The final exhibition for Criminal Quilts in 2022 includes new work made since 2020. This includes collaborations with three artists and new solo work. Find out more below the images.
Criminal Quilts exhibition by textile artist Ruth Singer is a reimagining of women branded as criminals in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After a year of pouring over 500+ images of prison mugshots of women held in Stafford Gaol 1877-1916 the artist has put these women sidelined by history back into centre stage.
Ruth’s goal with the project is to make these women feel human to us, not just a prison photo, a criminal record or a statistic. They were real women, struggling on the margins of society and suffering with poverty, lack of opportunity and often addiction among other challenges. The women held in Stafford Prison at this time were mostly from the wider county including Stoke on Trent and Birmingham urban industrial areas. They were all convicted of petty crimes, and unable to pay fines, were sent to prison for sentences from seven days to three years. Their crimes included theft of low value items, being drunk in public and minor assault charges and they lacked education, opportunities, feminism and even charitable support or mental health services.
Artist and writer, Ruth Singer has used her creativity and imagination to get to know these women, to research their lives and their experiences and turn those lives into textile artworks full of sensitivity and emotion.
Ruth has been making work inspired by their stories for a decade and this exhibition brings together a growing body of work including embroideries, quilts and collaborative artworks with a painter, conceptual artist and jeweller. The textile pieces use a palette inspired by sepia photographs but also reference the colours lost from photographs that were there in real life. She uses the mugshots with care and compassion, and also creates works which tell a less obvious story of the data held within this amazing archive. The largest piece, Shawl, is made from almost every mugshot from the collection, digitally printed on a woollen shawl like so many of the women wore. Ruth has stitched tiny details of colour and compassion back into their images, and brought all of them together as a collective. The exhibition also includes her award-winning piece, Hanging, in which layers of sheer textile covered in hand embroidery, partially hide the face of a woman behind them, referring to the layers of history obscuring their true stories.
The new collaborations including a collection of Staffordshire-made ceramics and figures adapted in partnership with artist Gillian McFarland. This piece, Fallen, responds to the labels these women were given in official records like fallen woman, disorderly, rogue and inebriate. The works are subtle and thought-provoking.
By contrast, Ruth’s work with contemporary portrait painter Tim Fowler is bold and colour. Tim’s paintings of a selection of women have been reworked by Ruth into a patchwork version of prison uniform of the 1870s. Original paintings in Tim’s graffiti style have also been altered with stitches referring to marking time and daily prison life.
With jewellery Alys Power, Ruth has created a series of miniature prison cells in wood, each telling a story of an individual or group of women. They refer to illiteracy, materials and jobs, lives of widows without support and the harsh reality of a life in poverty in our industrial towns.
This exhibition has been touring since 2018 with new works added every year. This show at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, brings together all the work in one place for the first time. Alongside the exhibition, there is a film exploring the stories and showing the original archive material. Ruth has also created a display book containing case studies of individual women, history of the criminal justice system and prison conditions at the time of the photographs. She has also produced a book of the project going into much more detail and including a catalogue of the works produced to 2018. Talks and events accompany the exhibition and Ruth is also running an online symposium on craft and narrative in May 2022.
This project has been funded by Arts Council England.