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.





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.

Feel Better: An interview with artist Chelsea Dirck


I've followed Chelsea Dirck's work for years; as an angsty adolescent I was comforted by her confessional, diaristic drawings, and now that I am an adult (ha) I deeply appreciate her lo fi, compassionate, analogue art.

I feel like I have somewhat grown up with Chelsea's work (and seen her mature as an artist in turn), and it's possible that her creations have had as much influence on me as, say, Louise Bourgeois.

I hope that my enthusiasm for Chelsea's work translates in the questions I have posed in this interview, which Chelsea has so kindly and thoroughly answered here.

 A great deal of your work seems, at least from an outsider’s perspective, to be an attempt to ameliorate, to console oneself after/during a bad situation and make the best of things. Would you say this has always been/is a constant in your work? 



All of my work comes from a personal viewpoint and I guess, at some point (which could have been very early on) it became very much about trying to make myself and/or other people feel better in some way.I was just writing and drawing for myself and at the time I probably didn't realize that I was as sad or confused as I was. I was just writing about what I knew. 



The diaristic tone of your drawings, celebrating both the good, but not flinching from the bad, the sheer honesty, is encouraging to me. From your LiveJournal days when you shared what seemed to be your innermost private thoughts, to cataloguing those thoughts in zines for public consumption, you seem very willing to lay bare your soul; do you feel this does help to make one “feel better”?

It can be very scary to "put it all out there," but I feel like it is important. It is what is most interesting to me about art and being an artist. I want to be as honest as I can and in that honesty connect with other people. I think that in creating the work it does make me feel better  in some sense. It is cathartic to sit down and make something out of nothing. 



Sharing is a word I often think of when viewing your work, and a mode of operating which seems essential to your practice; sharing hurt, whether personal or public grief (as with the “Feel Better” banners you made to commemorate and ameliorate in the aftermath of the Boston bombings), sharing new artists and music, sharing your gallery space in informal get-togethers, sharing a space similar to your living environment in gallery installations. This may be a trite question, but why is sharing so important to you?



I'm really happy to hear this, because it is exactly the word I want you to think of. Sharing is important to me for so many reasons.



I spent my formative years in a punk community with "do it yourself" ideals that formed the way I lived my life then and now. I think that being a part of punk made me very aware of my community. I was (and still am) always surrounded by very supportive people who encouraged me to make art. It feels very natural to turn around and share that art with those very same people. I don't think that art should exists merely to be bought and sold, to hang on a wall or exist in a museum. I believe that art, like most things, should be made to share with the people who love it or need it. I am a strong believer that if you are interested in something than it is likely many other people will be interested in it- you just have to show them. Similarly- if you feel something, it's likely that other people feel it too. 



Recently there seems to be more of a community feel to your work. Is public art and community engagement something you wish to develop?



To me the idea of community is an extension of the idea of sharing. I am interested in public art to the extent that it reaches a broader audience. I am currently working on "The Feel Good Project" with a friend at work. This project is an effort to use the company's resources to create public art projects that make people feel good. I like the idea of posting things online and how many people can relate and re-blog and add their own commentary, but it feels equally important to go out in to the community I am a part of and actually hand someone an object that they can keep

I've been thinking a lot about gifts. I think that is where I am headed with my work. Giving vs. Selling



When and why did you turn to fibre as a medium? How do you construct your quilts and banners? Do they start as drawings, scribbled words? Could you describe for us your creative process (in as little or as much detail as you like)?



I have always been really interested in fabric and sewing, but I never knew how to do it. I was just drawn to it for some reason so I started taking some classes while I was in school and ended up landing in the fibers department. I liked how at home I felt there. (I have since realized that a lot of my work references the idea of home and comfort, which fiber somehow naturally lends itself to). 



Most of my work starts in my notebook and then becomes something else (or just stays there forever). So, in the beginning I was doing a lot of drawings with the idea of turning them into embroideries. As time went on the embroideries (still coming from journals) turned into just text, much larger scale than anything else I had been making. I use a simple satin stitch (in and out like regular sewing, nothing fancy) to follow the shape of some text I've written across a large piece of  fabric. It takes forever. I like that about it. When I draw it is quick, there is this immediate satisfaction that sometimes I really need. Embroidery, on the other hand, allows me to slow down and spend a long time with just a few words. It makes the text somewhat like a mantra or something that I live with for as long as I am working on it and then, at the end, it has become monumental in some way. 


I have toyed around with painting large text, but it loses something. With the embroidery you are faced with the scale and it becomes much louder than a small drawing- but it is still soft. It is still quiet and sincere and honest.

(I have also made quilts and banners with appliqued text, but most of the time I am just using the simple satin stitch). 

How does music influence your creative output? Do you see your band, Fleabite, as another artistic medium, another string to your bow?

I don't really think about playing music like I think about making my visual art. I think that it is very similar for some people, but for me playing music has been much more about learning a new skill and connecting with friends in a new way. I don't actually write the music (my other band mates usually do) so it isn't as much of an artistic expression for me. It's just a fun way to spend my time. 



Do you set aside time to work on your observational drawing skills? I ask because a lot of your drawings pair wry or humorous text alongside rather mundane (and I don’t mean that in a negative sense) drawings of interiors or household objects. Do you feel this makes the work more grounded or relatable?

I don't really practice my drawing, but I should. I often draw mundane or household objects because that is what is in front of me. I can't make up something and draw it, I'm terrible at it. I have to look at something so if I feel like drawing I am usually limited to what is in front of me. The drawings with an object and text are usually a result of whatever I am thinking at that moment and whatever is sitting in front of me. To me, it is a record of the moment and the pair makes sense to me, for others it may be more confusing. So, I don't really know if it makes it more grounded, but for me I suppose it does.