Articles & Reviews
My Father's Razor
This is an evocative piece of writing which uses an everyday object imbued with personal significance to the writer to address issues of memory and loss. It would have been good to have read more about where her interest in the everyday was taking her work but the article ended all too soon.
Like many people I collect things. For many years I did not think there was any particular reason why I collected the things that I did or that there was any connection to my practice. Mainly they were junk shop finds or things retrieved from skips or found on the ground whilst going about my daily business. Old oil cans, tools, brushes, tins, utensils, the kind of stuff people throw away during a spring clean. Then I came across my late father's razor.
It was amongst personal things like letters and family photographs; my sister and me in the park aged three and six, grandma and grandad on holiday at Butlins, great uncle Joe in his tram conductors uniform. It was a Rolls razor, still in its box and in pristine condition. (Fig.1) I wondered why he'd kept it, for as long as I could remember, he had always worn a full beard! I smiled at the absurdity and was comforted by the fact that he would have smiled too.
To my eyes it was certainly a lovely thing with its slightly faded turquoise and orange packaging and its dated graphics. But I am sure my father would not have appreciated that. As I opened it I could see that all the original information leaflets were still intact, the instructions for use including a list of do's and don'ts and a note to the salesman on how to demonstrate the product to
the customer. Opening each revealed a little bit more and my enjoyment grew. (Fig.2) I noticed a date of 1956 and a quick calculation told me that my father would have been eighteen years old. Tears pricked my eyes at the significance of this ordinary object. This was not just a razor, this was a symbol of coming of age, a cherished gift perhaps from parent to child, certainly something important enough to keep all of these years.
And that is the thing about objects, they tell you so much about people. They carry with them a poignancy and value over and above their intended purpose. And through my fathers razor I have come to realise that this is the essence of my passion for the rather mundane things I collect. A reminder of times gone by, people long gone, places that no longer exist.
Dr Watson to Sherlock Holmes:
I have heard you say it is difficult for a man to have any object in daily use without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it in such a way as a trained observer might read it.1
Certainly the more I looked the more I saw. It was clear to me now that everything I owned had a history of use, an anonymous familiarity. Most had at one time performed a particular task or had a specific function. The printer's brush, (Fig.3) where the bristles were stained with ink, beginning to splay from continued use and where the fingerprints of the user were still visible on the shank. Old toys that showed the devotion of their playmates through the chips and scars on their surfaces. (Fig.4) Bobbins of thread thrown away because the machines they were made for had themselves become obsolete, utensils tarnished with frequent domestic service. All told a story beyond their original function. All were evidence of people, time and place, the archaeological finds of the future.
At around the same time I was asked to show some items from my collection in a small exhibition exploring the hidden values of ordinary objects. I discovered other people who shared my passion and became involved in an ongoing discourse with them. We swapped stories and shared recent finds and this brought new and exciting discoveries. Two particularly important objects come to mind.
The first is a gentleman's tie press. (Fig.5) Gentleman because in the era when tie presses were still used only men of a certain class were likely to have used them or perhaps a working man when he was aspiring to gentlemanly ways.
The press is approximately 33cms x 17cms and consists of two weighty slabs of wood. These are held together by two metal straps attached a little way in from either end of the wood with two screws that make no apology for their presence. At each end of the metal straps is a chunky wing nut that secures front to back. A small label embossed with the manufacturers details affirms the calibre of the object. The overall appearance is one of masculine dependability.
Opening the press is a bit like opening the kiln door, there is a heightened sense of anticipation. The inside does not disappoint. There, in strong contrast to the macho exterior, is the delicate impression of a tie so faint it is difficult to make it out at first. (Fig.6) It is like finding a fossil in a rock. This slight impression commemorating not only the tie but the person it belonged to in an enduring visual and physical epitaph.
Similar qualities are evident in the next object. At first glance this is what appears to be an empty frame. (Fig.7) The black velvet backing has faded to green in parts leaving two black patches in the centre. Closer scrutiny reveals a row of hooks in each of the black areas. The intrigue grows. Then, as if emerging from a mist, one begins to see the outline of a row of medals. The reason for the hooks now becomes apparent. But what happened to the medals? Who did they belong to? What valiant action warranted their award?
Even the accidental production of the colour, the green from the black, is heavy in symbolism. Black with all the connotations of death and loss and green indicative of growth and new life, suggest that the demise of one object has given rise to another. The cycle of life goes on. This now empty frame has become an object full of pathos with as much visual and emotional impact as a Rothko painting.
So nostalgia, remembrance, commemoration, testimony are all important reference points within my practice. I aim to pay homage to the ordinary and mundane. The things we take for granted but which tell us so much about the people we are and have been.
Useful objects have a rich history. They are saturated with references to specific contexts and specific moments in history.2
My favourite place on earth is The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, a place full of such objects. Named after General Pitt Rivers, a military man who was fundamental to the amalgamation and organisation of the collection, this is an astonishing treasury of ordinary objects from around the world. The collection contains artefacts which 'reveal the course of the evolution of human culture'.3 Of course these are anything but ordinary things. They are the human mind and spirit laid bare.
I recently spent a few days there, drawing in the collection. (Fig. 8) I was attracted to a frame crammed full of what looked like paper stencils. The graphic silhouettes of white against black were incredibly powerful even from across a crowded room. These turned out to be a series of bamboo leaves that had been bored through by insect larvae when tightly rolled up in the budding state. On fully maturing they unfurl and the insect tunnels appear as a transverse series of linear, elliptical or rectangular slots. They reminded me of a set of metal ribbon threaders I had just acquired with exactly the same characteristics. (See Fig.8)
In the frame next door were a number of banana leaf stencils from the Fiji Islands. (Fig.9) It is suggested that the islanders observed the naturally occuring notches in the bamboo leaves and developed the stencils, which they used for decorating bark cloth, as a consequence. I was particularly interested in the staining around the cut out areas. These intense markings were a potent testimony of use. Of all the drawings I made during my visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum these have been the most influential to the development of my work.
The objects in my personal collection have also become a direct source of ideas and imagery. I noticed that without exception these were items of multiple production. Evidence of the machine is written all over the piece. I have tried to evoke those processes through making: fold, wrap, press, stamp; fold, wrap, press, stamp, working with the rhythm and freshness they induce. By making by hand I leave my personal imprint on the object, the true value to me of making.
The craft object stands at one degree separation from a person (the maker). In some cases the fingerprints of the maker are literally impressed on the object. The handmade object is the direct trace of its author.4
Leaving a trace is also a concern. I have been making footprints and shadows in cloth of the objects in my collection as a way of questioning the traces we leave behind. (See Fig.8) These I have been rolling into the surface of the clay to make a physical memory. (Fig.10). Of all the materials clay provides me with the greatest opportunities. With it I can make softly, yet produce something which is strong and durable. I have always enjoyed working the surface and this continues to provide the basis for my practice. Recently, I have been exploring surfaces that have a timeworn appearance by layering stained slips and eroding the fired surface to reveal the hidden strata. This is overlaid with washes and stains of oxide and enamel in an effort to develop patinas that evoke a sense of history. (Fig.11) Surfaces are also marked with stamps and numbers as a reference to product codes and a manufacturing era long gone.
This is very much work in progress. There are no finished products as yet. This has enabled me to focus on the journey rather than the destination and that is the root of my motivation, the thing that compels me.
I have many reasons to be grateful to my father, not least for leaving me with his razor and rekindling my passion for making.
1. See Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, Penguin Books Ltd. back to text
2. See Louise Schowenberg, Hella Jongerius, Joke Robaard, Hella Jongerius , London and New York, Phaidon Press, 2003. back to text
3. See Julia Cousins, The Pitt Rivers Museum , Oxford, 1993, 4. back to text
4. Bruce Metcalf, 'The Hand and the Heart of Craft', American Craft , no.54, August/September 2000. back to text
|My Father's Razor Issue 7|