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SILTings: Filaments Art Collective on LV21

In the dark winter evening of February 2020, just before the even darker days of the first lockdown, Winter Gathering, a community festival produced by LV21 for Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, brought a welcoming glow to Ebbsfleet Valley, a new town in Kent.

Ruth Payne: Welcoming Hands, Winter Gathering, Ebbsfleet 2019
Ruth Payne’s walk through double arch of welcoming hands

I was there leading a Small Town collage workshop, with fairy lights twinkling behind a sheet of my ‘Small Town’ Liberty print fabric.

But the real magic of the evening was created by illuminated art pieces commissioned from Filaments Art Collective, a group of five Kent-based artists – Elizabeth Burman, Karen Crosby, Rosie James, Ruth Payne and Linda Simon.

Visitors were greeted by Ebbsfleet residents from long ago, depicted in old photographs projected large across the community centre, before joining the Gathering via a double arch of welcoming hands, made from latex gloves lit by fairy lights.

Elizabeth Burman: Miniature light boxes, Winter Gathering, Ebbsfleet 2020
Elizabeth Burman’s miniature light boxes

 

Inside, was a display of tiny, intimate light boxes, allowing pinpricks of light to filter through vintage photographs while, in contrast, an interactive, life-sized reflective textile work lit up with the flash from a phone camera.

Winter Gathering was Filaments’ second group exhibition. The women had known each other through local art networks for years before the opportunity to exhibit together arose.

Their first collaboration, a two-night event at St. Mary’s Church at Burham Kent, in January 2020, was called Filaments. It explored thread and light and opened to the public only after darkness had fallen.

Rosie James: Reflective textile installation, Winter Gathering, Ebbsfleet, 2020
Rosie James’s reflective textile work lit up at the flash of a camera phone

Installations used textiles, installation, candlelight, reflective materials, light boxes and projections, and the whole was created and curated to complement the church.

Afterwards, the artists agreed that the name of the show encapsulated their work perfectly, and adopted it as the name of their collective.

Filaments Art Collective‘s work is site specific, telling stories about locations and the people and activities associated with them.

‘We approach a brief in our own unique way,’ explains Linda Simon. ‘Some of us are textile-based artists, others focus on projection and light, so we each draw on our particular interests to interpret a brief. But our work is not completely individual. There are always threads that link everything together.’

Exhibiting aboard LV21 for SILTings

LV21 with Linda Simon's 'Tethered'
Filaments are exhibiting on LV21 as part of SILTings

After more than a year when they’ve been unable to exhibit together because of COVID, Filaments are finally bringing their magical, creative touch to LV21 in Gravesend, as part of SILTings  – a programme of new artwork and performances created in response to the forgotten stories and hidden histories of the Gravesham riverfront.

‘Filaments is one of the jolliest artist collectives I’ve met and a joy to work with,’ says Päivi Seppälä, co-owner and director of LV21. ‘The site-specific nature of the group’s work and the invisible thread that runs through their collective, yet distinct, approach and which joins their individual practices together, fits the collaborative concept of SILTings perfectly.’

Elizabeth Burman, artist, LV21, Filaments
Elizabeth Burman: Magnetic light boxes on LV21

Originally SILTings was due to take place during Estuary Festival in September 2020, so the initial commission ideas were focused on outdoor projections and illuminated artworks to brighten up the dark autumn evenings.  But all this changed when the festival had to be rescheduled for May/June 2021 when the evenings are much lighter.

‘Filaments were unfazed by the challenge,’  Päivi  continues. ‘The group quickly responded with clever new ideas inspired by local stories and created a wonderful body of new bespoke works for people to enjoy both on and off the ship.’

The Filaments exhibition runs throughout the SILTings weekend, from the 4th-6th June 2021, and is one of four Creative Estuary commissioned creative cultural projects with Estuary-based producers and artists, to contribute to the Associated Programme for Estuary 2021.

More details about how you can visit the exhibition in person or virtually can be found below.  But for now, sit back and meet the artists.

Elizabeth Burman

Elizabeth Burman, artist
Elizabeth Burman

Elizabeth decided to study art when her youngest daughter went to primary school. Her background is in pottery and printmaking but her work for LV21 draws on her passion for old ephemera and discarded photographs.

‘An afternoon leafing through strangers’ once treasured moments in a junk shop is heaven to me,’ she says. ‘I love rummaging around the all the unusual objects, textures and images and I feel I replicate the mishmash of paraphernalia when I make collages. It’s instinctual to me to place particular shapes and colours beside one another. The manipulation of photographs and paper materials fascinates me, particularly as we increasingly move towards a paperless culture.’

Elizabeth Burman: Filaments on LV21, 2021
Elizabeth’s illuminated fish tins on LV21

 

Elizabeth’s  work for SILTings focuses on Bawley Bay, which is a tiny piece of riverside adjacent to St Andrew’s Church in Gravesend, next to where LV21 is moored. It was once the heart of Gravesend’s fishing community.

The Bay was named after the shrimp boats that used to moor there. During the 19th century, over  a hundred Bawley boats worked from this one small stretch of the river. Gravesend was a tourist resort then and Victorian tourists loved the local delicacy of brown shrimps.

‘Bawley’ is thought to be a corruption of ‘boiler boat’ because the shrimps were cooked on board so that they were ready to be sold as they were landed. My Great Aunt Hilda used to work in Warners Shrimp Merchant on Cross Street, near the river in Gravesend, preparing shrimps to sell to tourists in Rosherville Pleasure Gardens.

Elizabeth Burman, artist, Filaments, LV21, 2021
Another of Elizabeth’s illuminated fish tins on LV21

For her first installation for Filaments on LV21, Elizabeth used old photographs of people enjoying Gravesend as a riverside holiday destination. She mounted these in magnetic fish tins, to be displayed on the steel surfaces around the lightship.

‘I made holes sporadically around the photos with pins, and put a light in the back so they’re like little light boxes,’ she says. ‘When I visited the LV21, I took some of the tins with me and they were sticking to the boat walls wherever I went. It was fantastic. It was like the whole ship was a gallery. I’m going to make as many as I can and put them all round the ship and move them around every day, so the display is constantly changing.’

Elizabeth Burman: Shrimp chandelier
Elizabeth Burman: Shrimp chandelier

 

 

Her second installation references Gravesend’s shrimping heritage directly. She has constructed a magnificent chandelier, made up of over a thousand hand-made paper shrimps. The chandelier will hang in front of the base of LV21’s lantern tower in the lower deck space and will be lit to cast mesmerising shadows on the walls.

Karen Crosby

Karen Crosby, artist, Filaments
Karen Crosby

After working in retail for 25 years, Karen Crosby’s life changed direction when she took a new job in a secondary school. Seeing that she was good at art, the school placed her in the art department and then supported her to get a BA so she could become an art teacher. She was an ‘A’ student. Her BA degree show, a film Traces of Snodland Mill was showcased for the Platform award 2012, at the Turner Contemporary in Margate.

After her BA, Karen went on to do a Masters, where her success continued. In 2015, her MA work was selected for the tour of France, as part of a cross-border collaboration between Maison de l’Art et de la Communication in Lens, France and 51zero Festival  in Medway, Kent.

With her MA completed, Karen left teaching and set up as a professional artist, working from a studio in Sittingbourne, Kent.

Carol Crosby, artist, Traces of Sittingbourne projection
Karen Crosby: ‘Traces of Sittingbourne’

‘It was while I was there that I got my first funding to do some projections showing old photos of Sittingbourne  in the places they were originally taken,’ she recalls. ‘I love playing with images, mixing the past and the present. Using projection is simple and interesting and it looks great.’

From there Karen was commissioned to do a similar projects in London’s Brick Lane, featuring people and cultural change in Brick Lane over a hundred years ago. Another projection event, The Last of the London, took place at the derelict site of the old London Hospital in Whitechapel Road and told the story of the hospital.  Point of Arrival was a series of projections at the Tower of London, charting the arrival into Victorian London of Jewish immigrants,  fleeing persecution and hardship in eastern Europe.

 

Karen Crosby: Last of the London - A tribute to the former Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel Road
Karen Crosby: Last of the London projection
Karen Crosby, Point of arrival projection, Tower of London, 2019
Karen Crosby: Point of Arrival projection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her work  with Filaments on LV21 is also a projection. Like Elizabeth, Karen is using old photographs.

Filaments, LV21, 'Ivy Rose'
Ivy Rose on holiday in Gravesend

She had intended to research people who worked or lived near or on the River Thames at Gravesend, but COVID made that difficult.

Instead, she used photographs of the famous Gravesend riverside family, the Sutherlands on their Bawley Boat, The Thistle, which is now being  refurbished in Faversham, along with pictures of sent in by the daughter of Ivy Rose, whose late mother spent her WRAF leave in Gravesend, with friends, during WWII.

‘I like things that dissolve that you can’t quite see,’ Karen explains. ‘I took some film of the water and  it was a really sunny day, so I’ve got lovely, sparkly water reflections. And I’ve put old pictures of boats, places, people, shrimpers, going in and coming out, so they look like they’re submerged in the water.’

Karen’s projections will be shown in the engine room on LV21, which houses the lightship’s original rotating lantern.
‘When the lantern is on, its moving light will make the images appear and disappear as well, so it should look quite magical,’ Karen says.

Rosie James

Rosie James, artist, Filaments
Rosie James

Rosie worked as a radiographer for years while she was, as she puts it, ‘faffing about’  trying to decide what to do with herself. She then studied for a degree in textiles and an MA in Art Textiles at Goldsmiths, before going on to teach fashion and textiles.

It was attending a course about a subject that she didn’t want to teach and which, as it turned out, nobody wanted to learn, that determined Rosie’s future artistic direction.

‘Someone asked me to teach free machine embroidery which I didn’t do and I didn’t have a clue about,’ she laughs. ‘ But they insisted that I teach it, so I did a week’s course in it at City Lit in London and it was brilliant! And as I was doing it I was thinking, Oh wow! I can do lots of things with this. The course I was supposed to teach didn’t happen because it didn’t get enough students but by this time I was off – I’d just decided that this was brilliant.’

Rosie James: Ripley Wedding detail
Rosie James: Ripley Wedding detail

Rosie’s stitched drawings pictures often feature people and crowds but more recent work has seen her, increasingly, finding ways to make statements through her work.

‘When I’m stitching figures, I have lots of loose threads dangling off them, Rosie explains. ‘And I’m becoming more and more interested in using these loose threads to actually say something. So they’re becoming bigger and bigger and more part of the scene’

In her exhibition The Power of Stitch at Ideas Test in Sittingbourne, Rosie used the trailing threads as power lines connecting pylons to stitched images of women sewing

I  was linking the loose threads to pylons that were creating energy,’ she says. ‘So basically, the women were powering the world through their sewing.’

Rosie James: The Power of Stitch Rosie James: The Power of Stitch Rosie James: The Power of Stitch

Rosie James: The Power of Stitch

Olive Sutherland aboard a Bawley Boat

For her Filaments installation on LV21, Rosie has used thick cords and threads and various coloured fabrics to produce four large-scale stitched sails, featuring the Sutherland family and their Bawley Boat.

‘I used the photos of the Sutherlands – Eileen, Olive and Bill – to stitch drawings on old dinghy sails and then I thought they needed some words,’ Rosie explains. ‘There is a poem by TS Eliott called The Dry Salvages, which is beautiful and has some lovely words around work – about bailing and hauling. So I used those words to get across the poetics of what the people are doing. The words are appliquéd on in watery, slithery, shiny colours.’

For SILTings, two of Rosie’s sails will be hung the outer hull of LV21, billowing in the wind for passers-by to see, while the other two (Eileen and Olive) will be inside as a backdrop to one of Karen’s projections, featuring an image of the Sutherland’s Bawley Boat The Thistle disappearing into the water.

Rosie James, Filaments, LV21, 2021Rosie James, Filaments, LV21, 2021

Eileen Sutherland aboard a Bawley Boat

Rosie’s embroidered sails, inspired by old photographs, are installed inside and outside the lightship

Ruth Payne

Ruth Payne, artist, Filaments
Ruth Payne

‘I am currently obsessed by diatoms and coccolithophores,’ says Ruth Payne. ‘The smaller things are, the more I love them. As soon as Päivi mentioned SILTings and stories, I thought instead of doing human stories, I would explore the life cycles of the tiny things that live in the water and make up the sediment and the silt of the Thames Estuary. They’re what everything else is based on. The things that I’m drawing are what the shrimps and other water life would be eating.’

Ruth Payne: Digital Collage - Digidiatom 2
Ruth Payne: Digidiatom 2

Ruth’s installation on LV21 with Filaments has arisen through her collaboration with Dr Anna Freeman, an environmental scientist. It involves intricate, enlarged drawings of microscopic images of phytoplankton, which she uses to play with ideas of scale and importance, and how we often conflate the two.

Ruth’s  digidiatoms are a series of magnetic digital collages of diatoms that will be fixed to the inside of Lv21’s hull

Ruth Payne: Installation for SILtings, LV21, 2021
Ruth’s installation on LV21

 

Her main installation for SILTings, however, is in two parts. Each is laid out in a circle on the main deck  in the lightship’s Recreation Room.

There are 6 drawings of diatoms on circular mirrors.

‘Diatoms float encased in silica shells – their own little glass houses – they are found in all water habitats, and around the world, diatoms are responsible for producing a large part of the oxygen that we breathe today,’ Ruth explains. ‘They are stunning!’

The mirrors, which reference the surface of the water and the structure of the organism, also use the viewers’ reflected image to place them within the work, so they become part of the organism’s life cycle.

There are also 6 drawings on plaster.

‘These are the coccolithophores, which live in marine environments, but flow up the estuary with the tide as far as Gravesend,’ says Ruth. ‘I’ve magnified images of these beautiful little organisms onto plaster using carbon paper. They have little plates made of calcium and when they sink to the bottom of the ocean floor, over millions of years they are compressed to form chalk, limestone and gypsum crystals, which are the materials that make up the plaster that I’ve cast the discs from.’

Ruth Payne: Campylodisca

Ruth Payne: Campylodisca

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ruth Payne: Diatom Campylodisca, Coccolithophore Emiliana huxleyi and Diatom Stephanopyxis

Ruth has been working as an artist since she graduated in 2002.

Drawing has become important to her over the last few years, but Ruth’s work also includes large-scale installations, digital collage, performance and textiles. Her work is often associated with the psychological charge of difficult domestic environments or the impact of invisible illness, and the psychology of creativity.

Ruth Payne: House
Ruth Payne: House

 

‘I have a fascination with psychology that feeds into my work,’ Ruth explains. ‘For a long time I seemed to be making work that you physically could go into and hunker down. I was making the shelters for me but I wanted to share them so people could escape the sometimes difficult outside world.

 

Ruth Payne: Pale Cuboid
Ruth Payne: Pale Cuboid

‘I made an installation called ‘House’ which is a 6 x 6 ft house shape of rough timber. The walls are constructed of patchwork fabric offcuts, which were destined for landfill. Inside are handmade cushions and blankets and a little bowl of sweets and you can go in, get cosy and hide.

‘And I also made another translucent patchwork structure Pale Cuboid, filled with 42 of my haiku that I’d written out many, many times on little bits of tissue paper. And they were like leaves. Viewers can go inside and sit on the stool and leaf through the haiku. It is a space to reflect, to be outside of the usual world.’

 

‘But of late, that kind of work is sort of passing through,’ she concludes. ‘I’m concentrating more on drawing and the building blocks of life, on ecology, the natural world and how we humans inhabit and interact with it.’

Linda Simon

Linda Simon
Linda Simon

Linda Simon has been working as an artist since she graduated from UCA, Canterbury in 2013. Before that, she held various positions in IT which, she believes, have influenced the kind of work she makes.

‘I often work with encoded information and I like to use alternative communication systems,’ she says. ‘So when Päivi was talking about the ebb tide flag system that is used by the Port of London Authority to alert people to the dangers of the estuary, I was immediately drawn to that as a possible subject for my SILTings installation.’

Linda Simon: Fluffy flags
Linda’s fluffy flags are based on the International Code of Signals

However, while Linda was researching the fluvial flow warning systems and finding very little information, she stumbled across the International Code of Signals – a series of nautical flags used to communicate vital information to sea-faring vessels around the world.  She decided to design a series of flags to be hoisted up aboard LV21 for people to view from the shore.

‘I had been using a traditional latch hook rug tufting method to interpret a number of drawings I’d made by using a set of rules determined by the throw of a dice. The strong graphic elements used within the flag imagery really lent themselves to translation using the latch hook method, and thus my ‘fluffy flags’ were born’.

Linda Simon: Fluffy Dice Drawing No 8 with the original Dice Drawing

‘I love the fact that each flag is a letter or a number so you can spell out individual messages, but also that each flag or pair of flags have their own distinct meanings,’ she says. ‘So my fluffy flags are composed of two flags, and each pair has a different meaning. I chose meanings that either amuse me, such as ‘I am on fire’ or that can be read metaphorically to reference situations we’ve found ourselves experiencing this past year. For instance, one says ‘No-one is allowed on board’. Another says, ‘You should not come any closer.  I also did a combination of eight flags that spelled out ‘StaySafe’’

Linda Simon: Fluffy flags on LV21
Linda’s fluffy flags on LV21
Linda Simon: Fluffy flags 'Stay safe'
Stay safe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Linda Simon: No Entry
Linda Simon: No Entry

‘Often finding an unusual material is the starting point for my art,’ she explains. ‘I’ve been working with safety materials for the last three or four years. Some of the work I’ve made for the ship uses hazard warning tape and I’ve made two big signs – No Entry and Caution which are going to be used to help direct visitors around the lightship.’

Linda’s final piece for SILTings is a flag constructed from yellow plastic barrier mesh and red and white hazard tape, entitled Tethered. It was conceived during the first lockdown and refers to the restricted feelings experienced by many people during this period.

Linda says, ‘It just felt so perfect for LV21 and I’m thrilled to be able to fly it from the flagpole at the stern of the ship.’

CLICK TO EXPAND THE VIDEO

Further information

Filaments
The Filaments exhibition runs from 4-6 June 2021 and can also be viewed online. There will be a limited number of facilitated 30-minute group visits to see the artworks aboard LV21 between 12 – 4pm each day,  if C-19 restrictions allow.

Pre-booking is recommended as places are very limited.

Details of how to book will be available from 28th May on the event website . For any enquiries please email TheCaptain@LV21.vo.uk.

A series of live online IGTV recordings will provide a digital tour of the artworks with behind the scenes interviews with the artists and audiences during the festival weekend.

There will be accompanying creative activities, and meet the artist opportunities. Resource packs can be picked up along the quayside between 11am-4pm on Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th June.

A short video featuring all SILTings artists and their artworks will also be released online after the event,  later in June.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/filamentsartcollective
Instagram: @filaments.art  https://www.instagram.com/filaments.art/

Future exhibitions:
– LV21, Gravesend as part of SILTings  – 4th-6th June 2021
– St. Mary’s Burham, Kent – October 2021

 

 

Elizabeth Burman
Instagram
@Eliza_ink
@thedailyink
@earth.spinned.and.fire


Karen Crosby
Website:
http://www.karencrosbyart.com/
Instagram:  @karcro1
Facebook:  Karen Crosby Artist & Photographer

Rosie James
Website: http://www.rosiejames.com/
Instagram: @rosiejamestextileartist

 

Ruth Payne
Website:
https://ruthpayneartist.wordpress.com/
Instagram: @ruthpayneart
Facebook: Ruth Payne

Linda Simon
Website: www.lindasimon.co.uk
Instagram: @linda_simon_artist
Facebook: Linda Simon 

 


SILTings
https://lv21.co.uk/projects/siltings/

See also my first SILTings blog SILTings: The Trail of the Blue Porcupine

The Estuary Festivalhttps://www.estuaryfestival.com/

Creative Estuary https://www.creativeestuary.com/

 

 

 

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SILTings: The Trail of the Blue Porcupine

At 11am on Saturday 5th June 2021, blue porcupines will start to appear at various secret locations around the streets of Gravesend. The porcupines will hide in plain sight for a week.

Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine 1, mixed media scupture, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine 1, mixed media scupture, 2021

Together they form a two-mile trail around the town. But to discover the porcupines and complete the trail, porcupine hunters must decipher a series of clues.

The trail starts at LV21 and to take part you will need your smartphone, so that you can communicate directly with the Blue Porcupine HQ.

Each blue porcupine that you discover will reveal a password which, when keyed into your smartphone, unlocks a video clue. If you solve that, it will lead you to the next porcupine.

You can complete the trail in one outing or you can tackle it in stages, over the week.

And if you are not up for a walk or you’re not in the area, well there’s no excuse. You can also follow the trail remotely, from the comfort of your own armchair, via Google Streetview. The online resources will also go live on June 5th.

All you have to do is find and photograph all the hidden blue porcupines, to win a chance to become one of three, first ever porcupine hunters to be inducted into ‘The Order of the Blue Porcupine’. Inductees will be presented with a rosette at a special ceremony aboard LV21 on Saturday 12th June.

The mysterious blue porcupine

Gravesham Coat of Arms, 1975
Gravesham Coat of Arms, 1975

The blue porcupines marking the Trail are inspired by the mysterious blue porcupine that has featured on Gravesham’s Coat of Arms  since medieval times.

On the current Coat of Arms, originating from 1975, it appears as a ‘sea porcupine’ – a heraldic mythical creature, part porcupine, part fish – and stands opposite and facing ‘Invicta’, the white horse of Kent.

On Gravesend’s first Coat of Arms (circa 1568) the porcupine appears as a land creature , with legs rather than a fish tail and a chain around its neck, at the helm of a boat.

 

Image from 1568 Coat of Arms, reproduced on the gate of Milton Church, Gravesend

This earlier Coat of Arms has been described as:

…..a boat with one mast….a sail furled, proper, rowed by five rowers hooded and cloaked, with oars and anchor, steered by a porcupine, azure, chained and quilled…

As far as I know, there are only a few places around Gravesend where you can find the original Coat of Arms. It is reproduced on the gate of Milton Church; there is a magnificent mosaic in Gravesend Market; and it can be seen embroidered on banners in St Andrew’s Church.

It has been said that the imagery on this Coat of Arms inspired Edward Lear to write his nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussy-cat.

Mosaic in Gravesend market

Edward Lear’s father, Jeremiah Lear, lived in Gravesend for many years, so Edward was a frequent visitor. Lear senior was buried in Milton churchyard in 1833, although the plot is not marked.

When I was a schoolboy, the emblem moved around the town, emblazoned on the chests of scruffy youths, including my own, on the blazer badge of Springhead School. I didn’t realise the creature steering the boat was a porcupine, though. I thought it was a bear!

Duncan Grant: Springhead School
Me as a Springhead yoof
Springhead School blazer badge
Springhead School blazer badge

 

The porcupine is native to the Americas and Africa, and is also found in Italy, so how on earth did it come to be on Gravesend’s Coat of Arms?

Well, one explanation might be that there was a link to the Sydney family of Penshurst Place in Kent, who added the porcupine to their family crest in the 16th century, as a result of a connection with King Louis XII of France.  In France the porcupine was a symbol of invincibility and Louis XII adopted a porcupine as his personal emblem.

Tomb of Frances Sydney, Countess of Sussex in Westminster Abbey
Tomb of Frances Sydney, Countess of Sussex in Westminster Abbey

In particular, it’s use on the Gravesend Coat of Arms could be a tribute to Sir Henry Sydney and may refer to his authority in governing and regulating barges and boats on the Thames at that time.

The River Thames has always been a leading character in the history of Gravesend, so the portrayal of a boat on the Coat of Arms is not unexpected. A bit of searching on the British History Online website provides a possible explanation for the rowers.

Order of the Blue Porcupine - Sarah Sparkes and James M'Kay
Order of the Blue Porcupine – Sarah Sparkes and James M’Kay

 

 

In 1377, Richard II commanded the sheriffs of Kent and Essex to erect beacons on either side of the Thames, at Gravesend and Farnedon. These were to be lit to provide early warning of enemy attackers coming up the river.

Unfortunately, the beacons proved useless. Soon after they were in place, the French sailed up the Thames and plundered and burnt Gravesend.

To help the town to recover from its losses, Richard II pronounced that the people of Gravesend should have the sole privilege of rowing passengers by water from Gravesend to London, a journey known as ‘the long ferry.’

It is probable that the rowers in the Coat of Arms represent the Long Ferry rowers, although why they are hooded is unclear – although, you’ll probably have noticed, the hoodie remains a very popular item of clothing in Gravesend even today!

The Trail of the Blue Porcupine
The Trail of the Blue Porcupine was devised collaboratively by Gravesham-based poet and spoken-word artist James M’Kay and London-based artist Sarah Sparkes. Sarah made the porcupines, while James worked out the trail and devised the clues that porcupine hunters will solve as they walk.

LV21
LV21

Although they have both been fascinated by the blue porcupine for some time, James and Sarah had never met or worked together until they were introduced by Päivi Seppälä of LV21. She commissioned them to produce the trail as part of SILTings  – a programme of new artwork and performances created in response to the forgotten stories and hidden histories of the Gravesham riverfront.

SILTings runs from the 4th-6th June 2021, and is one of four Creative Estuary commissioned creative cultural projects with Estuary-based producers and artists, to contribute to the Associated Programme for Estuary 2021.

Sarah Sparkes as the Blue Porcupine in Hell or High water on LV21, film by Gary Weston
Sarah Sparkes as the Blue Porcupine in Hell or High water on LV21, film by Gary Weston

Sarah Sparkes is a visual artist and curator, whose work is inspired and informed by myths, folklore and, particularly, ghost stories. Currently, she is painting 101 ghost stories in 101 weeks. She also runs the visual arts and creative research project GHost which explores guests, ghosts and hosts, through seminars, exhibitions, screenings and performances.

Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 20 - 'and this is where I saw it' Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 20 – ‘and this is where I saw it’ Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021

‘Myths are histories that have become stories,’ she explains. ‘They travel lightly by word of mouth from generation to generation. The hierarchy will put things in writing and say, this is our history, this is what you have to believe. But folklore is a way that everyday people can own their histories and carry them forward.’

‘And quite often, they stand testament for things that have been suppressed or repressed,’ she continues. ‘Folklore is where that stuff is hiding. That is why these stories are so powerful and that’s why, I think, the blue porcupine is such a powerful character.’

Sarah first encountered the blue porcupine  back in 2013 when she visited Gravesend with a group of walkers and artists to plan the Inspiral London Walk which finishes in Gravesend. Inspiral London are now partners on the Trail of the Blue Porcupine and are also listing the Trail on their website.

Banner in St Andrew's Church, Gravesend.  Photo by Sarah Sparkes
Banner in St Andrew’s Church, Gravesend.  Photo by Sarah Sparkes

‘I was walking around Gravesend and I saw in St Andrew’s Chapel, a banner with this extraordinary creature, like a big rat at the front of a boat, and I wondered what on earth it could be,’ Sarah remembers.

The mystery of the blue porcupine caught her imagination and she began to research the heraldic symbolism, its place in the history of Gravesend and how its story might be developed and made relevant through art.

‘I like the idea of art that is really centred in the community and captures people’s imagination,’ Sarah says. ‘Art that makes people see something about where they live, celebrate it, embrace that and then make work about it themselves. I really want to make this magical, wonderful creature, the blue porcupine, a significant part of Gravesend, for the people of Gravesend.’

The Blue Sea Porcupine, Sarah Sparkes, Gouache on paper, 2020
The Blue Sea Porcupine, Sarah Sparkes, Gouache on paper, 2020

In 2020, Sarah was invited by curator, Caroline Gregory to contribute to Hell or High Water a weekend of art on LV21, exploring transitions, adversity, survival and transformation.

The art that Sarah planned, Azure, Chained and Quilled, was a performance piece portraying the blue porcupine being released from its chains and navigating the lightship to safety. Sarah made a blue porcupine puppet and head dress for the performance, which moved from the Gravesham Arts Centre, along the Thames foreshore and on to the deck of LV21.

Because of Covid the event took place virtually. Sarah’s live performance did not go ahead but it was filmed and is still available to view.

 

James M'Kay performing his Poetry ay St Andrew's Church, Gravesend
James M’Kay performing his Poetry ay St Andrew’s Church, Gravesend

If you live around here, you may know poet James M’Kay from his live spoken word performances at venues in London and Gravesham, or through Reverb Chamber, the monthly neighbourhood poetry nights that he hosts at Cafe No.84.

James first encountered the blue porcupine when he moved south from Newcastle.

Over the last year, during his lockdown walks around Gravesham, James has occupied himself by inventing a parallel, fantasy landscape, imagining fantastical  stories about the areas he walks though.

He is excited by the lack of ‘facts’ surrounding the story of the blue porcupine because, he explains, it leaves space for people to imagine their own stories.

‘The blue porcupine is a Rorschach Blot,’ he says. ‘It’s a tool for telling stories, which can be whatever people want, to express however they feel about the place. I have my own ideas. I think I know why the porcupine is in that boat, who it is that are rowing, and why they are going away, but I don’t think I’m prepared to say just yet.

‘Everything I’m planning to do with Blue Porcupine is encouraging people to make up stories because I think a little playfulness is what we need after all we’ve been through recently.’

Before they collaborated, Sarah and James had each imagined different stories about the porcupine in the boat. To Sarah, the porcupine is female. James sees it as male, so they have agreed to use ‘they’ as a pronoun when talking about the porcupine .

Sarah is troubled by the porcupine being, apparently, tethered to the boat.

Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine Stencil, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine Stencil, 2021

‘The porcupine seems to be both a slave and a heroic figure,’ she say. ‘It has got a chain around its neck, like a collar, which I think is really sad. But yet it’s a kind of figurehead. It’s the navigator. It’s the seer. It’s finding the way. The oarsmen aren’t looking where they are going but the porcupine is.’

James disagrees. ‘Yes, the blue porcupine has a chain around its neck,’ he counters. ‘But I think it is a mayoral chain. I think the blue porcupine is in charge. He is steering the boat.’

James and Sarah are hoping that through the Trail of the Blue Porcupine, they will perhaps uncover new information about the story behind the porcupine, or that people will report new sightings of the image around the borough. They certainly hope that the event will stimulate many new imaginings of the porcupine’s story.

If you have any information or wish to share your stories, factual or imagined, please either comment on this blog or contact James and Sarah directly, through the links given below.

A Blue Porcupine Festival

Blue Porcupine Headdress, Sarah Sparkes, mixed media, 2020
Blue Porcupine Headdress, Sarah Sparkes, mixed media, 2020

For the future, James and Sarah are hoping to organise a Blue Porcupine Festival in Gravesend.

‘Ever since I saw the blue porcupine in St Andrew’s Chapel, I’ve had been harbouring this ambition to do a Blue Porcupine Festival in Gravesend,’ Sarah reveals. ‘I imagine it to be like Jack in the Green in Hastings with costumes, parading and everyone getting involved. When Päivi talked to me about doing this project, I sketched a costume based on the mosaic that is in the old marketplace and I imagined that at some time in the future, this could become part of a blue porcupine festival.’

 

James believes that the blue porcupine movement is going to have a momentum of its own.

‘I think we’re going to have trouble catching it!’ he says.

As the blue porcupine is part of the Coat of Arms, there are no copyright restrictions in relation to the use of its image.

Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine puppet, 2020
Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine puppet, 2020

‘One of the things that I absolutely love about the blue porcupine is that it doesn’t belong to anybody – not to any particular community, organisation or group,’ James says. ‘If you’ve got anything to do with the Borough of Gravesham, you’re entitled to use the blue porcupine to tell whatever stories you want with it, which I think is great. I’m looking forward to Blue Porcupine Bitter, Blue Porcupine cocktails, Blue Porcupine tattoos. I think the people of Gravesham need to start running with it. It’s our porcupine!’

James has started the ball rolling. His blog is called Blue Porcupine Poems and Things.  And he has one more idea, inspired by his own experience of the success of The Angel of the North in bringing the community together in Gateshead.

‘The week before they put it up, everyone in Gateshead was saying, what a load of rubbish, but a week later they were calling it, “our Angel,”” James recalls. ‘So I think, at the very end of the promenade, that little bit that juts out, would be the perfect place for a massive 30-foot, major, iconic piece of porcupine art – illuminated at night obviously so that all the ships coming up the Thames would see it.’

‘That’s where I think we should be going with this!’ he laughs.

More Information

Order of the Blue Porcupine - Sarah Sparkes and James M'Kay
Order of the Blue Porcupine – Sarah Sparkes and James M’Kay

The Trail of the Blue Porcupine

The trail launches at 11am on Saturday 5th June 2021 on the quayside outside LV21 and is available throughout the following week. It is also available online. Clues for the Trail of the Blue Porcupine will go live on YouTube on Saturday 5th June 2021 

Join the Blue Porcupine Fan Club on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/Blue-Porcupine-Fan-Club-100823918862979/

Follow the Blue Porcupine Instagram: @theblueporcupine

Sarah Sparkes: 'Azure, Chained and Quilled', on LV21
Sarah Sparkes: ‘Azure, Chained and Quilled’, on LV21

 

SILTingshttps://lv21.co.uk/projects/siltings/

The Estuary Festivalhttps://www.estuaryfestival.com/

Creative Estuary https://www.creativeestuary.com/

 

 

James M'Kay ©Tim Goddard
James M’Kay ©Tim Goddard

 

James M’Kay

Blog: Blue Porcupine Poems and Things
https://blueporcupinepoemsthings.substack.com/

Soundcloud: Poet and Reciter James M’Kay
https://soundcloud.com/mckay_poetry
https://grandbabybeat.bandcamp.com/releases

Sarah Sparkes 

Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 16 - 'Licht Und Blindheit' Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 16 – ‘Licht Und Blindheit’ Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021

Instagram: @thesarahsparkes

Website: https://www.sarahsparkes.com/blog/

GHost website: https://www.ghosthostings.co.uk/

Liverpool and Taiwan ghost stories:  http://www.theghostportal.co.uk/

Senate House Ghost Stories: http://ghostsofsenatehouse.blogspot.com/

New Art Projects: http://newartprojects.com/artists/sarah-sparkes/