Ropework: Soft garniture for life

Finn McCahon-Jones

1 September 2022

Finn Ferrier Soft Garniture 2020-2021, Te Uru Art Gallery, Auckland

Finn McCahon-Jones weaves a story around his artistic self, Finn Ferrier. An innocent exploration of knotting ends up as part of the treatment for a life-threatening illness.


(A message to the reader.)


“Finn Ferrier has always loved rope, both as an object and a material, and how rope speaks the language of potential. Made from fibres, friction and tension; rope, twine and thread are usually only thought about for their practical applications.

These vessels came about when Ferrier started exploring nautical knotwork. He reimagined the decorative pursuits of sailors and created these objects as a logical progression of decorative knotwork. The forms on display come from a merging of traditional ceramic forms with the pliability of rope.

More recently Ferrier has been researching the history of woven vessels. Archaeological evidence suggests that ropework, in the form of basket making, has always been in close association with ceramics. In ancient times fresh clay was used to line baskets to make them into water-tight vessels. It is argued that coiled pottery gets its form from coiled baskets.

In this exhibition, Ferrier has treated his ropeware vessels as a garniture – a collection of decorative objects displayed together on a shelf.

Garnitures are often about assembling ornate pieces that represent various occasions or exchanges, and Ferrier’s pieces are no different. Within this display, you’ll see references to paintings, architecture, craft histories, the human body and the landscape.

Ferrier’s forms reference ceramic vessels, but take a departure into their own direction allowing the materiality of the rope to inform the final outcomes. They are re-shapable, reversible, and humble in their simplicity of form. Ferrier negotiates gravity and symmetry as he builds each vessel knot by knot.”

Wall text for Finn Ferrier: Soft Garniture, Te Uru, December 2020 – February 2021

Text by Chloe Geoghegan / Finn Ferrier

Finn Ferrier Soft Garniture 2020-2021, Te Uru Art Gallery, Auckland

When I was working on this text I wanted it to talk about the sum of the parts of my objects. They are not just a singular flat object, but a coming together of technology, temporality and materiality.  As I have been working on this narrative, I realise that there is no simple or singular answer to why I make rope objects, but a tangled set of relationships that have led me here. We all live in our own heads and never know if how we see the world is similar to someone else.

I like looking at the phenomenal layers contained in the things we have around us. I like thinking about the temporality of an object and how it came to be. I spend hours on youtube looking at how things are made, and researching why particular materials are in use or why they look like they do. When I make objects I am constantly thinking about the relationships and histories contained in the material and what I am doing with it.

Finn Ferrier’s Studio, 2021, Auckland

Rope is a very practical material. Ropes are usually manufactured for special purposes in industry. They have to perform in a certain way to a standard. Rope is designed to work under load. When I work with rope, however, I’m giving it a holiday.

I often contact rope manufacturers asking for rope samples. They ask me what my intended purpose is, I say “making art objects”. After a blank moment we have an awkward exchange and I end up describing a sensual object. I tell them about the qualities I am looking for in a rope. I’m interested in how soft it is, or how it bends. Does it have good friction? Does it look nice? Most manufacturers get excited because I’m asking strange questions and I’m not interested in the tensile strength. I think they get excited because they get to use their knowledge gained by handling the materials, rather than quote facts from a spreadsheet.

Wharfware

The name Wharfware comes from a narrative I developed around this work, imagining that they are the production of a sailor. So they were “wares” made on the wharves. I can’t remember how or why I dreamed this up, but I was probably 23 and had just left art school.

My first job after art school was at Auckland Museum, where I worked half-time between the shop and the collection. I loved the juxtaposition between selling objects that represented the ones in the museum; and working with the real objects in the collection. I soon became working full-time with the Decorative Arts Collection.

My favourite visits were from the Unitec jewellery department where Pauline Bern and Alan Preston would bring in their students to look at the museum’s collection. Since they didn’t know what the museum had, I would take the same brief that they gave to their students to make jewellery, but I would use the brief to find jewellery and objects from the collection.

A concept that was introduced to me through these encounters was the “critique of preciousness” which is an underlying theme in most contemporary jewellery practice. The main idea is that the value of the object lies in the concept, production, or social meaning of the jewellery, rather than the material worth of the metal or stones.

Sisal

Finn Ferrier, Urn with Double Belt, 2020. Sisal rope

My early ropework was made from sisal, which is a fibre from a type of agave. I was particularly attracted to sisal because it resembles the dried plant fibre it is made from. I liked how the material expressed its own origin. It made me think about the countless others who have worked with the same material across time and how the same material has been produced or used by a changing society.

At art school, I built a museum and displayed pieces of rope I had found on the road. I liked how squashed rope became fibres again.

Playing with rope spurred me on to make my own jewellery. Rope is pretty cool stuff. Made of hundreds of fibres twisted together to form filaments, which are twisted again to make cords twisted again to make rope. It is the surface area of the collective fibres and all the friction that makes it strong. I don’t know how old rope is, but the idea that you can combine lots of fibres to make one large sturdy object has been exploited by animals and humans for millennia.

Finn Ferrier, Grommet and mini Grommet Brooch, Rope Bar Brooch. Sisal, cotton rope. Mid 2000s. New Zealand Maritime Museum Collection

In the mid-2000s, I made a series of circular sisal ‘Grommet’ brooches which were bound together onto a brooch-back with length of string. I sold them at the Room 103 shop in Achilles House.

I pinned a rope brooch to my own jacket and wore it everywhere. I liked how people would question it. I was asked if it was a symbol for a club, or on one occasion a woman dripping in bright yellow gold had a long conversation with me trying to understand how rope could be considered jewellery at all. I earnestly told her about the critique of preciousness.

I still remember having dinner with playwright Warwick Broadhead who saw all sorts of sexual connotations in it and made me blush to my full extent. I was experiencing how conceptual jewellery worked – I was fascinated by how it was projecting ideas.

Auckland Museum

Glass swan, unknown maker. Attributed to Australian Glass Manufacturers’ Company, Auckland. Author’s attribution, mid-20th century.

The concept of Wharfware strengthened when I was putting together the Decorative Arts Galleries with Louis LeVaillant at Auckland Museum. He introduced me to “homers”: things that factory workers made themselves at lunchtime to adorn their homes.

Glassworkers would pull swans from lumps of molten glass; brickworks staff would make umbrella stands with cut-down pipes and decorate them with scratches and lumps of clay; or things like mantle dogs and urns. I love these crude objects.

They contained the raw artistic skill of the maker but still looked like the raw object they were made from. They exist as both a material and an idea.

I took this idea of the vernacular object and applied this to my ropework and imagined what a sailor’s home might look like.

Conceptually my rope jewellery was an imagined adornment for a salty seadog coming to shore. It was also a partly serious attempt to make “manly jewellery”. I was interested in making an object that might appeal to men that had no interest in jewellery. However most of my brooches, I was told, sold to women.

But, I was included in an exhibition in 2013 called ‘Man Made’ at the Dowse.

Man Made exhibition, The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt. Installation view showing three rope necklaces next to a work by Warwick Freeman. 2013

This show was a survey of men working with textiles. The exhibition was broaching the old stereotypes that textiles were women’s business. My dad taught me how to sew. I didn’t know this was even a thing until I went to art school, and some of the teachers wanted to play out these tropes. Anyway, I was happy to have work included.

Sailors have traditionally made flat decorative knots, mats and rope as a way to pass time and adorn their surrounds. I see my ropework as the logical progression of nautical knotwork.

I had already made jewellery for coming ashore and thought how could this be extended. So I started working on objects and in 2012 I made my first vase.

I don’t know how the first vase actually came to be, but I remember being very excited when I had made it and brought it into the museum lunchroom to show it off. What I expected a marine biologist, a botanist or an entomologist to say – I don’t know. They just looked bewildered and tried to give me practical advice on how to make it better.

Maritime Museum

Finn Ferrier – Wharfwear: Wharfware, Installation view, New Zealand Maritime Museum. 2015

I kept making forms, and as part of the Wunder Week jewellery event in 2015, I installed a pop-up exhibition at the Maritime Museum. It was very satisfying having an exhibition in the home of real salty rope.

Finn Ferrier – Wharfwear: Wharfware, Installation view, New Zealand Maritime Museum. 2015

For the Maritime Museum, I developed the concept that sailors needed decorative objects that could survive the pitch and roll of the sea and wouldn’t break during a storm. And somewhere to display dried seaweed arrangements. And it was important that it could be unravelled into rope again in an emergency.

I liked the idea that I was simply coiling rope from one form to another, one piece of rope in another format, but essentially the same.

While I was writing this thinking about why I use rope. I thought about my dad.

My dad worked in the forest service, and he had a knot for every occasion. His shed was full of stuff, you would have to step into the negative space between the piles of materials and collections arranged in haphazard ways. His rope, however, was always beautifully coiled and hanging from a hook behind the door. He had a range of lengths and thicknesses for different jobs. He could make knots that could hold any weight – then with a simple thump, the knot would untie, never getting stuck or tangled.

I was in awe of this material – how the rope obeyed his commands. And how carefully he coiled it up again. He bought me a book of knots. I practiced them, but didn’t know their applications so gave up. But I did learn one truck-hitch that has served me well.

Auckland Studio Potters

Reappraisal: The Pot Show. Corban’s Estate Art Gallery, Auckland. 2015. Installation view

While I was at Auckland Museum I would always make sure my professional development KPIs were based in a craft. After arguing that I needed to have a practical understanding of craft to talk to makers, the Museum sent me to Auckland Studio Potters to learn how to throw. Peter Stichbury was my teacher. He said you should “always have the finished form in your mind. If you do not achieve that form, squash it and start again.” He argued that if you started making a vase and it ended up as a bowl, it would neither be a good bowl nor a good vase.

After learning how to throw but not having a wheel at home I decided to make pots out of rope. At the time it seemed logical to use rope instead of clay. It meant that I could make pottery inside on the couch without getting muddy. My first rope objects were quite crude as I learned how to build them up. But very satisfying nonetheless. In 2015 Catherine Tsui included me in a show at Corbans Reappraisal: The Pot Show.

 

My Wharfware is a slow process. Made in the same fashion as ceramics, I work from the base up, slowly coiling around and around. My favourite shapes are the ones that move in two dimensions at the same time. Up and out.

Until recently I have looked at my ropework as ceramics. This is their origin, and I make them with my knowledge from throwing pots. I am aware that they are not ceramics. And that clay has a certain immediacy and plasticity that rope does not have. And rope has tension and integrity that ceramics do not have. In my latest forms, I am trying to push the rope like potters push clay. What is the material agency of rope, and how can I push it to create forms that you can only create in rope? Where is the point of collapse.

Knotting at night

Finn Ferrier, Explosion Urn Footed, 2020. Too Many Hangups, Tuesday Club, Auckland. 2020, Installation view with painting by Tony Gibb.

I use my fingers to create these forms, just pushing and pulling the rope through itself. I have a spike and a loop to manipulate the rope if my tension becomes too tight. Basically I make these in the evening instead of watching TV or reading a book, it is a way to slow my thoughts and sometimes to suppress them if I need to.

I have a couple of rules that I have imposed on myself while making. The main rule is there are no chemical bonds like glue or resin. The only thing that keeps my work together is friction. Second, I have to work out a way to make my forms in one continuous direction. The rope is not cut, I just tie in a new rope when I run out.

The reason for the rule is to limit the possibilities and to work within these limitations so I have an edge to push against. Also, it is important to me that the material remains as rope. Even though it will probably never be uncoiled again, I know it could.

Finn Ferrier, Heavy Whorl Vase, 2020 / Reverse Fishtail Vase, 2021. Cotton rope

I think about these vessels as slow rhythmic objects that have cycles. I look to shells and other sea creatures for their intervals and form. I like to think of each knot or swelling bulge as a slow-building energy. I also look to my own histories to inform the shapes.

Finn Ferrier, Hernia Vase, 2020. Cotton rope

Semi-colon

During the first lockdown, I made a chin-up bar and started doing a crazy amount of chin-ups which tore my abdominal muscles. I remember laughing with friends about how I had done this. Little did I know my swollen stomach muscles were masking the fact that my appendix had burst at exactly the same time and I was slowly poisoning myself.

I became very sick and was in and out of hospital for a month trying to get on top of my peritonitis.

After another month of recovery, they booked me in for surgery to remove my appendix.

After which, I was told not to cough, laugh or sneeze or my abdominal muscles could burst out the hole. I freaked out. The idea that I could go through surgery only to sneeze which would mean more surgery. I felt a lump poking out of my cut, I was sure it was a hernia.

Finn Ferrier, Rising Protrusion Vase, 2020. Cotton rope

It turns out I was just very skinny and it was the stitches and scar tissue poking through my skin.

As they cut out my appendix the surgeon saw that my colon didn’t look great.

And I had to go in for more checks afterwards.

It turned out I had bowel cancer.

Finn Ferrier, Colon Sculpture, 2020. Cotton rope

The doctors apologised that they didn’t check for cancer when I first came in. They said I was too young and healthy to have cancer. It turns out my appendix burst because the cancer was growing on the end of it. They told me I was very lucky that it burst, otherwise they wouldn’t have found the cancer.

I quit everything. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I still don’t know. I didn’t know what was going to happen.

I was booked in to have the cancer cut out, which also meant cutting out half my colon and a portion of my intestines along with it. It’s abstract being told you are going to have half your colon removed. And what that actually might mean.

I went home and made my colon out of rope – just so I could hold it. I think it’s the right size. I never took it into one of my meetings.

Half and Half Urn 2020

I made this too.

Thinking about halves.

The rope made sense. I was untangling rope and re-tangling it. It was very intestinal.

The doctor told me that when your appendix bursts two things can happen: either you get very sick very quickly as you poison yourself, or your intestines migrate over to your appendix and bind it closed, taking the brunt of the poisoning. The latter is what happened to me. My intestines used their own agency to protect me.

Every night for a month or so after surgery I could feel my intestines unravel and migrate back across my stomach. It’s a wild sensation.

Ascending, Transverse and Descending 2020 / 2021

I didn’t tell many people that I had cancer. Or how sick I actually got. I didn’t have to as everyone was dealing with lockdown. I was in hospital for a week hooked up to plasma and all sorts of drugs until I felt better, then I went home and made rope things all week until the antibiotics wore off and I went back to hospital. This happened for a couple of months. When I was not in hospital, or even when I was, I would post images to Instagram of what I had made when I was not in hospital. I was trying to create a semblance of control in my life.

It’s been 11 months since having my colon removed. I’m ok. I don’t need chemo. The cancer was 10 years old when they cut it out. And luckily only stage 1.

A friend recently complained to me that they had no idea I had been sick. That my Instagram account showed what she thought to be a very productive existence. This is what I wanted. My Instagram account was the only thing I had control over. I couldn’t see a horizon.

I used to get annoyed at people sharing their ‘best lives’ on social media. Like it was some gross display of mastery over life. But after having the experience of being sick, and people thinking I was winning when actually I was not, I realise it is just a form of keeping it all together. If making a world on social media allows you to sustain your practice, who am I to complain? Sustaining something requires energy and effort. Most practices are not sustainable in a contemporary sense of the word. Anyone with a creative practice should be praised.

After hospital, all I could do was lie in my daybed, lovingly made for me in the living-room. Not going out, having very few visitors and feeling weak physically and mentally. Making stuff was a place to channel everything.

Finn Ferrier, group shot, 2022

However, In all this chaos and uncertainty I had a real breakthrough with my ropework. My forms got better, the shapes more confident, my understanding of tension and ability to work bigger. I created a series and assembled a body of work which became the works I showed at Te Uru earlier this year.

This year I have been working with The New Zealand Maritime Museum who have acquired a body of work to display in their new permanent galleries opening later this year, exploring themes of time and making.

For a long time, I never considered my ropework to be part of my practice. They were just things I made. I now realise that they are very much part of me: a combination of all the elements that have made up my life.

This text is based on the Ockham Lecture “Finn McCahon-Jones: Slow Making” for Objectspace 08/2020 

About Finn McCahon-Jones

Finn McCahon-Jones is an independent writer and curator, who is also an artist practicing under the name Finn Ferrier. Finn lives in Auckland, New Zealand and is particularly interested in how artists see things, materialism and vibrant matter. As well as having a collection of rope, Finn has a collection of rocks. Visit www.finn-ferrier.net and follow @finnferrier.

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