London Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers – workshop

Jo Atherton's Flotsam Weaving workshop

Jo Atherton’s Flotsam Weaving workshop

I will be running a full day flotsam weaving workshop with the London Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers on Saturday 29 October 2016 at St Stephen’s Church, 48 Emperor’s Gate, London, SW7. Past courses have been short taster sessions of an hour or so, but this workshop will allow you to learn more about the technique for making your own loom and creating a much larger tapestry. All materials are provided and the loom is yours to keep and use again. It will be an opportunity to really indulge in the process and create something truly unique.

Jo Atherton's Flotsam Weaving workshop

Jo Atherton’s Flotsam Weaving workshop

For those of you familiar with traditional weaving, this is an opportunity to unpick those established techniques and approach the loom from a mixed media point of view to construct a weaving from the most unexpected found objects.

Conversely, if you have never tried weaving before, this is a great workshop to experiment with mixed materials, using a loom and learning about the links between weaving and storytelling. This full day Flotsam Weaving Workshop offers a chance for allegorical exploration and an exciting new approach to a traditional craft.  

Work created during Jo Atherton's Flotsam Weaving workshop

Work created during Jo Atherton’s Flotsam Weaving workshop

Participants are invited to bring along any materials they might like to incorporate into their tapestry. ‘Flotsam’ could refer to old clothes, fabrics, buttons, ribbons or even the beads of a once-loved necklace. Shells, twigs, vines or any other natural materials could also be included.

A collection of beachcombing finds from the East Anglian and Cornish coasts will be provided along with Thames mudlarking finds, buttons, ribbons, textiles, string and wool, giving us a huge variety of everyday objects to work with.

Cost – £50 to include all materials and a loom to keep and use again

Please email in the first instance.

Booking essential.


Leaving an imprint

In a break from weaving, I have been taking my creative practice in new directions. To work with ocean plastics, ghost nets or marine debris is inescapably connected to our relationship with the environment and the increasing conversations around the Anthropocene; the epoch we are currently in, so defined by the ways in which the geology and processes on the planet are forever changed.

The imprint we are leaving on our environment is the starting point for this new body of work. This global imprint led me to physically print with the plastic objects I have collected on the UK coastline. The collection of shapes and fragments are strangely familiar but altogether alien out of context.

Anthropocene printing

Anthropocene printing

They have a resemblance to plankton and diatoms, the microscopic creatures living in water that now share their realm with ubiquitous fragments of plastic. Interestingly, in the Jurassic epoch, it was these tiny creatures that formed layers on the seabed that over time, slowly transformed into oil, the very material that plastic is created from.

I am working on a series of prints that reflect both the distribution of typical objects found on the tideline and their similarity to plankton, some might say their material forebears.

What is the message in 27,000 pink bottles?

Like a day-glo naval assault, thousands of pink plastic bottles landed on the UK coastline during the past week. The bottles invaded the Cornish coast in south west England after they were rallied and mobilised by winter storms. Thought to be the cargo from a shipping container declared lost by the MV Blue Ocean last May, this pink peril flotilla contains Vanish, a household stain remover.

The manufacturers of the cleaning product, Reckitt Benckiser, assure the public that the Vanish bleach solution poses little threat to wildlife, but of greater concern are the bottles themselves. Presently their shocking pink appearance makes them easy to spot and subsequently recover, but over time, smashing into Cornwall’s rugged coastline, these bottles will become microplastic fragments and pose the greatest threat when, mistaken for food by fish and birds, they are ingested and enter the food chain.

Following the development of this story on social media, people in Cornwall spoke of wave crests turning pink, an overpowering smell of bleach and entire beaches covered in bottles, as if infected with a nasty pink rash. Matt Burtwell of Aerial Cornwall, an aerial photography company managed to record the distribution of the bottles at Poldhu Cove on the Lizard Penninsula, Cornwall.

Pink bottles strewn along Poldhu Cove, Cornwall. Image with thanks to Matt Burtwell of Aerial Cornwall

Pink bottles strewn along Poldhu Cove, Cornwall. Image with thanks to Matt Burtwell of Aerial Cornwall

There have been many interesting discussions across social media about accountability, with people very quick to point the finger at Reckitt Benckiser, however apportioning blame in these situations is not so simple.

Reckitt Benckiser put trust in a shipping carrier that their consignment of Vanish would be delivered safely and on time. Likewise, we can only assume the crew of the MV Blue Ocean acted responsibly in the midst of a storm off Land’s End. Treacherous conditions at sea are unfortunate and such incidents will often be deemed ‘acts of God’ by insurance companies, but this offers little comfort to the coastal communities battling the elements to rid their beaches of these ghastly pink invaders.

One such person is Instagram user @__lucybloor__ who found herself helping with a beach clean this week, as did @indiekitchen, a Cornish record label. Another, @oceanpositive_fourthelement, a Cornish company using ghost fishing nets to make swimwear, helped with cleaning beaches in partnership with Surfers Against Sewage, one of the many organised beach clean ups. Cornwall is a stunning location to call home and which many local businesses depend for their livelihood.

In the Twenty First Century incidents like this only serve to highlight our over dependence on cheap imported goods. The desire for cheaper labour and production costs often means products are manufactured far from their country of use and rely heavily on the shipping industry. Indeed, in her book Deep Sea and Foreign Going, Rose George  explains that a shocking 90% of the goods in our homes have arrived by cargo ship. Whilst we remain so reliant on global trade, cargo spills like the pink bottles are sadly inevitable.

In 2013, the World Shipping Council reported that 120 million containers were moved around the planet, so cargo spills must be happening all the time. Those more newsworthy items capture the public’s imagination, like the pink bottles, or the 28,000 yellow ducks that spilled from a container lost in the Pacific back in 1992. Knowing what to look for, the public were able to spot the ducks and provide data for studying ocean currents, as made famous in Donovan Hohn’s book, Moby Duck.

Shipping isn’t going to change when we are so dependent on it, and storms at sea are inevitable. It has been heart warming to see people coming together to tackle the symptoms of the problem. Facebook has been used to connect beach clean groups, mobilise a clean up operation and monitor the distribution of the bottles, some of which have drifted as far away as Holland. Beachcombers in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France and The Netherlands are on the lookout for pink bottles and ready to report their arrival and organise beach cleans.

Collaboratively we can make a difference in remedying the problem but still have a long way to go if we are to prevent it altogether when the basis of global trade is so dependent on the movement of boxes around the planet.

The global market offers manufacturers cheaper labour and materials but all too often in the case of cargo spills, a hidden price is paid by those coastal communities saddled with the clean up operation. It is their tourist industry and fishermen who suffer. Container losses are impacting the marine environment in ways that have yet to be fully understood and undoubtedly this will be a price we all end up paying if nothing is done.

The message in these pink bottles must therefore be for a more collaborative approach when tackling the marine debris problem. Flotsam knows no boundaries and carries no passport. By making use of communication networks which are already in place online, we can grow the global community of beachcombers to develop an effective monitoring network.

As an artist working with materials gathered on the UK coastline, I have followed the pink bottle story with considerable interest. In my work, the tideline is a source of inspiration as I consider the stories behind the objects I find washing ashore, wondering how far they have travelled, who they belonged to and how long they have been at sea. Each object becomes a thread to be woven; strands of a story which tell of modern consumer habits, tastes and fashions.

It's Only a Game (2014) Jo Atherton

It’s Only a Game (2014) Jo Atherton

Through my flotsam tapestries, I seek to document the zeitgeist; a drama played out along the shoreline where characters are plastic and until we are prepared to address the problem together, there will be no happy ever after.

Almost all aspects of our daily life are represented along the tideline, from cosmetics to clothing, toys to trainers, and this latest pink arrival is sadly nothing new. With time, these bottles will become another anecdote when walking on the shore, a story to be told about container spills, much like the Lego, motorbikes and even space debris that have made the news recently. More mundane objects or unrecognisable components must be washing ashore every day but we are not so quick to identify them as shipping container escapees.

Once the news of these pink bottles fades, we must remember that twice a day on each tide, arrive thousands more non descript, orphaned objects, only to be washed out beyond the horizon twelve hours later with the turning tide. What is the message in 27,000 pink bottles – Vanish?

Fighting Histories

Tate Britain, London by Tony Hisgett

Tate Britain, London by Tony Hisgett

Last month I attended a panel discussion at the Tate Britian in London inspired by their recent Fighting Histories exhibition. The event prompted interesting questions around notions of history, cultural memory and asked how history is made.

I was pleased that the discussion set out to explore the themes I find myself pondering, such as whose histories are recorded for posterity and what are the ways in which artists might work with historical materials and cultural memory?

Working with found objects myself, I am inspired by the stories behind the materials I find washed up on our coastline and wonder how these objects will be interpreted in the future. It is my belief that the longevity of plastic will reveal our everyday tastes and fashions to future generations. The throwaway fragments we discard today will contribute to our own history in the same way artefacts lay suspended in the earth, patiently waiting for the archaeologist to uncover. Will our plastic strata indicate our obsession with mass production, consumerism and an over reliance on oil?

Flotsam finds - April 2014

Hidden in plain sight

During the panel discussion, artist Uriel Orlow explained that he views history as a latent resource existing within the landscape. This was a comment that particularly resonated with me. To walk the tideline is to interrogate traces of our existence, which are largely ignored for their unsightly appearance as litter. It is only time which elevates everyday discards such as broken clay pipes, pottery shards and glass bottles to rarefied objects to the cabinet of curiosity. These items are not made with valuable materials. They were not uncommon at  their time of production, and would be prevalent in most people’s lives. I like to think that the single use items we see littering the shoreline are the modern equivalent of these treasures, only they hide in plain sight; we choose not to see them. 

When dealing with these objects, I think it is important not to be too prescriptive or offer closure, as room for interpretation allows multiple voices to be heard. By encouraging the viewer to orientate themselves through the collection or display, they can begin to construct their own narrative. This offers room for interpretation and to celebrate how we extract different meaning from the same things.

I am working on creating encounters that will cause the audience to consider the zeitgeist through orphaned objects, and imagine how we might be represented by these artefacts of the future.

Sketching & Shipping: ideas emerging from my Residency at Cape Cornwall

On my arrival, I was mesmerised by the epic location of Brisons Veor and reflecting on my week, those feelings have only grown. I am familiar with the Cornish coast, but was not prepared for the raw beauty of the peninsula. The studio really does feel perched on the very edge of our nation, if not the world, and is the ideal environment for total submersion in a project, idea or reflection.

A room with a view - Brisons Veor Residency

A room with a view – Brisons Veor Residency

Typically my work involves working with found materials that arrive on the tideline. Increasingly I have been reflecting on the assemblages of objects I put together and how they become evocative signifiers for my own tastes, experiences and memories. We are all collectors to a greater or lesser extent, and the unspoken curatorial decisions made throughout life reveal much about a person’s taste, sentimentality and class. It is this bond with objects I have increasingly been returning to, in particular the very personal relationship we can enjoy with a commodity, set against the dispassionate backdrop of global trade.

Thinking about this part of my creative process during the week, I began to notice the large number of container ships and tankers ghosting along the horizon, on a shipping route up to Liverpool, Ireland and beyond. In the UK at least, almost everything we own has, at some point, spent time aboard a ship. Articles crammed into containers alongside identical versions of themselves embark on a global journey. I began to view the innocuous steel-clad containers as slow-transiting vitrines of our time, holding the would-be relics of the future. The unique aspect of Brisons Veor enabled me to watch these huge ships silently moving across the horizon and consider how I may incorporate this largely unseen element of industry into my creative practice.

A tanker passes Cape Cornwall

A tanker passes  The Brisons, Cape Cornwall

During the week, the sea was my metronome, as I planned my days by the tides and fully immersed myself in the area. It has been a wonder to observe the watery transience of Priest’s Cove; a submerged world, ever in flux that is both land and sea twice a day. The very force of the waves that batter the humble inlet are a constant source of inspiration. Learning to look in detail and experience a place intimately was a means of examining my own perceptions of the world and how I choose to record and display my experiences. The memory of others who made their living along this coast, and those artists who have been inspired to record their time at Brisons Veor were never far from my mind during my week.

Cape Cornwall

Cape Cornwall

I felt compelled to record the rugged coast, at the very frontier of our island and consider our inherited sense of place. Names and remnants imbued with histories – Carn Gloose, Gribba Point, Maen Dower, Are Point, Porth Nanven, Portheras Cove, and so many more revealed on the local map – To what or whom do these names refer? What fragment of the past do we still hang on to, echoed in our sense of place today?

Memories in charcoal

Memories in charcoal

Sketching with charcoal directly on the beach, or further along the coastline, I managed to produce almost fifty drawings of individually named headlands. Spirited sketches working quickly to capture the flow of the land, shape of the rocks and a loose impression of the environment enabled me to engage with the landscape in a way I have not done for some time. My sketches have become personal landmarks by which I orientate my week at Brisons Veor which I will be using to develop a new body of work and the very process of working en plein air has added much to my existentialist experience of the landscape.

The synchronicity of beachcombing

As you probably know by now, I believe the process of collection or rejection can reveal much about a person. My own assemblage of beachcombing finds is both a record of our throwaway society and a collection of evocative signifiers for my own very individual tastes, experiences and memories.

A Canadian lobster pot tag in a flotsam tapestry

A Canadian lobster pot tag in a flotsam tapestry

Humans are narrative creatures and we read significance everywhere. Perhaps in the same way we gaze skywards and interpret shapes in the clouds, the high tide mark on the seashore offers scope for personal interpretation in a similar way.

There are those objects we consider lucky to find, such as a rare sea bean that has drifted to our shores from the West Indies, or a lobster pot tag that has made a transatlantic journey from Canada.

These objects come to rest on the sand along the trajectory of a beachcombing walk and if we are concentrating, we are lucky enough to spot them and claim our prize for being in the right place at the right time.

Then there are those objects which present an amusing significance to their context.

Weaver Vale Fire & Security plastic tag

Weaver Vale Fire & Security plastic tag

Consider a plastic packing tag I picked up in Norfolk. I was searching for blue items for a tapestry I am currently working on. These tags frequently feature in my work as I delight in their ambiguous codes and text which are often impossible to decipher.

Occasionally the tags betray a clue of their origin and I can conduct some detective work. Imagine my delight when running the phone number through Google, I discover this tag was issued by a company called Weaver Vale Fire & Security, and there it was, woven into a flotsam tapestry! This is an example of one such find, amusing but not incredible.

Then finally, there are those objects which wash ashore that have an undeniable connection to a person that it can be considered synchronous; a power beyond simple interpretation brings an object to our attention with a concrete connection. This happened to me last year with an innocuous shard of plastic.

Martin Gray is a beachcombing friend I met via Facebook. Last year he was working near to my home and very kindly offered to bring me some flotsam finds that I could incorporate in my work. Gathered on the south coast, I was interested to see what kind of finds were in his collection and whether these differed much to the marine debris I had collected on Norfolk and Cornish beaches.

Out of all of the pieces of plastic, rope, broken toys and creel hooks, one thing caught my eye. It was a piece of plastic pipe bearing an address. I love trying to uncover the stories of flotsam relics so was excited by the prospect of an address I could research.

Latent stories surround us, waiting to be found

Latent stories surround us, waiting to be found

The piece of pipe had come from The Oxford Bee Co Ltd, which one can only assume to be a bee breeding business based in Loughborough. A close friend of ours lived in the town for a number of years so I was keen to show him the piece of plastic and see whether he recognised the address. Not only did he know the street, but he actually lived next door to the very address on this battered piece of sea-smoothed plastic!

This was very strange, as here I had a series of events that had brought this object to me which I was closely connected to. Firstly, the plastic pipe originated at an address in Loughborough, next door to my friend. It somehow found its way into the sea, drifting for an unknown period of time in the English Channel, only to arrive on the very beach where my internet friend Martin was beachcombing one day. These are a lot of connections which tell a story of how linked we are to one another, maybe more than we realise.

Perhaps these connections exist everywhere; latent narratives we are yet to discover, strands waiting to be woven. Orphaned objects washing ashore twice a day, every day. And this will continue to be the case long after we have gone. What will happen to these stories of our time?

The Stranded lobster pot

Stranded - weaving into a found lobster pot

Stranded – weaving into a found lobster pot

As part of Stranded at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, we have included a lobster pot which I found washed ashore on a Norfolk beach. I began weaving into this structure and have invited visitors to the Museum to do the same, contributing to a public work of art which will grow throughout the duration of the exhibition.

In my work, I use flotsam objects and materials as a means of considering stories of our time. Weaving sits naturally alongside storytelling, and we often talk about narrative strands, so it seemed fitting to use the lobster pot to ‘trap’ the threads of people visiting the exhibition during 2015.

I was delighted to read this tweet today from Emma Pate who has visited with her daughter Isla and shared her contribution to the weaving:


Opening a message in a bottle

I found a message in a bottle!

I found a message in a bottle!

On Sunday 25th January 2015, we were walking along the beach between Portnadler Bay and Looe in Cornwall, UK. Having dropped off all my work at the National Martime Museum Cornwall for my exhibition Stranded, I couldn’t resist the urge to head to the coast for a spot of beachcombing.

Walking close to the cliffs, I had been scouring for interesting treasures that could have become tangled in vegetation and to my delight, I spotted a small glass bottle with what appeared to be a note inside!

The following video shows the moment I open the damp piece of paper and try to read the message inside.

So the message appeared to be written by Charlie thanking Santa for their Christmas presents. It was written in blue biro on a blue square of paper in the handwriting of a young child. Many of the words have been written phonetically, so why not try reading the following out loud as I was trying to do in the video:

The message in the bottle found in Cornwall

The message in the bottle found in Cornwall


My name is charlie

Dir santer I wont

to sa fang you

fo giving me


My translation of the message is thus: My name is Charlie. Dear Santa I want to say thank you for giving me presents.

I found it interesting that Charlie dropped this message in the sea two weeks before Christmas, perhaps to send thanks early to be sure Santa would remember their presents!

I spotted the bottle tangled in some tall grasses about a mile from Looe just over a month after it was written. It is my guess that it had been thrown in the sea locally and become lodged in vegetation after a high tide. Without any clue as to the source, all we can do is speculate. For me, this is where the wonder lies, as I ponder who Charlie is, whether they are a boy or a girl and what they opened on Christmas morning.

I am intrigued that a child would think to use a message in a bottle as a means of contacting Father Christmas. In my childhood, letters would be written then burned on the fire with the understanding that our words would be taken up the chimney to the North Pole. On reflection, the message in a bottle method sounds like a more reliable method!

Collection or Rejection

Compilation of beachcombing finds - 2014

Compilation of beachcombing finds – 2014

When I began creating tapestries from flotsam gathered on the British coastline, it was an attempt to represent our throwaway culture by weaving together the narratives of orphaned objects.

Recently, whilst selecting flotsam relics to be included in a Cabinet of Curiosity for my exhibition at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, I realised that the display had a dual message – on the surface it was an informative exhibit of well-travelled beachcombing finds, but the assemblage of objects became evocative signifiers for my own tastes, experiences and memories.

In the gallery as on the beach, my role as curator divulges as much about me as the society I am documenting. We are all collectors to a greater or lesser extent, and the unspoken curatorial decisions made throughout life reveal much about a person’s taste, sentimentality and class. It is this bond with objects that I seek to explore, in particular the very personal relationship we can enjoy with a commodity, set against the dispassionate backdrop of global trade.

By stripping back my own creative process to the point of collection or rejection, I hope to analyse the very evocative and personal relationships we share with objects, and how context can have a profound impact on their interpretation.

Stranded launches at National Maritime Museum Cornwall

On Monday 2nd February, Stranded finally opened at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall. Stranded features the a collection of my tapestries woven from fishing line, netting, rope and other unexpected items left washed up on our beaches by the great ocean currents.

Tehmina Goskar, Exhibitions Registrar at the Maritime Museum says: “The Maritime Museum has been wanting to highlight the serious and growing problem of marine litter in our seas for some time. Jo’s highly original and thoughtful flotsam tapestries presented us with a great opportunity to explore the detritus that washes up on our beaches in a playful and unexpected way. I hope Stranded will make our visitors think differently when they are next taking a stroll on the coast.”

The exhibition, Stranded runs from 2nd February until 5th July 2015 at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, Discovery Quay, Falmouth.