My Journey into Conflict and the World of Arpilleras, Part 1 (of 3)

A guest post by Eileen Harrisson

I first met Roberta, Berit and the team when they came to see me in my studio in the School of Art, Aberystwyth University where I am presently studying part-time for a PhD in Fine Art. My topic for this concentrates on my experiences and those of others of the Troubles in Northern Ireland especially in the 1970s and 1980s interpreted through stitch, sound and word.

Ulster University Lecturer Karen Nickell had written an article in the journal ‘Textile: Cloth and Culture’ on studies she had made about women expressing their experiences of Ulster’s Troubles through making quilts. Excited to read about this, I contacted her and she told me about all the work that Roberta has been doing through Conflict Textiles on the arpilleras, their makers and collecting these pieces, and it was through Karen that I then met Roberta and the team.

My own journey into making work concerning violence had begun with the coming anniversary of the death of my grandmother’s brother, Thomas Keith, at the Second Battle of Ypres 1915. I wanted to make an artwork that would commemorate Tommy’s passing and also speak about the terrible tragedy of the millions who were killed, injured and displaced by what people had hoped would be ‘the war to end all wars’, so I made Requiem: les Fleurs du Mal. Below is a detail from this piece. The model for the soldier was my son, Ed.

Requiem1
Detail from Requiem: les Fleurs du Mal, by Eileen Harrisson

Materials include silk-painted and inkjet-printed fabrics, silk and cotton threads and dried flower petals and it is hand stitched throughout.

Prior to this piece, I had written poetry concerning violence and war but had rarely interpreted these themes in art; now I was stitching about the death of millions.

An important date in my path into stitch is 1993 but long before this, when I was studying Art and Italian at Aberystwyth University in the 1970s, two other female students and myself had been interested in involving stitch within our artwork. We approached our Head of Art, Professor David Tinker, about this idea but were told that this was ‘women’s stuff’ and ‘not Fine Art’; so we took stitch no further in our work. Professor Tinker was not alone in expressing opinions such as these, they were prevalent throughout the art world at the time and, sadly, sometimes still are. Despite the great variety of styles and media accepted as ‘art’ today, stitched work still struggles with its links to domesticity and gender-bias. But I also think that it is this very closeness of fabric to us all, to our bodies and, in regard to Ireland and other countries, to the social history of place, that gives the medium a power that a work such as an oil painting cannot have. This is not to say that oil paintings are not powerful, not at all, just that the connotations of fabric and thread give works a character and power different to that of a work in other media used to produce art.

The catalyst for my turning to stitch was the onset of a neurological condition affecting my muscles with weakness and pain so that I could no longer hold out my arms long enough to complete a painting; stitch saved my creativity. My grandfather had been an embroidery designer for Belfast Linens in the twentieth century and my grandmother a dressmaker. They had met when he came to be employed by the firm and my grandmother was one of the girls working in the sewing room. I was privileged to see some of Granda’s designs and still remember tips about sewing passed on to me by my grandmother!

Rain on Water
Detail from Rain on the Water, by Eileen Harrisson

Since 1993, I have used stitch to express my artistic ideas and consider that I draw and paint with needle and thread. There is still often a dichotomy in the minds of the art world and the public between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ and stitch finds itself labelled as the latter even when it is being used as one would a brush or pen.

My first stitched image was that of an angel and I went on to interpret aspects of nature, issues around ecology, moods of the sea and further concerns of the spirit.

This image shows a detail from one of my personal favourites, Rain on the Water.

However, with Requiem: les Fleurs du Mal, the piece that led me to speak about conflict and death, I had begun to realise that there is a great wealth of possibilities within the medium of textiles in the interpretation of tragedy, grief and violence and through my work for my PhD and beyond, I have now made, and continue to make, works that speak of the suffering caused when humankind behaves so cruelly one to the other.

Requiem2
Requiem: les Fleurs du Mal, by Eileen Harrisson

 

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