I often find myself stitching in public places. I suppose it has become part of my art practice. Although I do have a studio and occasionally work at home, I’m often carting around portable pieces in my bag, along with thread, needles and a pair of scissors.
In fact, a large part of one installation was made on a regular commute to and from Sydney over many months. whitewash – exhibited at the Wollongong Art Gallery in 2014 – comprised over 50 found and gifted garments that were hand-sewn into abstract forms. At that time, I had been thinking about the politics of representation in relation to migrants and asylum seekers, and the journeys undertaken to reach a place of safety and peace.
Like many artists who work with fabric, I’m drawn to the way that clothing can evoke thoughts about humanity, connection and memory without being heavy or didactic. I also work with clothing and fabric because of its association with the body, with its connotations of protection and enclosure, and in the way it can be read as a kind of second skin.
So, this activity performed between one place and another is inconsequential and mostly goes unnoticed. It is a small and quiet activity. Occasionally, it might draw someone in, with a subtle pull of the repetitive action of needle and thread, through the materiality of the work or just out of plain curiosity.
I once sat sewing for forty minutes on a ferry beside an elderly woman from Hong Kong. I felt her gaze for a while before she reached over, gently touching the shirt, inspecting it on both sides. She smiled and nodded. I showed her an image on my phone of a completed piece, and another of a group pinned up on my studio wall. She gave the work her attention and kept feeling the cloth as it changed. Before we arrived at the wharf, a man came in from the deck and spoke for some time with the woman, back and forth, back and forth. He sat down and interpreted to me that his mother liked my sewing, that her grandmother taught her to sew when she was a young girl. And then she explained my project to him; he relayed this back to me. Cloth, the common language.
I’m telling this story because it is also how I came to be artist in residence at Tender Funerals.Sitting, sewing. A different time and place and in this instance, it was Jenny Briscoe-Hough who came towards me. Our conversation began over a small square of kantha work (see image), which later expanded into a much longer and broader proposition about ritual, art making and community.
As Jenny had been imagining how to bring creative practice and local artists into the scope of Tender’s world, I had been pondering how I could shift my focus from teaching in Sydney to working closer to home in my Port Kembla studio. I began volunteering at Tender in May 2017, and have since initiated a small project called ‘tender cloths’ that involves eco-dyeing muslin with donated flowers from funeral services, that would otherwise be thrown away.
Jenny also invited two composer/songwriters, Malika Elizabeth and Jodi Phillis, into the project as musicians in residence. From here we began to shape these ideas and develop an ongoing program for artists and the Tender community to continue to work together. Next year we extend the residency to include a fortnightly sewing circle as part of Tender’s after care work, beginning in mid-late February. I will write more about this later, so keep an eye out on Tender’s Facebook page.
So here we are … Tender Funerals was successful in their grant application to Create NSW for this project, which is fantastic. I believe that we are possibly the first artists to be in residence in the funeral industry, though Tender as a non-profit community based organisation, is ground breaking in other ways as well.
I am honoured to be given a role in this project and I’m grateful to Create NSW for recognising the value in a project that extends over a longer period of time than would usually be considered for a residency. I’ve already started to work with some families, and it is a fantastic way to end the year. The language of textiles and its connection, its softness, its intimacy with our bodies, has been a strong thread running through the conversations so far. My experience as a teacher and educator will be useful, however my sense of being guided by the families has already been affirmed. When people ask ‘so what exactly will you do?’, I can’t give them a definitive answer. It is not my place to say.
As Jenny and I both agreed very early on, it is the ‘not-knowing’ that makes the project so exciting.
A guest post by Tender Funerals Artist in Residence Michele Elliot