I was asked to create an artefact that spoke to the idea of a two year old girl’s first words being a premonition about meeting her future husband. The words were, ‘man over water.’ And the idea was the thread of her father’s speech at her recent wedding.*
The wedding speech went down so well with her new father-in-law, that a wine fuelled conversation between him and her father resulted in the commission. I was free to make anything I chose, though the commissioner (let’s call him Estragon) knows me as a writer and photographer. And my initial idea was to make a collage with my own photography, but as I worked on it it turned into something quite different!
I have a tendency to get lost in research, my student essays could get pretty messy, and this was no different. I badgered poor Estragon for information about exact locations and asked for photographs of the bride as a child, and plundered his Facebook page for wedding photos.
Once I had those I examined the words man, over, and water; writing out the dictionary definitions on a sheet of paper I’d printed with the colour of the bridesmaid dresses. For a while I became obsessed with that colour, a seaside blue-grey, spending hours working out the hex code.
I also searched my archive for a photograph of the sea, or some kind of water (focusing on a glass of water for some time), and the internet for a picture of a lego figure.
All this I laid out on my table hoping some kind of alchemy would take place while I wasn’t looking.
After letting things stew for a while I began to try and build. I chose a photograph of Loch Linnhe I’d taken on a trip to Mull some years ago. I scanned the photo of the bride, aged two, and I found one of a lego man. I played with the definitions: adult male human; extending upwards from or above; the liquid which forms the seas, lakes, rivers and rain and is the basis of the fluids of living things.
I also sent away for embroidery floss the colour of the bridesmaid dresses and began to make tiny stitches on a random square of canvas.
I had a print, from a past exhibition, of the loch photo, but I’d scrawled all over it. On trying to make a new print I discovered that it didn’t render well on the, not cheap, photo paper I had. It looked muddy. I tried to convince myself it looked fine, that I was too fussy, but I couldn’t bring myself to use it. I considered ordering better paper, the best I’ve found is Hahnemuhle photo rag, but time and cost were against me. I had to rethink.
I kept making those tiny stitches and as I did so I remembered that painting by Katsushika Hokusai and began to make small alterations to the direction of the needle.
A structure began to assert itself in my imagination, but I was still thinking of a collage at this stage and started going through old Vogues looking for images. I also printed, on ordinary paper, various sizes of lego men, as well as the two year old focus of the commission.
Waves started forming on the canvas, I added some new blues.
Dave and I went to Kirkcudbright to see The Galloway Hoard.
I began to think of cave paintings and spent ages looking at pictures of the Cave of the Swimmers. I made several sketches.
My head was now full of primitive art which became more and more abstracted as I sewed. The male and female symbols stepped boldly into my mind. I drew them in my sketchbook.
It had been weeks, I was worried Estragon may have given up on my ever delivering, but suddenly I knew what to do. I stopped embroidering waves and embroidered first the female symbol, then the male. I was happy with the female, not sure about the male. I carried on with the waves, alternating between the blue-grey of the bridesmaid dresses and two other blues: a brightish turquoise and a deep sapphire, in the hope of creating some depth.
While looking for something else, goodness knows what, I found a stash of square mounts. I hadn’t considered framing at all, but they looked much the same size as the canvas so I laid one over and the piece was transformed. The only problem being that part of the male symbol fell outwith the frame. I unpicked.
Now I had a frame I could properly consider placement. The water and the female symbol were fine, I could shift the mount enough to make their relationship to it work. After a number of attempts at placing the male symbol, and soiling the canvas in the process, I made him on a separate piece and played with his position until I was happy enough to sew him in place. That done, I just had to deal with a too large empty space.
I kept mulling over the wedding speech, and those definitions. And for a while I considered simply embroidering the words, Man Over Water in the space. But the notion premonition floated on the edge of my vision. Nostradamus came to call. I played with his name and the name of the bride.
Her father called her Roz a few times and, I thought: ‘NostRozdamus’! Then I thought: ‘The Prophecies of NostRozdamus’! Then I thought: ‘pRozephies!’ I let that stew.
I didn’t know what to do about a title. It seemed obvious that it should be called, Man Over Water, but how to convey it? I didn’t want to just write it on the mount; I needed some other way.
At the exhibition of The Galloway Hoard they’d had QR codes on posts that you could scan for more information on the individual exhibits. So I mused on that for a while. What would, or could, a QR code lead to? I considered a sound file. This sent my head into a spin: I could ask Dave to sing it! I could record myself reciting the definitions I’d written out! I could render it in morse code!
I embroidered, ‘The,’ ‘pRozephies’ and ‘#1’ on separate swatches of canvas as I considered my options. And looked into QR codes, sound files, and morse code. And after something of a learning curve; playing for hours with morse code options, and generally faffing with placement, it was done. **
*The couple had met on holiday in a country on the Mediterranean.
**Looking at these photos again, now, I see many small things I would change if I still had it, but I don’t. Maybe I’ll try another version?