Monday, 10 February 2014

Connection at Forge Mill Needle Museum

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).

Monday, 20 January 2014

That Dragonfly!

You may have seen it at Festival of Quilts.  It was also featured on The Quilt Show in the US as one of a small selection of art quilts.  And it won the Art Quilt prize and Sylvia Critcher's Judges Choice at the Harrogate show.  It was originally supposed to go to Uttoxeter in April but took longer than I expected (a lot longer in fact - one of my quilting friends kept sending me emails headed "The Curse of the Dragonfly")  It's actually work towards - hopefully - an exhibition by the recently-formed Etcetera group, on the theme of transition and is the first of a series of pieces on this theme.

It's gestation - as is usual with me - took a long time, partly because the format (landscape rather than portrait) was a requirement for the first group piece and it took time to get to grips with it).  After chucking around all sorts of ways of exploring it finally came up with the somewhat obvious idea of huge dragonfly (the quilt is 64" x 48" and it bleeds off the edge with reverse applique wings based fairly closely on real dragonfly wings.  Obvious but I thought it would work visually.  Ok - let's be honest -  I thought it might look spectacular and people might not walk straight past it as happened with the rather quieter Sea Edges at the NEC last year.  One doesn't like to see all that effort go unnoticed.

Though the project started as an investigation of the natural history of the dragonfly (having been fascinated ever since an Emperor Dragonfly accompanied me on a walk through Wytham Woods many years ago) the whole thing quickly acquire a symbolic significance.  Dragonflies can spend up to five years going through all the various stages it takes to grow and spread their wings.  As someone who, for various reasons I won't go into here, was unable fully to spread her creative wings until later in life, this had a particular significance for me.  Added to that dragonflies in some cultures are a symbol of self-realisation and suddenly the whole thing became powerfully meaningful...

For those of you who like to know these things, the background is simply patchwork with stitch-drawn pictures of the various stages in dragonfly development.  The dragonfly itself is cut-back applique in silk/metallic, silk and nylon crystal organzas, all hand-dyed.  The whole thing machine-appliqued and quilted.  It was the cutting back that took the time.  And I am still finding bit of "confetti" around the house even now