black sheep 3513Posted: May 4, 2013
an intimate response to a local practice
In preparation for a forthcoming exhibition celebrating the unique earth pigment Bideford Black with four other North Devon artists at the white moose gallery in Barnstaple[i], I have been playing with an idea based on the recollection of a Bideford shopkeeper who used to sell bags of the pigment from his hardware store until as recently as 1996 – the pigment mines closed in 1969[ii]. According to the gentleman, who I met at a presentation I did about North Devon earth pigments for the Torridge U3A, the rich black pigment along with other locally sourced ochres were used by sheep farmers to paint on the bellies of rams at breeding time to mark any ewes they covered.
Inspired by his story, and its fertile connotations, I am collecting fleece naturally shed by sheep grazing on an area of common land near my home as the temperature rises for springtime[iii]. With the generous assistance of fellow artist and natural dye specialist Francesca Owen[iv] the fleece was washed gently in cold water to remove any dung and plant matter embroiled in its woolly mass but to retain its greasy and somewhat smelly lanolin coating. The discarded remnants of tangled fleece – dung, sticks and all (waste not want not!?) – were then soaked in a mixture of Bideford Black and sea water (sea water having a traditional use as a dye mordant) and used as a printing pad, rhythmically pressing and dragging and dripping the pungent spongy mass into a variety of papers and surfaces to produce abstract shapes and patterns, the pigment mixture providing a sensual depth of tone and texture, and finally leaving us with a ball of stiffly dyed wool – a splendid creative residue from the process akin to the symbolic signature felts of Joseph Beuys. We will be continuing our experimentation with a variety of other local pigments.
Not surprisingly, my obsessive foraging for ‘stuff’ has caused much amusement to local residents in this age of consumerism and science – politely enquiring if I would be using the filthy fleece for spinning, an obviously much respected craft; I reply, “No, it is for an art project exploring the possibilities of dyeing with earth pigments.” “Oh really!?…” they reply, looking somewhat blank and a little concerned, and moving away promptly. Maybe at least a little joy was shared, a small creative spark ignited and a rudiment of aboriginal connection recognised. In the words of playwright Bertoldt Brecht we must ‘make strange’ to ‘knock upon the imagination’ through our art. With each simple step I take may I enrich and inspire, fertilise and empower, and may I be amply supported on my journey…
P Ward 2013
[ii] There is presently a resurgence in interest about the pigment garnered by a project I am leading with the Burton Gallery, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Friends of the Burton, which is hoping to gather memories and artefacts about the industry before they fade forever for a permanent display for the Burton museum. For more information see www.bidefordblack.blogspot.co.uk.
[iii] Northam Burrows Country Park maintains a policy of free livestock grazing for local residents