Death of a Craft
This body of work was created for a solo exhibition, Death of a Craft, in February 2018, at CraftACT: Craft and Design Centre, Canberra. Although the final work shown in the exhibition was made in the last three months, it was the culmination of over two years work. A number of ideas, thoughts, images and objects came together to explore grief and textiles. In cleaning up my studio days before the opening of the exhibition, it felt like an archaeological dig. I began to sort through drawings and bits of textiles that had been part of the process that I reflect on here.
Over ten years ago, in reading Norbert Elias’s book “The Civilizing Process”, a chapter was titled ‘When Paris learned to blow its nose’. This dealt with what happened when people began to live much closer together in cities: they became much more self-conscious about their habits. Trying to get rid of mucus from one’s nose was one of those behaviours. Using a square of linen to dispose of the muck, gradually became a cultural convention. It is a convention that we see as the norm today and could not imagine living without. This invention of the handkerchief stuck in my mind.
A few years later, I was wearing a red rain jacket that had belonged to my sister. My sister had passed away and I inherited the jacket. One day, I suddenly needed a handkerchief, thrust my hands into the pockets. I found a white linen handkerchief that belonged to her. At a time of distress, to find such a cloth was incredibly moving.
Meanwhile in my arts practice I had been making lace-like textiles by machine embroidering on water soluble fabric. These had become not only larger but finer. In 2015, I took a journey throughout Italy specifically devoted to the examination of lace in order to come to a greater understanding of the craft. The insights gained were precipitous in new thinking about lace as a craft, concept and medium for ideas. I spent an intensive time in and out of museum collections, travelling with traditional lacemakers and meeting Italian lacemakers as cupboard after cupboard, drawer after drawer were opened and discussions ensued. Seeing the contrast between contemporary lace designs, ranging from the 1920s through to the 1960s, compared to what practitioners are now making, the paralysis or death of lace was apparent. Many traditional lacemakers in the main rely on generic nineteenth century lace patterns with little context.
I thought about bringing all these ideas together for an exhibition proposal in 2016. Originally the concepts woven into the proposed body of work revolved around textiles, death and memory. The proposal is to make a series of handkerchief-like forms that express lament. I proposed using ‘lace’ as a vehicle to approach the withered nexus between craft and design in traditional lacemaking, exploring the death of a craft. I was also keen to examine the affective state: the potential of objects to evoke memory and emotion by the personal association objects carry. I was interested in exploring Proust’s ideas whereby he characterizes memory as voluntary and involuntary. Here the imagery on the handkerchief is voluntary, whereas the reaction, the emotional response to memories, the use of the handkerchief is involuntary.
I began stitching large, very large lace handkerchiefs (one was almost two metres square). After twelve months I realized that this was too literal. While technically I was very happy with the work, it lacked critical engagement.
Again, I travelled to Spain in 2017 to look at textiles in the south of the country. By the end of this trip, I felt I had perhaps seen enough traditional lace to last me for a few years to come.
Working with Tasmanian artist/educator Ruth Hadlow stimulated me to really examine the concepts of lace at a deeper level. I began to explore lace as a verb rather than a noun. I began to think along the lines of ‘to lace a drink’, to poison. I felt that traditional lacemakers were poisoning their own craft by simply replicating old designs without any personal input or ideas in the construction of their lace.
Initially, I painted images of poisonous looking liquids in glasses. I tried to translate these into textiles, specifically into lace. I worked away for a few weeks till I realised they weren’t really working as textiles.
I reflected in my journal what it meant to poison a body. I found an image of a long lace collar and thought about embroidering poisonous flowers. On my early morning walk I started looking out for such plants. Oleander shrubs were in many gardens. One garden had a mass of bright green Euphorbia plants. These plants are highly irritating if the white sap gets into the eyes. In Sydney, I visited Wendy Whitley’s garden which had a magnificent Angel’s Trumpet tree. Back home, on my morning walks, after a number of rainy days, toadstools appeared.
In the studio after I drew up a lovely long collar, I was re-reading my journal and suddenly the word ‘body’ leapt off the page. Poisoned bodies. I remembered some old drawings in my sketch book from years ago with lace bodies.
I made samples of oleander lace. These were then worked up into small handkerchiefs. I then traced my own body and filled it by embroidering white oleander. I then photographed my own body in various poses. I made further samples, stitching the various poisonous plants. I worked solidly for weeks stitching and washing away the soluble fabric till I had enough work.
I always have trouble stopping when I am on a roll. I drew up one last piece to be embroidered in metal threads. I made the sample and it worked out well. However, overnight I realised that it really was a whole new concept and perhaps better left till the future.