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Wednesday 30 March 2016

Bristol Byzantine and the Café Wall Illusion

One thing that I love about Bristol is that, although it is not a big city, it can still surprise. After a while living here, I learnt about Bristol's own architectural style only a couple of weeks ago.

Buildings on King Street

'Bristol Byzantine' - it has a great name!

Bristol Byzantine came about in the mid to late nineteenth century and was generally used for industrial buildings and warehouses. One of the architects associated with it is Edward Godwin, who was born in Bristol. 

Buildings on Victoria Street

35 King Street

The style may have originated when William Venn Gough and Archibald Ponton (who designed the Granary on Welsh Back which was built in 1869) met John Addington Symonds, a Bristol-born historian of the Italian Renaissance. Some believe the name was coined by the architectural historian Sir John Summerson.

The Arnolfini (Bush House)

The style is heavily influenced by Byzantine and Moorish architecture from buildings in Venice and Istanbul and one building in particular, the Granary on Welsh Back, really shows the influence of Islamic architecture.

The Granary (or Walt and James' Granary)

Some characteristics of the Bristol Byzantine style include: windows that often have arched tops and are aligned in vertical columns on stories above the ground floor, a generally sturdy and robust appearance, rock-faced exterior walls on the ground floor and that the buildings are constructed using grey Pennant sandstone, yellow Bath limestone and/ or colourful bricks that were made from clay sourced from the Cattybrook brickpits near Almondsbury.

The Brew House (formerly part of Rogers' Brewery)

Not all buildings show all of these features but once you start looking, more and more buildings in Bristol show the unmistakable influence of Godwin and his colleagues. 

Brunel building, Gardiner Haskins department store

Browns restaurant, formerly Bristol Museum

Many famous Bristolian landmark buildings are examples of Bristol Byzantine. Others include the Carriage Works on Stokes Croft and Clarks timber merchants in St Phillips.

Colston Hall

Even the iconic towers of the Clifton Suspension Bridge have features in common with Bristol Byzantine: robust design, arch-topped vertical columns. They were completed by Hawkshaw and Barlow in the mid nineteenth century, after Isambard Kingdom Brunel had died with the bridge still uncompleted. Brunel's original towers were to have been a much more elaborate mock-Egyptian style.

Image by A.Pingstone

Some modern Bristol buildings show echoes of the style, such as the vertically-aligned arch topped windows:

I was chatting to some people about Bristol Byzantine and one person there said "Have you also heard of the Café Wall illusion?"

This optical illusion was first officially described by the late Professor Richard Gregory. It is named after these tiles on the wall of a café at the bottom of St Michaels Hill in Bristol, which one of his students mentioned to him. The horizontal lines are truly horizontal, but the offset tiles in two contrasting colours make them look like they're sloping diagonally.

I wonder what other architectural surprises Bristol still has in store?

Thursday 24 March 2016

Travelling south of the two rivers to turn the world upside-down: Tilburg Carnaval 2016

Recently, I wrote about the medieval tradition of 'turning the world upside down' and the way that it is portrayed in many misericord carvings, such as this one in Bristol cathedral. 

The celebration of the 'Feast of Fools' was banned in England by Royal Proclamation in 1542 but in many other countries its spirit survives in the tradition of Carnival.

The Feast of Fools was celebrated on or around the 1st January, but Carnival occurs before the traditional period celebrated by many Christian denominations and known as known as Lent.  The word 'Carnival' means 'Farewell to the flesh', maybe because this was when all the meat had to be eaten before Lent.

Lent covers the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter and it commemorates the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus as believed by Christians. During this time, believers will pray and fast or give up certain things such as meat or smoking. Non-Christians also sometimes use this period to try giving up things that they think are bad for them, such as alcohol. 

Image by R. Durrance 
The date varies as it is not set by a solar calendar, but Easter is on the first Sunday after the full moon which occurs on or most closely after the Spring Equinox (on the 21st March).The name 'Lent' comes from the Old English word 'Lencten' meaning 'Spring'. 

During Carnival, people have fun before the fasting and austerities of Lent, most people having heard of the famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. This year, I visited one in Tilburg, in the south of the Netherlands. It was very interesting to see the tradition of the 'world turned upside down' in practice.

Modern Carnival (or Carnaval if you are Dutch) is celebrated all over the world. Caribbean Carnivals are well-known (Bristol's Afro-Caribbean community and friends celebrate Carnival, based around the St Paul's area of the city) as are those in Latin countries. Apart from the one in Rio, another big example of these would be the Carnival in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Image from
Although Tilburg Carnaval isn't anything like the grand scale of these ones, it was a lot of fun! Of course, to investigate the tradition of the 'world turned upside down', one should be properly dressed and accompanied by experienced researchers:

Although Rotterdam (which is north of the two rivers that cross the Netherlands) has a two-day Summer Carnival based on Latin-style ones, most people that I spoke to said that it was only south of the rivers that the older style of Dutch Carnaval happens. This may be because in this area, the provinces of Brabant and Limburg, there is a Catholic tradition as opposed to a Protestant one. Historically the Protestants, as in Britain, disliked such frivolity associated with religious festivals and suppressed it.

One thing that I noticed was how everyone was wearing certain colours. Each town has its own Carnaval colours and in Tilburg they are orange and green (which you can see on the scarf that I'm wearing above). Red and white are the colours of the province of Brabant. Happily, there didn't seem to be any kind of factionalism associated with wearing town colours; some people were wearing three or more different town's colours for each place they had been during Carnaval that year.

For the four-day duration of the event, the mayor hands over the keys of the town to the Prince of Carnaval who is responsible for the organisation and running of it. In 2016 this was Prince Robert the First, for his second year running. He parades through the town on the first day in his white and gold hat with big feathers, accompanied by his Council of Eleven in red and white hats.

For these four days, as in others nearby, the town takes on a different name. Tilburg is called 'Kruikestad' which means 'Bottletown'. The town adopts its Carnaval mascot. who is paraded through the street and given pride of place for four days:

At the opening ceremony, Prince Robert the First and his Council danced on stage and he even went up in a cherry picker to lead the dancing (brave man - many Carnaval parades were cancelled this year due to high winds).

I could see many traditions around Carnaval in the clothes and actions of the people around us and everyone seemed to respect it. Some people we met weren't bothered about going into town to celebrate it (they see it every year), however they all appreciated that it happens. 

Apart from the parade and the stage in the main square, a lot of celebrating takes place indoors in the bars and clubs - very sensible at this time of year! Those who can't get into town can watch local broadcasts of Carnaval music and interviews on the television.

The Carnaval parade in Tilburg isn't as big as some, but the floats are similar. Big caricatures of people or stories in the news lampoon their targets. It reminded me of the importance of the tradition. Not only is carnival a time for fun and letting off steam, it is also when those in power can be taken to task. 'The world turned upside down' gives a licence to poke fun at influential people who might well deserve it.

We were lucky to see it. Many other towns had their parades scheduled for the next day and had to cancel as the remnants of a storm passed over.

Another thing that was everywhere was the Carnaval music. It is very particular, not necessarily something I'd listen to at home every day but very positive and accessible to anyone. Especially when you are having a few beers to accompany it! 

One tune that stuck in my head was this one. It was made by people from Tilburg and is sung in local dialect apparently. The song is about deciding what to wear for Carnaval:

As you might be able to hear, it is fun music to drink to. In Tilburg, the local brew to do this with is Schrobbelèr, a herby-tasting liqueur.

Image from:èr/kruidenlikeur/83-bb-ed-e0-c5-eb-ff-ab

When you have had enough to drink, there is a traditional Carnaval salute too. You need to put your hand over your shoulder and say "Alaaf!' This word is also used in Köln (Cologne) in Germany during their Carnival. It can be handy when speaking becomes problematic...

Despite all the drinking though, I saw relatively few signs of trouble. Most people seemed to be local and seemed to respect the event. Many didn't believe that I was from Britain, until I said that my friend lived in the town and we were visiting him. I think that we could well have been the only British people in the town that weekend and it was great!

Thanks very much to our friends and the people of Tilburg for making us so welcome.


Monday 21 March 2016

Making insect hotels as a workshop at Southmead hospital

Insect hotels are basically compartments filled with things that insects like to hide in; dried plant stems, leaves, rotten wood etc.

I worked with Esther Coffin-Smith, the sustainability officer at Southmead hospital to give visitors, staff and patients at the hospital a chance to fill their own hotel and take it home with them.

The boxes were made in advance using exterior plywood and heavy-duty EDPM rubber. These materials were all recycled offcuts very kindly donated by the Bike Shed Company. To fill them, we had strips of recycled corrugated cardboard (which lacewings like to live in), rotten wood, bark, dried stems of cow parsley and hogweed (not hemlock), pieces of bamboo and leaves of London plane (Platanus x acerifolia). 

It was great fun to create the patterns of stems and other materials and we also had twenty-nine children from St Theresa's School join us to build their own hotels to take home.

At one point, someone began to play on a nearby piano which was a very nice addition! It's the first workshop that I've run that has had Ragtime music played as an accompaniment.

The boxes each had two holes drilled into the back, so that they can be hung up in a sunny spot to attract solitary bees or a shady place for other insects. 

Ideally, I would also have put metal wire mesh over the front of each box to prevent birds from pulling out the fillings looking for the insects hiding within. Obviously with large groups of children the cut metal could have caused injury, so it was thought best to leave it out of this workshop. A coat of exterior varnish on the outside of the boxes may have helped them last a bit longer outdoors as well. Thanks Esther for inviting me along for the day.

Thursday 17 March 2016

A pagan ritual knife handle, carved in oak with a Viking-style wolf's head decoration

It was really enjoyable to do some carving with my Opinel knife recently, when commissioned to make a new handle for a pagan ritual blade.  The oak came from a tree that originally grew near Nether Stowey, on the Quantock hills in Somerset.

The Norse-style wolf's head at the end was modelled on an example that the person who commissioned me already had on some jewellery, although I adapted it for the carving. I wanted it to have the look of an object that might have been carved by a Viking carver and to be very comfortable to hold, as well as beautiful. 

The end of the handle is drilled to fit a 10mm (0.39") tang. 

This image shows the handle against a tracing of the rest of the knife, so that you can get an idea of the scale:

I must admit that I liked the appearance of the carved handle before any finish had been applied. The patina of use would have looked good on it...

...but the finishing gave it a more 'antique' style. A woodworker in the neighbouring workshop said that it looks like it was finished at least ten years ago, rather than two days ago. For the finish, I used pure tung oil (extracted from a kind of nut) and then a mixture of natural waxes. Using natural finishes seemed more appropriate for this particular carving.

I really like the thought that this piece has another, deeper meaning to its new owner than the purely decorative. I hope that you have enjoyed seeing it too.

Making carved wooden panels with braille on them for Southmead Hospital in Bristol: an artwork for blind and partially-sighted people as well as those who have good vision. Part One - first steps in researching

I have to say that this project has been one of the most interesting that I've been lucky enough to be commissioned to do.

Ruth Sidgwick, arts organiser for the North Bristol NHS Trust, contacted me in April 2015. Some large plane trees were due to be removed from the grounds of the hospital at Southmead in Bristol and Ruth wondered if the wood could be used for a sculptural project to be permanently installed in the Brunel building there.

As part of the project, two day-long workshops, which I would oversee, would also take place at the hospital. During the 'Fresh Arts Festival', patients, staff and visitors to the hospital would get the chance to learn some carving skills and contribute to the final sculpture.

The artwork also needed to include or reference some words and phrases that had been selected by patients at the hospital, who were members of the writing and knitting groups, as being important to them.

Well, it didn't start off exactly as planned. Timber from a previously felled tree that had been stored at the hospital for the project had disappeared in the meantime!

While talking about what would be carved for the sculpture with Ruth, I looked at the other artworks that were already installed in the Brunel building. There were a lot of very interesting pieces but they were nearly all either flat paintings, behind glass or high up in the air. It occurred to me that there wasn't a lot for people who were blind or partially-sighted and that there must be quite a few such visitors and patients at the hospital.

So began the journey. As someone with pretty good vision, it was important to me that the sculpture shouldn't just be a gesture, but should really try and engage those with partial or no eyesight. Looking online for ideas didn't turn up much though. It seemed like there were no woodcarvings out there that were trying to do exactly what I wanted mine to. However, everyone seems to love the feel of wood and it seemed a great tactile material to use in this kind of project.

There were some restrictions on what could be done, as the hospital had strict guidelines to prevent potential sources of infection on the sculpture. It couldn't have any deeply carved cavities, for example. That also ruled out using textures such as fur.

First, I contacted the RNIB (the Royal National Institute of Blind People). Mark Croft, an advice worker there, sent a helpful list of organisations involved in making art more accessible to blind people. Helen Deevy, who works at one of them called The Art House,  passed on my contact details to a blind artist and sculptor in Wakefield named Alan Michael Rayner.

Alan has a lot of experience in producing his own woodcarvings and is a member of the West Riding Woodcarvers Association. He came up with many very interesting and useful suggestions for consideration. These included (amongst many others) using a thermo-formed plastic covering on the sculpture to prevent cross-contamination, methods of accessing audio descriptions that could be embedded into the sculpture and the pros and cons of using braille as part of the artwork. He also put me in touch with an organisation called Living Paintings.

Camilla Oldland at Living Paintings explained about the process of thermoforming plastic and we both felt it was probably impractical on a piece this size. She also pointed out that a large area can be difficult for a blind person to navigate around. Camilla suggested making a smaller 'orientation panel' to act as a guide to the larger one.

After talking with Ruth at the hospital, audio descriptions were also ruled out due to possible interference with medical equipment and procedures (as well as possible expense).

Thanks to the help of all these people, a design was starting to form in my mind. I sketched it out and sent it to the hospital for approval.

The next stage was to begin making the panels, but I didn't realise at this point that I was still to meet the Bristol Braillists...

Making carved wooden panels with braille on them for Southmead Hospital in Bristol: Part Two - Fresh Arts Festival and meeting the Bristol Braillists

After the initial process of research, my design for the wall-mounted sculpture in the Brunel building at Southmead hospital had been okayed and I now needed to assemble a panel to be carved at the Fresh Arts festival.

Since the timber originally earmarked for the project had vanished, I decided to buy some kiln-dried oak instead. Suitable locally grown wood wasn't available, so instead I did the next best thing and bought some that had been PEFC certified (indicating that it had come from sustainably and responsibly managed forests) from a local timber merchant.

The boards were joined and glued without using dowels or biscuits, as they can look awful if carved into by accident. Once the board had been sanded the design was drawn on and then it went with me in September 2015 to the Fresh Arts Festival.

Carving at 'Fresh Arts', with music provided by the 'Gasmen' choir. Photo by Ruth Sidgwick
The design was created to have plenty of straight lines and simple carving, so that passers-by could have a go and get stuck in with minimal carving experience. Several visitors and patients remarked to me that they found the carving process very relaxing and that it was 
a welcome activity at that time.

After the festival, I continued to carve the panel but was still undecided about using braille. Alan Michael Rayner had previously pointed out that there was more than one kind of braille and that, if I wished to use it, it was worth getting experienced advice.

One evening, sitting in the pub, I mentioned the project to my friend Steph. He reminded me that he was currently involved in a project to design a Kindle for blind people and then said that the group was meeting soon and that several braille users would be there. He invited me to join them. 


That was how I came to meet the Bristol Braillists, who provided a lot of helpful information and expertise during a very interesting evening indeed. It's very rare, I would imagine, that a sighted artist gets to sit with five blind people and to chat about how they interact with the world and how an artwork could be made more accessible for them.

One story from the evening stood out for me. I was told about a young woman, blind from birth, who was asked to draw a bus. She drew three straight lines. The first was the step, the second her route up the aisle of the bus and the third the pole that she held on to. The rest of the bus was irrelevant to her as she couldn't feel her way around it all.

I also found out that some blind people have a name for sighted people: 'light dependants'. Very true!

The braillists at the meeting came up with several good ideas and points. Hazel noted that someone who is blind may not have any reference for what is portrayed in a representational carving; a landscape has never been seen by some blind people. Dave thought that metal pins could be used to represent the braille dots - an idea that I later used. 

Later, when I had begun carving the main panel, Paul and Hazel Sullivan from the Braillists group very kindly came to my workshop and tried out the panel to check it for 'usability'. It was very interesting to hear their comments and Paul had typed out, on a braille typewriter, the wording that I wanted to use. This meant that I could drill straight through the dots on the printed card, so using it as a template.

I used brass jeweller's ball-head pins to make the braille dots, each snipped to length and then glued into an individually drilled and recessed hole - over 1600 pins!

Making carved wooden panels with braille on them for Southmead Hospital in Bristol: Part Three - the finished panels!

After nearly one hundred hours of work, the oak panels for Southmead hospital were ready to install. They were finished with Danish oil, for an attractive appearance together with some durability.

The main panel measures 61cm by 122 cm (2 feet by four feet). It shows figures writing, knitting and carving. They are deliberately vague, so can represent the patients who put forward their important words and phrases or anyone at the hospital seeing the sculpture.

The writing, knitting and carvings are spilling off the table and flowing off to become a landscape with fields, rivers and roads. Some of the fields have the phrases and words on them. To the top right are well-known buildings in Bristol with the sun breaking out from between clouds above as a hot air balloon floats by. I liked the idea of the words and phrases guiding across a landscape of memories and experience.

Along the top left of the panel, brass pins are set in to form an inscription in braille. There is no translation, so sighted people who cannot read braille must use the nearby key to read it.

The second panel is smaller, about 22cm by 30cm (8.6" by 11.8"). I took the advice of Camilla Oldland at Living Paintings, who had pointed out that blind people can get 'lost' feeling their way around a large panel without knowing where the boundaries of it are. This panel is an 'orientation panel'. Blind and partially sighted people can feel around the manageably-sized carving to find their way across the main panel. To help them, certain features are also named in braille. I think these names are like a poem on their own: fields, birds, trees, people, Bristol etc.

The third panel is about 21cm by 21 cm (8.27 inches square). It is a key to grade one (or uncontracted) braille, so that sighted people can translate the braille inscriptions. Grade one is the simplest form of braille used in the UK, being pretty much a direct translation letter-by-letter. There was some discussion with the Bristol Braillists about whether to use this or grade two, which uses contracted words so needs less room and is quicker to read. It was agreed that grade one was easier for non-users or braillists from other countries to get used to, so that was the one that I decided on.

I really wanted to include this panel as there are clearly a lot of people waiting around in the hospital with things on their minds. I hope that these sculptures will be an interesting puzzle for non-braillists, as well as introducing them to using this form of communication. That is why none of the other braille used is translated. Viewers must work out what it says.

At the beginning of March 2016, the panels were installed on the wall at the hospital. The Chief Executive of the North Bristol NHS Trust, Andrea Young, unveiled them on the 11th March.

One highlight of the day for me was being able to show Hazel and Paul the finished panels. We discussed that even though what the design shows may not be obvious to some users (think about it, no one who has been completely blind from birth knows what a landscape looks like), it can read as an abstract and still be enjoyed for the textures and the fact that braille users are directly engaged. It was great to chat to Paul about this, as he works for Bristol museum and art gallery making the displays there more accessible for other blind visitors.  In an interview with the Bristol Post newspaper, he said:

"There aren't many opportunities to feel artwork but this one invites it, which is brilliant. 
To have information in Braille and to find that I can read it is great.
I also like the idea that we can read this but most other people can't, when in 99 per cent of our lives it is the other way around."

Left - Right: Ruth Sidgwick (Arts Programme manager North Bristol NHS Trust), me, Andrea Young (Chief Executive North Bristol NHS Trust), Hazel, Paul. Photo by S. Cook

One thing that I find a bit of a shame is that I can't show the finished panels to some of the other people who gave me such helpful guidance. Obviously, emailing a photo isn't much use for some of them. I'd like to thank everyone here for their input on what has been one of the most interesting projects that I have worked on so far.