Sometimes when you know someone you don't really notice what they are doing. Beryl Hammill was one of those people that it seemed like I knew, they were always working and when I saw their work I was always impressed but perhaps what I didn't do was really think about what they were doing. Now she is no longer with us and her weaving has stopped and I realise that what she represented was something very important, something that so easily gets forgotten and that is the lifelong preoccupation with what it is to see something.
For Beryl what it was to see something was also fused together with how to capture the seeing, how to hold it or trap it within the fibres of her weaving. She represented the paradox of art, what is experienced as a series of infinitely short moments, is communicated through hard fought and laboriously constructed image making. In her case the last few years of her life were often spent gazing, no not gazing, staring at the sea, watching how waves break, how colour refracts as the sea bulges, how the spray of breaking waters, reflects colours as well as creates tiny rainbows of broken white light as each water droplet curves through space, dropping and finally recombining with a newer parent wave. She looked for the various rhythms of movement and how they could be combined, the powerful swells of a huge beast like movement, played off against the fast chatter of small breakers as they roll over the edges of the land, rolling pebbles before them and trailing white patterns behind. She was watching for how blues and greens change with depth, how yellow sunlight fuses with seaweed shot moments of unexpected colour as it waves within waves as the sea flows over the rocks that it breaks upon.
Sometimes the drawn marks would be annotated by short bursts of writing, reminding us that writing is so very like drawing, the calligraphy of her hand contained in the shaping of letters as much as in the shaping of wavelets.
There are other moments of observation to be found in her sketchbooks, usually made when her attention wandered from the re-creation of moving water, such as the drawing above, made as she responded to a jumble of sea birds as they cluttered across the beach. These drawings have a lot of humour in them, in particular I love the way that she has found in her quick marks a bird snail.
She filled many notebooks with her studies, each drawing an attempt to create a mark set that would echo what she had seen. Colours combine in a drawing to recreate both texture and rhythm, the white of the paper a space analogous to the expanse of open water before her, the marks breaking spaces as waves break through the rolling body of sea as it nears its edge. The fact that she was drawing on the coast of Australia, looking out at a body of water that stretched from where she was to Antartica somehow makes the edge between the sea and the land that bit more special. The sea has met an unexpected barrier to its forever swell of forward momentum, it has to break from its customary pattern and find outlets for its energy in waves and foam and breakers, in those wonderful waves that tunnel over surfers as they cut into the moving edges of the waves. And there sat Beryl, for hours on end staring those waves down, looking into their heart and trying to decide what made them tick. What made the waves and what made the images that she saw, were two makings, one in the physical world and the other in the mind, that would combine in a third, the drawings made. The mind can only catch so much of the perceived wave the hand can only catch so much of the necessary movement needed to stroke the brush in a manner like the wave, the mind and the hand now woven together with the sea, until something is captured that is held balanced on a moment, a frozen perception that is right for being preserved.
Beryl would take these drawings back to Yorkshire and would construct from them a template for weaving, and in doing so would set about the long slow process of making crafted images that could capture in the grids of their making the colour, the rhythm and the shapes of seeing that she had seen on that edge between the sea and the land.
The last time I saw one of Beryl's weavings it was left three quarters finished, its edges composed of partly woven hand dyed threads, their lengths as they separated from the body of the tapestry still wrapped around their spindles. The open edge of unfinished business, somehow right and proper, because seeing is never done, we will never see through to the reality behind things, because if we did there would be no place to go, nowhere else to travel, because we would know it all. But the struggle to remember what we have seen, the weaving of memories of moments of recognition into the tight weave of a tapestry, is still myth like in its potency. The Wyrd in European myth, was made of an invisible thread that followed everyone from the moment they were born. Your daily movements in effect weave your own tapestry. Atropos of the Fates would eventually cut the thread and whatever pattern your life had made was now fixed, and now that Beryl's drawings and tapestries are also finished, it is perhaps time to reflect on a life well lived and a pattern well woven.
Cezanne is an artist people go back to when they want refreshing. His lifelong struggle to show what it was to look at a landscape, or a bowl of fruit, is something that as artists we all wish we could emulate because he was able to cut through all the ideas and concepts and stories and take us back to the simple process of opening our eyes to see and in Beryl's straightforward Yorkshire way she has also left us with another legacy of looking.
Before posting I decided to check with Beryl's husband Terry to see if what I had to say about her work was accurate. He suggested a few additions.
Her favourite location for 'staring' was at the bottom left hand corner of Australia, facing west across the Indian Ocean and into the setting sun. This was important to her for the way light shone through the breaking waves - and how the waves themselves circle the globe endlessly, not really meeting land until they meet the tip of south west Australia, a place where surfers meet to experience some of the biggest waves on the planet. Looking to the left and way south is the Southern Ocean and the 'roaring forties' where the sea changes colour to an icy green and grey, a hint of distant Antartica.
Terry also pointed out that Beryl was a student at Leeds College of Art where she learned how to weave during the early sixties when Harry Thubron was there. We tend to think of the radical days of Leeds as being to do with new visual languages and the introduction of modern fabrication methods into the art school and forget that craft skills such as weaving were still being taught.
Drawing in Colour part 2
Beryl Hammill: Woven wave detail
Hand dyed threads of remembered sea colours beginning to be woven into one of her tapestries
Drawing in Colour part 2