The exhibition ‘Mending at the Museum’ has finally been launched at The Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery – and it runs until April 2013….which sounds simple enough but it is the culmination of at least 3 years collaborative practice based research between academics and professional makers and artists. The ‘Stitching and Thinking’ research group, which I facilitated in my post as a senior research fellow, evolved the exhibition via a series of mixed media workshops, visits to the museum’s mended collections, many meetings, discussions, conference papers and a small sample-stage exhibition; and it also caps off my academic career which started in 1973 and finished last year in 2011….. So no pressure then.
I co-curated the exhibition with Dawn Mason, currently the award leader of Drawing and Applied Arts at U.W.E. Bristol, and my long-term academic colleague and collaborator in all things stitched. In the museum we worked with Karin Walton, the Curator of Applied Arts at Bristol Museum, and who holds the secrets and the keys to the museum’s sampler collection, the mending samplers were the main inspiration for the work that has finally been exhibited.
When I arrived on the first morning to hang the work, Dawn and Karin had already placed the exhibits, still in their wrappings, on the floor below the wall space allotted to them, but there were piles of extraneous pieces, scattered over tables and chairs, it became my task to sort these out.
The idea of the exhibition is partly to show how ideas evolve during the making process – Dawn and I have written and spoken many times of the necessity of makers to have time for reflection; making work worthy of contemplation requires as much time for the thinking as it does for the making process. It is a constant making and thinking about what you made, re-making, re-thinking until somehow the pieces resolve themselves and you wonder how they could ever have become anything other than what they are.
Each exhibitor was responsible for physically putting their own work on the wall, this saves so much argument later….but with only 7 exhibitors who know one another well we each respected one another’s’ space – well most of the time. So during the next 2 days each member of the group came and sorted their own work out meanwhile just looking at all the unwrapped pieces was really fascinating as work seen only at the sample stage 4 weeks before, now appeared ready for the wall. Work can made or marred by the way it is hung and also what it is hung next to. We were all acutely aware of how the whole exhibition must work together. It comprises 3 different elements; some of the museum’s mending samplers, our own samplers of work made throughout the research period, and the pieces made specially for exhibition.
Steph Wooster’s knitted and pieced work looked different when it was stretched over some embroidery hoops that acted almost as magnifying mirrors – drawing the eye to the details of her messages. She writes of museums being ‘houses of high culture; they show the best of us’. Finding evidence of mending within the museum’s exhibits she delights in glimpses of ‘everyday life’ . Her work, influenced by the written messages on samplers, ‘celebrates the ordinary’ by using simple fabrics with ubiquitous machine knitting.
Jilly Morris‘ children’s aprons came neatly laid one on top of the other with a Fragile label printed on the cardboard wrapper – a comment, I felt, not about the fact that the contents could be damaged but of the fragility of what was inside and already ‘ damaged’ .
The title of the work produced is ‘Mending Takes Time’ and refers to the functional stitching that was traditionally taught as part of their general education to girls, as transferable skills in an era when fabrics were ‘treated with regard’ and material was frequently mended to preserve a precious commodity – so at odds with our easy access to all types of fabric from all over the world.
The cross shape made by various commercial medical dressings recall the basic shape of most darns seen on the samplers; when executed in ready-made modern plasters she references the ‘quick fix mentality and disposable culture’ of the present day.
Jess Turrell came in with a box of assorted table-wear cups, saucers and a range of metal components such as spoon bowls, fork tines, knife blades and their specially made handles – which she made up before she placed them in a large vitrine.
Her work is called “Inappropriate Mendings” and she is having some fun at the idea of making aesthetically elegant mending that is really useless for any practical purposes, fork handles are whittled from wax candles (gedditt?) cups are mended with calico, and spoon handles wrapped in plasters from the first aid tin.
Dail Behennah brought in a fragile darned wire piece, mercifully it was framed and so this was the easiest to hang…the piece is simple and refined and references a particular black darning sampler in the collection, which is placed in a vitrine opposite her work.
Dail reflects that the darning in an old garment are often stronger than the fabric that they hold together, she has taken this to ‘absurd lengths’ by making a piece of metal fabric entirely compose of darns. The shimmering quality of the image is created by the shadows set up by the work being suspended in a box frame, below is the darning fabric in the making
Dawn Mason exhibited a series of different responses to the mending samples, called Face to Face her work reflects the reverse side of the samplers, some how when we look at the ‘wrong’ side of a piece f stitched work it seems much more immediate, the involvement of the maker is more apparent because here we see the comings and goings or the threads and often the struggle the maker has had is left as evidence where on the front of the work all is perfectly presented and correct. (I know that given the opportunity people usually will look at the back of any stitched work – maybe searching for signs of the maker’s involvement )
The work she showed was made over the entire duration of the project and shows the progression of her own personal work…
Like Dawn’s exhibited pieces, my own work forms part of an ongoing series of stitched work, that has been a direct consequence of our involvement in this project. “Make it through the Night” includes many references to mending as mending broken hearts has been the major inspiration to my personal work for several years now – as this blog illustrates – there are many postings around the ideas and practice of mending, and the first ever post was about my mended clothes………
I have made a whole series of embroidered handkerchiefs, let’s face it some nights we have all needed a handkerchief if only to hold on to. So I have embroidered them with positive mending mottoes and other words of wisdom – the set is called ‘ Patch Grief with Proverbs’ a sentiment that rings true to me. How often we just find ourselves reciting platitudes in response to grief?
I made 21 embroideries all with their own distinctive darns and patches to reflect the written proverb, they took quite a time to get onto the wall…..I had to search many different sources to find enough texts to make a wall full – but one lovely Greek proverb was given to me by Basil Kardasis and this was the last piece I embroidered – an a very large-scale cotton handkerchief I had to purchase new – the rest were all on vintage linen.
Which brings me neatly to the last exhibitor, Basil Kardasis, his exhibit is called ‘The Buttonhole’, and he collected from his family and friends ( we all had to contribute) ” treasured, revered materials…that may represent them ” and also a button; then , with the help of his sister Ella, spent may months button-holing all the pieces together so that they made a “protective cloak” for his son.
Many different materials and articles appear in the cloak, which has a very colourful interior as well, the range of fabrics perfectly reflect his wide-ranging experiencing as a designer and educator world-wide, students and colleagues and friends from practically every aspect of his life gave him wonderful and rare pieces of cloth for this coat, my favourite is a piece of lasered leather in a lace pattern – now this I could really get working on – it only I had much more of it…..
Looking at the image now of this lasered work I am reminded of the joint piece of work that had to be abandoned for inclusion in this exhibition, due to personal reasons by my making partner Hanne Rysgaard. We were making a porcelain hanging from impressed lace fragments but sadly this was shelved until we can both find the space in our very busy lives to get together again and make it. Now I am thinking that these 2 disparate materials may somehow work together…leather and porcelain – Basil where did that lasered skin come from and is there any more?