A silent space between
Margaret Ashman creates delicately coloured original prints based on gesture, dance and sign. The stillness and silence of the works is not accidental, it’s because her models are deaf. Each step or movement of arm, hand and body flows from a performer who speaks the visual language of sign. Whether signing or dancing without words, each gesture is intentional and resonant with hidden meaning.
The artist’s journey into sign dance began with some early photo etchings of close ups of hands using found photographs and then family members and friends as models. From there she developed this theme into finger spelling and signing. One branch of her family is deaf and they and their friends were willing to model for her whilst signing.
Ashman was put in contact with Chisato Minamimura, a deaf choreographer and dancer while searching for suitable deaf models to photograph. Watching her perform a dance she had written called Scott at the dance and performance centre, The Place, she was struck by her grace and precision. Ashman photographed Minamimura performing improvised dance and a number of sequences of sign language at the Siobian Davies Dance studios. She recorded her dances, sometimes using a hand held camera, moving with the dancer and following her to capture each movement. The sign language sequences included the well known poem A Time for Everything found in the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom books of the Bible.
The photographs of the dance shoot were pored over and sifted carefully. Ashman’s etchings evolve slowly. Ideas are developed digitally first and then bitten onto metal plates in the workshop by a photo etching process. Ashman’s preferred metals are steel and copper. She etches steel plates with nitric acid, sometimes reworking the plates with scrapers and abrasives to bring more light in the final image. The proofing stage on the press is a vital part of the creative process before the final print is realised. Layers of ink are sometimes added to create soft layers and unique marks by mixing and reworking. Each print is taken individually by freshly inking up the plate for each impression.
Some works include images of objects, photographs of textiles, embroideries, or backgrounds made from many of the artist’s own or found photographs of interiors or exteriors. Immersion and Counterpoise incorporate images of antique Chinese wallpaper. The series, A Time to Measure, A Time Beyond and A Time to Mend use fabric and garments as a trope. This motif has autobiographical significance for the artist as her mother was a needlework teacher and made clothes for the family as she was growing up. The piece of fabric in A Time to Mend is very fine netting with a trace of embroidery, reminding one of a bridal veil. A time to Mend, A time to Measure and A Time Beyond were all derived from the model signing the word ‘stitch’ or ‘sew’ in Japanese sign language for the deaf.