Here’s a moment of reflection, for these quiet, early days of the new year, with a guest post from my good friend Anne Whitehead. Anne found herself beginning a new experimental creative project in the early spring of 2020, and like many makers, discovered that this project came to tell its own story of a most peculiar year. Anne’s project brought together cyanotype – (a process of printing photograms directly onto a receptive surface, using sunlight and a photosensitive solution which creates the images’ characteristic blue hue), light sensitive fabric, flora from her garden and local environs (which formed the subject of each image) and stitch (as Anne embellished and redefined each image with her own embroidery). I love so many things about Anne’s sun printing project: the way it brings together chance with intention, its distinctive combination of mark-making, using available light and the human hand, and its aesthetic documentation of what Anne describes as her own “practice of looking” during the spring, summer, and autumn of 2020. I hope you enjoy Anne’s words about the project together with the beautiful accompanying images from her cyanotype book. If, like Anne, you found an interesting way of documenting or re-making 2020 through your own creative project(s), I’d love to hear more about it! (Leave a note in the comments below)
In the first weeks of lockdown, I started a project that continued until the early autumn. With my movements confined to my garden and to walks nearby, I took pleasure in watching familiar plants flower, and I experimented with making cyanotypes on fabric. As the year unfolded, I did not have reason to travel beyond the range of where I could walk. My creative project became a record of a close and extended engagement with my local patch, which was bounded to the north by the bridges across the river Tyne and to the south by Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North.
For my first cyanotype, I picked a fern leaf from my garden, a small south-facing back yard. I placed it on the sun-print fabric, and laid a sheet of glass on top. The sunniest spot in the garden was the shed roof and I watched the fabric change from green to silvery grey. Removing the glass and the fern, I could see the shape of the frond dark against the pale grey of the fabric. Immersing the material in water magically transformed the fern to white, and the ground to a deep cyan blue that darkened further as the material dried. To complete the image, I marked out in running stitch where the leaf blades of the frond overlapped, and I added a few white cross-stitch stars to mimic the ends of the blades.
My next two cyanotypes remind me how early in the year the first lockdown began. My grape hyacinth were still in flower and the cyanotype captured their ghosts, blurring at the edges. I worked cross stitch in embroidery thread on the flowers to pick out their tiny individual bells, and added a hint of green to the tops of the stems. The embroidery silks also gave the fabric a pleasing bobbly texture, reminiscent of the flowers themselves.
This was the season of narcissi, and their diaphanous petals emerged as spectral, dancing forms on the sun-print fabric. I outlined the petal shapes in white cotton thread, trying to balance definition with lightness. I learned that the cyanotype is also about touch – what is left behind is a negative image of where the plant has been in contact with the fabric. The act of recording one surface touching another felt appropriate at a time when physical contact was not possible, and when surfaces had become associated with risk and infection.
By Easter, my thoughts were turning to the travels that would usually mark this time of year. I did not know the name of the trailing plant with small blue flowers that garlands the walls of the gardens here in late Spring. Arranged on the fabric, its tendrils reminded me of the art-nouveau forms of Victor Horta’s ironwork in Brussels. I traced out their whiplash curves in stitch.
The silver leaves of the cineraria in my hanging baskets looked like the Matisse paper cut-outs that I had seen several years before in Nice. I pressed them between the pages of a telephone book and then laid them out on the cyanotype fabric. Just as Matisse, confined to bed, used his paper cut-outs to surround himself with memories of Tahiti, so the intense blue of the cyanotype momentarily lent my garden the luminosity of southern France.
With the summer months came the revelation that sun printing also engages the sense of smell. Pressing fronds of fennel beneath the glass and leaving them in the sun meant that, when the glass was removed, an intense licorice fragrance was released.
The lilac flower also had a heady scent once the glass was lifted. Although the perfume of the crushed fennel and lilac has not left a permanent trace on the fabric, it returns when I look again at these images of early summer and is caught in my memory of their making.
Midsummer brought a period of foraging for plants on local walks. They were invariably found on scrubby patches of verge, places that I would usually barely register. Cow parsley was briefly everywhere, and I picked out its froth of tiny florets in cross stitch.
The purple spires of salvia were also ubiquitous for a time, and here I used a darker thread to delineate the shapes of the individual petals.
The grasses were more easily overlooked but, passing a roadside verge, I stopped to count the different varieties that were there. My cyanotype displayed four grass stems and I tried to capture their distinctive qualities in simple stitch.
With late summer my attention turned back to the garden. This yellow poppy made a clear negative silhouette on the fabric, smudging to blue on the translucent outer petals and at the base of the stem, where evaporating moisture became trapped beneath the glass.
The hydrangea was an altogether trickier subject, as the shape of the florets was only visible when the fabric was held up to the light. I sketched them onto the material in pencil and then stitched over the lines with a dark blue thread, also delineating the veins of the leaf.
The autumn plants were all about character. There was a regal stateliness to the blue agapanthus that was flowering at the bottom of my garden, and I wanted to see what of this quiet dignity the cyanotype might be able to capture.
The seed heads of the honesty, in contrast, were all agitation. Could a sun picture capture something of this plant’s incessant motion, as it had done for the narcissi at the start of the year? The oval forms of the seed pods created a strong outline, but there also needed to be a sense of tremulousness for the character of the plant to be truly depicted.
I am not sure how best to describe my cyanotype project. I completed it by sewing the sun pictures into a fabric book, made of an old dress and edged with lace. It is an herbarium of sorts, recording the flora of a particular time and place. It is a diary of my lockdown experience, and I can track through its pages not only the changing seasons but also my own shifts of focus and attention. As a series of sun pictures, it captures the remarkable weather of the British spring and summer in 2020, which meant that I could make these cyanotypes right through from early spring to the middle of autumn. There is a ghostliness to the images, a spectral quality that seems apt for a year that has often felt unreal, hard to grasp hold of or to bring into clear definition. Looking through my cyanotype book again in these darkest days of midwinter also suggests that looking to the light can become a habit, built into the ordinary routines and textures of every day. It is a practice of looking that has offered me a different way of inhabiting, of recording, and of celebrating, my local patch.
Thank you, Anne, for sharing your sun print project with us!