marking out a designated square and observing the species within it. Through repeated surveys, insights into the diverse array of insects and plants inhabiting the area can be gained, providing a snapshot of the habitat’s overall health. 


Using this technique, I documented the small-scale ecology using macro photography and sketching individual plants and insects. I began to compile a visual record of the site, to use these images to inform the creation of textile sculptures later in the project. 


Over multiple visits to the site, mirroring the approach of a surveyor assessing landscape health, I realised the significant role of sound in experiencing this space. The ambient noise of the bridge overhead, the birdsong from the wooded area behind me, and the sound of the river ahead all contributed to the sensory experience. In addition to photographs and sketches, I started recording the site’s soundscape to capture the environment further. 



None Textile Research


As part of the project, I engaged in various research that extended beyond my textile practice. These included studying how fellow artists incorporated scientific data into their work, participating in plant identification courses, and delving into traditional rope-tying techniques to enhance the presentation of my final pieces. 


I enrolled in an online plant identification course recommended by MGET staff and offered by the Field Studies Council. Tailored for beginners, the course provided insights into plant anatomy, growth patterns, and hands-on activities to explore local flora. It afforded me a closer examination of plant structures, distinguishing between leaves and leaflets and other key identifiers of plants. 


Understanding the construction of different species enabled me to accurately depict them in my artwork and explore creative ways to represent their shapes. This knowledge extended beyond the course as I developed skills in using plant identification books to comprehend the ecology of my chosen habitat area of Wigg Island.


Additionally, I explored how incorporating data as an inspiration can enrich artists' creative practice. Drawing insights from the book “Making with Data,” which showcases various approaches artists employ to visualise or communicate complex topics, I generated ideas for artworks based on data, such as depicting the fluctuating number of local ecology, like the return of salmon to the River Mersey. 


Lastly, another significant area of research, of those not relating to textiles, was traditional rope tying. With a personal connection to these techniques through my family history - my grandfather once chaired the International Knot Tyers Guild and passed on these skills to my Uncle - I visited him to learn various tying techniques, including hitches, lashings, and other decorative knots. These techniques, requiring years of practice to master, offer avenues for both enhancing the presentation of my work in reusable formats and adding intricate details to my structures, which will become part of my daily life and creative practice. 


Textile Research


In addition to my non-textile-related research, I delved into new techniques for fabric manipulation to enhance my sculpture work with textiles. 


I enrolled in three online courses focusing on, creating 3d flowers, Rag Rugging, and Latch & Locker Hooking techniques. Led by artists: Svetlana Faulkner, Elspeth Jackson, and Mariana Baertl. Svetlana explored the use of stiffeners with fabric to create structural support and techniques for shaping leaves and petals. Working with Elspeth, I explored one of the oldest textile techniques, rag rugging, employing this heritage craft to create moss-like structures at a larger scale, utilising small fabric pieces. Lastly, Mariana demonstrated Latch and Locker Hooking techniques showing ways to create textured ground using wool, fabric, and other textile materials. 


These courses provided invaluable opportunities for me to experiment with both traditional and modern fabric manipulation methods, enabling me to fashion lifelike 3d shapes inspired by nature. 


Furthermore, I revisited reference materials that I had previously used in costume making, in particular the book “Manipulating Fabric.” Working with calico fabric initially I was able to focus on form rather than colour, rediscovering old costume techniques and using them in different ways to create new artworks. 


I drew upon all of these resources to recreate some of the textures I encountered during my explorations at Wigg Island. 


Experimentation 

Drawing inspiration from my visits to Wigg Island and utilising my sketches and photographs from those excursions, I started experimenting with creating textile sculptures of plants found in the Mosaic Habitat. Building upon previous artworks, I explored scale manipulation, crafting sculptures ten times the size of their original counterparts. This approach allowed me to employ various techniques such as rag rugging and fabric stiffening to fashion large-scale ecological features like moss mounds and dandelion seeds.


Following the creation of a prototype piece using calico and addressing challenges encountered with natural dyeing techniques, I opted to diversify my fabric sources. Concerned about contributing to textile waste, given the prevalence of fast fashion and other textile industries, I wanted to use alternative materials to reduce my contribution to landfill. 


As a textile artist, the environmental impact of purchasing new fabric is always a concern. To counteract this, I repurposed curtains, clothing, and other soft furnishings destined for disposal as the primary source material for my sculptures. Embracing the diverse colours and textures achievable with second-hand fabrics, I endeavoured to minimise waste while exploring these new materials. 


Furthermore, I acquired additional materials for the project. For instance, the wire used to provide structure to my work was obtained from Police raids on local illegal Cannabis farms, which they donate to local projects such as Old Town Bloom Garden. 



No Waste - All Fabric Used


In addition to sourcing materials from second-hand markets, charity shops, or donations to community projects, I wanted to ensure that none of the waste textiles generated as part of my work would be discarded. 


Several years ago, I initiated a quilt project where I diligently collected all fabric scraps produced during my creative endeavours. Employing traditional English quilting techniques, I transformed these scraps into quilted fabric for reuse. However, even this process generated residual waste. So during the experimentation from this project, I started to repurpose the fabric scraps as stuffing to provide structure to certain shapes I was trying to achieve or as filling for quilted pillows that I had created. 


By employing these methods, any used fabric from my projects is repurposed rather than discarded, ensuring maximum utilisation and minimising waste. 

CPD (Continued Professional Development Day) with Mersey Gateway Environmental Trust and Wendy Smith.


Teaming up again with MGET and collaborating with local sound artist Wendy Smith, I coordinated a CPD (Continued Professional Development) and a skill-sharing day at Spike Island, a green space in Widnes. 


Staff from MGET, alongside representatives from Hazlehurst Studios, gathered to exchange skills and delve into the documentation of the natural world around them. Participants learned from one another, discovering techniques for recording sounds to capture this often overlooked aspect, utilising simple apps for identifying plants, birds, and other ecological elements in the local area, contributing to social science projects, and mastering the art of documenting visual textures and shapes through photography and sketching. 


This session marked the culmination of my research and experimentation at Wigg Island. Working closely with MGET staff, I delved deeper into understanding the importance of ecology maintenance and research. Additionally, collaborating with Wendy enabled me to experiment with sound recording techniques to further document the space in a more immersive manner. 

Sound Credit: Wendy Smith


Elements of Final Sculpture 


During my experimentation, I began crafting a larger artwork intended for display at Hazlehurst Studios’ “Sense of Place” exhibition in September 2024. This piece measures one metre squared, representing a 10 cm segment of the survey square. Currently, this work is still in development, the artwork has evolved considerably due to additional research conducted on the identification and research with scientific data. I plan to further refine it before the final exhibition. 


In addition to visual elements, the artwork will incorporate sound recordings to accompany its presentation. Ultimately, I am to photograph and exhibit the piece at Wigg Island, serving as a culmination of the project’s inspiration and exploration. 


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