Enbosu and starbusts with Wendy Daws

Hanging exhibition of white embossed squares

It’s incredibly fitting that the exhibition to follow on from Ted Hannaford’s is Enbosu. From the Japanese meaning ‘to emboss’, Wendy’s exhibition is certainly eye-catching (if you’ll excuse the pun) and is wonderfully tactile too. Wendy dedicates a lot of her time to community work but this body of work is all about Wendy Daws. On the day Wendy installed her marvellous exhibition at No.34, Ideas Test sat down with her to discuss all things Enbosu.

It is an incredibly striking exhibition, one that coaxes people in through pure intrigue and fascination. Both of the windows at the front of the building are brimming with artwork. On the right hand side are strings of silicone eyes all tied up together, a little reminiscent of a beaded curtain that just invites hands to reach out and touch them. Just behind is a huge board full of images of different eyes; an array of sizes and colours (even species!). Then, in the opposite window, are a series of white double backed embossed creations, strung up neatly. This is Wendy’s interpretation of a starburst seen within the mind of someone with Charles Bonnet disease. Behind that are two large gilded pictures of Wendy’s own left and right retina pinned up on watercolour paper on the feature wall behind. There’s a lot for the eye to take in, all of it incredible and intricate.

The artists who exhibit at No.34 have often put in hours of extensive work to create their exhibitions, so it is understandable that the public are encouraged to observe rather than interact. While the same can be said for Wendy’s exhibition – she, too, has put in hours of work – her exhibition is designed to touched. In fact, it was made with that need in mind. Wendy has dedicated many years working with the Kent Association for the Blind, establishing both the Medway and Gravesend KAB art groups. Wendy’s dissertation, ‘The Value of Touch – Blind Alphabet C and Museum Approaches to the Visually Impaired Visitor’, which she completed in 2004 seems to have been a real launching point for her work in this area. Having the opportunity to take fantastic workshops at Brighton, ‘coupled with my curiosity in everything and the knowledge that if you’re blind or partially sighted, you’re in a gallery or museum, you’re excluded from quite a lot of what’s on offer’ allowed Wendy the opportunity to develop this process of creating art for all.

“For me to make something that you couldn’t touch, I’d then have to make a replica that you could touch and I wouldn’t do that. I would just make something immediately that you could touch.”

The beauty of Enbosu is how much of a story exists behind it – a story that can be both seen and felt, in every sense of the word. ‘I make lots of component parts,’ Wendy explained, discussing how each part of her exhibition is made up of lots of tiny pieces, ‘It takes on a new life wherever it goes.’ Wendy’s exhibition has already lived a few lives before reaching No.34, each new venue creating another new chapter that feeds back into the work. From being in a gallery, to being in the crypt at Rochester Cathedral, to being installed at No.34: ‘it’s a whole new story and that’s what comes from exhibiting here.’ Even the way the pieces are displayed can be different in varying venues, which to the sighted visitor presents a very clear difference. It is likely to tell a new story to the blind and visually impaired, too. At the Cathedral, the collection of silicone eyes – titled ‘You’re in Here Somewhere’ – was suspended in a column with a mirror underneath. Here at No.34 they are spread out across the window right at the front of the building. The space the work occupies is different, starkly so, meaning that even though the pieces possess the same tactile quality as they always have done, the body of work as a whole has a new feel to it. The pieces themselves are soft and rubbery but Wendy has noticed that people’s visible interpretations are not always identical. ‘Some are seeing them as solid pieces, so they’re thinking they’re like a crystal’, Wendy informed us. ‘Anyone can have an understanding of what the piece is’ and it’s hearing these understandings, listening to the thoughts of people just before they touch the artwork that intrigues Wendy the most.

Strings of silicone eyes
Photo credit Jane Pitt

‘Having that permission to touch; what do people think about that,’ is something Wendy wants to find out. ‘I’m considering blind and partially sighted visitors to an exhibition and perhaps their need to touch and then if we can see, we still want to touch as well’. These types of thought processes generate more questions that Wendy is equally as interested in, and has been exploring through her artwork over recent years. Previously Wendy made a body of work called Totally Touchable wherein she took casts of people’s hands. She then used 24 karat gold leaf to make some of them really precious, then flocked the others ‘so you had to touch them, you just had to know what they felt like’. What was interesting, Wendy commented, was that it was her artist friends who required the most encouragement to touch. Wendy vocalised that her interest was in discussing the destruction of the work, whether that permission to touch would result in anything getting stolen; a clear link to her dissertation on The Value of Touch and further proof of her dedication to the practice of tactile art. ‘Hardly anything got destroyed and nothing got stolen’, Wendy told us, ‘But they became – in my eyes – more desirable’.

It’s incredibly interesting to comment on the Enbosu exhibition as a sighted person because while there are connections that can be seen and noted, they’re not integral to understanding and appreciating the work. Having studied in Japan, it is demonstrative that Wendy’s work maintains some of that cultural influence, largely because this body of work has been ‘a long time in the thinking’. It is the process of using different materials and what Wendy herself can do with them, that motivates Wendy to keep making. ‘I want to know what I can do with a tool, what I can do with a material’. Studying under Laura Boswell, who also spent some time in Japan, Wendy honed the skill of woodblock printing with a specific focus on how to develop and master the process. Knowing throughout that her focus would be on the eye, Wendy’s approach to the woodblock printing was distinctive because she didn’t want to know anything about colour – ‘if we can’t see, do we need colour?’ It is for this reason that much of the work is white, with texture superseding the need for colour or visuals. Similarly with her printing, instead of placing it in a frame or hanging it on the wall, Wendy ‘printed on tiny bits of paper’ attaching them together with ‘red thread as a blanket with great big gaps’. The threading together in this way is borne out of Wendy’s interest in samurai armour, the way the platelets are sewn closely together overlapping both horizontally and vertically to prevent a blade from entering. It was particularly engaging to hear Wendy go into such depths into what informs her choice of materials. Describing herself as a ‘jack of all trades, interesting in everything’, Wendy’s fascination is in working with a material and seeing ‘how far I can take them, bend them and how they knit together’.

Close up image of an embossed print
Photo credit Jane Pitt

It’s a really collaborative creation and collaboration is something Wendy is incredibly passionate about. Enbosu is, Wendy explained, ‘about carrying stories that are still in me’ but with ‘some of the eyes of other people in there’. While she knew it wouldn’t be possible to focus solely on her own eye, the way other people swiftly volunteered their own eyes for the project was ‘a development I wasn’t expecting.’ It’s incredibly to hear how varied Wendy’s collaborative processes can be and it’s absolutely clear that she thrives off ‘that clashing with anybody’ as she enthusiastically describes it. ‘I’m getting inspiration, they’re getting inspiration and we’re swapping lots of skills between us.’ Sometimes, the ideas of collaboration can be incredibly instantaneous. When working with Luci Napleton on the Edna project, Wendy immediately developed an idea that came solely ‘from Luci telling me about a warm up exercise’. The fact that Enbosu has been so long in making, then, is a testament to Wendy’s ability to collaborate with herself, which perhaps sounds strange but it can be difficult to make time for your own creativity sometimes. Fascinated by the dedication of the Japanese to master a skill – ‘you keep doing it and doing it and doing it’ – Wendy herself admitted that time is often the biggest challenge. ‘There’s never, never enough time to do everything I want’ and making Enbosu reminded Wendy of ‘about a hundred ideas’ that are yet to be made; a ‘reminder of work and words unsaid’.

Like every exhibition and like every artistic event, everyone who visits will have their own, unique experience but we asked Wendy more generally what she hoped people might take away from their visit. ‘I hope they want to touch it, and I’m really happy about that’. So if you are dropping in to No.34 at any time this month, come and experience Enbosu. You are encouraged (and permitted!) to interact gently with Wendy’s work, remaining respectful but experiencing the artwork in ways not reliant specifically on sight.  

The exhibition is on until 30 September 2017 so drop in for a visit anytime during our opening hours. To find out more about Wendy’s work, you can visit her website.