Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Saturday 13th June - Death, photography, Leeds, Art, flowers and needle felting...

In which death comes to life, flowers talk and where sheep may safely graze.

Your starter for 10: What do a royal garden party, a graduate fashion show, a wool festival, Victorian death customs, liminal states, floriography and needle felted sheep have in common? Answer: They all featured in today's meeting. This needs a bit of explaining, so I'll put this unlikely combo into some sort of order.

The run of the mill matters up for discussion at the monthly meeting were livened up by debriefs of the royal garden party Debbie had been invited to, the graduate fashion show Audrey had been involved in as a student mentor and a wool festival that our branch had catered (see separate blog). As the saying goes, we don't have much money but we do see life.

Looking back, it's pretty impressive that we managed to pack a meeting, 2 speakers, lunch AND a workshop into one session, but tis true. Our first speaker was Morticia Maguire-Broad from Buns and Roses WI, speaking about Victorian death customs, with particular focus on Leeds.

As Morticia says, "Apart from the Ancient Egyptians, no one did death quite like the Victorians." In fact it turns out that we have the purchases needed in order to meet the requirements of their elaborate mourning rituals, such as clothing and funeral stationery, to thank for the origin of department stores. It was the custom too, well for those who could afford it, to photograph the deceased in life-like poses and assemble these in 'books of the dead', by way of a tribute and final memories of a loved one. It may seem macabre and OTT to us now, but we did agree that perhaps death is now too sanitised and that we have become too far removed from it

It's safe to say that Morticia probably knows more about Leeds Victorian graveyards, churchyards and funerary furnishings, than anyone else in the city, if not the country. We learned where and how the victims of Spanish Flu and Cholera outbreaks were buried, where the rich, not so rich, and downright destitute were interred, and what some of the sculptures and engravings on their tombstones mean - symbols such as angels of death, swords, torches, willow trees, maple leaves, doves, broken columns - all denoted the class, religious beliefs, occupation and other aspects of the life and death of the deceased. Most of us had little idea of the whereabouts of the thousands of people buried beneath our feet, or what fascinating information the graveyards and other burial sites in the city can give us. If you thought death was deadly boring, then a talk by Morticia definitely brings it to life.

Next up, our own Jayne Everiss. From the range of workshops Jayne has treated us to over the last two years, it's not hard to see that we are in the presence of someone very artistic and creative. Over the years, Jayne has taught us how to make books, origami figures, felt Christmas decorations and paper Christmas decorations among other things. Today though, it was a real privilege to have Jayne show us some of her own artwork. A privilege, because I imagine that sharing the inspiration, feelings and messages contained in your work, might leave an artist feeling quite exposed. Some of Jayne's work takes the state of limbo (or liminal state) as its inspiration - a plant or flower before or after it has bloomed, for example. Other panels, books and display boxes, contain hidden messages drawn from floriography - or the Victorian language of flowers. This was way before computers and smartphones of course, but back in the 18th century, if you wanted to tell someone you fancied them, hated them, thought they were sensitive or bold or had a jealous streak, for instance, there was definitely a flower 'app' for that. Jayne had brought in some of her sketch books too, which are usually the things few people get to see. It was touching and inspiring to be able to get to look at something unique and so personal.

Speed-eating was the order of the day and lunch downed, we cleared the decks for our first foray into needle felting. Shepherded by qualified feltmaker, Angela Barrow, we stabbed and shaped, rolled and squished, various lengths and widths of wool roving, into a flock of incredibly cute sheep.

Breaking the process down into small steps, really helped us to get a handle (or a needle) on what we needed to do to make our own woolly critter. Angela said that people tend to fall into two groups as far as needle-felting is concerned - addicts or haters. I don't think I'll be the only one who has already visited Angela's on-line shop and ordered supplies of roving, needles and other equipment and who is desperate to have another go. It was great to have the opportunity to learn something so different. Unlike other more well known crafts, it's not too easy to find expert feltmakers, so we were really honoured to have Angela teach us some of the basics involved. This blog is not about me obviously, but now seems to be a good point at which to put in a request for Angela to please make a return visit next year?

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