Now I'm a Milk Thistle

I've had a bit of a lonely half term; my family were away, most of my friends were working, and Pip has been very busy with work and being a new home owner. I did manage to host a small gathering yesterday, with home-baked brownies and pumpkin pie, though; there are far too many sweet treats left lying around the house!

I may have spent a lot of time with Mad Men boxsets, but I did try to use the time semi-productively; whilst slobbing I was stitching, too. In fact, Milk Thistle is finally finished.

The book deals with sickness (and sickliness) and recovery, the subdued gloom of the English national psyche, weeds, delicate flowers, frailty, vulnerability, stereotypes and performativity of femininity, Romantic literature and poetry, and thorns amongst the roses. Milk thistle is thought to be good for the liver, so the book is also about bravery; about not being lily-livered.

Conceptually I think it's the most cohesive of my three artist's books; however, due to the thin fashion and quilting cottons I used for its cover and pages, it doesn't feel quite as "structurally sound". But I did get a chance to experiment with a few techniques learnt during my time at the RSN, as well as some new ones; Turkey rug stitch, Victorian cross stitch beading, and ribbon embroidery all make an appearance.

So here it is, the completed Milk Thistle, an idea it has only taken me two years to realise:


































The text of the book:

We are wilted English roses grown pallid and wan, wandering moors, moaning "Willoughby, Willoughby" at thin air for hours.

I'll twist my ankle attempting to commune with nature, and fall deep in the shaded wood, become a shrinking violet, growing smaller and smaller until one day I simply vanish.

Down in the thicket, the bright fairy bower, I am sickly and fey, I'm a delicate flower.

Up in my garret, my ivory tower, I wax and I wane, I pale by hour.

Laid up in bed with the curtains drawn, lily livered and lovely eyed, stitching petals between pages, paper thin Honesty skin - quick! Sew up the gaps! Don't let the light in.

In the darkness thorny thoughts crowded my head and I thrashed in my flower bed so ineffectually, a delicate flower choked by creepers, bound up by pansy sickness.

Nobody brought me a bedside bouquet, but everywhere I wept, petals sprung, until I watered a meadow.

The White Lady came to me. She told me "Dab tincture of milk thistle under your weeping eyes. It's good for the liver and you need all the unlilying you can get. Remember you're a milk thistle; a tenacious weed."

I was an English Rose.

Then I was Rose Madder.

Now I'm a Milk Thistle.

I'm looking for somewhere to exhibit Milk Thistle, alongside my other two artist's books, if at all possible. If you're interested, please don't hesitate to get in touch!


Tincture of Milk Thistle

I am imminently to be employed (finally!) so won't have quite as much time for making and blogging, at least for the next couple of weeks.
 
 At some point during that time I'm hoping to squeeze in getting the eighth and final page of Milk Thistle done, because, as of today, page seven is finished!
 
 
 
This page is based around a wise old crone; a white witch called the White Lady, who has some advice on bravery to impart to the young Milk Thistle.
 
The text reads:
 
The White Lady came to me. She told me
 
"Dab tincture of milk thistle under your weeping eyes.
 
It's good for the liver
 
and you need all the unlilying you can get.
 
Remember you're a milk thistle;
 
a tenacious weed"
 


 
The page is illustrated with the very tincture the witch describes. Milk Thistle is indeed used to treat liver problems (although in this case is used metaphorically, to treat a "lily liver"; to treat cowardice).







 
I'm quite pleased with the way the page has come together, particularly the tincture. I've got some puzzling over how best to portray the final page, though!



Helenium: tears

The sixth and latest page of Milk Thistle is one of my favourites, possibly because it is about crying, which one could argue is my very favourite theme (see here, here, and also here).

I stitched some stanzas of Keats's Ode on Melancholy on to a handkerchief (aptly), and based the illustration to accompany the lines on this illustration from a book that I snagged from my Mum's work:



But more on that later.

The reason why tears feature prominently on this page is because it is based around a Kensitas Flowers card featuring Helenium, a flower which, in Greek mythology, grew where Helen wept.

Consequently, the text I have written and stitched for the page reads

Nobody brought me a bedside bouquet,

but everywhere I wept, flowers sprung,

until I watered a meadow




To accompany the Kensitas Flower, I stitched the following line from Keats's On Melancholy on to my handkerchief:

But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green hill in an April shroud

as I felt they were appropriate. The eye illustration that accompanies the text is the "weeping cloud" of the poem.























There are only two more pages to go now, and then I can (finally) stitch the whole thing together. It's been a long commitment but I think it will pay off.

Pansy Sickness

Pansies are a flower close to my heart, as I've explained before. I'm even considering getting a tattoo featuring one. So I had to focus on the humble pansy for a page of Milk Thistle.

I chose the most gloriously lurid 60s cotton for the background of the page. This is  because I based the text of the page partially on The Yellow Wallpaper, a late nineteenth century short story about a woman's descent into madness when she is essentially forced into house arrest by her husband, holed up in a room with yellow wallpaper which takes on an increasingly sinister edge. 

My text reads

In the darkness thorny thoughts crowded my head

and I thrashed in my flower bed so ineffectually

a delicate flower choked by creepers

bound up by pansy sickness

The text was also influenced by the meaning of the pansy as given by Kensita's cigarettes; "Thoughts: Think of Me".



I scanned my first blooms to be dried in my flower press (pansies of course!) to become the pocket in which the Kensitas woven silk pansy would be kept. I rather like the vibrant purples and yellows against the yellow, orange and lime green cotton. A ghastly clash to reflect the "thorny thoughts" and "pansy sickness" (which is in actuality a fungus which attacks the pansy's stem and may cause it to collapse).






I have another page to share over the next few days which I completed during my stay in the Highlands; it was quite a productive trip! Two more pages to go after that; I'd better get stitching.

Lily livered

I'm not at all sure about the latest page of Milk Thistle (although I am halfway there now). A few things went wrong in its making, and I almost wished I'd used a brighter, more minimalist background fabric.


One thing I am happy with is the sprig of Honesty I scanned and used as the page's pocket; it is ethereal, almost ghostly; a fellow artist on Instagram described it as "fairy money". It's the perfect holding place for the red lily Kensita's woven silk flower card.







The text of this page reads

Laid up in bed with the curtains drawn, lily livered and lovely eyed

Stitching petals between pages - quick! 

Sew up the gaps! Don't let the light in

There is a separate text sewn on to white work fabric which reads

I thread my needle by the sun's light

I lose eyesight by candle light

This is based on a passage in The Subversive Stitch which describes how cottage industry embroiderers ruined their eyes through sewing by candle light.

This page is based around how invalidism, together with embroidery, became a part of the inculcation of the feminine in the nineteenth century.

The bright fairy bower


 
The third page of Milk Thistle deals with Romantic (with a capital R) preoccupations with sickliness, and the cult of the (myth of the?) tortured artist.

 


 
 
The text reads:
 
Down in the thicket, the bright fairy bower
I am sickly and fey, I'm a delicate flower
 
Up in my garret, my ivory tower,
I wax and I wane, I pale by hour
 
 
I've surrounded the words with a garland of ribbon roses and tiny beaded blooms, and a thicket of wild flowers springs from the page.

Shrinking Violet





This second page of Milk Thistle deals with the preoccupation with weak and feeble females in 18th and 19th Century literature, and with the tendency of women to be self-effacing and apologetic for taking up space in a patriarchal society.

The text reads:

"I'll twist my ankle attempting to commune with nature and fall deep in the shaded wood, become a shrinking violet, growing smaller and smaller until one day I simply vanish".

The words themselves grow smaller and smaller almost to the point of vanishing. The page's pocket is a Valentine's card from the 50s which proclaims "Don't Be A Shrinking Violet" "Come right out and say it", throwing up the hypocrisy of a world which tells women to keep their mouths shut and then characterises them as weak. Inside is the Victorian beadwork depicting a pair of violets which I stitched way back in April.

This is stitched on to a background fabric of a typical mid-century ditzy print quilting cotton in shades of violet.



The next page will deal with Romantic preoccupations with sickliness.

Most glorious rose

I've taken scissors to an old dress and a hideous/glorious 70s table cloth, taught myself ribbon embroidery, couched pink sparkling thread and stitched poems; the first page of Milk Thistle is finally finished!

This page takes the rose as its central metaphor, and begins exploring the book's themes of the Romantic poets and the English national psyche, and performativity of femininity, particularly as it relates to sickliness and vulnerability.

The text reads:

"We are wilted English roses grown pallid and wan, wandering moors, moaning "Willoughby, Willoughby" at thin air for hours."

This is a line from my recorded piece Kiss The Book that I created with composer Joe Donohoe, which has appeared in many guises over the years and refers to quintessential English rose Marianne Dashwood's erstwhile lover John Willoughby in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

This is stitched on to a background of brown "watercolour" roses that look suitably windswept. The calico pocket is covered in a wreath of ribbon embroidered roses with bugle bead leaves/thorns.





Within the pocket is another poem; The Sick Rose, by Blake, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience:

O Rose, thou art sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy

To my mind this speaks of 18th century concerns about the polluting effects of sexuality on "innocent, tender" women, and of the long-held beliefs about the fragility of "the fair sex". It could mean either sick literally, or in a perverted sense. Either way, it fits very well with my themes of sickness, recovery, and the performativity of femininity.



I've finally found a use for my Kensitas woven silk flowers in Milk Thistle; the tea rose of the set sits snug with the poem by Blake in the pocket of the first page.



The second page takes violets (shrinking or otherwise) as its theme; I'd best be getting on with it!

Milk Thistle

I've been so busy lately that it's taken me months to finish the front cover of Milk Thistle, the artist's book I'm making. It is finally finished, however, and I can begin filling it with pages.

The book will deal sickness (and sickliness) and recovery, the subdued gloom of the English national psyche, weeds, delicate flowers, frailty, vulnerability, stereotypes of femininity, romantic literature and poetry, and thorns amongst the roses. Milk thistle is thought to be good for the liver, so the book is also about bravery; about not being lily-livered.

The milk thistle of the title is stitched in crewel wool, with a turkey rug stitch flower and stranded cotton spines. The title is couched in crewel wool to match the flower. The fabric is an amazing 60s cotton sheeting fabric I found at The Shop.











Sweet Violet

After many, many hours, my Victorian beadwork violets are ready to be slipped into a pocket of my "shrinking violet" page of artist's book number three, Milk Thistle.



Milk Thistle will be an exploration of the language and symbolism of flowers; of the journey from sickness to recovery, and Romantic literature's preoccupation with tragic heroines.






Fairy Ring

Remember the fairy ring I stitched all the way back in November? Well, I thought I'd reinterpret the design in lino print. Sadly though, the prints have been languishing in a folder rather than being shared here, due to my being at School five days a week and general laziness. Today, however, I have a new lease of inspiration, and so am finally sharing the fairy ring here. I'm raring to go on Milk Thistle (the third artist's book in the series I'm creating), and once my studio paperwork is out of the way over Easter, I have plans for crewel work fuzzy thistles, 60s floral prints and beaded violets and pansies. Speaking of which, I'll go and get on with my Victorian beadwork violets in front of some Mad Men.


My Away With The Fairies lino print is available to purchase on Etsy right now.

Delicate Flowers

I received a very interesting surprise "donation" today from my workmate (and crafty renaissance man) Mark; an envelope filled with Kensitas Flowers. These were a sweet treat for smokers of the 1930s; miniature woven silk flowers slipped inside beautifully designed, informative covers, and given away inside packets of Kensitas cigarettes in 1934 and 1935.
When I first opened the envelope I assumed the flowers had been embroidered. However, embroidery this miniscule and delicate would be virtually impossible without a specialist programmable embroidery machine, which obviously did not exist in the 1930s!
With a quick Google search, I discovered that the flowers were in fact woven silk. Unfortunately, a scan doesn't do the flowers justice; they really are exquisite.






It was very fortuituous that Mark passed on these heirlooms to me today; I've recently started work on a new (and slightly ambitious project which they are both giving me ideas for, and can be incorporated into. I recently picked up a crazy hideous/beautiful 70s (?) patchwork table cloth with a doily trim from a stall near work, and when I saw it I knew I had to use it for something.


Each square is about four by four inches, and so I've decided to write a monologue across them in stitch, with occasional illustrations, story board style.

The piece will deal with sickness (and sickliness) and recovery, the subdued gloom of the English national psyche, weeds, delicate flowers, frailty, vulnerability, stereotypes of femininity, romantic literature and poetry, and thorns amongst the roses.

Its title will be Milk Thistle.


Some of the flowers which Mark passed on to me would work particularly well in Milk Thistle, due to the symbolism surrounding them. For example, Montbretia represents instability, which evidently relates to sickness, and Helenium represents tears, which is a theme I will explore through extension of my concept of "melancholyflowers".





Lilies, roses, and pansies are all flowers I want to incorporate into the piece due to their prominence in English literature and idioms.




I'd be very interested to learn more about flower symbolism and the language of flowers.

Finally, apparently, Flax is associated with domestic industry and the textile crafts, which is obviously of particular interest to me as a "conceptual embroidery artist"!