One of the selections from my archive material is based on my grandmother and the connections between her and I. One of the main points which came to my attention, was her lack of sight. My early memories of her are all surrounded by storytelling. I recollect begging her to tell me the story of Red Riding Hood over and over again; however I always wanted a different ending to keep the retelling fresh. I never questioned why there was no book in her hand. On reflection, I have never owned the story of Red Riding Hood in book form. Her words all came from her head, never the page.
What does this mean to me?
- Narrative transcends the written word. How can this be illustrated? In image form rather than words?
- The Latin origin of the word Narrative has the meaning: ‘telling a story’. Thus it has more to do with the spoken word than the written one anyway.
- How can I convey her blindness? The condition she has is gradual, thus it worsens over time.
- Could I relate my ideas to the story, or should I stick to the connection it means to my grandmother and I?
Looking at other artists who have worked with eyesight in some way or another:
As a fellow artist, Jenny Purdett recently held an exhibition at a gallery near myself. She worked with a group of individuals, all with different sight issues (progressive), to produce art work in a variety of mediums. Here is a little about the exhibition:
Working with individuals supported by Sight Service, Making Sense is a sensitive and personal exploration of the relationship that individuals with visual impairment have with their local environment. This installation captures an exchange of mark-making between the artist and the group.
Here are a few photos from the exhibition, showing the artists and students work:
She held workshops in order to define how a person with sight loss could still create art. Responses in materials which were easier to work with ensued, as you can see.
I find that much of Jenny Purrett’s practice is focused on drawing as process. She makes work in response to her experience of her immediate environment. In this project, she has worked with a group of people who have progressive sight loss, one of these conditions being the same as my grandmothers, Macular Degeneration. Together her students, she has explored ways to use drawing to communicate their own personal experiences of the South Shields coastline. The exhibition records the creative journey undertaken and shows both collaborative and individual drawings from the jewel-like to the enormous. The outcomes demonstrate that, despite fears and frustrations, we can still enjoy the drawing process and, if we continue to be prepared to take creative risks, we astound ourselves with what we can achieve. The background and theme which underpins this exhibition, really resonates with myself and my memories of my grandmother. Looking back, I never remember her complaining when she could not do the things she wanted; i.e. knit, stitch and read. She always worked around things and was proud of her achievements, such things which now consist of making me yogurt and soup, as before it was telling me stories.
When reading through her artist statement, I found this comment interesting:
‘Descartes talked about the eyes as tools for feeling the tactile textures of the world and for me drawing is about ‘touching with the eyes.’ The physicality of the produced mark as well as the idea that this mark is a kind of contact between artist and subject is central to my work.’
Thus eyes can have many different meanings; not just what we see with their literal form, but what we can imagine and see inside our heads, in out “mind’s eye” as it were. That’s where my own gran comes in; without being able to see, she guided me through stories in vocal form, which in turn created images in my own head.
When reading Jessica Hemmings comments on Alice Kettles work and when watching interviews with the artist herself, we find that most of her pieces were stitched from the back of the fabric, effectively working blind. Kettle usually works ‘blind’, stitching from the back of the work – as if it weren’t already a tough enough task. If you look closely at these enormous works you can see every tiny individual stitch and hanging loop of thread they are made of. She constructs and reconstructs, not afraid to pick out areas of work she has spent months working on – erasing and redrawing. So this gives sight another aspect and form; even when we do have our literal sight, it doesn’t mean we use it. The essay written about Alice Kettle by Hemmings is named ‘telling stories with their eyes’, which is a description of her work.
I wonder if I could try this technique myself. How can I make it my own?
In order to produce the lines which effectively make up the drawing part of her work, she uses this stitching the back of the piece technique. This allows for a thick thread to show on the front of her work.
When interviewed by ‘The Making’, she explains:
How do you make your textiles?
I do the background first, building up the stitches in different directions so the light falls in different ways. I use thicker threads and rayons to achieve luminosity. I also use a lot of metallic threads to create an undulating surface. The light responds to the different threads in different ways and you can also create areas of shadow. You can create three-dimensional effects by varying the tension in the cloth or by keeping stitching in one small area so that the machine is forced to pound and mould that area into a specific raised form. I then go back and ‘draw’ the figures.
I found a video on the art gallery Circus London online:
It demonstrates how she carefully winds on a thick embroidery thread to the bottom spool. This then creates the thick line desired. Yet in order to achieve this, she does have to “work blind”.
Above: Winding on the spool.
For Alice, her purpose is to have an emotional connection with her work. Articulating her response to the world creatively — drawing in stitch allows her to express and convey meaning differently to other media. Working from the back of the canvas, intuitively feeling her way, Alice layers and creates texture before finally refining to full form.
Can I tell my own narrative within my own representational pieces?
A few words describing her work really stuck to me: At Circus, we are inspired by the power of storytelling. The best stories draw on the familiarity of past traditions, connect with contemporary details and offer a glimpse of the future. This exhibition examines how the most compelling stories and experiences live in the moment, the here and now, and create memories that are timeless. – Circus London 2016
The concept that storytelling can be a timeless activity; this is something I would like to convey within my work.
I feel connected to the approach of blind stitching in this context. Here Alice creates a piece which ends as a narrative, yet never knowing how her “story” will be illustrated, how her narrative will end. This carries with it a sense of risk, which could also be applied to having a condition like blindness too. It also portrays a sense of courage; again in both the sense of the blind person and how they cope with every day life and Alice’s method itself, where her character’s faces could so easily turn out not to be faces at all when she turns over to the other side.
This use of the thick thread, has another advantage. It creates a sense of line, without words. It tells its own tale, in the contrasting tones of thread she uses, which stand away from her somewhat painterly background.
In summary what do I glean from this topic and subsequent research?
- Narrative can be told in visual form rather than the written word. In the same way, my grandmother told me stories verbally, which in turn developed imagery in my imagination.
- I may trial a variety of ways of working with the sense of fading eyesight. Blind fold or with some sort of eye covering to take away part of my vision, which could represent my grandmothers fading vision, which is not completely lost as yet?
- Try Kettles methods for myself. Can I personalise them? Keeping my comments above in mind as to what this style of stitching could represent in both visual and psychological form?
- How to inject that sense of “risk” as seen within this topic as a whole?
Firstly I will try out Kettles stitching method for myself:
Using reclaimed cotton fabric with two different thread types.
- Cream cotton thread for machine sewing, with a bright red embroidery thread wound around my bottom spool. The bright red is used to emphasise the story of Red Riding Hood.
Above: The front of the fabric, with the thick embroidery thread and white cotton thread. Then the back of the piece shown.
2. Red cotton thread for sewing machine use, with the same red embroidery thread on the bottom spool. This sample is bolder due to no white “dots” from the cream thread used in the first sample.
Left: The back of this second sample. Left: The front of the sample. As you can see, this has produced a bolder result, with whole focus on the drawn line itself.
I made a small film of this piece being made to expose my method, however I was unable to upload this on my blog, due to WordPress settings with my free domain. It is available to view within my files.
How successful is this trial?
In my opinion, I feel this marriage of meanings is worth pursuing. The objective of stitching blind is well achieved by using this method; that is in the case of machine stitching.
In relation to this, it ties in well with my foundation concept, based on my grandmother and I and her inability to read a story from the written word, that “working blind” idea.
Bravery and courage are needed, both in the case of a person with limited eyesight and also this stitching method, as the definite result cannot be calculated.
What other ways can I convey the sense of impaired or degrading vision?
Through initial sampling, there are several ways I would like to try.
- What would result if I blindfolded myself when painting? Would I get the sense of something, if I had an object in mind to paint? Could I then marry this with stitching on the reverse side as tried previously, in order to create a completely blind made piece?
- If I painted a piece of fabric and then used a decolourant paste on places, could this symbolise fading vision?
- What about barriers in textile form:
-Cut away applique to signify partial vision of an object
-Voile placed in front of a piece, to mask off come of the colour and detail
-Other forms of semi see-through layers, such as net
All the above could be tried and reported on through this project stage.