Heather Pickwell: Rope Sculpture
Sculpter, artist and teacher Heather Pickwell lives and works in Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire. She is a part of the East Coast Fine Art Group of regional artists and her work is often made with natural materials including rope, wool and charcoal.
Here Heather gives us an in-depth look into her processes and how she came to such a unique solution to her work.
Words by Heather Pickwell
The process of making has always excited me, both in the traditional sense of crafting a functional item and in the creative sense. My mum always sewed and knitted and I loved watching her turn a flimsy paper pattern into a dress or jacket. I was taught to crochet by my grandmother and all of the females in my family were constantly making. But I also love to draw and this becomes a process of thinking, an act of exploration and scrutiny of the natural world.
The moment I began to marry these two processes (whilst completing a fine and applied art degree at Grimsby College of Art) was a revelation – I discovered that the drawings which had always captured my interest could be harnessed to making a 3D drawing – a tangible object, interpreting a natural form without reproducing a likeness. After much exploration and experimentation with a variety of materials including cardboard, wax, string and even bin liners, my background in textiles and crochet led me towards free form crochet and the mathematics of repetition and structure. I started to look at the links between science and art when considering the complexities of the natural world and studied Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel and On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. I read about pattern and structure, especially the works of Philip Ball – Branches, Flow and Shapes. I was fascinated by the imperceptible growth of cells and plants and found that rope was the perfect material – repeating a crochet stitch as cells repeat and divide to bind the rope into sinuous shapes. Meeting an artist called Judy Tadman who had been working with the same material was very rewarding as we were able to share ideas and techniques.
It might help to explain my process if I describe a particular piece and the way it develops. This piece is called Strandline and was begun in response to a comment describing my work as having a maritime feel. My first pieces were about growth and all my drawings and thoughts had been focussed on that subject. But this remark was a nudge in a different direction. I had long been a beachcomber, collecting driftwood and the flotsam and jetsam of the strandline along our East coast. A groyne on Sandsend beach in Yorkshire – weathered and festooned with sea washed rope and barnacles (pictured) focussed my ideas and I began to make.
I wanted to suggest waves, foam and the action of the eroding sea, but then linking these forces with the marks left by humans. I work with the tactile and the visual and like people to be able to touch my work, smell the rope and follow the shape with their fingers. I made drawings of driftwood and wave patterns, enjoying the sinuous wave formations of the weathered wood and wet sand but I never draw designs or plans of my sculpture. I immerse myself in the act of making and allow the unexpected to happen.
I use a crochet hook and simple stitch which works with any thickness of rope or twine – in this piece I have used 12mm sisal and also much thinner twine. The seawashed rope was buried in the sand on the coast near my home and needed to be excavated but I was keen to incorporate found rope into my work. I used a similar technique to attach driftwood and stones. I had never added found objects to my work before but felt it was a natural direction to take.
I began by making a long length of crocheted rope which I wanted to twist and shape into wave patterns. This was the basis of the strandline which I hung up in my studio and continued to work on. It is only when the rope is hung that I begin to recognise the outcome and the rope twists into its shape. Then the title comes to me and I feel the work is nearly finished. All I have to do is check that all my stitches will hold as the rope is now very heavy and ensure that the hanging point achieves the most balanced shape.
My work has developed since completing my degree at the East Coast School of Art and Design in two ways. My sculptures have condensed into simpler shapes, depicting surface as well as line. Earlier sculptures evolved into quite complex linear works and I was more concerned with mathematical theories of construction. Now I make the rope into long or wide ‘slabs’ of surface which I later manipulate and work into and onto with other objects or narrower twine. The shapes are deceptively simple but have in fact grown in complexity.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject and context of my work and once I begin, I detach plans, designs or blueprints from my mind and engross myself in the act of binding the rope together. This has always been my practice but I have now added a further stage which I enjoy – that of manipulating and shaping the rope surfaces into the twisting shapes I’m searching for. I’m not sure where my ideas will now lead me but I am keen to experiment with putting my work outside and allowing it to interact with open spaces.
Advice I would give to an aspiring textile artist is to know your material, polish your craft so that you can allow your mind to float above the making, absorbing ideas and roaming freely. I came late to sculpting with rope, but it seems to be a culmination of my years of drawing and making. Also I am very grateful for the 6 years I took completing a degree, for my tutors and for having the time to think, experiment, wander down blind alleys and experiment again.
For further information my website is: heatherpickwellartist.co.uk