‘It’s about a sense of awe and wonder when people actually see, smell, touch the work – it’s quite a physical presence.’
Caroline Dear’s artwork draws on the idea of peatland as a place of transition to another world. Here, Caroline tells Jenny Messenger how her work interacts with ideas of lost knowledge, nature and changing landscapes.
What do you have planned for Cupar Arts Festival? What is it about peatland that makes it so appropriate for the theme of liminality?
In relation to the theme of ‘liminal’, people used to think of the bog habitat as a transitional space. There are two sides to it: offerings of gold, and then also the bog bodies. So it’s a mysterious, slightly ‘other’ place. The work isn’t totally formulated yet, but I think I’m going to make two quadrats, one which is woven solid from the dried plants, which might be a carpet on the floor, and another which will be hanging. Then there’ll be a list of the specific plants that have been incorporated.
A related piece will go in the window in Scotts – I think I’m going to call them Bog Baffies (this is the Scots word for slippers). I’ve been making a series of different shoes for different habitats, and thinking about linking them to particular places. They’re not shoes for wearing, but they’re objects that embody that landscape.
Can you tell me a little more about the role of nature in your work?
My work is generally about trying to create new ways of linking to a particular habitat or particular plants, and it’s also about realising the value of those plants. Ordinary weeds or rushes for example are very undervalued plants nowadays, when traditionally they were valued for their uses.
Basically, it’s about a sense of awe and wonder when people actually see, smell, touch the work – it’s quite a physical presence. People wonder how it’s been made, or what it’s made out of. I like making recognisable artefacts like hats and coats that relate to our bodies. I’m doing research at the moment into traditional uses of plants, and techniques, and as I research these things, I’m finding that these objects were made from plants in the past.
For example, sphagnum moss is antiseptic so it was used for wounds in the past, and it would have been a resource that people knew about. Running alongside that knowledge is valuing those habitats and knowing what they’re for.
How do you view the role of conservation?
I think the main thing is to increase appreciation for different habitats. I suppose my response is just taking one or two plants out of the landscape and displaying them in a different context, often using a traditional skill. I’m saying: ‘Look at this’.
There’s also more of a philosophical question – landscapes are changing, and you can’t hold them at a certain point, but that’s kind of what we want to do. [At Bankhead Moss] for instance, they’ve cleared the trees in order to preserve that habitat, but you can see all the birch seedlings moving in.
What kinds of techniques do you use in your work?
Lots of my work is based on traditional techniques, and when I discover a technique I get very excited. I learned basket-making, and then I learned how to make rope. It’s a very simple skill but it was used for everything.
When I set out to make the Bog Myrtle coat [for Cupar Arts Festival 2013] I hadn’t got a clue how I was going to do it, but I worked it out – I bound clumps of bog myrtle in between two ropes. Initially I trained as an architect, so I find those kinds of technical problems really nice to resolve.
I also use peat directly on the walls of galleries. I’ve got a system worked out whereby I build up layers really thinly and it doesn’t crack. I’ve used it for making screen prints as well – it’s a really beautiful material.
How did you find the transition from architect to artist?
The main thing is getting opportunities as an artist – that’s really difficult. The architecture training is useful for lots of things in terms of planning projects, laying things out, working with three dimensions and costing things. I can do that quickly, whereas other people might struggle with that.
Is your work mainly site-specific?
It varies – I’ve done photography, screen prints, artist’s books, but I like responding to place and plants in a specific place. The times when I’ve had real difficulty doing work have been when I’ve not known what the place is going to be, and I just have to make work and send it. That makes me feel really uncomfortable.
For each project I try and bring things together into a publication. Because my work is quite ephemeral, it’s a good record of it. Often there’s an awful lot behind a project which can only be brought out with text, quotes or a sequence of images.
What is your research process like?
Mostly, it’s one to one conversations with people who might remember things, or who might have known somebody in the past. Wherever I go I ask people. I was in Finland last year, and I found out that they make doormats out of a moss that I use a lot and that it’s a tradition over there. I gather little snippets of things like that, as well as using other archive material like books, articles and websites.
Would you like to add anything else?
One of the things I like about working with Cupar Arts Festival is that they’re really straight forward. You know what’s needed, you know when it’s needed by, and they let you get on with it. It’s nice to be free to get on and make things.