As we approach the middle of week 12 since lockdown started for Covid-19, I find I’m still checking the data being offered up every day of the numbers who are newly counted as having a positive Covid test, those in ITU and the many still losing their lives every day.
For the first few weeks of lockdown, I felt shocked and numbed by what was happening, as were so many others around the world. Focusing on anything proved difficult, with that helplessness that the most important and helpful contribution I could make to the effort was to stay at home.
I had decided earlier in the year, a few months after joining the Phoenix Textile Group, that I should finish the final piece from Significant Figures: remembrance through making for their bi-annual exhibition (see below). The last remaining piece being Roll of Service.
The Roll of Service for King Edward’s School holds over fourteen hundred names. Of those who took part in active service, approximately one fifth lost their lives, either in action, or as a result of their service. Stitched on a very long length of white tape, (representing the white tape used as a means for marking out and directing, for finding your way to safety on the battlefield), this piece of stitching is a register. In the past, I have been a primary teacher, taking a register twice a day for my class. An upward red stroke marks each individual as present in the morning. A downward red stroke for present in the afternoon. A black circle marks an absence. The Roll of Service register marks are similar. All are present in the morning, for those that did not survive, there is a black ring, a mark of absence. Every ten individuals are marked with a ‘dog tag’.
At the beginning of lockdown I had been stitching Roll of Service on and off for several years, picking up the stitching and doing some before having to set it aside for another time. It was something that I needed to finish, and I now had a deadline of an exhibition (which would have been October 2020). It took me a couple of weeks to pick up my needle again. There was such a parallel between the daily briefings full of figures and the telegrams and newspaper reports of a century ago. I thought a lot about my Grandmother, Elsie, the losses she must have known of, or even witnessed as a student at Birmingham University, offering her help in the military hospital housed in The Great Hall. I never thought to ask her about the Spanish Flu of 1918.
As the days of lockdown stretched before us, the Roll of Service became a routine, a time for mindfulness and reflection. The stitching was a period of quiet. I admit it was usually accompanied by the daily briefings in the background, seeking signs that the UK had ‘reached the peak’. Most days I averaged about an hour to an hour and a half of stitching, or two pages from the ‘blue book’ as I have heard it affectionately called by those who told me of it’s existence – the book containing all the names and details of those listed in The Roll of Service. Weeks passed and I reached 1000, then stitched towards 1400 and the final few.
Having finished it I unrolled the full length, started in 2016. I had not seen it since then. What surprised me was how my stitching had changed over time, with the register marks becoming more spaced out and almost relaxed. There wasn’t a point where it had changed, just evolved over time. With a past history of being a perfectionist, this begs the question of how I feel about this? Well I’ve started to be more accepting of my work having it’s own voice. The slightly different black circles are not all the same and there is a variation in the stitching. I suppose it’s like handwriting, it has it’s own character.
Now it is finished and I miss it. It became my comforter at a difficult time, we shared a sense of loss. So for this reason I have stitched a small nod to the losses of my generation, as well as my Grandmother’s. Just a small record of the days I shared with the white tape.
Roll of Service will be exhibited with Phoenix Contemporary Textiles, see revised exhibition dates below.
Phoenix Contemporary Textiles 2021 SEEN UNSEEN
Robert Phillips Gallery – Wed 13 October – Sun 31 October 2021
Riverhouse, Manor Road, Walton-on Thames, Surrey, KT12 2PF
MAKING, TALKING and SHARING
As I take down my Christmas cards, I’m re-reading the messages inside. One is from a family friend, who has known me since I was a child. She has followed my progress, attended a workshop and recently my exhibition, Significant Figures: remembrance through making.
“Our visit to your Exhibition in Chichester was memorable Mary – thank you for sharing such a beautiful piece of your creative work, it was so personal and it was very moving for us too.”
Sharing my work is a really important part of what I do. Whether that be through teaching or talking. Giving a talk to a group of people I haven’t met before can be both scary and liberating. I like to give a little of myself, tell some stories about my journey, pose questions about what and how I make. Above all I hope the listener takes something away. It might be that I’ve provided an interesting hour of entertainment, but I hope it’s more than that. I’d like to think that I’ve given ‘food for thought’, some nourishment for the creative brain.
To begin with, Significant Figures was a personal project, researching my Grandmother’s boyfriend Cecil. During the course of making I began to make connections with other people making their own WW1 journeys, and it became an act of making and sharing. As part of the Basketry Then & Now project, and through social media, I began to share my work with a wider audience. Then as 2018 approached I realised that unless I exhibited the work, it would probably not get finished, I would not have shared it as a whole, and honoured those I wished to.
I was eager that when exhibiting the work, I should explain who the people behind the stories were, why I had made the things I had, as well as how they came about. I have a background in primary teaching and museum education, so interpretation and learning are instinctively part of how I work and think. So, I made the decision to interpret the exhibition with a booklet and to be at the Gallery, in person, every day to meet visitors, talk and answer questions.
So post-exhibition the sharing continues, in the form of an illustrated talk. I have been giving talks on My Journey into Basketry and Intertwined: Textile Basketry to interested parties; Guilds of the Weavers, Spinners & Dyers, Embroidery Guilds and independent groups. They are a great way of making my work accessible to those who may not be able to visit an exhibition or attend a workshop. Added to the list of talks is Significant Figures.
I usually talk for about an hour, sometimes with a PowerPoint presentation of photographs, but always using objects from the things I bring, to illustrate what I want to say. Sometimes passing the object around the audience. I talk personally about my work, including the processes I’ve worked through to get to the completed object. Finishing with questions!
I WILL REMEMBER HIM at the Oxmarket Gallery
Following on from my last blog post, Making Time, the work has been taken down and the motifs from I Will Remember Him have now been returned to their flat boxes. The backing material rolled around a tube, packed in a bag. Significant Figures: remembrance through making at the Oxmarket Gallery has ended.
I spent thirteen days in the Gallery, meeting and greeting, sitting near to the piece. Hung opposite the door, it was probably the first item seen by visitors. It was interesting to see how many were drawn towards it – intrigued or not sure what it was.
I encouraged visitors to read the accompanying booklet for the exhibition, but some preferred to ask me about it. It was a pleasure to be able to share the story belonging to my Grandmother Elsie, but also my story as a maker. In a sense the work has been a collaboration.
Q How long did it take to make?
A In truth I do not know, but each motif took about half an hour to prepare the materials and longer to make, about an hour and a half each. The backing cloth took two days to measure and make. Prior to making I spent time experimenting with paper, threads and techniques.
Q Did you cut up Bibles and use the paper?
A No, the paper was blank Bible paper (paper used in the printing of Bibles). I handwrote each strip (about six for each motif), which gives the speckled appearance when twisted.
Q How did you hold the work whilst you were weaving the thread across the twisted paper strips?
A I used a lace pillow and pins to hold each loop of paper in place. The first round was the most difficult to keep in place, after that you could take your hands away!
Q Why are some of the motifs woven in red?
A In my experience of grieving, the pain of loss can last for years. The red represents the years of grieving.
Q Why is the red thread on the last motif hanging loose?
A My Grandmother died in 1992, it is an incomplete year. The red thread hangs from the date she died.
I do not know when I Will Remember Him will next be taken out of its boxes and hung again. I hope it won’t be too long. With the passing of Armistice Day this year and the centenary of the end of the First World War, for me it represents the power of remembrance. I have to thank my Grandmother, whose generation experienced WW1 first hand, for teaching me the value of remembering.
With less than a month before the opening of Significant Figures to go, I’m frantically drawing together all the loose ends, and making lists of what still needs to be done. It’s been a long journey, with the initial ideas being conceived in 2013.
Early on, I mentioned the work I was doing at a number of talks to different groups. It was met with interest, but also raised eyebrows and smiles at what I was proposing to make – in particular a series of seventy seven motifs each representing a year of my Grandmother’s life and her act of remembrance for her boyfriend Cecil, killed in action in 1916, until her death in 1992.
Each motif consists of twenty six bent strips of twisted Bible paper. Each strip being cut from a plain sheet and patterned with handwritten text, as recorded by my Grandmother. The bent strips are arranged in a circle to form a ring with fifty two open ends. The ring is then held with twining, (a weave using two active elements that form a twisted line of threads). Every day marked as a single ‘twine’. Each year has seven complete turns of the ring, plus one twine for three hundred and sixty five days (7×52+1=365) or plus two for a leap year (7×52+2=366).
To begin with, making over seventy motifs seemed achievable, but as my task progressed, I realised the enormity of it. The cutting, writing folding and twisting of paper being the preparation, followed by the small scale weaving of each year. It became a topic of conversation. Where have you got to now? How many more have you got to make? At times my hands hurt, I was tired of the repetition, the counting. Half way was a milestone, each decade marked another ten closer to the end.With the finishing of the last motif, I felt relief. I had done it.
However my task was not yet done. Each motif had to be labelled and strung. The motifs packed and stored flat in boxes needed to be mounted on a backing fabric, for display as a grid, with decades arranged in horizontal rows. Two days of careful measurement, pinning, pressing and stitching followed before the motifs could finally be hung on the fabric.
My reaction to seeing the work, hanging as a whole, was not what I expected. I thought I would feel overjoyed. Instead I suddenly found myself standing in front of something that I didn’t recognise. The flat motifs took on their own forms, curling and moving as they hung in order.
For now, it is returned to boxes and the fabric rolled around the tube. But what have I learnt? That making is not just about what you make, but the journey you take whilst making, be that creative or personal. I’ve never seen myself as a batch maker, and I can lose interest in a task if not challenged, but with the making of over seventy objects I could see the value in repetition, as I refined and honed my skills. For a piece marking the passing of time, it seems fitting that I have placed such value on the time taken in the making.
‘I will remember him’ will be on display as part of Significant Figures, showing at the Oxmarket Gallery, Chichester 25.09.18-07.10.18.