Hands, feet, and cloth

A few years ago, I determined to improve my drawing by doing a drawing a day. However, I was always so busy during the day that what this meant in practice was that I mostly drew while sitting on the sofa at the end of the day and the sketches were of everything I could see from there. They were a catalogue of that quite intimate space – my feet and hands, the folds of material or cushion next to me. Recently I decided to use these to create a series of metalwork pieces seeing these elements as a way of viewing the intimate, the personal. I realised you could read the story of this part of my life through these elements, the hands – the feet and the fabric left with the imprint of a body. I will create these in steel, taking a material that is so solid and make it look soft, in order to describe these familiar spaces.

Two of my “a drawing a day” series from 2016

This idea has led on from the self-portraits I have made over the past year, a series of simple linear drawings of figures. They are incomplete, small elements – snap shots that describe an almost anonymous body, rather than these new pieces, which feel more personal and self descriptive.

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This idea of reducing the body to individual elements is something that John Coplans explored. He took photos of sections of himself, blowing them up to a large scale, always excluding his own face and denying them of a sense of wholeness, but asking questions about what can be read in these hyper zoomed in self-portraits.

Coplans

Self-Portrait (Feet Frontal), John Coplans, 1984

The close up sections of his body become a “landscape of skin texture and body contours”[1], a terrain made from body parts. There is something about them that reminds me of Alison Watt’s paintings of fabric, which show large scale paintings of fabric that are so large scale they seem topographic or human.

 

Archer, Alison Watt, 2015©  Drift, Alison Watt, 2015©

I have always been fascinated by Watt’s paintings, which hint at the figure while showing only folds of material and are so sumptuous and evocative. She has spoken about how she has always been drawn to paintings of fabric and drapery,  “how it folds, and how it seems to move when the body moves. I’ve always found it very suggestive of the human presence.”[2] It is this that I find so wonderful about her paintings, the fact that they evoke the presence (or absence) of a person. Watt manages to show in her paintings the “stories pieces of fabric might hold, the secrets they may have witnessed.”[3] I realised with my drawings that I was hoping to create work that gave a similar experience, that showed some of the warmth you feel when sitting in a cosy space, surrounded by folds of fabric and cushions.

Fabric, Agnes Jones, 2020. Hand, Agnes Jones, 2017

From my vantage point on the sofa, I drew little pieces of fabric as well as of myself. To begin with it didn’t seem important to me that my work was self-portraiture – I was just the easiest model to draw. However, throughout the time I have been making both the life drawing pieces and these smaller fragments of myself, it has become much more than that. If I am drawing myself, the work doesn’t become an idealised form. It is me, without the complication of being objectified or being observed by someone else. Joan Semmel puts this as the fact that when painting someone else “the fundamental problem of subject and object was always present”[4] and using her own body was one way of dealing with this. Importantly for her, painting herself “made it clear that the artist was female, and undercut the stereotypes of male artist and female muse.” She became her own muse, both making art about herself and being made into a work of art, both subject and object.

Semmel 1

Renoir Revisited, Joan Semmel, 1977

The viewpoint of these drawings is also significant in that my hands, feet and textiles around me are viewed as I see them, from my seat on the sofa. The viewer sees as I do, in Semmel’s words, the viewer is seeing the body from the “model/artist’s point of view” which allows “the body to be seen as a woman experiences herself.”[5] This is also important to me in this project, something that allows my world accessed by the viewer, and in turn, to become theirs.

Semmel 2

Sunlight, Joan Semmel, 1978

Semmel’s work was fuelled by her desire to help to change the way women are seen and how we see ourselves. If we can perceive ourselves as the makers of art, as the makers of the way we are seen, we have power over the viewer. The impact of using the body is something that Watt also writes about, that “many contemporary women have shown imagination and ingenuity in using their bodies as sites of resistance in their art.”[6] Although I can’t claim to be using my body as a site of resistance, I am exploring the relationship between myself, my body, my work and practice and what these all mean to both myself and the wider world. This is partly why I have become so interested in drawing my own hands – a part of me that work, that make the things I make a living from. They hold knowledge and power, and are my primary way to engage with the world around me.

We leave the marks of our lives on our skins, and my hands are marked by my work. As Sara Ahmed writes, skin materialises time “passing in the accumulation of marks, of wrinkles, lines and creases” and that skin “remembers”, the surface of our skin records our “personal biographies, however imperfectly.”[7] Skin has two conflicting roles – it is a part of us that we know so intimately, but it is also so visible to others and their interpretations. It is something that “touches and is touched by others; it is both the most intimate of experiences and the most public marker of raced, sexed and national histories.” This is why the drawings I have made seem so intimate to me, they were made looking at my own skin, drawn when on my own, in comfort. But what can others read from them? Is my skin actually reflective of who I am? Ahmed questions this in her book, suggesting that we often assume we can know someone else by seeing their skin and the marks on it, that our exterior “skin assumed to be a sign of the subject’s interiority” and is “assumed to reflect the truth of the other and to give us access to the other’s being.”[8]

The characterful nature of hands has been explored by artists, for example, Henry Moore created a series of prints looking at his own hands as method of self-portraiture. He saw hands as “vehicles of expression” which could show how a person feels just as a face can, saying “throughout the history of sculpture and painting one can find that artists have shown through the hands the feelings they wished to represent.”[9] You can depict nervousness, pain, ecstasy or excitement just through the way you hold your hands.

Moore

The Artist’s Hand IV, Henry Moore © The Henry Moore Foundation

Barbara Hepworth also saw hands as having great significance in self-portraiture. To her, hands held the “creative sensibility of the artist”[10] and she felt that there was a great difference that could be read into the character of hands, from “the inanimate hand asleep and the active, conscious hand”, leading to her hands being a symbol of her own active creativity, something she explored through her cast of her own hand.

Hepworth

The Artist’s Hand , Barbara Hepworth, 1967, Photo: © Tate, London [2020]

My body isn’t just a place that you can see the marks of my job – my hands are acted on but are also the actors – my body thinks, is thought about, and acts. Thinking is not separated from action. Pallasmaa in his book The Thinking Hand discusses the idea that although we tend to think of our body and mind as being unrelated entities, they are not. The body has an important role in us understanding the human condition, which is often ignored or undervalued. He writes about the knowledge we have in our hands, that we learn so much through making, and that these skills  “reside directly in the senses and muscles” in our “knowing and intelligent hands.”[11] He suggests that when we draw, we are able to take the image in front of us and recreate it on the page using our hand, meaning that the hand “grasps the physicality and materiality of thought” and turns it into a “concrete image.” The once vague idea we have in our head is transformed, using our hands, into “a materialisation of an idea.”  This means that our hands and the tools we use to draw (pencil, pen, or in my case, steel) become a “bridge between the imagining mind and the image that appears”[12].

This bridge between thought and the tangible is one for the reasons hands are so important for artists. Barbara Hepworth viewed her hands as having different purposes – her left hand was her “thinking hand” and her right was her “motor hand”. Her left hand thought and imagined, “the rhythms of thought pass through the fingers into the stone.”[13] It is interesting to think about the knowledge we have being stored in our hands, coming out both in the act of drawing and being the subject of the drawing.

Drawing these parts of me and the fabric around me from my own viewpoint allows me to make a series of pieces that describe the world I see. Each element shows a part of it, and it isn’t until they are together that it creates a whole space. You can see the character in my hands, the marks and character brought about by my work, and working knowledge they contain. You can see my feet, and the forms shown by the way my body inhabits the space. You can see the folds of fabric and the space on the sofa left by where my body was. All of these things are drawn and then made by my hands – hands that have an in-built knowledge of making and of themselves. They are creating versions of themselves; they are the bridge between my thought of them and the solid forms that you can see.

[1] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/coplans-self-portrait-feet-frontal-p11670

[2] https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/8516/alison-watts-beautiful-meditations-on-fabric

[3] https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/art/visual-art-review-alison-watt-hiding-in-full-view-1-2013167

[4] Joan Semmel: Across Five Decades April 2–May 16, 2015 Alexander Gray Associates https://www.alexandergray.com/attachment/en/594a3c935a4091cd008b4568/Publication/594a3ceb5a4091cd008b71f5

[5] Joan Semmel: Across Five Decades April 2–May 16, 2015 Alexander Gray Associates

[6] Review in Scotsman – https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/art/art-review-alison-watt-paintings-1986-2014-perth-1-3451346

[7] P2 Thinking Through the Skin (Transformations) 2001, Jackie Stacey  Sara Ahmed, Routledge

[8] P3 Thinking Through the Skin (Transformations) 2001, Jackie Stacey  Sara Ahmed, Routledge 

[9] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/moore-the-artists-hand-v-p02911

[10] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hepworth-the-artists-hand-t03154

[11] P5 The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, 2009,  Juhani Pallasmaa John Wiley & Sons

[12] P6 The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, 2009,  Juhani Pallasmaa John Wiley & Sons

[13] P79 A Pictorial Autobiography, 1985, Barbara Hepworth, Tate

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