Visible Repair - further thoughts
I’m not sure where to start this post, or indeed what I will end up saying here. What I do know is that over the last couple of weeks I have come back, time and time again, to some of the thoughts I previously explored and I feel like if I don’t write some of this down I’ll end up drowning in it. Either that or I’ll let the moment pass me by and I have a feeling I need to delve a bit deeper. Sorry if it appears self-indulgent, but I guess that’s what a blog is at the end of the day.
I’ve had a pretty stark and challenging couple of weeks. Grief is not linear and I’ve been back in the full throes of it like the past 5 years haven’t happened. It’s all the more shocking when it comes out of the blue and when you have no clue what has triggered this re-submersion, but one of my cats disappearing in a puff of smoke won’t have helped. This time has been different from any other. The urge to physically cause myself harm was really quite overwhelming, an experience totally new to me. My response was to do something pro-active to occupy my mind and stop the spiral to god knows where. I joined an online quilting and sewing community, looked in the back-list of recorded workshops and spent an evening making super quick fire quilting blocks, hacking in to cloth, not letting time allow any conscious decisions and enjoying feeling a part of something.
I followed this up a couple of nights later by joining a live online sewing circle. Anyone who knows me will know that this was a huge challenge. I’m unsociable at the best of times, I struggle with being part of a ‘thing’, especially if I have to act like I’m happy to be part of it. I also struggle with the kinds of textile and craft workshops and groups where everyone there knows they know more than everyone else (well you do hate in others the traits that appear in your own personality don’t you…).
Anyways, it’s always good to have your prejudices and assumptions thoroughly chastened and I couldn’t have done a better thing. The sewing circle was quiet and thoughtful, thought-provoking, with folk discovering links and things in common, people asking for advice and genuinely wanting to hear people’s thoughts, I spoke up when I had something to contribute and kept quiet when I didn’t. I sewed, listened, appreciated and was thankful. I was able to be fragile and on the edge, whilst visibly (in that I was present and also that I was partaking in visible repair) repairing a precious old piece of fabric. I think I was also visibly repairing myself emotionally as the evening went on. Strange.
One of the conversations towards the end of the evening was about a quilt that the facilitator and ‘owner’ of the community was making in memorial for his Grandma. In a previous Instagram post he had shared an image where he was pulling out a lot of the stitching on the quilt. It hadn’t been right despite swatching and being pretty sure of it. I had made a comment on the post about it being important to see the process, the changed decisions, as an integral part of the work. To see the ghosts of the changes in the final work and it had struck a cord with him. He mentioned it and I tried, pretty inarticulately, to elaborate. I think at the time I thought this is what started me thinking about it again, but in reality it’s been on my mind for weeks/months/years.
So, what is it about being able to see the changes in direction, the discarded ideas, the scraps and the imperfections that is so important to me in a piece of work whether it be a quilt, a painting, an anything really? And why do I have such a visceral response when I see it in other people’s work?
I don’t know the answer but writing might help me get there.
I think there is something about perfection that I find cold and unreal. We are humans and we are making things, and we cannot create perfection simply because we are human and not machines. I am not the slightest bit religious but I understand the philosophy in some religions that no human can or should seek perfection, that is for God. And that rug makers will leave mistakes in their work as a way of honouring that premise.
I know from trying to draw circles that I can never draw a perfect circle and thank goodness for that. I can get closer to it by repeating the action, aiding the muscle memory. I want to see those attempts, the striving for something. I want to understand the process and history caught up in the making of a piece of art. Why it was important for the maker to get there, and at what point they felt it was time to put it out there for other people to see (if ever).
There are also aesthetic consequences. The additional marks, rubbed out, or stitches pulled out, leave their mark, leave their ghosts. In Zak’s memorial quilt, the stitches pulled out have left bright shards of light - strong flecks of gold against a rich purple - which has strengthened the deep richness of the cloth. On a purely aesthetic level the work is (in my opinion) more attractive for it. But more importantly, it highlights the humanity of the cloth. This rich beautiful velvet was worn by his Grandma. It is infused with her, it is her. By highlighting it, by working with this cloth he is imbuing it with his love for her. By showing his workings out, he is showing in physical form, the workings out in his own mind, his working through his grief. I don’t mean it will resolve grief and when the piece is completed his grief will be complete (see above) but I guess it helps subconsciously to spend that time. A book I am currently reading, “Stitching Love and Loss, A Gee’s Bend Quilt” by Lisa Gail Collins reaffirms that premise.
When I was at school I did O ‘level Art. I loved art, but I had an awful teacher who kept telling me my work wasn’t right. I stopped any formal art education and just made work at home. Maybe I am railing against this notion of right and wrong. I hate that some people feel they don’t understand art or can’t draw because it appears to be some kind of secret language or elitist club they aren’t allowed to join. I came back to art by accident - I thought I wanted to do costume design or fashion and I needed a foundation certificate before I could apply to do a degree. Within a week of starting the foundation course I knew I wanted to paint. I was lucky - a sideways move brought me back to visual art and I have made the stuff ever since.
I am (now) proud of the painting I did towards the end of Foundation from memory of my Gran shortly after she died where a totally mis-placed leg can still be seen. I was working it out as I went, and that shows. I loved her enough to make the effort to get it right.
The rubbish art teacher didn’t have the opportunity to tell me it wasn’t right. Thank goodness. Instead, a fabulous tutor, Tom Wall, had asked me why I was making halfhearted (my words) gestures towards the final project of the year, going out and drawing the industrial landscape on my doorstep when clearly the most important thing for me at the time was losing my Gran. Why wasn’t I making work about that? Something that really meant something.
So the painting of my Gran with three legs is one of the paintings I made in her memory, using my memory of her. And I guess I’ve now gone full circle and answered my own question about why it’s important. I knew I’d get there if the workings out were visible and left on the page.
To see Zak Foster’s memorial quilt for his Grandma, visit his Instagram @zakfoster.quilts
Stitching Love and Loss, A Gee’s Bend Quilt by Lisa Gail Collins is published by University of Washington Press uwapress.uw.edu
To join the Quilty Nook online community that welcomes quilters of all backgrounds to join together, share their stories and find inspiration, visit quiltynook.zakfoster.com. It’s £6 a month and I’ve already got more than a year’s worth out of my 4 days of membership.
1. Untitled by Clare Gee, quilted ‘sketch’ from the Mystery Quilt Jam, the Quilty Nook
2. 1989 Untitled (Gran i) by Clare Gee, oil on canvas
3. 1989 Untitled (Gran ii) by Clare Gee, oil on canvas
4. Untitled by Clare Gee, quilted ‘sketch’ from the Mystery Quilt Jam, the Quilty Nook
5. Untitled by Clare Gee, quilted ‘sketch’ from the Mystery Quilt Jam, the Quilty Nook
6. Untitled by Clare Gee, quilted ‘sketch’ from the Mystery Quilt Jam, the Quilty Nook