PhD Work and Exhibition

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A Sorrowful Healing

In February and March 2022, I exhibited work that represents the culmination of the practical element of my doctoral studies. The exhibition, A Sorrowful Healing, was shown in the School of Art Gallery, Aberystwyth University and it was possible to have a Private View with limited number of guests due to Covid restrictions. Visitors were able to see the exhibition by a ticket booking system, again following Covid safety regulations laid down by the government and the university, and I also gave a tour of the exhibition with poetry reading to a group who booked in for this.

Below shows the poster that announced the exhibition. The image is a detail from Continuum.

Film

A film has been made of the exhibition and of me reading a few poems to open it. This is still in the editing stage due to some unforeseen problems but it will be coming out and I shall make it available as soon as possible.

The Exhibition

On exhibition were hand stitched wall pieces and hangings, these wall works interspersed with printed poems, an artist’s book, a film, a nurse’s cape on a tailor’s dummy and a cabinet showing the stitcher’s tools, including a little group of favourite fabrics.

The cabinet in position in the gallery. February 2022

Along with the various tools and fabrics in the cabinet, is the poem For the Others, which reads:-

For the Others

     In the white light,

               I survived;

   I didn’t meet the others then,

       those who had gone on that day,

       or on other days, cruelly

      catapulted    from      

       frame of bone and tissue;

       ingestion in the mother’s womb;

       the first breath, cries, smiles, growing,

       running, laughing, discovering  –  all

       the sing-song days of life bloodily

       torn apart, ripped and shredded into

                           silence;

         no, I didn’t see the others

        then, nor those who died of

        grief and consummate sorrow;   

                  I survived;

        but I hear their cries sorrowing

        in my head, so I stitch paths of

        remembrance, red veining in

        lines of silk and cotton,    

        blood red  threads   that are life and

        death and hope

                                         and grief

            and  resurrection.

Fusion

Besides visual works and poetry, another important piece was the sound work called Fusion (2022). This work consists of myself reading whole poems, lines of poems and singing short snatches of song with, in the background and on its own, sounds made by a needle and thread passing through various fabrics. I discovered an unexpected connection to my experiences of explosions during the Troubles, when, in the course of exploring the properties of my chosen medium, textiles, I made a recording of myself slowly pulling a linen thread through calico held taut. I enhanced the unexpectedly powerful sound this made using computer software, and was immediately transported back to the streets of Belfast in the 1970s by the low, thunderingly threatening growl coming from the fabrics.

This augmented sound of materials and the different pitches of the artist’s voice, now single, now layered, were compiled into a sound track which, with built-in silences, was played continuously on a loop throughout the exhibition. The sound track was made in collaboration with my son, professional musician Ed Harrisson. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to use the sympathetic resonance of the university’s grand piano in the gallery by placing speakers beneath the body of the piano. This allowed the recorded sounds of stitch and voice to react with the piano’s strings and this created a reverberating resonance that added to and worked with the atmospheric flow of sounds.

Ed and self by the piano. In the background on the back wall of the gallery, behind Ed, is Father, Forgive. The edge of Continuum is behind me and the poem Fragments behind the piano. Stitched works were interspersed with poems presented on boards in the exhibition.

Fusion, the sound track.

The track begins quietly and there are a few stretches of silence built into it. All sounds, apart from my voice, are derived from fabric, needle and thread and some happen suddenly to mimic how I used to hear the bombs explode with no warning.

Visitor to the exhibition listening to Fusion.
As well as the pieces already mentioned, in the photo, you can see where we hung Requiem, les Fleurs du Mal on the side wall behind and near the piano. The hanging closer by on the side wall is Via Dolorosa and the little blocks painted with acrylics in red and black, sometimes layered with material such as scrim, are scattered like rubble on the black-painted plinth.
This image gives another view of the little blocks and also shows the white wooden casing used to house the speakers under the piano.

Close-up on the blocks

The basis for all the works is a bringing together of stitch, word and sound in a symbiotic relationship, explored through the prism of my experiences of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This relationship and connection between the media gives a visitor to the exhibition a holistic experience of the subject matter, an experience of the violence of conflict that leads to the healing power of reconciliation and a spirit of peace.

I lived and worked in Belfast from the mid 1970s until early in the 1980s, a period which saw the height of the conflict, until marriage entailed a move to England, so most of my personal experiences relate to this period. Some works also refer to incidents beyond this time frame and to other conflicts in global history, beyond Ireland’s shores.

Exhibition and Poetry Readings

I opened the exhibition with a reading/performance of key poems and was then available to talk to visitors about the work. Some pieces had been seen before in other exhibitions while others were seen here for the first time. They were all chosen to tell a story of the experience of conflict, the sorrow and tragedy of killing and death, and the path to reconciliation and peace.

Father, Forgive

This is a detail from the hanging Father, Forgive (2021). The full piece is seen in place on the back wall of the gallery behind the visitor in the image above.

This detail focuses in on the head of the figure crying out in grief and pain for an end to conflict and killing. It is actually the stitched image of a young woman going to the aid of a bomb victim, but here seen, not from the front, but from the back of the work. No longer so simply the image of a young woman, the rear of the piece gives her a universality that more strikingly gives a message of fear, pain and sorrow. The bomb blast seems so cruel. pointless, futile in its rage, so she cries out to God, ‘Father, forgive!’, echoing Christ’s words on the cross, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’. (Luke 23:34)

The hanging, all hand stitched, is built up in fabrics, silk painted and inkjet printed, mainly in tones of black, red and white, with dried flower petals drifting behind layers of semi-transparent organza. The colours symbolise a city, and a country, in the grip of conflict; the red of flames and blood, of anger and fear; the black of bombed buildings, of acrid smoke and burnt-out vehicles; the white of clothing, of bandages, of an experience of near-death unconsciousness.

This visual hanging uses colour, form and the messages of materials themselves, the fragility of semi-transparency, the dense black of linen, the rhythms of stitch, to talk about the theme of violence and desire for reconciliation. These issues are explored, too, in the poem Belfast: Lagan Revisited which you can hear me reading on Soundcloud via the link below:-

Belfast: Lagan Revisited

I mentioned that I used white to represent, among other things, the whiteness I experienced after a bomb blast in which I thought I had died.

Transition and Via Dolorosa

The work here on the left is called Transition (2021) and, all in white fabrics with stitched words in tones of near-white and grey, it represents in concrete form an experience that was completely form-less. The other hanging with various images and fabrics is Via Dolorosa (2018/21). Again on this one, colours that dominate are reds, blacks, greys and burnt browns.

Transition and its Story

The Story

Making Transition was a challenge in that I was trying to interpret in physical, tangible form, an experience that had been so lacking in form. My thesis will tell the story of this incident in more detail but, to put it a little more briefly, I went to Queen’s University in Belfast for a lecture that had to be cancelled. In order not to have wasted time, I went to a department room where I knew there to be leaflets on careers and courses. I had been working for a little while since graduating from Aberystwyth University but was still thinking about and looking for what was available for work or further study. Suddenly, I felt a push in the small of my back and all in the room started to dissolve. I knew it was a bomb blast although I had heard no sound – this happens sometimes when you are very close to an explosion, the little bones in the ears slam together and you can hear nothing.

I went down into blackness and came round into a white light: there was no feeling of a physical body whatsoever: I existed simply as thought in a white light, peaceful, like milk. In the thought, I still had my personality; the thinking was mine, the spirit was mine but beyond this, there was nothing, only the calm, white light. I completely believed myself to be dead. I have a faith in life after death. I felt no bitterness, on the other hand, I was flooded with an amazement and an excitement about what would happen now. So I waited to see who might join me, who may also have died that day or moment or who had gone before. No-one came. I was alone in a soundless, formless light.

After some time, I have no idea how long, tiny gold sparkles came winking and twinking in the whiteness, whirling and swirling like dust motes in the sun – I had always hoped it would be pretty! Then, gradually, I realised that the tiny golden sparks were, indeed, dust motes in the sun, I was alive, in this life still! At first making out the top of a window-frame, I followed the window down and found myself to be crumpled, curled up on the floor at the base of a wall that had been some feet behind me. I must have been thrown forward into the steel shelves in front of me then I had ricocheted back to crash into the wall. My head had received a blow first to the front by my forehead then on the back from the wall.

Making the Work

I wanted to translate this experience of existing in a void, seemingly neither this world nor the next, into fabric and thread, but how was I to do this? I decided to use some linen but also soft, delicate silks and nets, fabrics that had an ethereal, fragile quality. The hanging was then finished at the bottom in uneven rectangles of fabric on which were stitched pieces of very fine wedding veil net, torn and wisping into nothingness. The fabrics give the feeling of existing in the whiteness, words and phrases stitched onto the white ground telling the tale of the incident.

This detail from Transition shows a detail from the work with some of the stitched words. These also show some of the darkest threads on the piece which were used very sparingly in the wording that told of falling down into blackness.

Via Dolorosa

Via Dolorosa (2018/21) on gallery wall and some details.

On this hanging are scenes of violence and pain, sadness in the face of Christ: but this was also the path to the Peace Process, as the way of the Cross led to the light of heaven.

These pieces were on the wall on your left as you entered the gallery. On the right and visible once you were in the gallery, was my second major piece, Façade. The two gallery spaces are separated by a dividing wall which stops short of running the full length of the galleries and, in each space, is a wall with semicircular arch in plastering. Inside the arch in the other gallery was Futility.

Façade

This is Ed and self by Façade (2020). We were there to record a short interview in which we talked about how we made the sound track Fusion. A photo in masks to record how life was for a while!

Façade, the full piece

The original photograph that was the impetus for this piece was sourced and used courtesy of the Coleraine Chronicle and Constitution Archive.

A mixed media piece, all hand stitched, Façade is constructed in silk-painted and inkjet-printed fabrics, layered on a base of 55 count linen. The image shows a shopping area of Coleraine after a large car bomb detonated. No lives were lost in this bombing, as the bomb detonated prematurely at night, but livelihoods were lost and much rebuilding had to be undertaken to restore this part of the town. Christmas was not long away and many businesses opened again as soon as possible. Much of the damage was done by a severe fire that followed the blast. The interior of the building on the left, which housed several businesses, was destroyed by this fire, which then left walls standing that became the ‘façade’ of the title. Some sections of fabric used to represent these skeleton walls, were from a worn linen tea-towel. Along with several other fabric pieces, the tea-towel was painted using black silk paint, and its original pattern, faded but still visible, resulted in the black paint taking on tones of charcoal grey. This was a pleasing change in tonality for the walls.

A Personal Story

Silent, still, except for the jet of water escaping from a burst main and the smoke that billowed from the fire that smouldered for some time after the explosion, the work shows an urban space devoid of any human activity. I made this piece because I wanted to make an image of how a bomb blast can create an empty desert from what should have been a scene bustling with pre-Christmas shoppers. There is also a personal reason for making this work. On one occasion, I was on holiday during one of the term breaks while I was at university in Aberystwyth, and I planned to go into Bangor to meet my mother for a coffee and do some shopping once she had finished her day’s work in the coffee shop where she had a part-time job. The night before we were to meet, a bomb went off, causing damage that included to the coffee shop. The bomb had been timed to explode at 3.00pm in the afternoon; had it exploded when originally intended, my mother and I would have been at the least, badly injured, at the worst, killed. My mother, who had lost her job because of the blast, never worked outside the home again and the coffee-shop owner never ran a business again. He had been bombed out before, at least once, if not twice. Bombs exploding prematurely caused deaths; they also saved lives.

Some Pieces in Gallery 1

This image shows A Cape for Healing (2020); Dialogue (2021),(left edge of image); De Profundis (2021); poem Recurrence; Portrait of my Father (2015) (on wall); photograph of my father (on plinth); Fragment, A Sacrifice Too Great (2019)

A Sacrifice Too Great

This image shows the full piece A Sacrifice Too Great

The work has been exhibited in a white wood frame, unglazed, in other exhibitions but it was included in my PhD exhibition as a hanging so that it would be in keeping with other wall pieces in the exhibition. I feel it works both ways.

Its theme here is to preserve the level of reconciliation in Ulster that started with the Peace Process in 1998 and to build on it wherever possible. The central image of the child, in his innocent sleep, asks for our protection and love, not just for himself but also for all those in society who are vulnerable and need our protection and support. Beyond, and as well as this, his image stands for the fragility of society itself. In regard to conflict, a society living at peace can suddenly find itself rocked by violence and all the tragedy that times of conflict can bring. We have seen this happen so often in the world, most recently in Ukraine, when the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, decided to invade his neighbour.

This detail shows the child with just above him to his right, a little vignette of a small sailing boat by an island in Strangford Lough, the Mourne Mountains in the background beyond. This is a place that means very much to me, a place of my childhood and growing -up years. The family home was near Bangor, Co. Down, where I attended school as a teenager, on Belfast Lough where it meets the Irish Sea. It was at the head of nearby Strangford Lough, in the town of Newtownards, that I was born, in the hospital that stands at the foot of the iconic Scrabo Tower. Not a feature in this work, though it has been in others, this tower is a well-known landmark atop its crag-and-tail formation of rocks. I have always loved the Mourne Mountains and the times of happy family trips there far outweigh the two occasions when, during the Troubles, gunmen started to chase us across the fields.

On the work, shadowy figures of gunmen and a building exploding are realised in layers of painted and inkjet printed organza, the semi-transparent fabric giving these images a ghostly transparency. They are depicted in this way to suggest that problems still exist beneath the calmer surface. Violence has erupted into the more peaceful level attained by Northern Irish society, most notably when journalist Lyra McKee was shot and killed during rioting. My poem Recurrence is dedicated to her. But we cannot allow conflict to overcome all the benefits a society at peace enjoys; in fabric and thread, this piece calls out this message.

De Profundis

This piece, hand embroidered on silk-painted fabric stitched to linen, brings to mind the psalmist’s cry to God, ‘Out of the depths I cry to You, O God’ (Psalm 130). Colours here bring in softer golds and blues behind the red and yellow of the flames. This time, instead of flames rising from explosions, destroying buildings and livelihoods, the smaller flames are those that conceal the unseen God, flames of hope, faith and love, not fury and destruction. The image contains, for me, the memory of the cloth that hung on the lectern in the Presbyterian Church, Groomsport, the village near Bangor where I lived as a teenager. The cloth, a deep royal blue, had on it the burning bush of the Old Testament, embroidered in bright flames of red and gold. My bush, more a small tree, has its roots trailing beneath the image, threads that want to reach out beyond delineated limits, carrying hopes for a continuing and spreading reconciliation and peace.

Pictured also is the Cape for Healing. This work, and the other pieces in this photograph, speak with one another to put forward the message to preserve and nurture peace. The Cape for Healing has a whole section dedicated to it in this website. A garment very important to me, I once wore such a cape during the time when I was training as a paediatric nurse in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. It was not possible to keep our capes when we left nursing but I always remember its warm protective covering. This iconic garment brings with it all the history of nursing and to be given one on which I could embroider images of violence, healing and hope, with the associations of comfort and compassion the cape carries in the depth of its woollen material, means very much to me.

Dialogue

Dialogue is seen to the left of the cape and somewhat hidden behind Arthur, who helped hang the exhibition. This work has images on it which join bronze sculptures of yardmen from Harland and Wolff, the Titanic Yardmen 401 (2012) on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast, with the sculpture Rise (2011), created as a symbol of hope, that stands on Broadway Roundabout that leads to the Falls Road in West Belfast. The two sculptures cannot be together physically in reality but they share the same picture plane, symbolic of the desire for the differing factions to unite in preserving and nurturing peace. The work is an etching printed directly onto linen, the fabric so important in the social and economic history of Ulster, and is stitched into by hand; wording calls for society to hold to the peace.

Her Pillow, the Earth

Her Pillow, the Earth (2017) is seen here on the right and, on the left, as it hung on the gallery wall; also in the photograph are the plinth with film Continuum (2017) and headphones that enabled visitors to hear the film that they could watch on the screen. Beyond these works are the two prints A Belfast Peace: Beneath the Surface (2017) and A Belfast Peace: in the Name of Peace (2017). The works seen farther down are the poem Belfast Swan and artist’s book A Quiet Singing (2019). The book, containing poems and stitched images on paper and cloth, was placed, closed, in an acrylic container on a plinth and its pages could be seen via the small screen above it.

Her Pillow, the Earth and Conflict Textiles

Hand stitched and constructed in silk-painted and inkjet printed fabrics on a ground of raw linen, this piece features in my section on Conflict in this website. Like the child in A Sacrifice Too Great, the vulnerable form of the little girl cries out for love and peace. Invited by Roberta Bacic of Conflict Textiles to create a work for the exhibition War-Torn Children, I made this piece partly in memory of children who died in the Troubles, and also in response to a report by journalist Robert Fisk about a young family in Aleppo. They lived beside a school and, at break-time, two young boys played with their toddler sister on their balcony. There was shelling in the city; all three children on the balcony were killed, children in the school left injured and bleeding. The image asks whether the small child in the centre is a refugee asleep on the ground or has she been killed and the earth is her bed in death, the swathe of muslin her shroud? This piece now forms part of the Conflict Textiles Collection.

Before I conclude with the remaining images in the exhibition, here is a selection of comments on the exhibition, written in the Visitors’ Book that was supplied by the School of Art.

Selection of Comments in the Visitors’ Book

The book was set out in the gallery a little after the exhibition opened, the first comment being entered on 16 February.

My first ever exhibition. Very thought-provoking. Hope rises from the ashes.

Wedi fwynhau mas draw  –  ysbryddledig a posatif tu hwnt. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thoroughly enjoyed (it)  –  splendid and extremely positive. Thank you very much. (my translation)

.  . .  Your art pieces are so touching and show the power of textiles and stitch.         

A complex and moving exhibition  –  very powerful!     

This work is so beautiful, tender and moving.   .  .  .

How many ways can you use the healing stitch to show the damage. I like the shards of mirror wrapped in red thread, the variations on a theme  –  the textures for brick and flesh, I am really moved. . . . .

Super  –  to come to again and again  –  words, images and “unsaids”.

Beautiful images and poems. The art really conveys the experience of a survivor to someone with no experience of such trauma in an evocative and meaningful way.

 Will the world ever learn? Thank you for sharing your pain and your truth telling art.

The works draw you into the experience . . .

Stunningly powerful. Unique.

Amazing body of varied work Eileen. Very thought provoking and powerful.

One of the most powerful & beautiful exhibitions I’ve ever witnessed. Incrediblymoving & aesthetically rich in its multi-media. Diolch yn fawr am rannu eich stori.

         ( my translation  –  Thank you very much for sharing your story.)

Absolutely brilliant! A fantastic in-depth collection of moving work.

Very powerful and as apt today from around the world.

Such a moving exhibition  –  as relevant as ever given the terrible events currently unfolding in Ukraine.

I hear that glowering, thickening darkness across the province. 

Thought provoking. Beautiful work.

This was a profound encounter with not only the Northern Ireland’s Troubles but also with Eileen’s unique voice in witness and opened to us the power of art.

Thank you so much Eileen for sharing your extraordinary work and insight today of all days in Ukraine.

‘Explosive’ work Eileen. What a magnificent show  –  the explosions are so so sad to link with Ukraine’s suffering!

So, so sad  –  but in a way uplifting to see art, not war.

I felt very moved by the exhibition. Moments of beauty amidst the telling of so much evil.

Grateful for seeing this display of creation, the outcome of much destruction heartbreak & physical effect. Very moving.

Such powerful work! Incredible exhibition had me in tears. Speaks not only of then but now.

Enjoyed every bit of the exhibition, stitches, poetry, sound and texture! Very thought provoking, especially in the current times. Art work like this is crucial for our collective memory and keeping these stories alive. We’re moved and inspired.

Beautiful, heart achingly so  –  deeply moving  –  and stirring many memories of living through Beirut in the civil war.  At the background sound, explosions and cry, ‘bomb!’, I  winced   –  thank you for the labour, love and hope caught here .  .  .  .

 .  .  .  .so powerful and moving. Sad but also inspirational.

Thank you for sharing your work that’s very personal yet so relevant.

Powerful work and very thought provoking.

Thank you, Eileen for sharing these deep seated memories and emotions with us. It all hangs together beautifully in a rich and powerful way.

.  .  .  powerful work so detailed.