Letting In The Light

I very much wanted to write a post for International Women's Day, but was at a bit of a loss until I was mentioned in a lovely tweet by my friends over at Daily Life Ltd.
This decided it for me; my International Women's Day blog post will be dedicated to the women I share the stage with at Daily Life Ltd's light box installation in the square outside Stratford Library, Letting In The Light, which is on until the end of the month if you fancy taking it in (it's worth it; these photographs don't do the scale or the luminance anywhere near justice).

I have to start with Bobby Baker, of course. Several of her diary drawings, completed between 1997 - 2008 and began while she was a day patient at a mental health centre.

This illuminated illustration particularly spoke to me. It's called The Daily Stream of Life, and features Bobby's mind as a river through which life flows, and she in life, sometimes in a rowing boat, sometimes in a canoe, sometimes in a fancier vessel altogether.

After a brief blip in my mental health due to an unfortunate series of circumstances, I feel I am bouncing back to a place where I can leisurely row along on the river of life, enjoying taking in the scenery and getting fresh air as I go.

Liz Atkin is an artist, advocate and speaker who raises awareness of, and promotes recovery from, compulsive skin picking through her art. The work featured in Letting In The Light, Lavish, transforms an illness which dominated Liz's life for more than twenty years into something really quite beautiful.


My favourite piece in the exhibition involved one of my very favourite things; word play.

By Jane McCormick, the piece has a back story that is well worth reading.
Bats in the belfry

An honorary mention goes to male artist (gasp!) Anthony Woods who created a joyous ode to fashion icon Iris Apfel:

My piece is in great company:


I couldn't resist a quick selfie with my work. It was rather wind and rain swept as you may be able to tell; apologies for the quality of all the photos.


Letting In The Light is well worth the trip to a slightly unassuming corner of East London; brighten up your evening, and discover the truth behind Groucho Marx's quip, "Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light".


Abnormal Feeling of Wellbeing

I have a huge backlog of blog posts to get through, and so I thought I would begin with a new project I am undertaking. Abnormal Feeling of Wellbeing is a lighthearted body of work about serious mental illness. Consisting of lists and mantras, illustrated infamous quotations on and historical allusions to the mind and observations on the absurdity of everyday life, it takes its title from a listed possible side effect of the antipsychotic drug Olanzapine. Reading this, it struck me that an abnormal feeling of wellbeing was precisely what I was aiming for, giving that I had been feeling abnormally unwell for half my life by that point.
The resulting works expand the notion of side effects and are hand embroidered on to vintage linens, overbearingly florid, so lovely as to be abject, naive and intricate. They are comprised of skewed self portraits and acrobatic word play, always looking at the power implicit in language; how language signifies sickness without spelling it out and can at other times imprison, but ultimately, when put into the hands of the marginalised rather than decreed to them, liberates.  

The piece below is a playful allusion to the phrase "she wouldn't say boo to a goose". 


This piece, List of Possible Side Effects, explores the other, less discussed, unusual side effects of Olanzapine; the sensation of "Walking through treacle", "Reduced dreaming" and "Unexpectedly finding oneself near cake", rounded off with the very bizarre side effect I read on that Olanzapine pamphlet. I "cheated" somewhat with this piece, as a very talented embroiderer of yesteryear has worked some incredible stem and satin stitch on to the cotton. All that was left for me to do was embroider the text in variegated blue thread, and bullet point each side effect with red gems anchored with pink beads, to pick up the tones in the roses.





Freudian Slipstitch is the third in the series, and is currently under construction, ready for its protagonist to be placed in the scene. After that, perhaps a series of handkerchiefs. Onwards and upwards!


Graft Draught Potion

I am beginning to feel more hopeful about my future. It seems that whenever I'm beginning to feel a lull in my freelance arts work, I get contacted about a fantastic opportunity, and that's without seeking them out myself, which I am beginning to do more of. My "night job" may not be paying the bills yet, but I feel immensely privileged to be able to earn some money doing what I love.

The lull also allowed me some time to work on personal projects, which has been great fun. However industrious the week has been, though, I always round it off with a #secretsofselfpreservation potion. Last week, prompted by fortune cookies handed out at the end of my aunt's 50th birthday celebrations on Sunday, I was reminded of my favourite cookie fortune; "The harder you work, the luckier you will get".

So Week Forty Four's #secretsofselfpreservation potion reads "Spit, polish and elbow grease gets things done." A reminder to work hard, accompanied by a feather from my Halloween costume (I was Tippi Hedren in The Birds) as a reminder to also let my hair down from time to time.




Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

World Mental Health Day: Thoughts on the Dragon Cafe and Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings

In the run up to World Mental Health Day, I have been reflecting on my visit on Monday to the most extraordinary place. The Dragon Cafe is the UK's first mental health cafe, "a relaxing cafe and imaginative space, open to all." They certainly got the relaxing part right. It immediately put me on a level playing field, where I could be open about myself without judgement, and have a laugh with the like-minded. Perhaps surprisingly to the uninitiated, the Cafe was a hive of activity; Tai-Chi, gardening, filming of conversations about "re-covered" chairs, dance, and a workshop with the wonderful Daily Life Ltd (and more) featured in the few hours I was there. The food was delicious and the volunteers big-hearted. I spent my time drawing a big bowl of stew and dumplings, to explore cultural identity and heritage through sharing an illustrated feast on a white paper tablecloth with many others at Daily Life's workshop. The conversations were as warming as the satisfying stodge I drew on the paper.



My rather paltry (and unfinished) offerings to the table, alongside more delectable dishes


I spent several blissed out hours nattering away with Daily Life, until it was time for a "one-man play" which gave voice to one of the re-upholstered chairs. Referencing everyone from Blake to Bob Marley, the wordsmith's generous spirit was infectious, and he received riotous applause and laughter.

Bobby Baker of Daily Life Ltd, who I am beginning to think of as a punk rock fairy godmother, gave an illuminating talk on the Diary Drawings she drew first daily, then weekly, whilst a patient at a mental health day hospital. 

I had more than one moment of something more than empathy whilst listening to Bobby and looking at her drawings. Recognition; realisation that I wasn't the only one, that I perhaps wasn't as singularly and hopelessly mad as I had previously thought.


Two of Bobby's Diary Drawings; one portraying her time of weeping tidal waves of tears (another thing we have in common) and another asking how many hats can one woman wear?


Two drawings in particular led to this realisation; the first a drawing of Bobby's skin lifting away from her face like a mask, to reveal a demonic skull beneath. Bobby had shown this drawing to a mental health professional to try to explain her desperation; to seek help. It had not had the expected effect. The mental health professional asked for a copy. "I know a lot of people who feel like this" he said.

The second was perhaps more distressing. A distraught Bobby wept blood from her eyes, mouth and nose. Blood was something she had hallucinated frequently during her illness, she told us.

Aside from my immediate family and medical professionals, I have never (up 'til now) told anyone that I hallucinated blood when I was ill. Buckets of the stuff. Everywhere. I won't go into particularly grisly details, but suffice to say, it was not unlike the lift scene in The Shining. For someone who faints during blood tests and once had to go and lie down in a darkened room after reading a passage in The Bell Jar about self harm, it wasn't the most pleasant experience.

Bobby may feel she had her public "outing" via her Diary Drawings thrust upon her, but she could have said no. And as her son gruffly said when she consulted him about the matter, "It's got to be done, Mum." Showing the world at large how monstrous you feel beneath your exterior, exposing that vulnerability, is an act of extreme bravery. But we are not in fact monstrous. We have had monstrous things happen to us.

That's why I wanted to write about my psychotic symptoms (the hallucinations, the delusions) today. Because, aside from the occasional slight whiff of stiff-upper-lip-pull-up-your-bootstraps-ism when I am open about anxiety and depression, I do feel that society at large is beginning to understand and accept these illnesses. But mention that you have heard or seen things that others don't, or have had, as the mental health literature politely puts it, "unusual beliefs", and be prepared to brace yourself for the reaction.

If you have these symptoms, you have crossed over from being "run-down", from "having a lot on", from being "sensitive" or "over-tired" or "angsty". Congratulations, you are 100% genuine, prime cut bonkers. Even up to the middle of the last century, schizophrenia was classed as a degenerative illness, and this stigma still looms spectrally in the background. What comes into your mind when you read the word schizophrenic or psychotic? An unkempt vagrant moving erratically and mumbling to themselves? I would hope by this point we have moved beyond the facile stereotypes of mad axe murderers, although as recently as 2013 supermarkets were peddling "mental patient Halloween costumes" at this time of year.

How about a young woman with a first class honours degree, holding down a job, taking on self employed work, in a committed relationship and surrounded by friends, family, and love? Or an artist with a thirty year career, director of an Arts Council national portfolio organisation, who tours and exhibits internationally is one of the most patient and generous souls you could ever meet, and similarly has a whole host of family and friends who cherish her?

I'll admit, as Bobby said of herself, I am incredibly, incredibly lucky. Not everyone has back-up; people who love them and will fight for them. Which is why it is so important that we all fight for them. For all of us who have been touched by mental illness. Because there is no them and us; there's only us.

Please allow me, if it won't ring the alarm bells that I'm having one of my "funny turns", the liberty to see into the future. I can see a day, and it's not too far off, when the stigma is gone. When we have killed the most insidious and inextricably woven in part of mental illness; stigma, the real monster.

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust

Until yesterday, the most recent exhibition I had been to see was Grayson Perry's Provincial Punk at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. On that wet Sunday afternoon, I left the gallery feeling overwhelmed and underqualified to make art. Following in the footsteps of this country's biggest art star may seem a tall order for a twenty four year old at the very beginning of her career, but I've always had impossibly high standards.

I think part of why I felt so dejected after Provincial Punk is that I can see myself doing similar things to Perry in my work; exploring the lineage of a handicraft with a healthy dose of humour and subversion, and not (at least not initially, in Perry's case) executing this handicraft particularly perfectly; perhaps that's one of the reasons why it's art, not craft? Concept over construction; the ideas are bursting at the seams, the stitches fly as quickly and messily as the thoughts.

I looked at myself and found myself lacking; I should be exhibiting more, I should be selling more work, I should be making more work.

Working almost full time and sometimes at the weekends, even before visiting the exhibition, I had been finding it difficult to locate the motivation to make work. I am still struggling with this somewhat.

Which is why the exhibition I went to yesterday was a welcome godsend. The Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust exhibition is a rather ironic choice for the Royal Academy. When the Academy was founded in 1769 its edict was that "no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted". In Wanderlust, cut paper and baubles of all varieties are in much evidence. Admittedly this exhibition occurs in the present day, not the 18th century, so it's reassuring to see that the RA has loosened up somewhat in the intervening two hundred plus years. It's hard not to wonder, however, what the reception of Cornell's work would have been, both now and during his lifetime, had he been a woman. Women of course, as well as the working classes, were precisely whom the Royal Academy intended to bar from their hallowed halls with their proclamation. We see Cornell as alchemist and archivist, visionary and eccentric. Had he been a she, would we have seen her as a frivolous, sentimental, dippy spinster? Certainly it is difficult to separate Cornell's formidable body of work from the aesthetic it spawned. Through the lens of nostalgia this aesthetic is now seen as sentimental, mawkish, twee. It is used to sell everything from records to expensively "shabby chic" pubs and bars.

Joseph Cornell is famed for his boxes, assemblages of bric a brac, artfully arranged but often seemingly thematically unconnected. But when viewed in this retrospective, the mysterious titles of his works begin to shed light on a labyrinthine library of a mind. Because Cornell was a voracious consumer of knowledge. He read everything; from biographies of foreign princes to zodiac charts. He collected papers, documents, photographs and prints of all sorts, from maps to Victorian etchings. These he reassembled into his works, interweaving disparate material and references, creating tangential masterpieces. Cornell's genius is in never quite giving the game away, the full extent of his meaning; he leaves you hungry, as if his hunger for life, knowledge, and even travel across space and time, is infectious.

Wanderlust reminded me to relocate my curiosity; to read for the love of learning; to make for the sake of making, for the joy of it.




Self Esteem Elixir Potion


I have never had an over-abundance of self esteem. It's not anyone's fault, except perhaps my own, but I would say that, wouldn't I? In any case, it is something I am constantly working on. I find self help literature and buzz words nauseatingly patronising, so I try to steer clear of that. That's why last week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion reads "Begrudgingly love yourself"; it's not an easy task, and putting myself down comes much more naturally, so I do it with a certain amount of diffidence/resentment.


The words are accompanied by a clothes peg from a performance that was described by The Journal as "A raw and awkward, yet cathartic exploration of what it means to achieve success as a woman… groundbreaking originality and captivating humour ... an outstanding piece of performance art". I would tend to agree with them, though I am slightly prejudiced, as The Main Yvette is the brain child of the performance company Good Punch, one half of whom is my dear friend Rohanne.

Clothes pegs had a starring role in The Main Yvette (which previewed at Rich Mix last night); they were one of many ways of judging the women competing to be "Yvette". The piece merits a full review which I will try to post here whilst it is fresh in my mind, if it's alright with Rohanne before she takes it to the Fringe. Suffice to say, it produced copious joussance laughter, and referenced everything from psychosomatic tics/Freudian female hysteria to Activia: for happy tummies and a happier you™. And I liked it very much.


I have named the potion "Self Esteem Elixir Potion", both in gently mocking reference to such aspirational adverts and in the hope that some more self esteem will come my way soon.


 Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Pine Cone Potion

Pip's correspondingly alliterative nickname for me is "Pine Cone". This is because I once sent him one in the post when I was "pining" for him... here, take this sick bag I prepared earlier. Sorry, we're unbelievably, unbearably twee.

He brought me back three tiny perfect pine cones from a family party this week, so I thought a cone was a good start for this week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion. 

I have been struggling a little with self esteem and my sense of who I am this week. Initially I wanted to embroider the simple phrase "Come as you are", but I wanted to dispel any Nirvana associations. 

So I chose to stitch "You're fine as you are", which I'm sure all of us could do with being regularly reminded of. Particularly me.








There are twenty four potions now. Here they all are, clashing fabulously:


Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag ‪#‎secretsofselfpreservation‬, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Female Matters

The good people at Polyester Zine know how to throw a party. For the launch of the magazine there was a one-night nail bar, DJs, and sangria that was unlike any I have ever tasted (though not in a bad way).

Their latest exhibition-come-knees-up Female Matters was co-curated by Polyester Zine and womenswear designer Clio Peppiatt in aid of the Dahlia Project, which supports survivors of Female Genital Mutilation.

The exhibition could have been a very heavy, dark affair, considering the project it was raising money for, but the curators took a tongue-in-cheek and joyous approach to the subject of female sexual liberation in the 21st Century.

Pop feminism and grrrl power was much in evidence. The first work of art I saw when I walked through the door was my stitchin' sister Hannah Hill, wearing a crop top she had embroidered with her own fair hand. It featured one of her most popular Ghoul Guides designs, "Donut Touch Me".

This was unfortunately very appropriate as Hannah experienced some street harassment on the night. The embroidery shows her resilience and wicked sense of humour in the face of sexism.





Hannah was one of 20+ artists who exhibited customised knickers at Female Matters. Every pair was for sale. Hung on a washing line for all to see, the messages ranged from "No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor" to "Pussy Power", which was featured on several pairs of knickers. Hannah's knickers proclaim that "My body is mine", a statement many of us could benefit from being reminded of, living as we do in a patriarchal consumer society where sex sells and our bodies and ourselves are never enough.

Photograph by Hanecdote









Hannah was also featured in a simply stunning photo series by the phenomenally talented Scarlett Shaney about the social media gaze and how we present our image to the world. Hannah is an utter femme fatale in the series, which is appropriate as Scarlett has an on-going series called Cinema Stills, riffing on Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills.

Photograph by Hanecdote
Ceramics featured heavily at Female Matters. These pondering women, comfortable inhabiting their own bodies (but not sexualised) by playful ceramicist Charlotte Mei, really appealed to me. If I had the cash, I might have bought the pair.


But my very favourite pieces of the night were also perhaps the least subtle. They reminded me of many varied references; Gustav Klimt, icon paintings, landscapes.

These bead and paint works by Melissa Eakin lavishly depict the female body as a shrine to worship at. Menstrual blood becomes a seam of rubies; the pearl clitoris reminds me of the Carol Ann Duffy poem Anne Hathaway:

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where he would dive for pearls.


The woman's body becomes the archetypal woman's body; every skin tone is daubed on to one body, and the scale becomes as cinematic as the Grand Canyon.





More ceramics by Georgia Grace Gibson initially reminded me of Grayson Perry, with their scrawled writing and collaged images.

However, on closer inspection it became apparent that Georgia was doing something very different, and difficult. One pot was daubed with the obscenities and teasing of the girls' toilets at school and battered and borrowed text books. The second pot was an undeniably filthy and foul-mouthed diary of a gobby teenage girl who has thrust herself with gusto into sexual experimentation.

These uncomfortable examples of the young girl's gaze which is often swept under the carpet are contrasted with the third pot, in which naked, nubile young women contort into grotesque parodies of lesbianism exclusively for the male gaze.



















Female Matters was absolutely packed, and rightly so. I was so impressed that such talented and varied artists were brought together and curated so beautifully for just one night. I met a number of people in "mutual" follows on social media, and everyone was so friendly, chatty, and creating fascinating work in different remits and mediums. Here's to the next Polyester Zine event!

Just Say NO Potion

I finished last week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion yesterday (and had completed the majority of it by Saturday evening), but it was a rather hectic weekend, hence why I'm only just blogging about it now.

I am gradually being contacted more about commissions, purchasing work, and doing arts events. It seems surprising somehow that people are parting with their cash for what I do, and it's hard not to a) be overwhelmed and b) say yes to every opportunity.


I am trying to remember that I am a finite resource with a salaried job and there is only so much I can do. It would be wonderful to say yes to every opportunity that appealed to me, whether it was paid or not, but I have to accept that I'm human! I need funds and I also need rest. Occasionally.


It is difficult sometimes, being an artist. You never really get a day off. Then again, that's your choice; you wouldn't do it if you didn't love it, and if you're like me and have a particularly over-active brain, getting those thoughts out into a physical entity can be very helpful, even necessary.

If you start to become a little more well known and success seems to be beckoning, you have to work harder and harder to maintain your standing; it snowballs and you have to hang on for dear life and put your nose to the grindstone.


But you also have to deal with the mundanities of day to day life. With the laundry. With feeding yourself. With feeding pets. With the basics that everyone has to do. And if, God forbid, you would like to occasionally have some down time or let off some steam, you will sometimes have to just say no.


Which is why last week's potion reads "You don't have to say YES to everything."

It's accompanied by the E17 Art Trail logo, as the Trail kicked off on May 30th. I have an exhibition at Venue 68, and this weekend hosted a couple of #secretsofselfpreservation embroidery workshops, which I will blog about over the next few days (I have quite a backlog!)




Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Stitch For Survival: My E17 Art Trail 2015 Exhibition

Once again the yearly E17 Art Trail has rolled around. I am going to do the grand tour next weekend; I set up my exhibition earlier today; well, my "installation technician" (my mother) did most of the hard graft.

For last year's Trail I showed work as part of the Zoology exhibition at E17 Art House, which has since moved to bigger premises on Hoe Street and has some very intriguing exhibitions and events on for the Trail this year.


This time around, applying was a bit of a last minute affair, so I decided to exhibit in the bay window of my parents' house as I did in 2011 and 2012.

This year we decided to ditch the slightly "primary school" blue baize display board we'd used previously, and used white frame boards to display the embroideries on instead.







A wide variety of embroideries are on display, from pages and pocket contents from my artist's books On Being SoftBig Teeth and Milk Thistle, to embroideries from the zine I recently sold at DIY Cultures, Treasures For Your Troubles. My favourite of the #secretsofselfpreservations stitched thus far are exhibited too.







The theme this year seems to be whimsy; the exhibition is less in your face provocative than it has been in the past; more gently subversive, gently parodying the Romantic movement and its romanticisation of mental illness (particularly the Milk Thistle pages and pocket contents). I have really amassed work since 2011, and I feel the exhibition is far more cohesive and well presented than it has been in the past.














If you're local/in the area, please do pop by - the exhibition can be viewed from the front garden from today, Sunday 31st May, until Sunday 14th June, from 10am - 8pm daily.

Next Saturday 6th June I will be holding a #secretsofselfpreservation workshop stitching self care potions from 4pm in the living room; the workshop is limited to ten places, so please email katerolison@googlemail.com to book your place.

The details of my exhibition and workshop can be found here. I do hope you'll visit.





Basket Unweaving



I've had what could best be described as "a funny old week". My Twitter, if it didn't blow up, certainly had a very tiny controlled explosion, resulting in being approached for commissions and sales, which is always lovely. I haven't made the best use of Twitter in the past, but I'm certainly making up for that now, and all in all I think I've had a bit of a social media overload. Pip was away, and on Thursday, when I had the polling station, a double bill of performance curated by Daily Life Ltd, and First Aid Training to get to, I, rather embarrassingly, became the practical demonstration at said training. I'm not even good with descriptions of blood, and felt so fragile and rotten that I didn't make it to the performances that evening. Just before I went to bed the possibility of a Tory majority government was beginning to look likely, and I had a terrible tension headache from my visceral reaction to mentions of blood.

On Friday morning I felt hungover and funereal with the election result. I think I'm not the only one who's still in a certain amount of shock. 

Thank goodness, then, that I had a second Daily Life Ltd ticket for their cabaret evening on Friday. I was late and flustered to the event, but within two minutes of walking through the door, I felt better.

Poets associated with F.E.E.L. (Friends of East End Loonies) performed a rollicking variety of texts, from the elegiac to the ethereal to the positively zinging with all the "madness" of life. Listening to them made me want to get up in front of a microphone again, which I haven't done since I was fourteen.

Dylan Tighe performed wondrously crafted songs interwoven with looped 80s keyboards, with words both poetic and realist.

But the two highlights for me were Simon Raven's "basket unweaving", a witty riposte to the busymaking distractions of  mental hospital mandated "art therapy", and Bobby Baker's Ballistic Buns

Bobby told us the story of her grandfather and grandmother, extraordinary individuals who met in the early twentieth century. Her grandfather, a "senior angler" or Oxbridge mathematics superboffin to you and I, was tasked with creating the British answer to "Big Bertha", an enormous mortar gun used by German forces in World War One. He never forgave himself for the devastation his engineering engendered. Her grandmother was from a wealthy background, hardly ate a thing, but, much like Bobby, loved feeding people.

One of Bobby's abiding memories of her grandmother was of sitting at the dinner table, when her granny would suddenly shriek, "Catch!" and pelt rock hard home baked buns at Bobby and her siblings.

As Bobby was a tomboy (believe it or not, so was I at the age of ten), her favourite film of the time was Dam Busters.

Thus, in homage to both her grandparents, whilst footage from Dam Busters scored by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain played, Bobby pelted her captive audience with (mercifully soft) Madagascan vanilla buns. And, as Bobby demonstrated her pitcher's arm in a curiously balletic style, all the tension which had been building up in me over the course of the week bubbled up and overflowed into uncontrollable belly laughs. The laughter, as Alice of Daily Life put it, of jouissance. Just what the doctor ordered.

It made me think, as I have often privately thought before, that it's ok to be a bit mad. But here was collective, joyous, jouissance madness.

I felt buoyed up, and all these thoughts have led to the embroidered words of this week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion; "Raise each other up."

I refuse to despair in the face of another five years of Austerity Britain. I refuse to silently seethe, to grow complacent or apathetic. I won't stop working, however much arts funding is squeezed, however much the rug is pulled out from under vulnerable people. I will do my bit.

I wasn't quite sure what diaristic elements to include alongside the words, so Pip had the excellent idea including collage elements of the stack of Labour party literature he'd accumulated. I simply cut out the words and phrases which seemed most pertinent.







Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Pet Pals Potion

I feel that the title of this (belated, sorry) potion was partially inspired by Rudi of Sidcup and Roxy of Holloway "friends and colleagues" of Bobby Baker and stars of animations featuring Bobby and promoting the work of Daily Life Limited. I have been thinking about the work that Bobby and Daily Life Limited do in the run up to their micro festival, which I need to buy tickets for as soon as I get paid! The feedback that I got about this particular project when I took part in a Daily Life Limited workshop really helped get #secretsofselfpreservation off the ground, so I can't wait to see what they do next. It would be easy for Bobby "just" to make work about her own experiences, but the fact that Daily Life are supporting a whole new host of (often young) artists who make art out of their mental health experiences is commendable. I would love to be in a similar position to do so some day. Without wanting to sound completely bleeding heart (which I am), I want to make a difference with my work.

I suppose this week I have been making a (very) small difference to the lives of some animals; tending to two cats and a bearded dragon, feeding and chatting to them, and on occasion removing (tremendously) pooey newspaper.

I have found that caring for animals is a very particular kind of pleasure; companionship without backchat, I suppose. I think, once you've fed something, you can't help but care for it, in a way.

So in honour of this newfound, short lived responsibility, I have stitched that "Animals are good for your health" (rather shoddily as I haven't been feeling very well the past couple of days), and accompanied the text with some copyright free illustrations of domestic and more exotic animals.

I think this should all act as proof to my boyfriend that co-owning a rabbit is a practical and sensible notion. But until he relents, I will keep stitching.







Perseverance Potion

Week Fourteen of #secretsofselfpreservation brought some potentially exciting news, training for my new job, and a long weekend.

I feel like I've got my work life balance right now, and that I might, just might, get the word out a bit more about my art in 2015.

This is why this week's potion is entitled "Perseverance Potion". The ingredients read "Don't give up the night job ("night job" being art, not an untoward activity).

I have accompanied the stitched words with a jumble of beads and sequins, which I have a substantial stash off and use frequently in my work. They make a pleasant noise when you shake the potion bottle, not unlike light rain or the sea.














Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

I need art like I need God potion

I'm an atheist. However, few artist's slogans have resonated with me as much as Tracey Emin's "I need art like I need God". There is often something religious in visiting an art gallery, worshipping great artists and seeking communion and guidance with them. For me, art offers both solace and purpose, so perhaps it is my God. I know I love it more than anything.



And so, this week'Apothéké / #secretsofselfpreservation potion title is Emin's quote, coupled with the ingredients "Have faith in your art". This week I have begun working on what will be a real slow burner of a project. Thousands of stitches. It has been brewing in my mind for over a year, and I've put it off because I didn't know the best way to execute it, and didn't feel technically able. It still may not turn out like I imagined, but I am going to try. As a young artist just starting out it is easy to get discouraged. I find it helpful to remember that it is primarily me I make art for; anything more is a bonus.

Alongside the stitched words in the potion bottle are the tools of my trade; a reel of thread with a needle nestled in it.











Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Tangled Yarns: Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery (Part 2)

Earlier I explained that, through Tangled Yarns, Alke Schmidt reminds us of the obscure and murky chain of supply in the textile industry. But it was ever thus; Tangled Yarns explores the (dirty) politics and morality of the textiles industry from the 1700s to the present day. And seemingly, little has changed. Though the chain of supply today may often be a mystery, in her work Stained Alke traces the mid-1800s supply chain from cotton plant to dress. She illustrates how a garment's origins, even then, could leave an invisible smear unbeknownst to the wearer. 


A wealthy woman in an elegant, delicate ball-gown peers through a barrier of columns of an 1840s cotton print which separate her from the women who clothed her. As with many of the works in the exhibition, cloth, stitch and paint weave in and out of each other, and composition says just as much as content.



The women the elegant lady peers at are a plantation slave, a Lancashire mill worker and a cottage industry dressmaker. Each category of exploited worker became the focus of a moral outrage in the 1800s, just as the treatment of Bengali textile workers is now, and rightly so. Even the self-employed dressmaker working from home lived a meagre and often starving existence; there are accounts of cottage industry stitchers losing their eyesight by candlelight in the seminal text The Subversive Stitch.

Alke's dressmaker has dark circles under her eyes and stitches by a guttering candle; perhaps her eyesight, too, will soon falter.


As Alke’s exhibition demonstrates, structural violence towards women permeates and has always permeated the textile industry. In around 1719, this violence become more overt, when, as Alke rather brilliantly puts it, some women became literal "fashion victims". British weavers were feeling increasingly threatened by the popularity of patterned Indian and Indian-imitation cottons. Rather than directing their resentment at the producers of such cottons, wool and worsted weavers took to the streets and began attacking women wearing garments made from the printed cottons. The attacks included ripping and cutting the cloth, setting it on fire, and throwing acid at the women to burn their skin. It quickly became a witch-hunt in which the recipient of the violence was not the clothes but the women wearing them. They were branded Calico Madams, the title of the piece in which Alke brings all these rich and subtle threads of research (or tangled yarns, if you like) together.


As her base Alke has chosen a calico in the style of early 18th century Indian designs. The next layer is a reproduction of an illustration from the period celebrating the passing of the ban on Indian cottons. Finally she has painted the "calico madams" themselves, fighting off their attackers and lying defeated on the floor, where the rump of a woman becomes the site of the cottons being "burnt at the stake", with flames flickering around and leaping up to assault the fleeing women. Of course, the phrase "calico madams" was a way of attacking women for their sexuality, and conflating this sexuality with the way they were dressed. Therefore the flaming pyre appears on one of the most sexualised parts of a woman's anatomy.


Calico Madams is one of the most technically accomplished and conceptually rich works in the exhibition. It is multi-layered both literally, with pattern, print and paint interlacing seamlessly in and out of each other, and figuratively, with countless threads of research woven together without over-burdening the whole.



It gives me courage as an artist who sometimes worries that there's "too much going on" in her own work. 

Tangled Yarns is an eminently apt title for this exhibition; it would be impossible to separate out the strands of race and gender, exploitation and violence with which the textiles industry is intertwined, and Alke doesn't attempt to. Instead, she explores how these strands relate to one another, in a triumph of intersectionality.

I have written about a handful of the works in the exhibition, and have spent almost two thousand words doing so. I hope this is some indication of how thought-provoking, conscience-pricking, and technically astute Tangled Yarns is. As a result of visiting the exhibition, I have chosen to make a real commitment to being an ethical fashion consumer. How many exhibitions cause us to transform our lives (and the lives of others) for the better? I would hazard a guess that it's not that many.

Tangled Yarns is exhibited at the William Morris Gallery until the 25th January 2015.

Tangled Yarns: Alke Schmidt at the William Morris Gallery (Part 1)


The William Morris Gallery is very canny at showing contemporary artists whose output would have been looked upon most favourably by Morris himself. None more so than the latest exhibition by Alke Schmidt, Tangled Yarns. If Morris was alive today I'm sure he would have felt as passionately about Alke's call for social justice through her exposure of the murky world of the textile industry as about her highly skilled handicraft.

Alke plays up this dichotomy between Morris the socialist and Morris the designer in her exhibition. One of the first works which the audience is confronted with as they ascend the stairs to the main exhibition space is entitled Morris's Dilemma. "Confronted" is perhaps an apt word; rising like steam from the two arms of a mill engine, Morris's Honeysuckle and Tulip pattern, repeated on a grand scale, weaves like a mirage in and out of the engine painted over it. I'm not sure whether the work should be classified as a painting or as a collaboration with a bygone craftsman. It could easily be an assault on the senses, but Alke blends pattern and painting so seamlessly, confronting Morris's romantic longing for a pre-industrial, hand-crafted age with the means of production that made his career possible.






One cylinder of the mill engine is entitled "CAPITAL"; the other, "LABOUR". On Alke's blog we learn that this is not her own invention intended to "illustrate the complex and conflicted relationship between Morris the entrepreneur-designer and Morris the socialist", but an unbelievably fortuitous discovery on her part; such an Orwellian mill engine may genuinely have existed. At the very least, it did as a Victorian illustration.

The composition and colouring of Alke's piece is redolent of both right and left wing propaganda for me, but particularly trade union, socialist, and suffrage banners.



In the very last piece completed for Tangled Yarns, Alke pays direct homage to these suffrage banners, appliquéing an early 20th century patchwork (which would have been a "contemporary" of the Suffragettes) with the Suffragette rallying cry and banner proclamation Deeds Not Words.

Though the work harks back to the 1900s and the suffrage movement, and is in part a collaboration with a needlewoman of the past, it feels decidedly modern. It could be the jumble of colours, which are warm, inviting, even cosy; in marked contrast to the rest of the exhibition there is a sense of the handcrafted here that is perhaps not entirely polished; this is highlighted by the unfinished, raw edges of the patchwork. Alke posits on her blog that the woman who created the patchwork may have been a professional machinist making this piece at home for personal pleasure; she was certainly a skilled stitcher. 



Alke's choice to leave the patchwork unfinished signifies the never-ending nature of "women's work", and lends the piece a vulnerable air. The domestic furnishing and dressmaking cottons used for the lettering, the shirting stripes of the patchwork, show that craft is for everyone, and can be (and certainly was in the past) a part of everyday life. Just as Morris would have wanted. 

The phrase which keeps repeating in my head as I look at this work is the old rallying cry of Second-wave feminism, "The Personal Is Political". Its execution puts me in mind of Craftivism, as does its simple, yet impactful and perennial message. It has readopted the Suffragette call to arms, but divorced it from its austerity. As with the campaigns of the Craftivist Collective, "unlike some of the more traditional, extrovert forms of activism", Deeds Not Words is quietly beautiful. 

Alke created her text from fabrics used in the other works in the exhibition - thereby tying up the loose ends of her Tangled Yarns. A fitting conclusion to Alke's exhibition, calling us to bring about real change in the textile industry, whilst honouring the women who intersect with it.

A group of women whose lives were utterly transformed - for worse - by the textile industry were the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Disaster makes it sound like an accident; textiles workers in the Rana Plaza building were literally told "If you die here, so be it. But you can't leave, get to work". 

The building collapse is considered the deadliest structural failure in modern human history, leaving behind countless unanswered questions. Due to failures at every level, from highstreet brands whose clothes were manufactured in the building neglecting to take responsibility towards their workers, to local government turning a blind eye to the lack of planning permission, to managers at one of the factories in the building threatening to withhold a month's pay if workers refused to come to work following structural cracks appearing, 1138 (and counting) people have died. The majority of these workers were women, and a number of their children were also killed in the collapse.

Just writing these words makes me angry. It is incredible, therefore, that Alke has created such touching, peaceful, and appropriate memorials to these women in her exhibition, restoring them the dignity that they were so brutally robbed of.




In each of her two works commemorating the workers who were killed, she uses 1138 pearlescent-tipped sewing pins - one for each victim who died. Alke therefore honours the work that they did as seamstresses, though it was not respected during their lifetimes.

1138 and Counting presents the pins on a scroll of cotton and muslin, grouped together like a tally. The pure yet warm off-white is peaceful and spiritual, and together with the ethereal muslin is reminiscent of ghosts and angels.


Memorial presents us with a shroud-like length of cotton (the fabric which ties the entire exhibition together) on which pins delineate the shape of a woman's body. Although the pins pierce the fabric, the body appears to be resting on it; this calls to mind the stories of volunteer rescuers bringing victims out of the wreckage of Rana Plaza on bolts of fabric.



Alke has incorporated the survivors' testimony into both pieces:

They would not pay us if we didn't work that day.

One supervisor forced us to go inside.

We tried to get out but they wouldn't let us.

Our managers said, 'We will all die some day'.

If you die here, so be it. But you can't leave, get to work.

My hand got stuck when the roof came down. So I tried to cut off my hand but I couldn't.

I was buried alive. I never thought I'd see sunlight again.

I can't work anymore. I can't support my family, can't afford my treatment.

They didn't even pay my kids' due salaries. They said there is no salary for the dead.



Alke's neighbours transcribed this testimony from videos published by Labour Behind the Label into Bengali script, a further example of her collaborative process. Alke transferred the script on to the cotton of the works. In 1138 and Counting, the script rises from behind a haze of muslin, reminding us, like Morris's Dilemma, that the chain of supply in the textile industry is obscure and murky.

The Expert View

Louise Bourgeois' scrawled slogan "Art is a guaranty of sanity" and Tracey Emin's "I need art like I need God" are both saying the same thing. That art is at once proof of our humanity, and also transcends it. That the human spirit is endlessly resilient and capable of greatness, whatever hardships have befallen us, whether external or internal.



I kept this in mind as I visited The Expert View on Thursday evening. The installation of light boxes in Dalston Square is the culmination of Daily Life Ltd's Experts by Experience workshops, shown alongside Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings. As I explained in another post, I was lucky enough to be a participant in one of these workshops, and, I'm thrilled to say, one of my little drawings is included in the exhibition.




I was surprised that such a humble offering was included, particularly with the wealth of talent on display. Ironically, when I went to art school I became less confident in drawing; to begin with, my work was mostly text based, and then embroidery became an all-consuming compulsion, where I would stitch the design directly on to the cloth without figuring it out on paper first. Experts by Experience has inspired me to pick up the pencil (and inks, and paints, and pastels, and...) and learn how to draw again. I feel it can only be good for my textiles practice.

Despite my misgivings about my artistic capabilities, at The Expert View I was overwhelmed with positive responses to this tiny illustration of my erstwhile expertise at crying. People seemed to find it very touching, which to some extent was unexpected; I find it rather humorous. I think, in mental health, humour about the situations we find ourselves in can be a very powerful resource. That is, so long as we are not laughing at each other, or bitterly at our own "shortcomings", but together at the absurdity of the world we have to navigate.

Bobby's work, of course, is rich with the power of humour. It is very hard to be truly afraid of something if you can laugh at it. Even if that "something" is the amorphous and unpindownable "spectre of mental illness".




 

The drawing above, of Bobby buying Christmas presents for her loved ones, I found particularly heartening. At our workshop, Bobby showed us this drawing and explained that she loves buying presents for others. I think, in mental health, it can be so easy to discount the things that really matter in our lives; the media and society at large can reduce us to how productive we can be; to scroungers sitting around sponging up benefits, feeling sorry for ourselves, and not "contributing". But people living with mental illness have families; have loved ones; have cherished relationships, and it is of vital importance to celebrate this, because so many of us can feel like our illnesses are a huge burden on those we are closest to. We forget what we give; we forget that the world is a better place because we're in it.




I think The Expert View is palpable evidence of this. It is a celebration; a riot of colour, of life experiences, of the whole gamut of human emotion. There are contributions from mental health professionals, patients past and present, and people who intersect with the field in other ways. Of course, you could be all three, and that is, in part, the point. The question being posed is Who is the expert? And the answer, given in the installation flyer, is another question: Who's to say?




People who study and treat mental ill health, psychiatrists, psychologists, support workers, doctors, nurses; can they ever understand these illnesses in the same way as people with lived experience? I would argue not; unless of course, they have lived experience of mental illness themselves. Certainly, mental health professionals can bring expertise to the table that those of us with lived experience may not have; years of training and study, in-depth understanding of individual illnesses and symptoms, and (hopefully) the compassion which brought them to the profession in the first place. But this can sometimes translate to seeing people as just a set of symptoms to be "cured" and not an individual. Perhaps a more holistic approach is required. Which is where art comes in. 

Daily Life Ltd.'s Experts by Experience workshops were not art therapy. They were not an exercise in psychoanalysing our drawings, or a means of alleviating symptoms. For some of us, these may have been by-products of the workshop, but this was not the objective. What I came away with from the workshop was a profound sense that there is very little separating those designated "mad" and those designated "sane". For some people, that is a deeply troubling thought, but as an individual who has been placed in both categories at different times, I found it comforting. 




This is why I think it is so important for The Expert View to be exhibited in such a public and well-frequented place. Members of the public whose lives have been touched, or not, by mental illness, will happen across the installation in their daily lives. I'm already proud to be a part of this exhibition. If even one person who happens upon it reconsiders mentally ill people as people just like them, I will feel I have made a very small but nonetheless substantial difference for mentally ill people in this country. Being involved in this project has already made a difference to me personally; I'm more open, more outspoken about mental health injustices, and more enlightened. 

The Expert View shows what people with experience of mental ill health are capable of; beautiful, riveting, touching, hilarious, heart-breaking, unique art, positively zinging with life.







Visual Diary

The last couple of weeks I've been trying to put plans in place and get my life together a little bit. So Milk Thistle has suffered somewhat, but I'm happy to report that I'm back on the stitching and page seven (of 8) is underway.

Inspired by my online contemporaries and the ever-present desire to write, I began keeping a diary last month. Alongside my lilac written diary, I've started collating a visual diary (or art journal) too. It's a lovely way of recording special moments and it will hopefully be wonderful to look back over the course of the year and realise that, actually, it was pretty good.


This first page depicts mine and Pip's visit to Brighton to stay with friends... with added mallards. On our trip to the seaside we ate far too much rich food, played crazy golf and despaired over the price of vintage.


Soon after, I stayed with my parents and grandparents in the Highlands, visited Tobermory (the site of fictional Balamory), and stocked up on fancy chocolates for Pip. This trip was characterised by, once again, eating far too much rich food.


When I returned, we visited Lucy Sparrow's rather fantastic Corner Shop, which I blogged about here.

The next day, I had a wander around Epping Forest with my Mum, marvelling at how verdant and heady everything smelled.


The next day, inspired by this walk, Kat and I took a bunch of photographs in Walthamstow Forest, which you can see here.

At the end of the week, Pip and I went to two special screenings, the first being Stuart Murdoch's bittersweet twee musical God Help The Girl, the costumes and songs of which I enjoyed immensely, although the extent of the earnest, melancholy male gaze in it was almost painful to watch. Still, mostly good fun.

The second film was outstanding. I'm slightly biased, as Brief Encounter is my favourite flick ever, but this screening was very special; the film was presented in concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the soundtrack of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 (with which the film is so inextricably bound up) was painstakingly removed and then played live and seamlessly at the appropriate moments. It was so technically astute, in fact, that I often forgot the orchestra were there at all.

I've got some visual diary-ing to catch up on; I find it quite therapeutic and nostalgic; in this world of instant media it's refreshing to go a bit analogue. Do you art journal?

No Baubles - British Folk Art at Tate Britain

When the Royal Academy was established in 1769, it emphatically stated that "no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted". Baubles were all very well for the drawing room; just don’t bring them into the gallery. 

One might well assume that this measure was intended to bar women from exhibiting; this a mere twenty three years before A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published. Art by women has long been devalued and placed firmly in the camp of craft, differentiating it from "masculine" high art; as art historian Roszika Parker noted "historians devalued it ("women's work") in the eyes of society which equated great art with masculinity, the public sphere and professional practice”. Professional practice, of course, was historically barred to the vast majority of women, and even today, the exposés of Guerrilla Girls indicate the extent of the glass ceiling which still exists in the art world. Work by female artists is often couched as female first, and art second, or simply and derisively as "decorative".



But it is not only women that the Royal Academy's proclamation barred; rejection of these "baubles" is in part a question of class. Many male and female artists could only dream of the Royal Academy, with its members wealthy enough to "drop out" in order to turn to a life of painting. Working class artists instead turned to whatever they had to hand for their materials; bone, scraps of fabric, letters and newspapers, pins and beads. Art made from the collections of the rag and bone man.



It is this patchwork art, made from scraps, from snippets of this and that, that we see at British Folk Art at Tate Britain. Literal patchworks are paper pieced with scraps of letters and newspapers. In a time when paper was scarce and expensive, this was the most economical means of hand quilting, even if sacrificing cherished letters was heart-wrenching. Throughout the exhibition we see thrift as evidence of survival and adaptation to trying circumstances, rather than it is often employed today, as guilty afterthought or proof of green credentials. This is make do and mend before the term came into use. The centrepiece is a cockerel painstakingly hand-carved from mutton bone by French POWs during the Napoleonic Wars. The intricacy of this sculpture repudiates the rulings of the Royal Academy almost half a century earlier. It is an astonishing work not simply for the delicacy of the carving, but for the sheer quantity of bones the POWs siphoned off; for the coral wattle and comb which presumably is dyed bone; for the hours it doubtless took to whittle and carve down the bone into individual feathers. The cockerel demonstrates the tenacity of the human spirit; the irrepressibility of imagination.



Time and again walking through the exhibition, the audience encounters art made during hardship. Folk artists have created when incarcerated; when recuperating from illness; when pining for loved ones across the seas.

Whereas needlework and textile craft was thought to be the preserve of middle and upper class ladies in recent centuries (and we do see examples of samplers in this vein), here we see men turning to the medium also, often when convalescing.



Injured sailors and fishermen created woolwork keepsake representations of their ships. Recuperating soldiers in the 19th and early 20th centuries were encouraged to create bright patchworks from their old uniforms. Some might think this emasculating; however, when one takes into account just how heavy duty the serge and twill fabric is, any feminine associations of needlework evaporate.

 An even more macho application of needlecraft is evident in a
frankly terrifying Jolly Roger which flew atop HMS Trenchant in the Second World War. In a gross understatement, the exhibition notes inform us that Jolly Rogers like this one featured "symbols referring to the vessel's various engagements". The "various engagements" are the sinking and capturing of German ships. Appliqué, as employed here, and other textile crafts, have become the site of subversion over the course of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty first century; we see an early subversive, piratical use here. This is textiles divorced from the drawing room and any shred of domesticity; made entirely masculine.  



Alongside the woolwork depictions of ships and “sailors’ valentines” are works of art of a more traditional nature; almost good enough for the Royal Academy.  Appropriately given the flavour of the exhibition, these paintings are by a rag and bone man; Alfred Wallis of St Ives. His naive paintings recall his youth at sea. Unlike the artists who neighbour his paintings, Wallis had some art world success with his work, mostly due to his friendships with the St Ives artists’ colony.

Another folk artist who had success during her lifetime was Mary Linwood, an embroidery copyist of Old Masters. She was not accepted into the patriarchal art establishment, doubtless because her naturalistic, immense silk shadings posed too much of a “bauble”, but nevertheless enjoyed considerable success. However, she fell from grace with the advent of “art needlework”, when, ironically, embroidery artists and designers aped a folk art, pre-industrial style.



As with all that is fashionable, art is cyclical; the Royal Academy may once have been up in arms about the daintily hand crafted, but contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry have made careers from borrowing from craft. Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller celebrates folk art in his work, and creates new folk heroes. Doubtless the time will come again when folk art falls out of favour. This would make it all the more vital to celebrate it for what it is; art by the people, for the people.