It’s been a little while now since we ran the beeswax workshop at the gardens, so I’ve had a good chance to reflect. It was a very pleasant day, with people chatting, making things and sharing information and stories.
Part of the aim of the workshop was to emphasise the importance of creativity in waste reduction. This happened quite naturally, with people suggesting new recipes for cosmetics and customising their candles with herbs and flowers as we worked.
One of the greatest pleasures was to see people engaging with wax as a material and discovering its possibilities through making and experimentation. I felt that this opened up a space to think about what else can be done naturally, cheaply and outside of the commercial system.
I believe that by taking control of production, even with small things like this, we build the confidence and agency required to find alternatives to the current system; tiny acts of resistance which can form tributaries to a wider current of change.
So goes an old adage, referring to the ability of body heat to render beeswax malleable enough to work with. Its melting point is around 60 degrees centigrade, and it has a pleasing unctuous pliability when activated.
It’s possible to carve beeswax without warming it first (albeit this was on a summer’s day, which gave me a head start). I went to Global Gardens for one of their Saturday events, and made some preparations for my workshop, by whittling the wax block into small and easily meltable pieces.
Having trialled the spirit burner, it became apparent that I would need a more substantial source of heat. The little burner is fine for heating hand tools, but for working with the flat iron, and melting any decent quantity of wax, I’ll need a larger gas or charcoal fired stove.
I’ve been playing around with wax since I was a child. I would spend hours in the garage doing ‘candle play’ – melting and pouring waxes into fantastical stalactites and stalacmites, creating epic cascades of molten gloop, arrested in motion as they cooled, and forever sealing the material in my mind as truly magical.
A lot of my work in sculpture has essentially been an extention of these happy material adventures.
“Aaaaaaany old iron!” goes the call from the scrap van, as it passes by in hope of collecting discarded bits of metal from outside people’s homes. Many of our obsolete household items and car parts have embarked on a new adventure this way. It feels good to be giving people what they want and knowing that waste is going to the right place, all with minimum effort – and the added amusement of the idiosyncratic, ad-libbed calls from the scrap van’s tannoy.
For the beeswax workshop I’m doing at Global Gardens, I’ll need a working iron and a source of heat for melting wax. There’s no power on site, so I’ll have to improvise. This is in keeping with the spirit of the project, so is a welcome challenge.
The iron will be needed for applying melted wax to cloth squares to create reusable food wraps. I bought a rusty old flat iron from Cardiff Indoor Antiques Market, and had an interesting chat with the vendor, who refurbishes old ironware and tools as a hobby.
A squirt of WD40 and some wire brushing, and the iron had come up to usable condition. Now to find a heat source!
I purchased a spirit burner years ago for heating sculpture tools. The wick ran out and I never replaced it. It’s been lying dormant until now, its moment to shine again.
All I needed was a bottle of meths and a cloth rag. Once I have a new wick, I’ll have a functional mini-stove.
This silly little ironware pot is for making posh sauces, which explains its presence in the ‘reduced to clear’ section in Wilko. Combined with my burner and a cake cooling rack, it’s the idea way to melt small quantities of wax for the workshop.
No working area would be complete without a good selection of tools. I’ll be using a combination of sculpture tools, discount store bamboo sticks, and a Swiss Army knife to prepare the recipes and colour mixes for the workshop, more on which to follow…
In October 2018 I attended a seed-saving workshop at Global Gardens, a community garden based on the allotments near our site. We hulled and sorted beans, some of which are now growing on my plot, with the prospect of providing for us in the late summer.
This meeting was the beginning of a partnership with Poppy Nicoll of Global Gardens which led to me being invited to be their first Artist in Residence.
A short while after the workshop, I was looking for ways to fertilize my plot for free, having previously held a plot at a site in Luton with free horse manure available. I felt that there must be a way to do this here in Cardiff, and I had read that spent hops from beer making were a good source of nitrogen and other soil conditioning goodies. I contacted local craft breweries, and it wasn’t long before I had my upper body inside a wheelie bin full of hops, digging out that pungent green gold with my bare hands and stuffing it into plastic shopping bags.
I spread this bounty on my newly dug plot and slung a few bags to my neighbours (allotments being a gift economy) but was troubled by the knowledge that one full bin a week was going to Council composting, when it could be giving a free boost to local growers. I contacted Poppy and we met with the brewery, discussing a possible partnership while standing around the aforementioned wheelie bin in the car park.
It was in this spirit of collaboration that we began the Residency at Global Gardens, during which I will run a workshop, make zines and blog about our activities. The first workshop will explore uses of beeswax in domestic products. We will make waxed cloth food wraps, candles and simple cosmetics, and customise them with different fabrics, pigments and scents.
The workshop’s focus is on how natural products can be used to create useful, everyday items that either prevent uneccesary waste and packaging, or replace items that would normally be shop-bought. I have used beeswax, among many other natural, found or repurposed materials, in items made for use in the home, garden and allotment.
Shredded cardboard for the compost heap
Urine also for compost heap
Compost bins made from old pallets
My work as a sculptor often employs wax for modelling, mould-making and lost-wax bronze casting. Beeswax has formed an important part of my own specific recipe for modelling wax. I am looking forward to using this Residency to explore the uses of such natural materials in art, gardening and everyday life, with a view to achieving more sustainabile practices.
My nearest art gallery and new favourite London spot is Dulwich Picture Gallery. Their permanent contains many wonderful ornate frames, which are definitely Proper Shapes as they are sculpture in their own right. Only a couple of weeks after I spent a pleasant afternoon there drawing them, they held a free Curator’s tour on historic frames, so I went.
The tour was surprisingly well attended for a rather niche subject. In addition to a lively and informative presentation by the Curator, the Collection Manager treated us to a demonstration of opening an 18th century glazed frame with its original key. A tense and delicate struggle ensued as it stuck and she tried not to force it. I thought better of suggesting a bit of WD40.
We learned that the decision over whether to restore, replicate or replace historic frames is heavily influenced by conservation issues, but is essentially a curatorial one. Therefore, the frames in any art collection must be seen as a rich source of contextual information, and a significant factor in our experience of the art work, rather than something peripheral or secondary.
It was a treat to see a frame conservation technician working on a magnificent Titian frame in one of the galleries. It’s so valuable for the public to be educated in this way about art, to have a window onto its care and conservation. I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit conservation studios regularly as part of my job at the Tate, where I spoke to the experts on my ’rounds’ to update art work locations, and got an insight into what they were working on.
I had interjected several times during the talk to ask about the ornate mouldings on the frames: how they were made, when they dated from, what materials were used and why. I was therefore delighted to see that the Curator had brought some examples to illustrate the process. For some, the patterns were carved in wood and cast in plaster, the warm ‘compo’ mix being peeled from the mould in that magic time in between setting and hardening, when the material has enough strength to keep its shape, yet enough elasticity to emerge. These segments of ornament were then applied to the prepared surface of the wooden frame. I imagine that the more sculptural designs were modelled, moulded, cast and applied in a similar fashion – perhaps a more knowledgable reader can enlighten me.
I followed the tour with a coffee in the gardens. The cafe’s service is slow; so much the better when absorbed in a good book, the Autumn sun casting a deep, long shadowed clarity on the impressions of the interior.
The address 575 Wandsworth Road does not immediately conjure up images of exotic decorative fantasy. Yet this door, hidden behind unruly overgrowing trees and set back from a unlovely stretch of main road in South West London, is a portal to a strange realm. A realm where the handmade and the ad hoc come together with obsession, nostalgia and a deep, quiet sensibility to create one of the most extraordinary interiors I have ever seen.
The only way to experience this house is to join one of the wonderful tours provided by the National Trust, who manage the property. They provide an excellent summary on their website; I will not attempt to improve upon this in terms of the facts:
After a lively introduction to the tour, during which the small group sat around the kitchen table, we padded gingerly around the house in our slipper socks (provided for conservation reasons), viewing each of the highly unique rooms in turn. One of the guides described how, as a child, she had seen Kadambi around the area. He cut an unusual figure, but kept himself to himself, waiting patiently at the bus stop in his daily journey to work. I wonder where his mind went in those moments.
The overwhelming experience of 575 is how extremely personal it all is. Kadambi Asalache lived here until around 10 years ago. He quietly worked on his domestic masterpiece, day in and day out, using hand tools on materials he could salvage, in the time he had left around his day job.
The techniques, imagery and atmosphere are all deeply imbued with his cultural history, his aesthetic memory and emotional roots. The combination of these with other influences, such as English lustre ware, an eclectic selection of books and a collection of glass inkwells, make 575 all the more fascinating and touchingly homely.
I was reminded of others who had created great works alongside conventional occupations: Joris Karl Huysmans was a civil servant, yet produced one of the most bizarre and extreme works of Decadent literature, A Rebours. Anton Chekhov was a doctor; Franz Kafka worked in insurance. Was it the routine and obligation of their gainful employment that fuelled their art? Perhaps their restrictions made them more decisive. Had they had the luxury of time, like Proust, would they have ended up with six novels to every one they had published? We can be quite sure that Simon Rodia would not have built the breathtaking Watts Towers if he had come from means, if only because the shards of pottery he used were brought home from his paid job at the tile factory every day. So under what circumstances does the superfluous become a habit, a necessity?
In any case, the splendour of 575 is a humbling reminder that there is always time, should your vision be clear and true, to construct your world around you. And in that world, you can put whatever you like.
*The National Trust does not allow photography inside 575 Wandsworth Road. I have therefore borrowed images for this post from the National Trust website. These photographs are copyright David Clarke.*
Further reading: Here is a link to a fascinating article by Patrick Baty about 575 Wandsworth Road and Kadambi Asalache: