Last year I was fortunate enough to be selected as a guest artist for Cwilt Cymru, a group whose work I had admired since seeing it in the Spirit of the Celts exhibition. The theme of the current exhibit is Connection, and I have chosen the connection with my mother as the focus of what I produced. Since my mother's side of the family is entirely Welsh it seemed appropriate and I had been planning a series of pieces on my relationship with my mother for some time.
The first piece was an enjoyable and fairly straightforward quilt to make, called My Mother Made Spitfires, focussing on my mother's experience as a war worker at Vickers Armstrong's Castle Bromwich factory near Birmingham, where she was involved in making parts for Spitfires.
The hours were long, the factory a target for bombing, and the work heavy (the machinery she operated, a capstan lathe, was later deemed unsuitable for women to operate). Even so, her wartime experiences, as she described them to me, were full of fun, films, fashions and dancing. She had more freedom and more money than she had had before and like many others at the time had a determination to enjoy life to the full (the fact that life was uncertain at the time probably had something to do with this). It was during these years that she met my father, a GI she married shortly before his return to the US in 1946. The quilt tries to draw together the different aspects of her life at the time.
The poster at top left is used with permission of the Imperial War Museum. Other images are adapted from contemporary sources, and the photograph near the bottom right is a photograph of my mother, printed onto Extravorganza and overlaid onto hand-dyed fabric.
The poster suggested the colour-scheme for the quilt: the base fabrics are cottons hand-dyed in various combinations of orange and purple. Some of these have been digitally printed with images from the time and my own words describing my mother's experiences. Overlays of digitally-pinted Extravorganza have formed a basis for applique, and the whole piece has been free-machine quilted.
The second quilt Turning Ugly was a different matter. Originally I had planned to take a different area of my mother's life as the focus and to produce something relatively "safe", but as time went on my thoughts constantly got drawn to the years after the war, in particular a two-year period from November 1949 which were the worst two years of mine and my mother's life.
I was conceived shortly before my father's return to the US. In the early days of her pregnancy, with my grandmother ill, and possibly getting cold feet about the whole experience, my mother did not take up any of the three passages allocated to her as a war-bride. In 1949 my father divorced her. She also lost her looks when she suffered a form of facial paralysis called Bell's Palsy which she never completely recovered from. In November 1949 she married a recently-widowed father of two small daughters and we went to live with them in a village between Chepstow and Tintern in the Wye Valley, a beautiful part of the country made hideous for us because of the violence and abuse we both suffered.
The idea was to produce a quilt that had a sort of "double-take" effect: that looked beautiful on the surface but became other than that when you looked up close. Originally the words that described the experiences were going to be obscured (as in the piece at top left) but as the quilt was being made, things changed. The pieces of the story first became blurred but readable if you tried hard (written in inktense pencil overlaid with organza) but in the end they were written in stitch, on the surface of the quilt. And one set of words - describing in outline an experience which I kept hidden even from myself, but which has been like a sort of invisible ghost haunting me all my life - emerged as I was writing it. So that the quilt became in itself what it was never intended to be - a sort of therapy.
My neighbour pointed out that I had probably saved myself quite a lot of money in therapy costs - and I had a quilt at the end of it. It's been a very painful and difficult process but I now feel lighter and happier than I've felt in my life. One thing that bewildered me - the last stage was quilting the larger squares: and it came out - unplanned - like this:
With very free, joyful lines of quilting redolent of growth and natural forms - exactly the way I felt as a result of the process of making the quilt.
The exhibition - which contains beautiful pieces by the six permanent members of the group as well as the other three guest artists - opens at Forge Mill, Redditch tomorrow (11th Feb).