I have a pre-occupation with ideas for mourning, beyond what poetry can offer. This is not to say that poetry does not resonate deeply with my own experience of grieving after my partner died.
…The work of keeping you alive. Just as you
Constantly renewed yourself (and have again,
for all we know), I keep your lesson close;
Be open, honest, true; be rigorous and loyal,
But most of all be joyful in everything I say and do.
The world is shining even as we lose
The people, things and scenes we cherish most.
Walking on the beach, my son whose middle name
Is yours collects stones and makes up stories for each
A life can be a model. I learned that much from you.
From ‘Talking With the Dead’ by Robert McDowell
It’s proved impossible to keep him alive, but I’ve tried in so many ways. Now I understand I am trying to hold my memories in ways that have meaning for me and use my language of making to do this. The first thing I did was a diorama of us in bed together in a pink shoe box. He was a cut down power ranger and I was a fluffy pipe cleaner doll with a Swarovski heart. I launched us into the bay at Williamstown at sunrise a year after he died. It felt pretty crazy but good too. I think he would have liked it.
Then I created a book about my work with art therapist, Nona Cameron. I wanted to explore my grief; not healing, moving on, or getting over it, just feeling its texture. I started journaling about our work, writing poetry too. In the process I discovered my deep pre-occupation with disintegration and reconstruction of things, textiles in particular.
At the end of this work with Nona I made a small textile called ‘I will mind you’. The piece includes old fraying furnishing fabric from my partner’s dining chairs, fragile disintegrating chiffon I’ve had for years, and a small precious piece of silk velvet from Lyon. These fragments are held together with rough stitches of the finest pale green silk. This was a process of reverie, creation of a sensory metaphor about how vulnerable and strong he was in everything he did including loving me.
As I finished sewing I knew this was a beginning, something calling me into a barely sensed future. Somehow making this little textile was a start, a way for me to begin to express my memories and hold him to me in some intangible yet tangible way. I kept on with this exploration. For the next year I worked to create a book of small textiles, a kind of textural narrative of our time together called ‘How you loved me’.
I have a lifelong obsession with silk . I thing it started when my father came back from China in 1948 with a little embroidered black silk jacket that fitted me as a two year old! I still have it, now framed, a precious family heirloom.
There is also my cupboard full of silk samples given to me in Lyon by the sister of a retired silk merchant. These scraps are a constant feature in my Woven Memories work. Some have handwritten on them the name of a designer. The incredible virtuosity of silk is amazing to me. Taffeta, chiffon, satin, organza and crepe de Chine all feature in my collection! There is something unique and wonderful about the way silk catches the light too, always intensifying the glorious colours.
I am about to embark on a project called The Joy of Silks at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in Sydney. I will be weaving in the foyer of the centre on Tuesday 9th, Wednesday 10th and Thursday 11th August from 10.00am to 4.00pm each day. I will be weaving with scarves and ties in pinks and greens donated from far and wide, now torn or cut up ready to work with.
My weave design has gone through a number of iterations and I have finally settled on an approach which will show off the silks rather than hide them. The weaving will become a long banner to be hung at Lifehouse at the end of the project.
I will also be keeping a record of the donated scarves and ties in a book I’m using to record the development of the project – a copy of my book will be given to Lifehouse.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED If you would like to contribute a scarf or tie to the project from your own collection or from a family member, do some weaving, or just come to have a look please do! I would love to meet you!
Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, 119 – 143 Missendon Road, Camperdown, NSW 2050
A garbage bag of silk scraps was the beginning of new directions in my weaving practice. Quite by chance I was given this bag during my first visit to Lyon eleven years ago. This first trip was instigated by my daughter – she was visiting a friend. What would I do? Well, I researched and discovered Lyon was the major silk weaving city in the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their textile museum is unparalleled, both for the collection on display and the research archives: http://www.mtmad.fr/fr/Pages/default.aspx . I also found a textile artists’ network LaTrame de Soi https://tramedesoi.wordpress.com/ , still as inspiring as ever! Their President at the time, Inger Kristensen welcomed me and hosted me in so many ways over the next few years.
Early on Inger took me to visit the wonderful Atelier de Soierie – still in operation. There I met Emilie Moussiere who was hand painting exquisite velvet scarves as her ‘day job’. She was an aspiring textile artist and jacquard weaver. Just as I was about to leave I asked about scraps. Were there any leftovers, bits of silk perhaps? Emilie hurried away. I think I imagined I would get a small handful if I was lucky. But she came back with an enormous black garbage bag packed tightly with silk pieces.
The bag also contained many more wonderful and mysterious scraps: fake fur with stitched embroidery on the back, gold netting, lace and little pom poms.
I have been weaving on and off from my garbage bag ever since. As I look again into my stash I realise it continues to offer riches and delights. I use these silk scraps from Lyon in my Woven Memories work by inter-weaving them with the precious fabrics and clothes others bring to me. Neck pieces, scarves and brooches often have elements from my garbage bag. This was the beginning of my weaving with fabric scraps.
Eleven years on I still feel like I have a magical source of wonder that continues to inspire me and my textiles – thanks to Inger and Emilie. You can see Emilie’s textile work at https://au.pinterest.com/emiliemoussiere/
My mother died when I was thirteen months old on 3rd January 1948. She was thirty one years old. She had Leukaemia at a time when there was little treatment, let alone a cure. I am horrified by her death so young, and a little baby losing her mother so early, almost as if I am thinking about people I don’t really know. And yet losing my mother has defined me in so many ways. I have no memories of her. But I can see now my passion for textiles comes in part from trying to hold something of her.
I have one thing she made. It’s this folded satin embroidered handkerchief sachet.
I still use it to hold hankies and scarves. It’s made with scraps of a beautiful soft satin, now grey. In the seams I can see it was once the palest pink. More than sixty years on I can contemplate my mother’s stitching and discern something of her, how she worked. Her style seems at once neat, orderly, and a little impatient in places but essentially practical. It even has a tiny button covered in lace and a rouleaux roughly attached to do it up.
What delights me most is the care and passion she has invested in the details – the embroidery, the quilting, and the gathered lacy edge.
But it is the tiny embroidered rosebuds that have created an extraordinary link for me to my mother. Some years ago I decided to do a painting of the hanky sachet. As I painted I made a discovery, something only she knew and I now know.
The rosebuds look randomly scattered. However I realised she had created a clear order and quite a complex pattern to their direction and placement – pink on one diagonal, blue on the other, and mauve on the edges. This continues to feel like a powerful shared secret, a bond, unspoken but real, a genuine kind of communication and connection with my mother – almost as good as a memory when you have none.
Looking at my hanky sachet today I realise the maker in her is also in me and has inspired and informed my Woven Memories work.