The scouring pads of Stratford
January 30, 2012
The idea for this came to me on a trip to see my parents in Dunstable, wandering around a big branch of Wilkinson, taking delight in the vibrant colours and varied textures of all the cheap household goods.
I quite often have moments when I look at some simple mundane thing and think – how cool would it be to have a thousand of those and create something bonkers? It’s one of my standard cod-artistic responses to the world around me. But for some reason, wandering around the shop that day in 2002, I decided to make it happen.
I have a taste both in sound and vision for things made of small repeating units, where subtle changes can occur within a predictable frame and new rhythms and textures emerge with scale. I like the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, for example, and I’m often fascinated by the messy and disrupted repetition seen in weathered brick walls and tiled roofs.
It so happened that my flat in Bermondsey had a long low space above the dining table, and I‘d been looking around for some time for a suitably shaped picture.
I was particularly drawn to the metal mesh type scourers that come in both silvery stainless steel and a more expensive copper coated version. Unfortunately the shop only had about 5 packets of each type, so I had to buy the whole lot. There were also plastic equivalents in multi-coloured packs that were less exciting but I thought might add variety to whatever I was going to make, so I bought a few of those too. I’m afraid there must have been a few disappointed people in Stratford who couldn’t do their washing up properly that week!
Next I spent a few days laying them out on the table at home, trying various arrangements to find something satisfying, experimenting with various types of alternation, repetition and disruption, in random and predictable patterns, using the small stock I already had and imagining what I could achieve with further purchases.
Eventually I chose a very simple symmetrical arrangement that matched the size I needed for the wall, using long lines of each colour. Rather like a layer cake or some kind of sandwich biscuit, with the outside rows in red and blue enclosing three inside rows laid out in the metallic colours. I realised that there’s so much texture and visual interest in the individual scouring pads that the design needed to be kept very simple. I also rejected the paler plastic colours entirely as I wanted quite a bold overall feel that would be in keeping with other features of the flat, and they seemed to detract.
The pads tessellate quite nicely and squeeze into something like hexagons (like a honeycomb) with a little pressure, so I had 5 rows with 28 and 27 alternating – a total of 138 pads. This only required two more trips to Stratford, allowing sufficient time for them to restock between each visit!
Meanwhile I asked my local picture framer on Tower Bridge Road to make a box frame of the necessary size, approximately 50 x 200cm. One thing I can distinctly recall is being too embarrased to tell him what I was planning to use it for, which seems very odd now. It was such a creative time in my life; I was really just beginning to think of the possibility of making things for myself. My life was full of extraordinary new people, new colour, new energy – liberation really – and yet I was obviously still easily embarrassed about being playful around people. I do wonder what Helen, my flatmate, thought – perhaps I can persuade her to contribute below!
I painted the interior of the frame black, and then simply used pressure and lots and lots of glue to persuade the pads to take up their arrangement. I really like the squeezed-squishedness of it; that became part of the appeal as I got used to the feel and texture of the scourers.
A day later came the exceedingly anxious moment of raising it up onto the wall. To my delight it stayed in one piece. I was very nervous going to look at it the next morning too, but it was still there … and it’s still in one piece nearly ten years later, surviving numerous parties, a house move and now hanging appropriately in the kitchen. I’m confident that someday it will explode into 139 pieces – and when it does the materials can belatedly begin to take turns on washing up duty, though I’ll probably make some kind of photomontage to continue their traces and memories.
Over the years I’ve always looked out for scouring pad siblings and cousins, hoping to encounter kindred spirits around the world. I’ve had just one success: at Burning Man 2006 I met a man wearing a spectacular spacesuit covered with about 100 pads fixed all over his front, back, legs and arms. I really wish I had a picture.
In preparing this post I’ve looked on the web in some depth to see what’s out there, but scouring pad art / craft / design / music / fashion does seem to be an exceptionally little-travelled road. Even less than you might expect.
Glass artist Ercole Barovier apparently used streaks of steel wool in his Crepuscolo series. There is evidence of a few projects on Etsy such as this and this, and a few other small-scale household projects such as this and (my favourite) this (apologies if any of the links have died). I’m surprised to find that many obvious search terms have zero results in Google. I’m not going to be starting a club.
I’ve really no idea why I made this, but I’m extremely happy that I did. It has a calm simplicity combined with jazzy extroversion that reminds me every day of the possibilities of play and imagination – and also of following through with an idea to completion.
I realise now that I had seen work by a few artists in those years that had probably been percolating in my head – Damien Hirst’s pharmaceuticals, Sarah Lucas’s cigarettes. And above all the bricks: I’ve always admired Carl André and his exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2000 had a big impact on me. “I think it is impossible not to like his work” – Raymond Baxter (possibly a slight exaggeration, but he was Carl’s uncle after all).