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

A guest post by Eileen Harrisson

All the arpilleras that I have now seen through working with Conflict Textiles surely bear witness to the power of needle and thread. In regard to how they touch those who come to see them, in the powerful message of suffering that they convey, it scarcely matters whether they are regarded as ‘art’ or not, even if, as an artist, one of my aims is to say to galleries that stitch is a valid medium within Fine Art. The posts Arts or Crafts or Something else? (part 1 and part 2) have a very interesting discussion on just this subject.

Roberta gave a guided talk, as she does for all the exhibitions she curates, about all the works in the exhibition in the Roe Valley Centre and ran a workshop, as she has done the world over, on making the arpillera dolls, on this occasion, with Deborah. I had not made such a doll before and it was a very different experience for me to sit and make a stitched figure in the company of others, mostly women and one man. It was a very sociable occasion and each doll had a story to tell of family or conflict or both.

My little ‘Harriet’ doll – she is named after my maternal Grandmother.
Group of dolls made in the workshop. Most of the dolls were pinned by arpilleras in the exhibition after the workshop, each participant choosing which arpillera they wanted their doll to be with.

When my work is seen with the Conflict Textiles exhibitions, it is taken to a different audience and often different location to that of the gallery-goer who goes especially to see art. It is now embracing the world of politics and giving a voice through art to those who tell their stories of experiences of conflict with and without words. This means that the work can take its message to parts of the world far beyond the shores of Britain and there are those in Japan who have been looking at what I speak about in Continuum. This means a lot to me, as people in Japan underwent terrible suffering through the nuclear bombs of WW2 which conflict brought about suffering in so many countries and to so many people and which has left a tragic legacy of sorrow in the world.

My artwork means a great deal to me and I believe that there are things best expressed without words and there are times when words are not enough. The poignancy of the handkerchiefs exhibited in Stitched Voices needs them to be seen. It is possible to write about the tragic stories they tell and Damian Gorman wrote a beautiful poem about how the exhibition affected him but it is the handkerchiefs themselves that testify to the fragility yet expressive durability and power that a piece of tactile cloth can carry.

That said, I also wrote a poem, at Roberta’s instigation, especially for my piece Continuum and I feel it does add another dimension to the artwork. This is the poem:

Red of blood soaks into

blanket while clamour of

rescue wails on –


passes on hold on stunned

victim while still the children

cry and why do we allow


such pain? soldier and airman

look through years and what do

the poppies mean? more fears,

more tears – killers, silent,

secret, hidden ghosts walk

until moment

                           of atrocity –

but compassion, goal and

legacy of sorrowing

humanity, comforts

broken lives worn out by

grief, incertitude;

                                 blaze of

love engulfs deeper

darkness of evil’s clawing

grasp, flows, unwavering

light through healing hands


                           into eternity.

This is Ed with my husband, Arthur, Breege and myself at the Opening of Stitched Voices in the Arts Centre, Aberystwyth.

I gave a role to the poem in the film Continuum that I made with my son, Ed Harrisson. The film was edited by Ed and he filmed me stitching for it. These shots of stitching are interspersed with views of Continuum and Ed pans down across other pieces in my conflict works. I read the words of the poem in rhythms to the film’s musical sound track which is the piece, Come, Stay. I wrote the melody and initial words for the music some years ago, after the death of my father, and added more words recently. Ed harmonised the melody for male voices in the Russian Orthodox style with tenor solo and female soprano solo. The subject of this music is the vigil that so many keep for a number of reasons in our world, waiting for those serving in the Armed Forces to return home, waiting and hoping for news of a loved one who is missing, keeping vigil by the side of someone seriously ill. As well as editing the film, Ed sings the tenor solo role. The film became one of those shown within the Stitched Voices Exhibition in the Arts Centre, Aberystwyth and it also formed part of my exhibition Conflict in Mid Wales Arts Centre, Caersws, Powys.

Eileen Harrisson and Damian Gorman talking about growing up amongst the Troubles

During the Stitched Voices exhibition, Damian Gorman and I gave readings and performances from our writing and talked of our experiences growing up and living in Northern Ireland during the difficult years of the Troubles. We are pictured here by my work which, together with the arpilleras seen in the photograph, made up the ‘Ulster’ corner in the exhibition.

Subsequent to the exhibitions talked about, Roberta invited me to take part in the exhibition War-Torn Children which was shown in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, March 2017 and the work Her Pillow, the Earth came about.

This piece sees my work expand beyond the Troubles in Northern Ireland to the present conflict in the Middle East and, for this piece, in Aleppo in particular. I have always felt concern not only for the suffering of those in the land of my birth and where I grew up but for all parts of the world where people suffer through the armed conflicts that go on still.

Her Pillow, the Earth

The figure of the child was taken from a drawing I had made of my daughter, Juliette, when she was very little, and the story of this piece and the tragedy that inspired it can be seen in the Conflict Textiles website.

Both of these pieces, Continuum and Her Pillow, the Earth went on to be exhibited in my Conflict Exhibition in Mid Wales Arts Centre, Caersws, Powys, September – October 2017. In being seen in the gallery, the conflict work now comes once more into the art world, so the conflict pieces have a life that moves between the fields of art and politics and creates links between the two.

Her Pillow, the Earth with Continuum in the Conflict Exhibition, Mid Wales Arts Centre, Caersws, Powys.

Her Pillow, the Earth is next due to be seen when the War-Torn Children Exhibition is shown in Letterkenny, Donegal, in 2018.

Although not included to date in the arpillera exhibitions, there is one other aspect that became one of the key moments that led to my working with the theme of conflict through stitch. This happened when I recorded the sound of pulling a linen thread through a piece of calico fabric stretched in an embroidery hoop. I augmented this, already surprisingly powerful, sound using the Adobe Audition programme on the computer and was startled to find how closely it mirrored the aftermath of one of the many explosions I had experienced.

In its repeated figures and images, my piece, Litany, shown here, tells of how incidents play over and over again in the mind and, in my Conflict Exhibition, I included the sound track of one such incident which I narrated as I stitched.

“Litany” (full image) by Eileen Harrisson

The figures in smoke in Litany also form a principal factor in my work, After the final piece shown here. They appear again in a detail in Continuum and the recurrence of this image in my work is because figures disappearing into smoke is one of my most enduring memories of the Troubles. Bombs would go off, many times without warning, people would vanish into clouds of billowing smoke and it was only aferwards that you found out if they were alive or dead. The burning car signifies all the incidents of car bombs, real or hoaxes, that plagued the city and terrorised individuals for a number of years.

After (full image) by Eileen Harrisson

It has been a great privilege for me to have been introduced to the arpillleras, to meet at least some of those who make them and to Roberta who collects them, curates the exhibitions and works tirelessly for peace. This applies equally to Berit, Christine, Dani, Lydia and others in the Department of International Politics in Aberystwyth University and I now look forward to working with Roberta on exhibitions coming up in 2018 and to working with Berit and Christine on an article for a forthcoming special journal issue on curating conflict; so the artwork and the stories of the arpilleras reach out to yet another audience. To all who come into contact with them, the poignant, tactile arpilleras tell the stories of the women who made them, stand as witnesses to those who no longer have a voice and in the silence of their sorrow, speak always with the powerful voice of suffering humanity.

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