Saturday, 30 November 2013

Congratulations Dr Who

I did sit down to post this last Saturday, on the 50th Anniversary of Dr Who, but time ran away with me as always.

As I'm sure you'll realise, if you've read any of my earlier posts, we do like to spend as much time as possible in the English Lake District.  Largely for holidays, but we also thankfully live close enough that we can just visit for the day too. 

Until 2 years ago when our favourite place to stay became unavailable, it was our habit to spend Easter up there - it was always something to look forward to during the shorter cold days of winter and was a lovely time to be there; with new lambs, daffodils and the first signs of spring.

So, in 2007, we were staying up in our favourite place and whilst out and about one day, saw the oddest, surreal thing.  I never did find out anything further about the incident and it remains a delicious mystery to this day.

We were traveling over Kirkstone Pass, a slightly wild, high and barren moorland stretch bridging the gap between the Troutbeck and Patterdale areas.   As a passenger, it is my habit, when not nodding off to sleep, to look out of the side window at the scenery etc and I always scan tree-lined areas for deer. 

As I passed this particular item just off the road, there was a two or three second delay whilst my brain did its best to comprehend what my eyes had just seen.  When it did, I asked my husband to stop and as there were no other cars, to reverse back to what I thought I'd just seen.  Nope, I wasn't imagining it, there was Dr Who's TARDIS nestled amongst the boulders. 
When we saw the opening sequence of The Day of The Doctor last weekend, where the TARDIS was 'parked' on some moorland, for a brief moment, we thought this was the scene we had witnessed, being filmed.  Until common sense took over and we realised that was 6 years ago and on watching it back, it wasn't the same stretch of road, even though initially, in our excitement we thought it might be.

But at least we know where The Doctor takes his Easter holidays.

I've lost track of what I've been up to lately work-wise - I seem to spend a lot of time re-making older designs as I get orders for them, so my new designs take a back-burner sometimes and I work on new stuff in short bursts between looking after customers - and my productivity hasn't been helped with a recent root canal issue - the tooth was as painful as anything I've ever experienced and it seemingly triggered frequent migraines too (in that they've stopped now the tooth is better, suggesting that was the cause).  Thankfully, after several hours in the dentist's chair and doing serious damage to my credit card balance, it is all fixed and feeling significantly better.   So I'll just post some of my recent work.

This ivy leaf design was a birthday gift for my Mum - it has 4 independent leaves, two in copper, two in bronze, each riveted to a backplate which allows it to be worn as both a pendant and a brooch.  The back ended up much more of a task than I was anticipating - largely because I'd decided to rivet the leaves in place, which precluded some of the pin ideas I had in mind as I needed to allow space to rivet in 4 places, then position the pin. It looks simple enough, but it seemed to take me a while to get there.

I wanted to set the pin slightly off to one side, so that it could be worn horizontally, as well as vertically, without flopping forwards away from the garment at the top-most edge - if the pin is down the centre, it will tend to pivot forwards due to the weight of the metal.  Now that I have it sussed, I have some more leaves ready to make another to sell.

I also made a pair of earrings with the same copper ivy leaves on teardrop antiqued copper hoops.   The photo I uploaded looked rather better than this - Blogger seems to have decided that it knows better than me how my photos should look and is seemingly adjusting the 'exposure' as I upload them - it's bad enough that it takes me several attempts to add each photo - and therefore an age to make each blog post - without them looking horrible when I'm finally successful.

This coral and copper bracelet was made as a birthday gift for a friend - featuring a large copper clay leaf toggle and red coral beads.  I have a few more like this, with different beads, coming through to sell - when I can magic up the time to work on some photos, that is.  Was it ever thus!

Monday, 9 September 2013

New woodland friends and new designs

I'll not bore you with trying to make excuses for my blogging tardiness - yet again - the weeks simply get away from me - thankfully because I've been nicely busy and keeping on top of customer orders and e-mails and trying desperately to make a few new things and develop ideas and new skills is more than enough to keep me out of mischief.  I don't even have any energy left for any mischief.  More's the pity.

Please click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

We were disappointed when a favourite woodland sculpture vanished from one of our regular walks.  But earlier in the summer when we set off for some fresh air on an especially nice evening, we were delighted to see a new friend had taken up residence.   It was only on a subsequent visit that Mr Boo pointed out that he was even nicer from behind - aren't his wing tips and tail just gorgeous.

I'm also feeling a bit left behind and out of sorts at the moment.  The years are being added to my own clock at an alarming rate and I work with a very old computer that I simply can't afford the pennies - or the time it would take to get set up again properly - to upgrade to something more appropriate.  And these two facts are leading to an increasing feeling of frustration when using some of the sites I frequent - especially ones that have recently undergone massive overhauls - that aren't seemingly conducive to easy navigation with an old computer.

A have a series of 'hedgerow' designs in mind at the moment, so was taking some reference photographs of emerging blackberries in the lovely golden evening sun and this comma butterfly landed - I haven't seen one for ages.

Flickr was the first of these to drive me to distraction.  I can fully appreciate that the interface was stylistically a little dated, but it worked and I enjoyed using it - it was fast and easy for me and I felt comfortable with it.  Then came the upgrade and it was like trudging through treacle with lead boots on in comparison.   I'm not sure it's entirely my fault that the improvements feel anything but, but reading the forums there, I'm certainly not alone in my frustration with it.  I fully understand that with my old gear, I need to make some on-line compromises, but this feels rather more than that.  And don't even get me started on what Yahoo! have done with the same upgrades to 'Groups' they are just now unfathomable!

I've finally found some time to work on some new design ideas.  Small copper clay filigree heart with a champagne coloured CZ stone.

I finally braved working with some silver clay / PMC the price of it feels like it stifles my creativity a little - I'm conscious of how little you get for your money and the need to make it go as far as possible.  The leaves and balls are all created by hand and individually applied.  The fine silver pendant hangs on a Sterling silver and garnet belcher chain.

I can only really judge from my own little corner of Flickr - I've had very few comments on photos recently and my contacts used to post a page full of photos every day, yet I'm only seeing a handful of new images a week now from all of them together.  So I'm not the only person that has reduced my time there significantly and I can't comment on other photos myself as on my low res. monitor, all of the links and buttons pile on top of each other and navigation is pretty much impossible.

A little silver leaf pendant I made as a treat for myself.  It's set with a little peridot coloured CZ stone and oxed to bring out the texture of the leaves. 

I also made a big decision a few weeks ago to stop supporting my Etsy shop and allow the stock on there to just expire naturally when each listing time was up.  There are a multitude of contributing factors to that decision, not least of which is that it only accounts for a tiny percentage of my sales, yet takes a significant portion of my online maintenance time to manage the shop there - with the perpetual changes to the format and search algorithms etc. it simply takes more time and effort than were justified for the return.

I'm a smidgy bit fixated on sticking little copper balls on everything at the moment - they serve many functions - they can fill gaps for design balance, add texture, cover blemishes, reinforce delicate areas, hold gemstones in place etc. etc.  Here I just added lots of them - because I could!

It wasn't an easy decision and I know that a chunk of me will probably live to regret it, but it was also a great weight off when I finally made the decision and has allowed me to give my own site a bit more time to address some stuff under the hood that I wanted to attend to and to work on the head full of ideas I had waiting to take form.  Thankfully, I've managed to make progress on my new ideas and they're gradually filtering through to my shop - I seem to have spent a lot of time recently working on photos.  But I set myself little targets and rewards - list 2 new things and I can have some bench time and the like.  It's a bit of a poor do when you have to bribe yourself to get stuff done!

Copper leaf and earring set.  Done initially to test the embeddable eyelets that they hang from, which worked incredibly well.  I can't claim any design credit for the leaves, these were created using a sugar paste cutter with an impression plunger - I picked them up in a cookery shop bargain bin in the summer and they work really nicely.  I try to make all my own templates and textures, but I do rather like the simplicity of these and their ease of use.

Perhaps my most extensive piece of metal clay work to date - a large red jasper cabochon mounted in a pendant festooned with tiny leaves, tendrils and balls and held in place with several small leaves.

In my next post I want to try and write more specifically about the metal clay work I've been doing - trying to ascertain a brand of clay that will manage the type of things I want to create - like the fine detail in the pendant above and the heart pendant higher up - and the perpetual frustration of honing down a good firing schedule for the nature of the pieces.  I've had a couple of spectacular failures lately, so if I feel brave, I'll show you those too!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Garden progress and woodland evenings

I find myself yet again apologising for my blogging tardiness.  It had been my habit for a long while to write on a Saturday morning and that loose routine made it easy to keep up with it.  I always felt like I had loads of potential ideas to blog about, if only of interest to me, so it never felt like a chore.

One of the reasons I started a blog initially, was that as a keen photographer, I would often take a series of photos that weren't of gallery standard in themselves, but perhaps the story behind them or the theme of the series was where the interest lay.    The ones amongst my words here for example are from my garden, as I try to rescue it after post-flood repair works, of which more below.

Please click on any of the photos for a larger view.

Many photos in themselves don't stand up to solitary scrutiny, but when part of a story, they have more combined interest.  Blogging allowed me the luxury of publishing photos alongside a little wording that explained the context - and served as a personal diary of recollections; stories that might otherwise fade from memory.  So for me, blogging was pretty much a personal process.  The fact that anyone else might possibly enjoy reading or looking at the pictures was pure bonus.  I'm well aware that it's pretty much a self-indulgent process and I won't mind at all if no one else finds it of any value.
I've never kept a diary and there are times when I regret that and think that maybe its true value would be long into the future when grandchildren might find my musings and it give them a glimpse into a different world.  Much as I have done recently reading what were largely everyday events in the brief pre-war diary my grandmother kept.  A little snapshot into a different time.

But life has simply got in the way recently and my best intentions, with many things, have simply had to be abandoned.  Anyone who has followed my previous writings may remember that we were flooded last August, losing two garden areas and everything in our cellar.   We made two insurance claims; one to replace all the contents we lost (which in retrospect fell a long way short of what we subsequently realised was lost) and another to clear the resulting mud and floodwaters and repair the physical damage to the property. 

I have to enjoy my hostas at these early pristine stages, as this is considered the most prized delicacy in the garden by my very healthy population of large snails.  Of course they're healthy, they gorge themselves nightly on all my lovely green goodies.  They think I'm totally fabulous for providing them with such a delicious and varied menu.

The entire process, even for our relatively modest damage, has been much more of a task than we could possibly have imagined at the time of the event - and one thing did tend to lead to another.  We've had a whole string of surveyors and builders poking the property and it ended up with us having a whole section of the house re-built and the drains under the house variously lined or replaced - not all of it covered by the insurance claims.  It was a total of 7 months of [expensive and disruptive] work.  Granted, if everyone had worked in a more timely manner, it was only really a few weeks work, but these things inevitably drag out to a disproportionate time-frame - most of it spent waiting for someone to produce a report, authorise materials or some-such other administrative delay.

And once the building work was actually declared finished, we were still left with an almighty mess to sort out.  Just about everything we own was covered with stone dust or mortar, my remaining little courtyard garden was pretty much trashed and we still have rain leaking in somewhere where it wasn't before the flood - all the repairs seemingly achieved, was shift it six feet along the wall.  A matter we still have to resolve under our own steam, but we think we've identified the problem and think we can fix it without engaging more tradesmen.

I love the shape and spotted 'bee approach' of these Mimulus flowers - and this one is augmented by soft raindrops clinging to it - and I have a pendant based on the shapes already started in copper.

So every spare minute since has been spent finally cleaning and trying to restore my tiny little garden to some of its former glory, so that at least I can enjoy it, should we get a summer in 2013.   At least we're faced with this task at the best possible time of year.   We're also using the opportunity to turn the cellar into a more useful space and part-workshop for some of my processes.  That has progressed well, but can wait to be finished whilst the good weather favours progress outside first.

Added to these flood-initiated tasks, a close family member also had a recent accident and is currently resident in a rehabilitation centre which necessitates a 120 mile round visit a couple of times a week to visit and manage their affairs, so that too is making a hole in our available 'spare' time.

Towards the end of the building work, the project manager rang me and said that the final skip outside would be collected in a couple of hours, so to make good use of it if I had anything that I wanted rid of.  I'd been looking at some of my sorry looking plants - those that had survived had not been tended to over winter as I simply couldn't get to them, so many that survived the flood had since fallen into a sorry state due to my own enforced neglect.

So in a slight fit of pique, I ceremoniously dumped the contents of many of my large pots (my entire garden is in pots) into the skip, deciding that a new start might be more therapeutic than trying to make the best of a bad job.  I already knew that I'd have a lot of work to do out there, so had left a little of the insurance settlement to buy new plants and had been squireling away a few pennies to add to it too.  It turned out to be a great decision, it has been much more fun buying new and starting over.  There were some nice surprises though too, a couple of plants I'd put in last year, treated as annuals, were coming up again, so whilst I lost what felt like a lot, it wasn't as bad as I'd been fearing, once I took stock and started on the remedial work.  And some of the sorry looking specimens have responded better than expected to a lot of watering and feeding and the therapeutic sunshine we've had of late.

This area was a building site a month ago (the replaced drains were right under this spot, about 5 feet down) so I'm delighted that it's starting to look like a garden again now.  I took the photos about 3 weeks ago, so the plants are already twice the sizes here.

I decided that rather than get depressed and over-faced by the enormity of the task, I'd set aside a short period each day to make some progress - if I gave it 30 minutes each day I was sure that I'd soon see results.  That approach paid dividends, once I set myself the task of concentrating on a square meter at a time, it actually wasn't as bad as I feared and the improvement was tangible within a handful of days.  Once things start flowering, it should hopefully look pretty fabulous again - I have planted a lot of blousy fuchsias and wall hangers full of lobelia for reliable colour that my prolific and hungry snails thankfully don't like.

As we've had a spell of nice weather recently, we've indulged ourselves a couple of evenings out in our favourite woodland and a couple of evenings ago, it was about as perfect as it gets, it was a long warm evening with a pretty much cloudless sky and we had the place almost to ourselves, it's very much a daytime place and often very quiet in the evening, so is our favourite time.  We pack something to eat and head off after work and recharge the batteries.

If you're a regular reader, you'll know of my oft-stated passion (and a real need) for being amongst trees and seeing sunlight filter through them, there's little else makes me as happy and does me as much good.  My happiness is cheaply bought:

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

I wondered why it had gone quiet

We have two small garden areas running along the length of the house, which is quite long and thin, resulting in two long thin gardens too.  One of these is under the shade of large trees, so not much grows there, so we keep a number of bird feeders out there that we can see from the windows on that side of the house to enjoy our feathery visitors.

Because we live near some decent tracts of woodland and open farmland too, we get a pretty decent selection of birds visiting, from the standard garden friends of blue tits, great tits, coal tits, robins, chaffinches, sparrows, dunnocks, blackbirds, thrushes, collared doves, goldfinches, green finches and siskin, to slightly less well seen wild birds, like wrens, bull finches, nuthatches, tree creepers, wood pigeons and long tailed tits.

We also get occasional treats like this bemused looking female greater spotted woodpecker that sat on the railings in the rain for quite some time last week - looking upwards around herself, pointedly blinking as though it were waiting for someone.  They're usually very timid and the slightest movement inside the window causes them to take flight, but I was able to go about my work near the window and watch her for some time.  Maybe she was a youngster and not yet learnt to be scared of human movement.  We certainly know that our local pair had a brood last summer as Mum put a lot of effort into getting food from the feeders for them and then brought the youngsters to show them one of her favourite eateries.

But having put fresh food on the table at breakfast time yesterday and filled all the hanging feeders, I'd got used to the sound of the goldfinches and blackbirds especially squabbling over the food - I don't know why they put so much effort into fighting over it when there is plenty for all of them.  Two robins had a significant airborne battle the day before over ownership of the ground table, when there are enough sources and locations of food for them to both fill to busting without bloodshed.

But as I started clearing the breakfast table and washing up, I was aware of it becoming very quiet, so I looked out of the kitchen window expecting there to be a local cat staked out in the garden.  But quite often with cats, the birds just stay a bit higher and swear and hurl abuse at the cat, but this silence was quite eery. 

Then I spotted the culprit - much more exciting than my neighbours black and white moggy.  But possibly much more dangerous too.  Certainly faster.  No wonder the birds had vanished and those that stayed around weren't drawing attention to themselves.  

I think this is a male sparrowhawk.  We've had them visit the garden before - the very fact that we get a good selection of birds presents them with a running buffet and even the tree cover doesn't thwart them, they're designed for and adept at negotiating through woodland, although it's true to say that my best sightings have always been when there is less leaf cover at this sort of time of year.

Normally all you see is flash of movement, the sense of a shadow passing, occasionally a cry of alarm from the prey or birds adjacent and then the same eery silence.  Sometimes they'll settle nearby to pluck and eat their catch.   That's the only time I've been able to photograph them before.  

I just spotted this male as he stretched and his head and shoulders came in to view above the low garden wall - he was settled on a branch beneath the level of the bird tables - as our garden is higher than the adjacent land - which is where he had settled himself for a stake out.   I actually typed 'take out' there - maybe I was right the first time. 

I might have missed him had he not stretched upwards and his familiar stripey jumper had come in to view.  As he was low, I was going to have to get high to take any photos.  He stayed there for quite some time and as you can see above, he was clearly aware of me and checked me out periodically, but seemingly wasn't troubled by me at all.  By the end, I was stood on steps at the window with my camera at arms length atop my walking pole which has a tripod mount in the handle, using it as a monopod.    The light was incredibly low and murky and he was down beneath deep railway bankings in shadow, so the images are rather poor quality.

He'd occasionally stretch and flap his wings and swapped the leg he was standing on - the other being tucked up under his tummy feathers and periodically, an unwary bird would venture onto one of the feeders above which would cause him to watch it intently, as above.  I didn't see him leave in the end, he'd been there for almost an hour.  So I don't know if he managed to snag a snack, or just got bored with waiting for it to land in front of him.

Either way, it was an hour that totally stopped me getting any work done at all.  But I don't regret it for a moment, sometimes it's worth just enjoying whatever treat the day presents you with.  Because you never know how long it might be, if ever, before it happens again.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Egg slicers and lessons learned

Whilst sitting here contemplating the embarrassment of yet again feeling it necessary to apologise for my blogging tardiness, something caught the corner of my eye - it moved as I did, forming the impression that whatever it was, was stuck in my hair.

Hoping that it wasn't a spider or something else with more legs than me, I grabbed a mirror to check it out.  Thankfully it didn't have any legs; it was a tomato pip. 

I think I showed this pendant in my last blog as raw clay awaiting firing.

Now I just know that the first thought you had was that I must be an awfully messy eater to get one in my hair, especially at eye level - and that's an accusation that the state of the front of my shirt would undermine any efforts to deny - but there is a story as to how it found its way to end its days in my hair - and I'm glad I got my hair cut this morning and not after my lunch. 

I've no doubt posted here before about how I value washing up time.  Whilst washing up is rather a chore, I do think it's an important part of my day - especially washing the breakfast pots.  It gives me a buffer of good thinking time.  I often plan what I have to do that day and often do my best thinking whilst elbow deep in soap suds.  I can think through the stages of how I'm going to make something, work out the order for processes etc.

Another finished flowery clay pendant

I think that I must have quite a visual brain as I can actually virtually make something without picking up a tool - I mentally work through the stages and often overcome snags and can see in advance how I might have stumbled somewhere along the line had I not done a mental dummy run. 

But today my breakfast-pot-thinking wasn't quite so constructive.  As I washed the egg slicer my husband had used in preparation of his lunch, I contemplated if it could be used for other items you wanted slicing - or if the texture of a hard boiled egg was unique in its suitability for slicing with wire in that manner.  I could see that the wires were too flimsy for something hard like a raw carrot, but it struck me that it might have additional uses that I'd not considered before.

A rosebud knot bracelet I made as a Christmas commission, to match one of my rosebud knot necklaces.

Skip forwards to the next meal of the day and as I started shredding lettuce and rocket for a cheesy salad wrap for my lunch, I felt the texture of the cherry tomatoes in my hand and my eye drifted to the egg slicer still on the draining board. The tomato didn't feel dissimilar to a hard boiled egg.  It was worth a try.

Just at the very point where my brain was forming the thoughts that it didn't appear to be working and that maybe I should stop before something gave way - I was worried about the slender wires at that point - it was already too late.  A great spurt of cold juice and pips hit me straight in the side of the face.  It had spread from my forehead, into my eye, down my cheek and neck and all over the front of my clothes.  I reckon that sub-1" diameter tomato - most of which still appeared to be trapped in the egg slicer - had shot its pips over at least an 18" diameter cone of fridge-cold messiness.

A flower variant of my previous twiddle and bud earrings.  I've modded the methods a little and think it works rather better.

I am so glad I was alone, it must have looked hilarious, it sure as heck made me laugh very hard - after the initial squeal of exclamation.  You wouldn't believe the velocity those pips gained, or the area they covered.  So I can't say I was that surprised to find one last one lodged in my hair - and there's bound to be one down my bra - it's always a little disgraceful that food falls out of my undergarments when I get undressed for bed.   And don't tell my husband that I then had to spend several minutes with pliers re-tensioning, straightening and re-aligning the wires in the bloody egg slicer too - I wasn't the only one that tomato did harm to.

So, in short, it looks like egg slicers should be reserved for the slicing of hard boiled eggs and nothing more.  Another life lesson learned the hard way.

My batch of bronze clay pieces ready for firing.  I kept to simple pieces initially as I was testing some new techniques (hand drawing my own textures and photopolymer plates etc.) as well as kiln firing it.

Another lesson learned of late was that kiln firing of metal clay is a whole minefield of new discovery too - torch firing isn't ideal for a multitude of reasons, but it's certainly more predictable. 

I ventured into some work with bronze as well as copper.  It transpires that bronze has a whole different set of issues that copper doesn't - its alloy with tin for the most part. 

I made a batch of relatively simple bronze pieces to do as my first batch.  Because kiln firing takes a decent amount of time and uses quite a chunk of electricity, I rather arrogantly fired a whole batch as my first 'bronze' firing.  I knew that I should have done a 'test' first - but I'm not keen on testing, I prefer to do what I call 'working tests' in that I use real-world pieces as my test pieces.  If they fail, a test piece would have failed too, but if it's a success, you do at least have something to show for it.  I should however have left the better pieces out of that first batch and only fired the most simple whilst I ascertained what worked.

Thankfully I took some photos of them before firing (see above), otherwise you'd never believe me.  It's actually a habit I'm going to get into with my kiln work - taking a before and after photo of each batch I fire, to tie in with my kiln diary - so that I can check retrospectively which brand of clay I used and the firing schedule for any particular piece.

Ouch!  A big chunk of me is embarrassed to even show this.

The first piece I removed and quenched hissed and the firescale popped off, as it does, but then the piece largely disintigrated in the water - and that it certainly shouldn't do.  I knew I couldn't do anything to change the outcome of the remaining pieces, so hoping that as I'd removed the front-most item in the kiln which was in the coolest spot, those further back might be in better shape.  They weren't.  They crumbled like a Jaffa Cake does when you dunk it in hot coffee - not that I'd do such a crass thing, but my husband does have a penchent for both Jaffa Cakes and dunking and I've seen the messy results many times.    The bottom of my quench bowl looked much the same.

So having taken advice, I'm certainly going to have to carbon fire in future and possibly adjust my temperature up a smidge and lengthen hold times too - I suspect that my kiln runs a little cool, as I'd followed the manufacturers directions for that batch and they clearly weren't even close to being sintered. 

So maybe now is the time to embrace the concept of proper testing.  I've invested too much time into my current waiting-to-be-fired batches of work to want them to end up like the contents of Mr Boo's empty coffee cup.  Thankfully, since writing this initially, a second [test] batch of bronze, fired in carbon, were rather better.  Not perfectly sintered, but at least they came out looking like bronze.  I know what I need to do to correct the remaining issues.

Half of me felt like giving up on base metal clay work and the other half remained more determined than ever.  Boy in this process frustrating.  I love working with the clay itself - and I've already learned gob-loads in 2013 - but the firing process just plain gives me the willies.  Thankfully, I'm doing rather better with copper:


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