Refocussing towards social justice

Last autumn, on one of my many long work-related drives, I was pondering what kind of themes I wanted to explore in my work in 2020 and beyond. Two major projects had been filling my brain for months; Criminal Quilts and my personal work exhibitions Emotional Repair and Textile Traces. All of these had powerful, emotive stories at their core, either exploring society and criminal justice (Criminal Quilts) or my own personal experiences in the other exhibitions. There is still more for me to say on all of these topics, but I was feeling very much that I wanted to take my work a step further on than illuminating difficult histories to encompass change and development. Some of my work has been closely engaged with other people, particularly around sharing and collectivism (such as with my Memorial Sampler, a collective memorial of lost loved ones) and exploring stories which touched many people deeply and personally. In my community practice work, the aims are always around improving lives, in one way or another. I love this aspect of my work although it is a lot more hidden and separate from my exhibition output. I have been working towards bringing these two disparate aspects of my practice together, but it is harder than I would have liked to do this.

On my long drive I decided that I had to make a fundamental change to the way I work, to concentrate on making my entire practice, not just my community work, fully engaged with making lives better for those that have their opportunities limited for so many different reasons. I was fired up and excited. And then there was a traffic jam and a roundabout and another hour of tiring driving and probably a distracting bank of wildflowers on the edge of the A50. And I forgot all about this plan. I was just too busy with what needs doing now to think about what I wanted to do in the future. I remembered having had a great idea on the A50, but somehow it had evaporated. I spent most of last winter in hibernation, having worked myself ill, and had 3 months off sick. By the spring I was back up and running but just running to keep up and there was no time for contemplation and imaginative thinking. Then in August this year I went to a talk by Giles Duley which was part of the brilliant Journeys Festival in Leicester. Suddenly, it all came back to me. I had to bring my values, my desire to improve social justice and my politics into my work.

 

My first action was to build more of this social justice work into my next phase of funding for Criminal Quilts in 2020-21. This will be a test project, a move towards where I want to be and hopefully will achieve some of the aims I have set myself. I will be working directly with women in the criminal justice system and with campaigners, activists and others engaged with trying to improve the lives of women caught up in the criminal justice system today. I want to illuminate their stories to create understanding and to make a small difference to their lives through my work as an artist.

This autumn I have also submitted several funding / residency applications around developing this new strand of work and for me to work out how to have the impact I want to have and to create a sustainable business model for my long term creative future. As well as illuminating stories, I want to find ways to have an impact on improving lives, still create powerful, meaningful artwork, and a financial income for me to live on. It’s a challenge but one which I am very excited about. Last week, the day before the General Election, I shared some of these thoughts on my social media, both making a statement about my left-leaning politics and saying out loud that I am going to change the way I work and speak out more. Despite the gloom the result has caused to many in my creative circle, I have been bowled over by the response from other artists and creatives who felt inspired by my words and expressed a desire to shift their work or their life towards activism, social change or just improving things for others, or to be honest about how their political beliefs and values are part of who they are as an artist.

Being political or activist when you run a business which has not previously engaged with these topics feels risky. Should one be neutral? Will one lose customers or supporters? Will people be angry, complain or insult me for my opinions or values? No one wants to enrage social media trolls. But I want people to engage with my work, regardless of how they vote or any other aspect of their lives. I may lose the attention of some followers or fans, but I hope that everyone will stay with me to learn, to understand and to explore alongside me as I navigate this new path. It is not my intention to alienate anyone who does not have the same values or politics as me, I don’t want them to go away but instead I would love it we could all learn something new, see a different side to a story or issue and have our minds opened to new things through the wonderful medium of creative self-expression. Because that’s what art is to me, a way of seeing into different worlds and opening minds.

I don’t yet know what the new work and new business models will look like. I have a lot to learn still and a lot to work out. This will be an ongoing, long term journey. I will be sharing my thoughts on this from time to time on this blog so please join my mailing list for monthly reminders of what I am doing and what I am thinking about.

 

Ruth

Chair of Leicester Society of Artists

Over the last couple of years I have been working as a consultant for Creative Leicestershire, researching the future of the role of Made in Leicestershire, a network of local artists. Since this work has now finished, I have decided to try and take some of my recommendations forward through working in partnership with another Leicestershire artist network, The Leicester Society of Artists (LSA). In early October I put myself forward as Chair with the hope of taking some of my learning from Made in Leicestershire into this thriving, well-established group. I picked the busiest time of the year to do this, just before our Annual Exhibition opened in early November. The last few weeks have have been intense, with my focus being on the exhibition judges and prizes, the preview event, working with the museum staff and then some PR and marketing activity while the exhibition is open, as well as future planning with our President Lars Tharp and the LSA Council. The exhibition continues until 7th December and is open seven days a week. I have three pieces in the exhibition too and was awarded one of the prizes as well. But the best part so far has been handing over prizes to other artists, which is a joy – and can result in hilarious photos with Tim Fowler!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Made in Leicestershire consultancy

Earlier this month Creative Leicestershire was awarded a grant from Arts Council England to enable us (me) to do more on my Made in Leicestershire development project. I’ve been working on research and consultation for Made in Leicetershire for about 18 months and this grant has allowed us to extend until the end of September and run some exciting new programmes for Leicestershire and Rutland visual artists and makers.

We are piloting peer mentoring for artists, beginning with training next week and then facilitated meetings over the next month. Those taking part will also have the chance to have a professional photo taken of them with their work and apply for a small professional development bursary. There’s still time to sign up to the peer mentoring programme which takes place on Monday 19th August.

We are also hosting a larger networking event on 24th September, where I’ll be launching a new printed report which will showcase some of the finest creative talent in the city and two counties. There will also be professional development talks and business support 1:1s for new and established artists. Tickets are just £5 and can be booked here.

I love working with artists and it is great to be able to provide development opportunities and work on ways to make the network stronger in the future. It would be great to be able to expand this area of my work into other counties and regions and to work with agencies to create support networks. Hopefully Made in Leicestershire will take flight in the next few years and be the brilliant showcase I want for this creative county.

 

Museum Purchase

Two of my recent artworks have been purchased by museums this year. I started my professional career working in museums, after doing a Masters Degree in Museum Studies. Museums are still my favourite places to spend time, particularly in textile and social history collections. I left my museum career aged 30 in 2005 to pursue my ambition to make a living out of textiles. Over the subsequent 14 years, I have worked in partnership with museums and heritage collections many times and still get a thrill of excitement when I discover new objects, collections, personal and community stories and buildings. I have created commissions using archive materials for Harefield Hospital Centenary Quilt, made textile collections inspired by my own family history and used antique textiles to tell the stories of how we do and don’t treasure historic clothing in my Garment Ghosts series. Museums and heritage suffuse my work, they are inseparable to who I am as a person and as an artist. Having work in museum collections, to be preserved forever and accessible to researchers and historians and textile enthusiasts is a real honour.

Memorial Sampler: Gawthorpe Textiles Collection

I am particularly delighted that Memorial Sampler has been purchased for the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection. I have spent time at Gawthorpe doing research in their collections several times and exhibiting there in 2018 was a highlight of my professional artist career. The Memorial Sampler is a deeply emotional piece of work, gathering the names of loved ones who have died. I started with a couple of my own and then asked on social media for contributions. I added these to the piece during the exhibition when I worked in the gallery on Meet The Artist days. I also asked for contributions from visitors to the exhibition over the 3 months it was on show, and after the exhibition I slowly stitched in all of those names too, adding up to over 100 personal memories. It has been an honour to be trusted with these precious memories and to be able to bring together all those lost loved ones. It seems fitting that this piece will be preserved in the collections which inspired it.

 

Criminal Quilts, Repeat Offender; The Brampton Museum

Criminal Quilts is a textile and heritage project created by me in partnership with Staffordshire Record Office. The project is centred around the stories of women photographed in Stafford Prison 1877-1916. Our research project gathered together over 500 mugshot photographs of women and I created a series of textiles inspired by the stories. This project grew out of an earlier commission for Shire Hall Gallery which has also been purchased by Staffordshire County Council museum collection.

 

Repeat Offender is a screen-printed textile piece, printed on vintage cloth, created with the support of University of Wolverhampton Textiles and Fashion team. Purchased by Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council for the collections of The Brampton Museum, Staffordshire. This piece is part of Criminal Quilts and was purchased for this collection because the woman featured, Agnes Herrity was from Newcastle-under-Lyme. Agnes quickly became one of the stars of the Criminal Quilts project, as she features several times in the prison mugshots.

This quilt is made from screen printed cloth using an image created from this 1897 photograph of Agnes Herrity. She was photographed (on release from prison) five times between 1897 and 1910. She lived in Newcastle-Under-Lyme. Agnes clearly had a hard life, living in slum housing and making a meagre living. She was convicted regularly of drunkenness, theft and assault. I have used screen printing because it uses photographic process which reflects the historic photographs. The use of repeating images refers to Agnes’ repeated prison sentences. Screen printed by hand on modern linen, antique printed cotton, vintage cotton and new cotton hand printed with marbling design taken from the endpapers of one of the prison albums. It is backed with an old shawl, reminiscent of those seen in many of the photographs. 

 

 

Selvedge and Embroidery magazines

I’m really chuffed to have articles about my Textile Traces exhibition in both Selvedge and Embroidery magazines July issues.
Selvedge (below left) is a short review article while Embroidery magazine is a 6-page feature (detail below right).

I’ve got a couple of copies of Embroidery to give away to a newsletter subscriber so join my mailing list here ( or on the top right of my website) and follow the instructions in the next newsletter to be in with a chance of winning one – UK only.

The exhibition continues at Llantarnam Grange Art Centre until 20th July. I am looking for galleries to tour the exhibition to in 2020 so please do get in touch if you know somewhere suitable for a large textile show.

Textile Traces Exhibition Launch Interview

My Textile Traces exhibition opened last weekend (25th May 2019)at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre. It’s a real joy to see so much of my work up on the walls in this lovely gallery, and to have so many people come to the exhibition opening. On the day we held an ‘In Conversation’ event with me interviewed by Polly Leonard, founder of Selvedge magazine. You can listen to this 45 minute interview below in full. It can also be found on Soundcloud.

 

Some of the works referred to in the interview:

Made in Leicestershire Networking

Visual artists and makers networking in Leicester, Friday 7th June 2019, at LCB Depot. Book on Eventbrite. Please note this is for professional makers and visual artists living and working in Leicestershire and Rutland only.

 

Alongside my studio practice, I am also currently working as a consultant developing plans and proposals to develop the Made in Leicestershire brand for Creative Leicestershire. I have been working on this for 15 months and will be producing a report and proposals in July. Its been a delight talking to makers and galleries, running networking events and exploring what Leicestershire has to offer. I also put together the exhibition Tacit last year showcasing some of the finest artist-makers in the county. I will also be interviewing two artists this year for the Webinart creative business development programme.

If you are Leicestershire or Rutland-based maker, please fill in this short online survey to have your say about the future of the programme to support your work. And come along to the networking event.

Please join Creative Leicestershire for networking, artist talk and discussions. This event is for professional visual artists and craftspeople based in Leicester city and Leicestershire.

The event takes place alongside Lucy Stevens’ exhibition ‘Birdskins’ and she will give us a short introduction to her practice and the exhibition. Ruth Singer will be facilitating the networking and gathering your thoughts on future networking activities.