I’m almost at the end of my two-month library artist residency. For the last few weeks I’ve been in the village library / community hub of Newbold Verdon in rural West Leicestershire. I’ve been talking to volunteers, running workshops for over 50s and getting a feel for why so many people volunteer and why they love it so much. I’ve focussed my sessions around pattern-making; simple, everyday creative activities. We’ve had great time doing village walks collecting patterns through rubbings and photography, cyanotypes in the sunshine, drawing, stamping and simple embroidery, and have visited the local WI and run a session for the Forget Me Not dementia cafe.
Early next year I will be working on a commission for the library to keep, using digital patterns created from the drawings, printing and photos created during the workshops and some other ideas I am working on about volunteering and the sense of community the library creates.
Over the last 6 months I have been working with Wolverhampton University Fashion and Textiles Department as creative partners in Criminal Quilts.
I will be showing a small display of new work in progress during the University Degree Show 9th-20th June. Monday to Saturday 10-4. Find the display on the first floor within Fashion and Textiles
Wolverhampton School of Art
The George Wallis Building (MK Building)
City Campus Molineux (North)
Full details and opening times here.
Alongside my research and workshops at Staffordshire Record Office, my Criminal Quilts project also includes a creative residency in the Fashion and Textile Department of Wolverhampton University. I included this in the project so I could work with students and staff to help develop the creative work and have access to their amazing studio facilities. I am in the process of setting up a student brief for students across art and design to make work for exhibitions based around the information and data which is growing from the archive research. I hope that working alongside a practicing artist on a live project with exhibitions and publications will be a great experience and some exciting and innovative work will be produced.
Personally I am working closely with Senior Lecturer Jan Wrigley and Professor Fiona Hackney on both the practical, creative side and on completely new (for me) outcomes for the project including a symposium at the end of 2018 and academic papers. When I devised the project plan and funding application I intentionally created new ways of sharing the project beyond the usual exhibition and am excited by the possibilities which have developed to share and record the project in so many ways.
I also get the chance to experiment with the equipment and facilities at the University including digital print and tufting, all of which is completely new to me. The screen print workshop has much larger capacity than I am used to as well so I hope that I will be able to make some larger scale work rather than my usual tiny, detailed hand stitched work. I even got to have a go with the embellisher in the machine room on my last visit and hope to use the Cornelly embroidery machine on another session. I was also charmed to find pages from my books adorning the machine room for student reference!
In between archive visits I have begun working on a sketchbook to gather my thoughts and ideas for the new work I intended to make for the Criminal Quilts exhibitions starting in summer 2018 – which is suddenly really quite soon!
I’ve created a sketchbook for sharing with people when I do talks about the project and during archive workshops starting in January. It is very much a working sketchbook; a gathering of ideas, inspiration, notes, thoughts, colours, textures and details but it is also intended to be shared, used and probably included in exhibitions so I have taken care to make it look really nice!
I’m working in a large format spiral bound sketchbook with brown kraft paper pages which is robust, easy to display, has capacity for expansion and the colour fits with the project. As I discussed in a previous post, I am finding the photo albums themselves very inspiring – the layers of papers, the damaged leather bindings and the marbled endpapers which feel like a little incongruous in their luxurious feel.
I’m also working on colour palettes to bring through the work, much of it inspired by sepia photos, cyanotype prints and my early pieces taking colours from the Shire Hall court buildings themselves and most recently I have been working on ways of creatively interpreting the data which the research is uncovering. My next post will explore the growing data collection in more detail.
You can keep up to date with the project on Twitter @criminalquilts or on my personal Instagram feed (which also includes a lot more besides!)
During November I went through all eight photograph albums from Stafford Prison to record all the women featured in the photographs. The photographs begin in 1877 and continue until early 1916. The style of photography changes dramatically during this period as does the clothing worn by the women. The first set of images 1877-81 are all pasted alongside a written record giving details of each individual and a little information on their crime, trial and other convictions. The women are shown sitting down with their hands in their laps or enveloped in a large shawl. Many of the women in this album are photographed wearing a medallion with their prison number. Apart from the prison number medallion, these images look more like informal portraits than any of the later images. There about 100 records of women in this album. All the later albums just have photographs with a name, prison number and date of photography with no further details.
The album covering 1883-1887 contains the images which I used as inspiration for my previous Criminal Quilts, focussing on the hands, which in these photos are placed on the chest. It seems that hands were included prominently in prison photographs for a few years as hands, particularly damaged or missing fingers, could act as identifying features. This album has 12 photos per page including about 130 women in total.
The 1893-1896 album shows a change in the way prisoners were photographed. The early photos are taken face on but with a side mirror intended to capture the woman’s profile, though this is fairly unclear in most of the images. Their hands are still shown but by the end of the period this album covers a new style of photography has taken over with a profile image alongside the facing front photo, without hands. These photos, although less intriguing and personal than the ones with hands, still show clothing, and particularly hats with great clarity. These are black and white rather than sepia so also show a change in photographic technology. In most of the later (side on) images, women are shown without their hats and many are wearing prison uniform as shown below (arrow showing on her shoulder in the profile image).
Two albums cover 1897-99 and only contain 21 photographs of women. Why there are so few remains to be discovered as I do more research. These images are similar in style to the previous album although most of them are wearing hats.
Moving into the early 20th century the style of profile and face on images continues and the wearing of hats varies. In the last album 1911-1916, the hats are so impressive and stylish it is easy to be distracted by them and forget these are prison photos. A number of women are wearing similar outfits of gingham apron and mid-colour shirt with white collar and checked neckerchief which is surely prison uniform. A few older women are still wearing a Victorian bonnet rather than the modern large brimmed hat.
In all there are around 500 photographs of women in this collection of albums. I had initially intended just to focus on the earlier, Victorian-period albums where the hands are shown but I have decided to extend the research to all the women in these albums right up to 1916 as they are so intriguing and fascinating. A handful of women also appear across a number of albums and add depth to the stories I am aiming to tell with this project.
In the next post I will be showing the other side of the project – my own creative work developing alongside the research. You can follow the project research on Twitter @criminalquilts where new blog posts and snippets about the project will be shared.
The photographs which have formed the source material for Criminal Quilts are held in bound albums in Staffordshire Record Office. The albums are part of a large collection of archives from Stafford Prison and I’ve been working my way through each one in the last couple of weeks. The images I am working with date from 1878-1915.
As well as the intriguing photographs of women, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the albums themselves. They are large bound books with hundreds of pages. Some have damaged spines showing the binding. Some covers are badly damaged too, showing layers of leather and board.
The albums have marbled endpapers and indexed pages, buckled pages and damaged corners. The materiality and weight of these albums adds another dimension to the stories of the women whose images are contained within.
I am hoping to bring in the physicality of the albums into the new work in make as the project develops, in the form of artist-made books with hand printed and stitched pages.
The research and development phase of Criminal Quilts is now well underway. I have been spending time in residence at Staffordshire Record Office exploring archives and finding out what resources I have to explore during this project and planning what the workshops for volunteers and participants will involve.
Stafford Prison photograph albums from the late 19th and early 20th century form the basis of the entire project. For several years I have been creating work around a handful of photographs of women with no additional information about them at all. One of the aims of this new funded research project is to explore the full collection of photograph albums and trace stories through the records.
There are 10 different albums dating from 1877 to 1915 which gives me a broad window of exploration beyond the Victorian and well into the 21st century. I have begun by cataloguing the women who appear in the photographs. The albums just contain photos, and in a couple of cases, indexed pages of named but very little detail. Each image is marked with the prisoner’s name, a date (of photograph, I assume) and a number. In this first phase I am making lists of all the women (about 10-15% of the total in each album I estimate) and noting name, date, number, approximate age and a detailed description of the photograph. I’ll then be able to cross reference between the albums to see who features more than once and then find out more about them via the written documents which I have yet to explore.
Already I can see women who appear several times over the years. I have identified prison uniforms and what I suspect is prison-issue clothing. There’s also a very clear timeline of fashion, particularly in hats which almost all of the women are wearing. These photographs are known to be a rare record of working class women’s clothing but I am already realising it is going to be difficult to be sure what is prison issue and what is personal property, particularly in the later images. There are also some really lovely shawls appearing which may well inspired new work.
I have a lot of additional research to do about the background to prison identification photography, about prison uniforms and a lot of cross referencing to fashion history in general before I can draw any conclusions about what their clothing says.
The albums themselves are impressive and inspiring objects with marbled endpapers, damaged spines and hand written text. I’ll be exploring the albums in more detail in the next post.
There are still spaces for volunteers to work with me on this project during 2018. Find out more here.
Criminal Quilts exhibition is available for touring in 2019 onwards.
Images of archive material courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office. Project funded by Arts Council England with Staffordshire County Council.
You are invited to join me at Staffordshire Record Office for the launch of a new phase of my project Criminal Quilts on Friday 8th September. Find out more, see artwork from 2012-2015 and explore the original archive photos.
On Thursday 11th May our genetics artist residency was featured on BBC Radio 4 Inside Science which is available to listen again. There is also a gallery of images of our work on the BBC website.
Gillian and I spent our first full day at work as Artists in Residence at Leicester University Department of Genetics this week spending time observing in labs and extracting the DNA from a banana preparation to testing our own DNA later this week. For the next few weeks were are absorbing, observing, investigating, learning and getting to know the department as well as planning all the other parts of our project including schools project and exhibition.
For me it is a visual and intellectual feast, I’m finding the details of the labs fascinating and so completely new it is somewhat mind-blowing. The joy of this research stage is there’s no pressure to decide what the finished work might be and it’s great to bounce ideas around with both academic staff and of course with Gillian as we begin to scope out how we are going to approach our creative work.
I’m working on a new sketchbook with no fixed aim or direction yet which is very liberating. I am learning – fast- about the very basics of DNA and genetics, starting from knowing pretty much nothing, having not studied any science for 25 years! I’m overwhelmed by the generosity and support from the academic staff already and the enthusiasm shown for what must seem a pretty strange project to them.