Carole Stephens writes:
I’ve been privileged to be part of the Whiteknights Studio Trail since 2004, in a variety of venues: in Progress Theatre, in a beautiful Arts and Crafts house in Northcourt Avenue, in Redlands School, in MERL, and in Christ Church, Christchurch Rd.
For my contribution to The Art and History of Whiteknights I chose to make a mixed media picture based around the Michael Cardew teapot which I discovered in the Museum of English Rural Life, where I was due to exhibit this year.
My Whiteknights Studio Trail displays were initially vivid compositions based on natural forms, or more subtle Welsh landscapes. The compositions were made using coloured inks, the landscapes more often a mix of watercolour and water based crayons, with details added in pen and ink.
In 2004, my first year on the trail, my WST leaflet description ran: ‘The effects of strong sunlight on a summer garden or dramatic weather over the Welsh mountains are seen here beside more peaceful pastoral scenes or still-life as I try to show the ordinary in an extraordinary way’. In 2005 I was writing a similar description of my work but adding ‘in a range of media…’ Thus, over the years this focus has changed and I’m now just as likely to be showing prints, collages or mixed media work.
Prints, in my case, could often be a simple line drawing. This will have been made on the back of a piece of paper placed on a surface onto which oil paint or printing ink has been applied with a roller to make an even surface. My drawing is then made with a biro or sharp drawing pencil; when pulled off the inked surface the print is revealed. Usually these prints are portraits, which lend themselves particularly well to this way of working.
How do I do mixed media? It’s always an experiment, layering painted or printed backgrounds, adding details printed from any kind of textured surfaces, be it wood, lace, plants, leaves. Then I use collage, which could be scraps of patterned papers to clothe a figure, vividly coloured cut shapes for sails on a choppy sea, even the odd word.
For example, in a collage of a vase of flowers, in the deep reds, ochres, yellows and pink, echoing the depth and colours of the Kampala scene, the name ‘Entebbe’, Kampala’s nearest airport. Then I may perhaps add more linear detail to complete the picture.
I’ve often been inspired by particular places or events or been asked to provide images or illustrations on a particular theme.
Kampala: In 2013 I went with my husband and the charity ‘Brass for Africa’ on a working trip to Kampala, Uganda, where sights, sounds, colours, and local costumes made a great impression. Back home in Reading during dreary January days, I could not see a way to reproduce these extraordinary and vivid images on paper.
But by chance one day an image by Picasso inspired me, and from it I developed a collage of a majestic Kampala figure. This image was replicated, several times, as a full-length portrait. These figures were then clothed/decorated/ enhanced with coloured paper scraps.
Boats and Boating: Teenage holidays sailing across the English Channel to Brittany and plus living so close to the River Thames has inspired many monoprints and collage pictures. Colourful sailing boats take part in regattas off the French coast or rowers training on the Thames at Henley. These images of water did develop a slightly more sinister feel, when skies became darker, and the waters too, or as in a larger collage for the exhibition ‘Hooray Henley’ figures scurry along the towpath; scullers practise beneath a heavy sky and hanging trees.
‘Reading and its Rivers’ was an exhibition curated by Jenny Halstead at Blakes Lock Museum, Kennetside. For this I researched old maps of Reading, in Reading Library, and was much inspired John Speed’s map of 1611. Elements of this 1611 map was used as a basis for my compositions. To these I added cut or torn cyanotypes: simple prints made by exposing plants or torn pieces of lace or cloth to the sun, on photosensitive paper, to produce very beautiful, mysterious, subtle images. I used these cyanotypes to evoke the surface of the river, with plants and bits and pieces drifting along on, or below the surface. It was interesting to see that the flow of Reading’s waterways has not radically altered, and the plan of the town still accommodates these.
Further focus for my mixed media work has come from Progress Theatre, and also from writers or editors asking for illustrations on particular themes. Progress Theatre put on Caryll Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ just before the WST 2019 and as my WST venue was to be Progress Theatre, I was able to display these for the duration of the play, and during the WST weekend.
If you’ve seen the play, you will know that it includes female characters from differing eras. I imagined suitable portraits for each of the female characters.
‘Isabella Bird’ from Edinburgh was an intrepid traveller in the nineteenth century. I depicted her in a Far Eastern setting, her portrait surrounded with a collage of hieroglyphics, monkeys and tourists. These are all collaged scraps of information; only Isabella’s portrait is made using monoprint technique.
‘Patient Grizelda’, a character from the Middle Ages, an obedient wife whose story is told in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, is depicted in a simple portrait. Framed by contemporary medieval floral designs, horsemen wait patiently below her in the picture, ready to escort Grizelda onwards.
The ‘Famous Women of Reading,’ proved harder in the sense that I had to make portraits of real people. I chose to experiment using backgrounds ready covered in subtle print from various textured surfaces.
I both painted and printed the portraits, but here the mixed media, although beautiful, proved too subtle for successful reproduction in a book, so in this case I resorted to my original way of working; pen and ink.
The exhibition ‘In Reading Gaol by Reading Town’ provided me with another excuse to make some dark, complicated compositions in response to lines from Oscar Wilde’s famous tale. The main character, the condemned man, is due to be hanged, yet in the tale ‘he lay as one who lies and dreams in a pleasant meadowland’.
It was hard to convey this mix of the harsh reality of his life as a condemned man, with his dreamed state. I tried by layering collage, inks and paint to achieve this dreamy, but nightmarish feel.
Despite appreciating the challenge of this doom-laden project, I continue to make drawings from the natural world. So those of you who know me for my lighter ‘ summer garden’ compositions in inks and paint, will be happy to know that these are still being made, and are available.
Please see my website or contact me directly.
In a normal year, we always look forward to the annual Whiteknights Studio Trail, where our local artists and craftspeople open their houses. This is the trail’s 20th year, and in a joint venture with the Whiteknights Studio Trail, Two Rivers Press is delighted to publish a beautiful celebratory book, The Art and History of Whiteknights, which features 28 artworks all inspired by the Whiteknights area of Reading. The featured artists have all exhibited on the trail over the years, and in the unfortunate absence of the trail itself in 2020 (it will be back in 2021!) we hope that this book will remind you of the wealth of creative talent in our locality, as well as inspiring you to reflect more deeply on the history and roots of this special part of town.