Thursday, 9 July 2009

Plinther Pigeon

I've got a place on the Trafalgar Square Plinth end of August. They've given me a prime time slot on a Saturday afternoon so I figure I should do something other than just sit there looking vaguely queasy.
I think it would be amusing to dress up as a pigeon and sit on the plinth. My plan so far is to make a large but light pigeon costume and then attach a small action man/barbie type doll to my cycle helmet, thereby reversing the pattern of the other plinth residents.
I'll chart the progress of this pigeon suit on this blog. This morning I ordered some hoola hoops to form the structure of the suit. It would have been nice to get all four sizes of readily available hoops and do a graduated shape, but that seemed a bit extravagant. I have ordered some small and medium hoops (45 and 75 cm). I decided 75cm was wide enough after a few minutes with a tape measure and a little wriggling - that should make me look quite large without stopping me sitting down.
I have some fabric that looks like chicken wire but is light and floppy. I'll sew the hoops to that so that I make a large crinoline structure that hangs from my shoulders rather than my waist. I can then sew a variety of feathers to this - anyone wanting to send me a feather from an A4 size bit of cloth please do so. The feathers need to be light but don't need to have any structure as the undercarriage will provide all the shape needed. They need to be able to cope with rain in case it is pouring down. I also want the suit to be ok if it is scorching hot, so the open structure of the mesh fabric will be useful.
I'll photograph progress as it happens....

well, best intentions to chart progress have fallen by the wayside as other more exciting things fill my time. It is now post-plinth day. I made my pigeon suit, and I mounted a model of Anthony Gormley's Iron Man statue on a cycle helmet and covered the helmet with Grey cloth. I stitched on eyes and mounted a beak, and at the last minute also attached a dragonfly I had made from knitted fine silver wire and machine embroidered vanishing fabric - just a whim, and only because I had to take down a craft exhibition on the Wednesday before the Saturday sitting.
When I tested the costume by sitting on a garden table and getting Rod to photograph me i thought I looked a lot like statues of the mature Queen Victoria, so I decided I needed an orb and scepter equivalent. This was an egg and a stick, of course. I made the egg by blowing up a balloon, tieing string around to give a basic non-slip structure and a handle, and then papier machieing it with strips of newspaper and pva glue. I didn't use pulp as that is yucky and a friend said she tried that and the stuff all fell off. It worked well, and I painted it with acrylic glue to make it a brownish colour.
We allowed extra time for the drive down in case there were traffic jams, but apart from a slowish bit as we passed Oxford, with a queue in the exit lane, the journey was great. Arriving, therefore, far too early, we had lunch in an Italian cafe and then caught a taxi to Trafalgar Square. The taxi-driver said I was his first plinther. He talked about several of the people he had seen do things, so it is clear that as the taxi's swirl around the roads they do notice what is going on on the plinth.
At the One&Other office I had to show my passport and driving licence to prove with a photo id and an address that I was who I was supposed to be. I had my bags searched. I had already been told I couldn't take on fire, glass or fire-arms, but was a bit surprised when reluctance or at least hesitation was shown over my stick that I was going to clutch. They didn't want anything that might fall through the net and hurt someone. I was then interviewed and photographed, first in my normal clothes (not that normal as I was wearing my amazing Physalis earrings by Nora Fok) and then in my costume. The interview was taped for the oral history project the Welcome Trust is running. I was asked all sorts of questions, not just about the plinth project. The only thing that flummoxed me was when I was asked for my view on art.
I was shown the cherry picker used to transport people to and from the plinth. They are lovely big green and yellow machines, gleaming and serviced every two days by the JCB staff. I then had a microphone put on me - I was surprised by this, thought in retrospect that was surprising in itself. I suppose I had thought the mics were built into the cameras. I hadn't intended to do anything but sit quietly, but once I was mic'ed (how on earth is that word spelt, everything looks odd) up I ran a commentary, and burbled on about anything that came into my head. If you watch the coverage you can see that the camera operator is paying attention, as the camera swivels to take in the topic of conversation.
Once up on the plinth everything seemed very peaceful. The square bustled with people, there were breakdancers in front of the national gallery, deckchairs full of people enjoying the sun, and general milling. I had worried that I would feel vertiginous, which is why I had planned a stationary activity, but I didn't notice that at all. The safety net probably stopped any of that - I thought it might not as it is horizontal below the level of the plinth, but it is very visible.
I had been warned that the guides in the open topped buses might shout out to me and I was just to ignore them. Only once called out, very politely, to ask if I was a pigeon, so I called back that I was. There are several trees between the road and the plinth where the buses paused, and I could see people craning to see properly.
Rod wandered around in the square below to tell people what I was doing if they seemed interested. He pointed out that I got a great cheer when I went up and when I left, which was lovely. One person has put a picture up on the&Other website through Flikr saying they didn't know what I represented and that I just sat there the whole time. I know some people would be bored by the way I just sat there, rather than doing some performance that engaged the passers by. If you watch the SkyTv show they really only like the ones that do a lot. However, Anthony Gormley himself said he was happy with the people that just used their time to sit there quietly, so I reckon that is ok. After all, the other plinth occupants in the square don't move at all.
Overall I would say it was a highly amusing event to participate in and I have no regrets about joining in. I wish I had realised my costume was caught on the stool so I didn't look like a proper round pigeon, and I wish I'd used some pins to stop the fabric blowing up ( quite and updraft on the plinth). It would also have been better to have spoken more clearly/had the mic in a different position, as the background noise in the square is very load, with the fountain, the sirens and the general traffic and people noise. We both had fun and Rod enjoyed being support staff for a change.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Further adventures in batik

So I know all about batik now, having done one small thing. I decided to test out a pattern from the book, and chose a sunflower design for a cotton shopping bag ( from this year's Hay Festival. They kindly left one side blank). A mixture of a cut-open plastic folder and a cornflakes box protected the already decorated side, and I set to. The pattern has lots of wax this / dye that steps. I used the new Procion dyes but didn't bother doing any measuring. No idea if the colours will be permanent. The pattern didn't call for any crumpling of the wax, so I didn't. I expect it said to do that between each step in the intro, but I didn't remember. If you don't crumple the wax you end up being able to see how badly you wield the paint brush or how unimaginative the pattern is rather than being amazed at how interesting batiked fabric can be.

Having done that it was time to start despoiling my clothes. I had tried a ready mixed liquid 'easy batik' on a long skirt, which hadn't really worked, so I put some more wax on the skirt, roughly followed the instructions for mixing the dye, and put the skirt in. I don't use salt in cooking so had to use the dishwasher salt, which comes in large granules. I thought it was smart to mix the dye and salt with hot water to speed up the dissolving of the salt. It wasn't until I was swishing the skirt around in the hot water ( yes, I remembered the gloves) that it occurred to me that dunking a newly waxed skirt in HOT water was a bit dumb. I'll have to wait and see if any of the wax did resist the dye or weather I just made wax and dye soup.
I just knew it. I cant have a dye bath sitting around going off. At least I restricted myself to one tie-dye t-shirt. At least with the temperature being 35degrees C in the shade things are drying fast.

The tie-die shirt is great. The skirt has less contrast than I would have liked. I wore my shoulder out ironing the wax out onto newspaper. I later discovered the very cheap iron I bought to be my craft iron just doesn't get very hot. It wont, for example, get hot enough even on top setting, to transfer a printed image from the paper to the cloth (special paper for computer prints) whereas my proper iron worked fine.

I think with batik the wax removal would probably be the limiting factor. I did some more work on the skirt and then boiled the skirt to see how that worked. It was ok but clearing up was a bit of a pain. Trick is to use the batik wax carefully in a small area and then iron using a hot iron. Don't use it as an all over technique on a large item.

I've since then got the grandchildren to do tie-dye t-shirts which worked very well. I think I'll leave batik for times when I want to concentrate and achieve a really special effect.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

learning how to do batik

Batik for complete beginners

I had a book on how to do batik, Start to Batik  by Rosi Robinson.  It had lovely pictures and clear instructions, but everything felt a bit complex for a first experiment.  Also, I bought a starter batik kit from Rainbow Silks.  It came with Procion dyes, as used in the book, wax, fixative and an applicator.  It also came with instructions about how to mix the dyes but nothing on how to manage the wax.  I assumed the instructions had been left out by mistake, but it turns out the pack was as complete as it was supposed to be.

I did what I usually do; hunted around the internet.  You can batik with hardly any kit.  You can batik with a wax candle dribbled onto cloth if that is all you have.  I set out to make something just so I understood the process.

There are several basic things that need to be done.

§  Your fabric needs to be washed if it is new as the factory dressings can stop the dye working.

§  suspend your cloth so it isn’t touching the table.

§  melt the wax to the appropriate state.

§  Paint the wax on, let it cool, crumple the fabric if you want those distinctive batik marks

§  Dye the fabric and let it dry.

You don’t need any new equipment to successfully make your first batik piece.  I used masking tape to stretch my piece of cloth over the box a meringue had come in (it has a big open circle at the front so that you can see the meringue, so I stretched the cloth over the circle).  It was handy, and it held the fabric up off the table.  It also meant I could look at the back of the cloth to check that the wax had soaked in properly. A baking tin would work. You need to be able to take the fabric off and on several times so do something that is simple.  I reused the same bit of masking tape for the whole process.  I do have a proper frame for painting silk, but it is quite large, and I wanted to use stuff anyone might be likely to have in their kitchen.

I melted a small amount of wax in a foil food container by setting that  in a pan with a little water in the bottom.  I would have used a tin can as the higher sides would have made it easier to make sure the water didn’t splash into the wax, and also allowed me to have more water in the bottom of the pan so I wouldn’t have to worry about it drying out, but the recycling had just been collected so I didn’t have any.  I thought eating a tin of soup just to make batik seemed a bit excessive.

Don’t wander off while you have the wax melting.  If the phone rings turn the stove off before you go to answer it. If it catches fire do not pour water on.  Use a chemical fire extinguisher, or use a fire blanket, sand or flour to smother it or baking soda (which produces Carbon dioxide which is why cakes rise).

You want the wax to be melted enough that it soaks into the fabric, but not so hot it smokes or catches fire.  You can tell if the wax is hot enough by brushing a bit onto the cloth. If it is too cool it just sits on the surface of the cloth and looks white.  If it soaks in it makes the fabric transparent and you can see the wet look of the wax when you look at the reverse side of the cloth.  If the wax hasn’t soaked through the dye will creep along the fibres to that bit of cloth rather than stopping at the wax edge.  You can apply more hot wax on the under surface if you need to.  Don’t just put more wax on top of wax that has cooled on the top surface; you’ll just end up with a ridge of wax that isn’t doing anything.

I used a paintbrush to apply the wax, rather than the tjanting (metal wax dispenser) that came with my kit.  I know how to use a paintbrush, and decided to keep to the equipment most people would have available, and leave learning how to use this dispenser for another occasion.  I painted very simple patterns, a fish, star etc, without making any attempt to make the pattern look good.  I wanted to find out what the batik did, rather than demonstrate any style or skill in the design.

Once the wax was cool I took the cloth off, lightly crumpled it, put it back on the frame and painted it. I used the silk paints I already had.  I was bothered by the idea that I had to mix the Procion dyes in the kit and then use them immediately.  Procion dyes do contain some hazardous materials and should be mixed using a face mask.  They are supposed to be safe to dispose of down the drain, but I am not on mains drainage so don’t like to put anything I am unsure of down the drain.  Also I was worried about making up enough dye to dip the fabric.  If I did that I would have dye left over and I might be tempted to dye other things and pretty soon everything in the house might be dyed bizarre colours.  Sticking to little pots of paint-on dye would allow me to find out about batiking without any of these problems.

Between each layer of wax and paint I removed the fabric from the frame and lightly crumpled it to crack the wax.

I painted a first layer of yellow. Then I had to wait.  The book on batik makes it seem as if you can get on and do batik as a continuous process, but a lot of it requires waiting while the dyes dry.  I then put some more wax on the cloth, waited for it to cool and painted green on.  Then I waited for it to dry.  Then I painted another layer of wax and used purple.

You now end up with a piece of fabric covered in paint and wax.  I was using fabric paints that set when ironed, and the wax needed to be removed by ironing.  I place the batik fabric between layers of newspaper and ironed.  I bought a new iron for the purpose – it was about £3.50 from a supermarket value range.  This ensured I wouldn’t ruin my usual iron. Iron the cloth through the newspaper and keep changing the newspaper as the wax moves from the cloth onto the paper.  I used up two and a half free papers in the process. 

My final project did not have a soft handle and drape as the silk paints I used do make the fabric a bit stiff.  If I was going to make a skirt or other garment I would need to use a different dye.  I could use the Procion dyes I already bought, or I found that you can buy liquid dyes for batik off the internet. To remove any remaining wax, which a friend said was a problem with her one and only batik piece, you can get the fabric dry-cleaned.  However, I am not sure modern dry-cleaning is effective and whether dry-cleaning firms will be prepared to do this: the older solvents removed the wax but the new ones wont. Ask you drycleaner beforehand  I haven’t explored this issue yet.  You can also remove the wax by boiling the item in lots of water with liquid soap – again I haven’t tried this yet.

At the end of this I got a piece of cloth that I really liked! Considering how basic the pattern was, and how crude the three colours were, the end product has charm and interest far greater than I would have got if I had just painted a pattern without using the batik wax.  It is not so much the areas of resisted paint that produce the interest, but the way the dye creeps in along the cracks in the wax so you get every possible combination of colours.  Now that I have done this I will definitely set out to do a more complex project with confidence.