Tuesday, 22 June 2010

bad blogger posts again - art and function, family and influences

First apologies for not posting for such a long time - I've been stitching for Festival of Quilts, decluttering the house, trying to tame the garden and - as a result of the decluttering and the tenth anniversary of my husband's death - reliving bits of the past both bad and good...

So it's been time for reviewing what's happened so far - not a bad thing to do once in a while.  Coincidentally, one of the recent discussions in the Contemporary Quilt Yahoo group had me putting together a lot of the pieces this morning.  The discussion was sparked by a comment from Helen Conway, a member of the Twelve by Twelve group, during an interview about their work, in which she talks about having to overcome the feeling that creating something not strictly functional was somehow "self-indulgent and wasteful."  This led to a lively discussion, which I am responding to here, about how and whether people feel guilt about what they do and the time and money spent on it, and how they overcome that guilt.

My mother grew up in a Welsh mining village, Maesteg, where there was a strong Protestant tradition, with astrong streak of puritanism woven into it.  Everone in the family was expected to subscribe to the idea that you were supposed to work hard for what you got.  And when times were hard the women made sure they looked after the men's and children's needs before their own, often going without themselves.  However, bound up with this was the idea that when work was finished you were allowed to enjoy yourself - hence the rugger, boxing, singing, picnics, walks in the country, decorative crafts, reading for pleasure and so on that also made up their lives.  As far as I know no-one felt guilty about enjoying what little leisure time they had.

My mother photographed here shortly before she died

continued this tradition, but with some variations.  When not at work (she worked part-time) she and my grandmother, who lived with us, had the housework done by lunchtime.  Depending on the wather, the afternoons (which I remember as wonerful times) were spent going for walks, reading, gardening or doing other enjoyable things (though I did not inherit the green fingers); and I grew up believing that this time was something you were entitled to.  I am heartily grateful for that: such a belief has stood me in good stead. 

My mother also believed, along with my grandmother, in beautifying the house.  (I just typed beatifying which would work just as well).  Every so often we would arrive home from school to discover total chaos for a couple of days as one or other os the rooms was redecorated.  Usually to very good effect - much of my colour sense I learnt from my mother.  And the same attitude went for clothes: we couldn't afford much and day-to-day clothes were often hand-me-downs from better-off members of the family, but best clothes were always the best that could be afforded (though a good suit - usually called a "costume" in those days - would have to last a long time) and looking positively stunning in them was a definite plus and definitely not something to feel guilty about (I could never understand the streak of puritanism that dictated that everything had to be ugly).

As far as stitching and artmaking goes I was lucky enough to learn that that was guilt-free too.  My mother knitted and embroidered - often what she made could put to practical use but it was far more than that - she knitted complicated fairisles and lacy things that wen well beyond practical, and as the embroidered items were never actually used they cannot be said to have been purely functional by any stretch of the imagination.
And she also encouraged me to paint (largely I think because it gave her a chance to paint herself) and drew the most amazing cartoon characters.  As I grew older she was proud of my ability to use a brush and a needle - though when it came to career choices the protestant ethic won out and I never got to go to art school: university plus teaching gave far better options for making a living.

And for myself what impact has it had on me?  Well, as a student I had no remorse about wasting anything except food (and the idea it was sinful to waste unless it could be avoided has stuck with me - from time to time I have to clear out the unidentifiable objects from my freezer - it's OK to waste them if you can't remember what they were or when).  I wasted time and money with enormous enthusiasm - though I did have one term where I had to dig myself out of an enormous hole, and managed to do so.  Once I started work and got married though I suddenly reverted to type: my husband at one point had to persuade me that I should spend money on clothes for myself, and it took a few more years before I could persuade myself that I should spend money on other things I wanted...

My husband was an enormous influence on me:  he never considered time or money creating stuff as in any way wasteful.  To him it was a positive.  Here we are in our youth, together but in separate photographs (note the matching M&S jumpers - sweet eh?):

Perhaps the fact that he was a painter (oil and acrylics rather than gloss and emulsion) had something to do with it.  Also he did regard what he did that he wasn't being paid for as more important than his paid work (which consisted of work supplied by an agency which consisted of things like paintings of racehorse, portraits from photographs and so on - including some rather unusual ones like the thirteen head and shoulders drawings of Edward Heath which is probably now mouldering in a basement somewhere in Conservative Party Central Office - difficult to draw without caricaturing, apparently!).  When I took up quilting he understood and encouraged - visiting exhibitions, offering constructive criticism and sharing my enthusiasm for interesting fabrics.  On the day when he said he could no longer teach me anything about colour I really felt I'd arrived (admittedly up till then his colour advice had usually been "needs some gold" but it is amazing how much a touch of gold, yellow, cream or mustard can do for a quilt or a painting)

But probably the thing that did most to stop me feeling guilty about spending so much on quilting was my health.  I started quilting at a time when I was spending hours and hours on my job (teaching in an inner-city school meant I spent hours on preparation and planning - not being a "tough guy" I had to keep the kids entertained and happy as well as educating them) as well as on union and political activities in my spare time (the protestant work ethic in operation with a vengeance).  I decided to timetable in an evening class to keep myself sane - two hours a week that would be sacrosanct and just for me; the hand-stitching also kept me alert and productive during all the long boring meetings I had to attend.  In a few months I had made my first quilt:

Because I still hung onto the belief that to be any good it had to involve a lot of work I ended up doing an elaborate border pattern (not realising that the unquilted areas would gather up and stick out like  a sore thumb) and this is where the Protestant ethic transformed into a new shape.

But first, the health issue - quilting came in time to preserve my sanity but not my physical health.  I ended up having to retire from teaching with what was then called ME and is now more often called CFS; even the simplest things left me ill and exhausted, and having pinned so much of my sense of worth on doing things, it was terrible no longer being able to do them.  Being unable to knit (my hand-muscles tired too quickly) I turned to hand-stitching, and unable to do that for long I spent longer thinking about and designing what I did.  Being lucky enough to win third prize in the Harrogate show (this is way back in the nineties) for a cot quilt gave me a sense of achievement once again.  As I got better I was able to use the sewing-machine again, and attend a City and Guilds course.  And all this was guilt-free because I felt so good about actually being able to do it, and yes I really got a boost when, a couple of years later I completed my first quilt out of hand-dyed fabrics, to my own design:

This quilt, Caging the Moment, completed in 1996 for an exhibition at Lotherton Hall in Leeds, also won the Quilters Guild cup for use of colour at the Great British Quilt Festival in Harrogate as well as rosettes for bed quilt and use of colour at Quilts UK in 1997-8.

However quilting had still not become guilt-free.  I was now burdened with the need to live up to what I had achieved and felt that I had failed dismally every time I made something which wasn't wonderful (which, of course, was most of the time).  I had merely ditched one set of "ougt-tos" for another set: I ought to spend ages doing it, conforming to the rules of the quilt police, making it as good as possible (and preferably winning awards whixh has only happened one more, in 1998) in order to be a worthwhile person

Between my husband's death ten years ago, which I partially blamed myself for (I should have been able to affect his lifestyle choices and his inability to cope with his own inner demons I felt at the time - as we all do when someone dies) and four years ago I made nothing, the longest I have gone without creating anything in my life.  Recently I have been thinking about that period, feeling I had achieved nothing of note since his death.  The reality of course is different - a close friend presented me with a long list including things like digging myself out of near financial ruin, restoring a house that had begun to fall down around my ears, getting through cancer... 

But I suppose that the thing that I have really learnt in the last few years, since I started stitching and drawing/painting again is that failure has an enormous amount to contribute to success.  And though it sounds cliched, having cancer reminded me I only had one life and I had better make the best of it and avoid as far as possible wasting time in guilt.  Though my work is moving towards becoming more simple, with the design process being more often than not a process of paring down rather than cluttering up, I am still battling with a tendency to want to clutter it up with more than it needs, in attempt to justify its existence by ensuring the production stage is as much hard work as possible.  So I've still got some distance to go.

Bixy the white cat, who is still on a fairly unsuccessful diet, has just come and spoken sharply to me because his food bowl is empty.  Although, unless I have hurt someone or let them down, humans have lost much of their capacity for making me feel guilty, cats are a different matter.  So that's it for now.


Julie said...

What a thoroughly interesting and absorbing post Sandra. I don't think I could be so lucid about my own history, maybe I should try!

I was going to comment on the cqgb post but everyone seems to be of a similar opinion and I certainly rarely if ever feel guilty about any time I devote to creativity. It is the one thing that has kept me sane over the years.

I'm sorry, I hadn't realised this was the anniversary of losing your husband. I'm sending you a cyber hug xxooxx

How's the quilt going? Mine is finished except for the labels etc. I'm not going to post it off until the middle of July though as I don't want it scrunched up for too long.

Sally Westcott said...

Ta for sharing your memories, feelings and thoughts! I feel privilaged to be included!


Anonymous said...

Lovely post Sandra. I empathise with you as it is the anniversary of my husband's death this week. Even after eight years I still feel it sharply. Fortunately I do not feel guilt over my creative work either, he always used to love seeing what I produced and was so supportive. Cats certainly do have that capacity for making us feel guilty - usually accompanied by a great deal of plaintive miaowing.

jan said...

What a lovely post, thanks for sharing it. I rarely feel guilty about my creative time, as long as all the chores are done I love to lose myself in crafty pursuits!

katelnorth said...

Sandra, what an interesting post. I am going to tick "keep new" in my blog reader so I can come back to it later when I don't have to rush off and make breakfast for a bunch of 7YOs after a sleepover - think I might mention it on my blog later and refer people to it - so many good points. Thanks for taking the time to blog so thoroughly and thoughtfully!


Sandra what a heartfelt and interesting post. Thank you for sharing so deeply

Carolyn x

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and history - so much to think about and empathise with.

Sew Create It - Jane said...

A wonderful post...thank you for writing it. I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia (similar to CFS) and it was a comfort to read about how crafting helped you cope. I know my quilting certainly helps me, even if I only manage a little bit every day!

Kathy said...

I've never read your blog before, but my daughter (Kate North) mentioned it on her blog. I'm glad she did. You wrote a wonderful essay on how one should live and enjoy life. It took me years before I could spend money on myself or take time for my clay creations, without feeling guilty. Thank you for sharing.

Helen Conway said...

I am honoured that my little comments led to this article. Thanks for being so open and honest.


Hi Sandra, you've just made me feel a whole lot better! I thought I was the only one working on the quilt at the eleventh hour. I've been feeling too embarrassed to post on Annabel's blog because I've left it so late!

I've made my quilt sandwich and just about to start quilting tomorrow. There are layers to mine too!

Good luck with yours. Keep in touch!

ps. I won't be going to FOQ but otherwise would have loved to have met up with you!


Julie said...

Hi Sandra, I have just come back to finish off reading this post as part was missing the first time I read it. I don't think I knew about your prize quilt 'Caging the Moment', it is amazing! I would love to have seen it irl. It looks very complicated.

What a fantastic and giving post. You are one special lady as I know already :) xx

Anonymous said...

Hi Sandra, I've come to your post a little late in the day, (I was following a link about dye colours on someone elses comments,) but just wanted to say that this was a very moving post and thank you for sharing it. Lots to think of for everyone. Big squige c/o the internet.

Benta said...

Thank you for sharing your thought provoking potted history. Have you read Naomi Wolf's The Treehouse? I thought of her essay again and again as I read yours. She tells the reader that if we feel creative, then we MUST create or the world, and more importantly, our own life, will be a sadder place.