There is a group of us in Bristol who meet up every now and then to connect through our shared pursuit of very diverse photography practices. It began more than a year ago in a cafe, just four of us having coffee and hogging the table for about three hours. It has gradually expanded to be a group in which there must be more than 12 women on the email list, although it’s generally no more than a handful of us that meet at any one time. There is no pressure to turn up, and no agenda.
Mostly we’ve met in a cafe near the train station, which was borne out of the fact it was central and a couple of people live a relatively long way away. But this time, we met in someone’s house one Saturday morning, at the kitchen table.
It is an amazing thing, a kitchen table – it never just means meal-time. It is an object that sees partners splitting up or repairing painful wounds, that looks after piles of clutter, watches children having tantrums, that witnesses friendships affirmed or broken. I vividly remember the kitchen table of my own childhood – it had a split down one side where the wood-join a quarter of the way in had long given up, darkened with both age and food, the top scrubbed sometimes with bleach. I worked in an antique shop for six months in my early 20s and learned they were actually dubbed ‘scrub-tops’ and always went for a good price – that rustic feel which promises Ma Larkin is just around the corner to make everything all right.
Although the group of us who meet up mostly know each other’s work it was the first time we all actually got something out to share and get feedback on. I’m sure it was the influence of a table….the lack of pressure, the home, the familiarity of what a kitchen table means. It is a far cry from a formal ‘crit’ – and all the better for it. There’s a time and a place for that. And there is a time and a place for this – following in the long lineage of women sharing: quietly, at a kitchen table.
I have often been asked “Was it therapeutic making it?” in relation to my project Conversations with my mother, in which I explore maternal severance. I understand the impulse to ask this question, and mostly attribute it to someone wanting to ask me something personal. But the reality is no – no it was not therapeutic making this work.
On one level I could agree it was restorative – but that is because I worked every day to make something – and it is the routine and act of making which is satisfying for me. Many people can lose themselves in the process of work in order to recover from a difficult life event and I certainly found it beneficial to go to the studio daily.
But to say it was specifically therapeutic detracts from the significance and relevance of the artistic process. I also fear that to say it was therapeutic would detract from the role of the artist in making something which is for going out into the world: an artwork to make meaning in order to communicate to someone else for their benefit (not for the artist). That’s not to say I don’t experience some sort of catharsis and it would be disingenuous to say that I didn’t – making is a journey and I would be loathe to say I didn’t change along the way. I guess I’m trying to emphasise it would be too short of an answer to say it was therapeutic…to me, that would imply I arrived at some sort of answer and that I made it more for me, which is not true. I made it because I had something to say.
My focus is on making work deliberately and consciously to make connections with others, rather than making work to stay personally with me. I do that by telling a story about something real to me in some way – but one which is has some recognisable quality for other people.
The title here may be a bit misleading. I’m not going to write about ladies who lunch. Specifically, that refers to a song written by Stephen Sondheim for the musical Company. It is sung by a woman who growls her way through it, with a kind of bitterness and knowledge that comes with years of hard-knocks and it’s a very interesting, many-layered piece of work. If you want to watch some amazing performances of it just look up Elaine Strich or Patti LuPone. Rise! (You’ll know what I mean if you do.)
I picked it as one of my song-choices when at drama school when I was 21.
What a ridiculous choice for me.
As a rather baby-faced 21-year-old there was no way in a million years – or, maybe, another 40 – that I had the experience to embody a relevant point of view of the world in order to carry off that sort of song. I would only ever be performing a dreadful pastiche of what I imagined it should be, not growling but employing irritating mezzo-soprano vocal-fry.
On some level I remember why it was practical for me to choose it – it’s a sort of tragi-comedy you can mostly speak the words over the top, doing a lot of ‘act-singing’. So it’s great from that point of view as I’m not a confident musical singer (I’m not actually any kind of singer). But I couldn’t have even begun to inhabit the role at 21 and I’m still too young for it, probably by around another 20 years.
I am talking about this because I have been thinking of the problematic of looking at something you are interested in but do not inhabit yourself, and trying to tell that story. You can apply that to many topics. I don’t think we should necessarily always turn away from this – if that was the case there would be a lot of stories we wouldn’t know, perhaps, and we tell stories for reasons stretching back to the beginnings of time. But sometimes, there are stories, like songs, that really don’t belong to you until you get there. And sometimes, they never belong to you at all.
“How can you move others if you can’t move yourself?”
This sentence came from a teacher of a class I took at drama school, over 20 years ago. Although the class was ostensibly about physically moving your body around the room, I consider the sentiment extending to a more encompassing idea of performance. As I continue my path these words continue to live with me and informs my practice now as a visual artist.
It surfaced in my mind when I really embraced making personal work. I had / have been thinking long and hard about the purpose of making such work – was / is anyone else interested in it? Will it connect to others? What is the point of it? These thoughts originally had coincided with my growing reluctance to photograph other people. I felt inherently uncomfortable about these power relationships, how someone else was fixed in the image by me, wielding the camera. I felt very uneasy about being the recorder of such things, and more at home with the ambiguities I could explore within my own story and how these could radiate out instead.
But this sentence kept reappearing in my mind…the one from the movement class.
I became aware that I was only really comfortable with stories originating from me…so if I could explore that with openness it would hopefully make meaning to someone else.
It has been a stitch-heavy couple of months this Spring, making a larger version of the ‘quilt’ that has been part of My Mother’s Daughter. I am pleased to reveal this new work – Role play (woman with cushion). This large-scale piece is made of digital C-types stitched together, then painted with inks. I embellished many of the images with needle-marks, additionally painting over the top. A border is hand-stitched at the bottom, with hand-pierced sides. The work is suspended on a gold wooden baton. To see the work please come to FIX Photo Festival at the Bargehouse, Oxo Wharf, London. It is open May 12th – 21st, with slightly varied opening times depending on the day. Please see the website for details.
Earlier this week we had our opening for My Mothers Daughter – a group show with Celine Marchbank and Paloma Tendero about what it means to be a daughter when the maternal line behind you has been fractured. Each of us in the exhibition have lost our mothers and we all explore different aspects of what this means for us as adult women.
For me, it was very emotional. It was the first time I had shown this particular set of work. Although I had taken the pictures during the same time as I was making Conversations with my mother I did not know what to do with them. They made me very sad, because I was right in the middle of treatments for fertility. It was all a bit – well, raw.
When I got the email from Celine about making a show together, I didn’t know I was going to show them. It kind of just happened, and I didn’t have time to think about it too deeply. That was a good thing. Sometimes you just have to almost “not think” about it, because if you did maybe you wouldn’t do it.
It was immediately apparent after our first group Skype that we had a deep understanding of showing together, and were sensitive to the subject beyond just saying so. When we hung the work it looked so right together.
I love sewing. I love sewing photographs. I love paint and making things. My mother taught me to knit when I was about 6 years old – it’s just plain and purl, and that’s it. I probably learned sewing about the same time – I can’t actually remember. But I do remember making my own clothes a lot – from the age of around 8 or 9. So I must have been sewing before then.
My mother made a patchwork quilt that she really loved when I was a teenager, but about 8 years ago she took it to the dry cleaners and lost the ticket and it disappeared, sadly. I have another one she made, but the first one definitely has gone. Even now when I walk past the dry cleaners I look hopefully through the window, despite knowing it went to a charity shop and will belong to someone else. I have been making a patchwork quilt of my own since I was about 19, thanks to inspiration from a friend at university who even made patchwork shower caps! It’s got fabric in the middle which I bought from Dingles (anyone remember that department store?) when I was – well, about 9 or 10 I think. So that’s the back story to this work: Role Play (woman with cushion). I hope you can see the show – it’s on weekdays, 9:00 am – 6:30 pm upstairs in the Health Centre on Bartholemew Road, Kentish Town, London NW5. More info about Free Space Gallery here.
Earlier this year I was invited to show some work with Celine Marchbank and Paloma Tendero. The result is My mother’s daughter, opening on March 9th at Free Space Gallery in London.
When we started discussing what it was that we were exploring it became apparent we were all trying to make sense of what it was to be a daughter with a gaping hole in the maternal line preceding us. For me, the opportunity to show work together has been about looking in more depth at pictures I made that consider my experiences with miscarriage and fertility treatment.
When things had become initially difficult for me it coincided with my mother dying. I tried making pictures for a ‘performance of pregnancy’. I was continuing my attempts to make work despite having no space to think, trying to articulate everything that was happening. I acted out shapes of a swollen stomach with a cushion, wearing my grandmother’s blue dress. But I found it all a bit too sad….so I stopped.
Later, after my mother died, I found some beautiful pictures of her pregnant with me – two 5×4 transparencies, glowing like tiny Dutch paintings, taken by my father in 1975. Even though they had been in my possession for years since his own death more than a decade before I had never looked in this particular box, only opening it less than a month after her funeral instead.
I have always been fascinated by children’s role-playing… imagination propelling their games of dress -up. I did it myself, putting on my mother’s platform shoes as a little three- or four-year-old girl, tromping about the garden as a ‘grown up’.
In my first months and years as an adult orphan I started to perform this role again. Only this time I was grown up – I was just still pretending to be a mummy.