As well as and as part of my work on conflict is consideration of its counterpart, healing. In 1975 I returned to my home in Northern Ireland after achieving my Joint Honours Degree in Art and Italian at Aberystwyth University and lived first of all in the parental home in the village of Groomsport near Bangor, Co. Down with my father, mother, sister and maternal grandmother. The positions I held during the coming years were almost all in Belfast and included Library Assistant in the Art Department of Belfast Central Library, Student Nurse in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children and Art Therapist in the Geriatric Unit of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. This period of the 1970s into the beginning of the 1980s was one of the times when the Troubles were at their height, the cultural life of the city was at a very low ebb and, at one point, as I had always felt a pull towards the nursing profession, working to heal seemed what to do within a difficult personal situation and in light of the wider political and social unrest.
My return had been occasioned partly because of a worsening condition in the serious state of my father’s health and was also to honour something I had promised my maternal grandmother, that I would return once my university course was finished. My father had welcomed my grandmother into the marital home when he married my mother in 1950 and she lived with us for the rest of her life. She was a hard working, unassuming, gentle soul and I loved her very much; I still do.
I call this work which started life as a drawing, became an etching and then a stitched piece, My Grandmother: a Life and it depicts Granny Keith (my mother’s maiden name) working in the kitchen in our home in Groomsport.
Stitched portrait of Granny from my piece Sleep Softly Because You Live in my Dreams
When I gave my grandmother this promise, neither of us would know that in only two years time she would be gone. She died following a stroke, complicated by a brain tumour in July 1973. She never witnessed my return; all we had together were the hospital visits when she could no longer speak but she knew I was there. We visited her as a family and my sister and myself also went together to see her. Often, at these visits, I used to comb her hair. I felt this simple touch told her, as much as any words, that I loved her.
My period as a student nurse came about when, following problems trying to find something within the art world, I answered the call to nursing which, along with my love of the arts and practice as an artist, was something I felt deep within my being. The reason to enter children’s nursing particularly was that, in an interview for joining the nursing profession, the interviewing panel felt that my slight frame would be better placed with children than adults. The uniforms have changed greatly now to what they were in the 1970s but I wore the traditional blue dress with white starched linen apron and student’s small white nurse’s cap. At that time, within the hospital, there was a debate going on about whether the cap should remain as part of the uniform or whether it might not be necessary any more. A vote was held to decide the issue and everyone I knew voted for the cap to remain which it then did. All of our nursing intake were women and we felt strongly that the cap was part of our identity as nurses. We also had our nurse’s capes.
The capes were wonderful garments made of heavy felted wool, fully lined and with a hood. When you donned a cape, you felt not only connected to the history of years of nursing from Florence Nightingale onwards but you also felt cocooned, protected and warm and I loved my cape. Somewhere, I have a picture of myself in my room in the Nurse’s Accommodation Block, Bostock House, wearing the cape that I loved so much. The capes had to be handed back to the hospital if or when you left and, just a few years ago, I was delighted to be given a cape that had belonged to a nurse while she worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
The gift of the cape happened when I visited the Geriatric Unit where I had worked as an Art Therapist, a little while after my period as a nurse. I was its first Art Therapist and I worked there full-time. Besides this unit, my job included working in another geriatric hospital with links to the Royal Victoria. I was given a budget so that I could choose the materials I needed for the job. I kept this simple, concentrating on non-toxic paints to use with water, paper and brushes with handles easy to hold by those who had suffered strokes or other medical conditions. I was told I was the first person to be employed full-time in art therapy in Northern Ireland. It was an interesting job and I still remember many of the patients I worked with. The job itself could be problematic at times because of its being so recently introduced within the hospital. I found the working environment to be hierarchical and my post had yet to find its place within the heirarchy. I was delighted, however, that the position of Art Therapist was continued after marriage meant that I had to resign my post to be with my husband in England. I will never forget some of the patients. It was a privilege to help them in any way I could.
Pictured below, is myself wearing the cape before hanging my exhibition Conflict in Mid Wales Arts Centre, Caersws in 2017. The cape played an important part in this exhibition.
Self wearing cape Mid Wales Arts Centre 2017
The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children is a part of the famous Royal Victoria Hospital and I felt privileged to be working there.
This is the Sick Children’s Hospital photographed in December 2015
Entrance to the hospital photographed in 2015
Statue of Queen Victoria at the hospital
The Sick Children’s Hospital is undergoing extensive rebuilding but I took these photographs in December 2015 when I visited the hospital and also the Geriatric Unit where I had worked as an Art Therapist.
Small sculpture of infant in the Sick Children’s Hospital photographed December 2015
Corridor in hospital
Stained Glass window in the hospital with central panel showing the Story of the Good Samaritan
Work, including the nurse’s cape, in my Conflict and Redemption Exhibition, Willow Gallery, Oswestry as part of the gallery’s War and Peace Exhibition for the Wilfred Owen Festival 2018.
Detail of some of the stitching on the nurse’s cape
The cape on the tailor’s dummy for displaying in venues
Stitching is placed mostly around the lower edge of the cape and these photographs show a little more of the imagery included. It is important that images bearing associations with each ‘side’ of the conflict are placed close to one another and even entwining to symbolise a desire for a mutual respect that can become a growing peace.
Poppies and shamrocks entwine by a view of the Mourne Mountains from Strangford Lough, places very dear to me. The inclusion of a handkerchief has resonances within the Troubles and it is also a handkerchief from my childhood; healing and forgiveness are ongoing for many people.
Words stitched are the Falls Road in English and Gaelic. The Royal Victoria Hospital and Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children are situated on the Falls Road and I nursed children there before my later role as Art Therapist in the Geriatric Unit. Depicted, too, are images of a baby and a young infant asleep, who speak for the vulnerability of childhood and love of family and a soldier from World War 1, conflict in which so many died and which had resonances and consequences that affected the whole world.
The cape is finished with stitching to remember Lyra McKee, the young journalist shot during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry/Londonderry on 18th April 2019.
In so many ways, society needs healing from the violence of conflict and threat of terrorism, global and local, an aim that seems so tragically difficult to attain. As well as the current refugee crisis, now in 2022, yet another conflict, with all the horrific consequences that follow in its wake, has been unleashed on humanity as Russia invades Ukraine. In light of this suffering that humanity continues to undergo, to confront conflict, bear witness to it and strive to speak about healing and reconciliation, will always be important elements in my art and poetry and the sound work that I will continue to produce for as long this body and life allow.