ANGUS MCPHEE - Weaver of Grass

ANGUS MCPHEE or MACPHEE was a crofter from Uist who spent almost 50 years in a Highland psychiatric hospital. During this time he chose not to speak - instead he wove a series of incredible costumes out of grass. These he hung on trees in the hospital grounds.

This blog follows the progress of HORSE + BAMBOO THEATRE as they develop and tour a show about Angus....

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Work continues...

Alison's work on body parts for Angus as a boy

It's been a long and difficult day for anyone involved in the arts in England. Many of our close associates, and companies we've worked with over many years, have today found that their grants have been cut. They will now have a year of Arts Council funding remaining. Inevitably a lot of people will lose their jobs.

Horse + Bamboo have been fortunate. We've seen a standstill in our funding; actually a slight cut because of other recent budget trimmings, and of course we've yet to hear about our grants from local authority funders. But at least we've survived, and our work can continue as planned. The work we're doing on Angus will be part of the continuing work...  

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Fingers crossed then!

The remains of the tigh dubh, the small house by the shore at Iochdar,
South Uist, where Angus McPhee was born and lived as a young man
As work on creating a touring theatre show about Angus McPhee continues at homes and workshops in Lancashire, Caithness and on Berneray, it's worth taking a short pause to say that on Wednesday, between 7.30 and 9.30 in the morning, Horse + Bamboo Theatre will receive an email from the Arts Council of England telling us if our funding will continue – or if it will be cut.

All regularly funded arts organisations in England will be receiving similar emails, and we're told that the decision in each case will be an either/or one – i.e. no half-way houses; you're either successful or not. If unsuccessful there's still 12 months funding at current levels guaranteed, but after that Arts Council funding will finish.

How will this affect our work on the Angus McPhee show?

Well, the current work on the show is being paid for by a research and development grant from the Foyle Foundation, to whom – many, many thanks. The fees to Alison and myself are met from the current grant to Horse + Bamboo. This work will take us through to May, when we visit Berneray and Uist and the various artist partners on the project will meet and come together at Berneray Community Hall for a week. After that our making work on the show will slow right down, but Helen will continue to fund-raise for the next stages of Angus, and Esther will start selling a tour of the show. If the news next week is good, then our plans will continue precisely along these lines. If we receive bad news then no doubt our Board will want to meet and decide on an alternative plan. In theory though, there's no reason why Angus should not be available to go into rehearsal and then tour during the summer of 2012. This will be subject to raising the money (and getting bookings for the show) but that will be the case no matter what scenario unfolds on and after Wednesday, as our core funding nowadays doesn't cover the costs of creating or touring our work.

Fingers crossed then.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The ghosts of young Angus

Working back in time from the mask of the old Angus McPhee isn't easy. The only photographs I have seen of the young Angus are these:

(copyright: Calum Angus MacKay)

Angus at the age of 14 looking rather like, every one seems to think, the young Bob Dylan; and then this ghostly photograph of Angus in the Lovat Scouts, dated 1939 - so at the age of 23. 

A photograph full of mystery this, but a long way from being ideal for modelling a mask from. So in effect I'm inventing what the younger Angus looked like. The two older masks, still in their green undercoated glory, were relatively easy to model as there are several decent photographs of Angus in his 70s:

But going back in time from these two, looking to represent Angus in, say, his thirties, is a more difficult job. I've arrived at this, with the kind of hair I though he might have after his military service:

By the way, there's some very interesting photographs on Joanne B. Kaar's blog of her experiments with creating grass ropes in the manner of Angus for our theatre show. 

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Silent Weaver

Above, the first masks of Angus McPhee (the green is the underpainting), and the rough cardboard screens being used experimentally as a way of representing the garden at Craig Dunain Hospital where Angus created his woven art works.

There will be a series of masks representing Angus at different stages in his life. I've started with the mask representing the old Angus (it's the best documented period by far in terms of finding photographs as source material). The next will be a slightly younger Angus; you can glimpse that mask on the left of the lower photograph, still in the course of having its papier-mache layers added.

This week I've also heard from the novelist Roger Hutchinson, author of the acclaimed 'Calum's Road'*, who tells me that his new novel is provisionally titled 'The Silent Weaver, The Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus MacPhee' and it will be published by Birlinn later this year.

* For more information on Roger Hutchinson and Calum's Road click this link.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Highly Strung

I've just discovered that there's an exhibition at the Peter Potter GalleryHIGHLY STRUNG that brings together three artists whose work revolves around weaving. One of these is Angus McPhee, the others are the Spanish-Australian Dani Marti and the Danish Lise Bech. It opened on the 5th March and closes 16th April, and sounds worth a visit.

It's part of the Lost Landscapes programme, that traverses boundaries between art, ecology, archaeology and local history. 

The Peter Potter Gallery is at 10 The Sands, Haddington, East Lothian EH41 3EY - 01620 822 080.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A list of jobs

Luke, who has been with us this past two weeks, has now returned to London. He used his time on a mini-internship with Horse + Bamboo making models of the Angus set, then turned his attention to shadow puppetry looking at ways of creating woven puppets. He finished his stay here by making an experimental minute long animation using grass... 

Meanwhile Alison and I continue with mask and puppet making. The table of jobs looks like this:
Screens, lighting, sound
Platform/s and bed
Hospital trolleys and screens
The hospital garden
Old Angus with flat hat
Young Man Angus
Middle-aged Angus 
Mature Angus 
Old sister
Costumes for all the above
Baby Angus
Boy Angus
Straw Man
Straw Daughters
Straw Red Calf
Large Horse
Angus Warrior marionette
Horse marionette
Dragon marionette
The Hospital Season cranky show
Signs etc as Angus grows up
Flat masks etc for the 'journey out of war' sequence/mirrors
Grass cap for opening
Bridles and saddle, horse harness
Hospital weavings – caps, trousers, jackets, harness etc
Large woven horse
Woven blanket
Film 1a sea, family
Film 1b Gaelic world, chart, hoods and caps, grasses, bridles
Film 2 falling men, medical release papers, soldiers, ships etc
silent section – home, rushes in a wind
Film 3 a garden, weaving close up hands
Film 4 horse/airplane, certificates, suitcase, airplane, home

Monday, 7 March 2011

Masks and puppets underway...


ABOVE: The young Angus (covered in cling-film); the old Angus (covered in furniture polish) - both waiting for papier-mache; putting the paper layers on the young Angus; and experimenting with rush shadow puppets.

Alison favours cling-film whereas I prefer furniture polish as a release agent over the clay model. On a more detailed mask such as the older head and face, furniture polish allows more detail, as there's always the danger that cling-film will 'fill in' the small lines and holes in the model. 

By the end of the day I had managed 3 layers of paper - with luck I should have all 5 on by the end of tomorrows sessions. The remainder of the day will be a catch-up with Loz Kaye, the MD for 'Angus' and perhaps an opportunity for the first detailed discussion about musical ideas for the production.

Friday, 4 March 2011

At last...practical work really begins

It always takes a while, after a period of office work, to extract oneself and get to make a base in the making room once more. But it has finally happened. We've a visitor from London, Luke Davies, working with us for two weeks and he has been making a small model boxes of the set for us to experiment with. Alison has started making a head for a puppet of the (very) young Angus; and I've begun to model a clay head of the old Angus in order to make the first mask. Outside the sun is shining too...