Artist Sally Miles' work for Traditional Hertfordshire
I am a Hertfordshire artist specialising in painting, drawing, printmaking and recently, illustrating. I trained in Fine Art at University of Hertfordshire and later graduated with an MA from Central Saint Martins, with a fellowship at the Digswell Arts Trust in between. After starting a family my work became focused on children and I produced a picture book for babies. While my children are growing up, I’ve moved into teaching art, setting up ‘Art Sparks’ – classes for toddlers and then extracurricular Fine Art for primary school children. I have also run various community art classes.
My work has always been based on my own experience of my surroundings and people I know so it was interesting to take on this project and explore the lives of others, although I found many similarities I could relate to.
These images I produced for the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies are not what you might expect for ‘Traditional Hertfordshire.’ They illustrate the memories of people, from the Caribbean and Ghana, who have made their home in Hertfordshire and brought various traditions with them. My starting point were a series of ‘oral histories’ – quotes of individual’s experiences of life’s key turning points – Birth, Childhood, Marriage and Death.
The Birth image shows a mother bathing her baby in the traditional Ghanaian way . I wanted to convey the dedication of the mother caring for her baby, the contentment of the baby and a sense of harmony and security. This is something I relate to, having instinctively taken an attachment parenting approach with my own children. I set the scene outside with a Shea tree in the background as it is customary to use shea butter to massage the baby, promoting growth and relaxation. Bathing the baby outside in the evening is also a way to cool the baby down, in hot climate and promote sleep.
Similarly the image of Childhood is set outside, this time in the beautiful Caribbean landscape. The memories I read about growing up from across the Caribbean and Ghana are of an outdoor, active childhood, playing games such as skipping, hide and seek and ring games in the sun and fresh air. Here, as in all these pictures, I worked on paper which I had pre-painted/printed in random washes of merging colours/forms, which gives a feeling of age to suggest memories of a time past. The random formations also helped me to figure my compositions, for example, I found shapes which suggested landscape or elemental features and worked into/around them.
The image of the young man with a box of gifts is about Courtship in Ghana. In a ceremony known as ‘The Knocking’, the groom takes gifts to the brides’ family home, asking for her hand in marriage. The gifts can range from a car to clothes. I concentrated on textiles and was delighted by the amazing array of African textiles I found on the internet. I tried to feed some of the stunning colour combinations and designs into the picture. (Also The mother’s headdress in the Birth image is Kente cloth, a Ghanaian creation of geometric patterns woven with contrasting colours.) The potential bride is referred to as a beautiful flower, which is why I included the Hibiscus (also of amazing colours.) Depicting the female aspect, I produced an image of a ‘Girl’s Night’ in Guyana where female friends and family of all generations are dancing together in celebration of the forthcoming marriage.
For the subject of Death I choose a quote which related to an old tradition – The Nine Nights. Again this involves musical gatherings. The African traditions of drumming, dancing and singing are the ultimate oral histories as this is how slaves passed on their culture and kept it alive when they were enslaved and excluded from education, thus unable to write things down. I saw an example of a traditional ritual gathering of dancing, singing and music on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ in which Actor, Noel Clarke traced his descendants back from Britain to the Caribbean and further back to Ghana. I was struck by just how powerful a living link to history this is. In my image I wanted to express a sense of timeless, spiritual connection between the past and present, life and death. To this end I used a limited palette and combined random washes with a compositional movement/ flow through the figures who are gathered around the fire, under the night sky.
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