After All This Time
What you see here is not all of me. It really isn’t. I can’t stress this enough. The last few years have been painful and difficult, but I still have joy in my life, a partner and family I love, I still garden with passion, enjoy company, revel in nature, look forward to music and art and friendship and travel. What you see here are the sore bits of me. I have to keep coming back to them, because they have shaped the way I see the world, the way I navigate through life. But it’s not all of me.
Self portrait of the artist: After all this time I know what I am and that’s some kind of victory. *
I lost my mother to cancer when I was 16. It was 1980. There was no bereavement counselling. Psychotherapy was what rich Californian’s did, not middle class Yorkshire kids. My father fell apart a bit. My gran was pragmatic and helpful and comforting and supportive, but then she died too. My friends were way out of their depth. I just waded through the devastation, making a mess of things, surviving, and looking to the untrained eye like one hell of a tough cookie. But inside, things were happening, things that have shaped everything. With each successive loss since, I’ve become a survival expert. A Bear Bloody Grylls. I now understand I was traumatised. I now know that the way I survived it has also been the way I’ve self destructed several times since. I know that there’s grief written through me like Scarborough through a stick of rock. I know that I carry those scars very close to the surface. But now I know. And now you know. That really feels like an achievement. And perhaps I can just let it exist while I get on with other things.
After All This Time I Know What I Am: Self Portrait
It settles on us like a mantle, it becomes us.
Hope is all just killing time.
After All This Time I Know What I Am: Self Portrait
Grief is a funny thing. Well, obviously it mostly isn’t, but it is certainly interesting. I think there’s maybe a perception that you feel sad, and then you feel less sad, and then you’re ok. Anyone who’s gone through a loss knows that’s not the case, but often we admonish ourselves if we don’t get to the ‘ok’ stage. Theories about the ‘stages of grief’ have abounded since the 60s, and although now largely refuted as anything from too simplistic to downright harmful, the common understanding of how we recover from grief seems still to be a mix of feelings from denial to anger to acceptance, which we eventually get over. We don’t walk around bawling our eyes out, but ‘getting over’ – I’m not so sure. We survive and sometimes even thrive, by absorbing. That’s not the same thing.
I have no training in psychology. I don’t claim to understand how the brain works. I have a sketchy idea about neurotransmitters that is probably a little bit correct but mostly wrong. What I do have is an intimate knowledge of grief. I know it’s complicated. I know it’s not something you get over. I know you can live with it, and live well, but that loss of someone close will always involve a change to you. A bit of loss, a bit of gain. Most of my work over the past two years has been trying to fathom out just what it has done to me. It hasn’t been intended to be therapeutic, though I think I have learnt from it. It’s more that it has been the main thing occupying my mind, the main thing that I’ve had to navigate just lately. Other artists may draw or paint or sculpt what they see around them. Just lately I have been stitching what I find within me. Some of it has been painful, some of it cathartic, all of it honest.
Experimenting with 3D
* I wrote down this phrase as it is spoken by Matthew McConaughey's character in Series 1 of TV drama True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto. Obviously I'm not a dodgy Texan police detective with a death wish, but the line kind of jumped out at me.
In 1982, as an 18 year old, I spent a month in Cyprus. I took with me the grief of loosing my mother two years earlier, the pain of a broken relationship with my father, and the burgeoning freedom and responsibilities of adulthood. It wasn't an idylic month, but I fell in love with the country, the heat, dust, stillness of the landscape, the people, the history. Since then Cyprus has changed out of all recognition. It's gone from underdeveloped, wartorn, largely agricultural country to a major tourist destination with a sophisticated economy and insfructure. My return there in 2019, then was going to be a bit of a shock. Would memories be dashed on the concrete of promonades, high street stores, and amusement arcades? Where was 'my' Cyprus. Largely in my mind, it turns out, and yet, search a little, off the beaten track, and there still lies the stillness, the intensity, and the turquoise and sand.
"Small pieces, slowly. Its proving hard to think big, or long term and this seems to be playing out in what I make. Short term commitment, portable. But also in my mind, small , tiny, is sometimes all I can manage. But perhaps this limitation makes it easy to be original and authentic, not trying to copy what others have done or what i think I should do, just following the stitch. Creating small quiet places in my head. Sewing small pieces, small stitiches, soothes ragged nerves, but more than that, its a peacful place that’s just mine, a private place to go."
At the beginning, when I started sewing again amidst grief and pain and fear, in chemotherapy wards, or sitting with my very sick partner, a 3 inch square was about all I could manage. The tiny worlds I created reflected the isolation, the contracted world we were living. I have continued to sew these little squares: they are grounding and meditative, sometimes simple sometimes complex.
"For days I could hardly move. Then I cried.
Then I sewed."
On Grief, Loss, Joy and Love
Stitch Poems is a collection of work documenting grief. It represents twelve months of coming to terms (or not) with the loss of the future I had planned. Alongside the sadness, joy and love, is the day to day existence – getting through it.
The choice to make such labour-intensive work, using so many thousands of tiny stitches, wasn’t at first deliberate. But I began to see it as a reflection of the experience. It has nothing to do with patience; I am not a patient person. It’s more to do with endurance, and the strength to get to the next day.
Stitch Poems is not the end of the story. There will be no happy ending, but the journey continues and with it more joy and love as well as grief.
Each piece is made using vintage and repurposed cloth, sometimes dyed or stained with ink. Using cloth with a history brings an added dimension to my experience of making the work, reminding me of past losses and loves and strengths. Though it’s perhaps not what everyone would expect from an embroidery exhibition, each piece is slowly and repetitively sewn with traditional embroidery stitches.
Layers and layers
The Covid19 Pandemic has terrified me, made me feel very vulnerable. It's felt like layer upon layer of anxiety and stress, each new stress threatening to stall me, and yet I keep on plodding through. One day, I think, there will be a stress too many, but for now I just keep going. The work I've produced this summer has reflected how vulnerable I feel, but also how stoic.
Reflecting on traumatic life events and how they don't so much throw your life into the air, as drop it over a cliff. How we plan, and assume, but it's all just shifting sand. Nothing is certain.
I started off thinking about how our journeys together are never forever. No, it was more personal than that. It was about my fear of - not just fear, also something less tangible, going into the unknown - after my partner dies. Of how our time together has been cut short. Of how everything we had hoped and planned for our future was taken away from us. The full stop. The ongoing trauma of not knowing when that will happen, when nothing is certain.
Then I began to reflect on all the other traumatic events in my life and how they had not so much thrown my life into the air, as dropped it over a cliff. How everything can change so suddenly, how fragile reality is. We plan, we hope, we assume, but it’s all just shifting sand, and can disappear in an instant. And perhaps this has shaped my whole life, a knowledge that nothing is certain, that hopes are mostly irrelevant. When our trajectories come to a standstill, when we must deal with bigger, or smaller things that have nothing to do with our dreams. How our very identities are called into question when everything we know has dissolved away, when there is no future.
So many times I have come to this place with no solid ground, and I look back and realise how much reinventing, rebuilding, has been done, how much clinging on, how much grasping at twigs as I fall. Hope feels flimsy and pointless. Better to learn to find joy between the falls.