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.Wilkinson

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.

So one Sunday soon afterwards I looked up the closest branches of Wilkinson and set off for Stratford to buy the goods. I don’t think I’d ever been to Stratford before so it felt quite an adventure.StoreFinder

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!MetalScourers

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.PlasticScourers

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!ScourerPattern

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!BijanArt

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.Completed

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.Raymond Baxter

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).


6 Responses to “The scouring pads of Stratford”

  1. Nessa Says:

    I love it…. But then I would, wouldn’t I? My memories of the scouring pads art work – being sent a picture of it (in one of our earliest emails) as one of your favourite things you own; balancing it over the top of the front seat in the car when we moved from your flat to this house…. One of the few possessions that were too precious to entrust to the removal men!!

    I also love that it is such a talking point. Everyone who visits does a double take when they realise what it is made of.

  2. mangofantasy Says:

    I’d forgotten we moved it in the car. If it breaks maybe we’ll hold a big party and have a scouring pad fight in the garden.

  3. Matthew Says:

    I’ve noticed before that we’re drawn to very different things. Bright plastic household goods don’t fill me with inspiration, I’m much more drawn to organic matter and things that have weathered and worn. And yet… and yet I do recall loving some of the wildly overstocked household goods shops we saw in developing countries on our travels, or even push-carts stuffed to toppling with bright plastic buckets, mops, bowls, etc. It’s obviously about context for me; a collection of bright plastic in a dusty old town looks like an unexpected burst of flowers in a desert, but within the context of a British high street it just feels deadening.

    I love your scouring pad art more for the evidence it shows, of inspiration and dedication. I should make stuff. Though probably with bark and moss and seashells…?

  4. mangofantasy Says:

    Thanks Matthew! I probably see organic things and think of them as inherently perfect, and so my reaction is to take pictures of them, whereas really basic man-made things sort of feel like they need transfiguring from their baseness. But at a more fundamental level I guess my inner child does just like playing around with bright plastic!

    The amazing furniture we saw in Bali at is a meeting point of these tendencies.

    I would definitely love to see things you would make out of bark and moss and seashells! Great idea! Have you followed the work of nature-based artists like Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and Richard Long?

  5. JK Says:

    You know the singer Diamondback?

    His father was a pet shop junkie and his mother had a hundred eyes.

    But more germane to your post – his mullet and moustache comprise copper-coloured scouring pads.

  6. mangofantasy Says:

    Indeed they do. How could I have missed him!

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