Lockdown and the Pandemic has been the most surreal time I’ve ever lived through; in equal parts distressing, wonderful, and above all a steep learning curve.
The role of art and nature as tools for healing are the subject of this blog; and I note that both have been used heavily during Lockdown as coping strategies by many. It seems that in time of great distress we turn to these things for comfort, expression and solace.
I managed to take the time to do some online Peace Education with Quakers and really got to know about my own inner conflict, connecting with that part of me that wants to stand at attention like an aggressive sergeant major. An aspect of myself that strives for constant results, scornful of process and never allowing time to relax into the subtleties and nuances of my relationships and art practice.
My appetite for greater understanding whetted, I attended a life changing seminar online that was presented by Professor Siobhan O’Neill, hosted by Ulster University and entitled ‘The Trauma Informed Approach’. In it Siobhan discussed trauma as a collective and intergenerational experience in Northern Ireland, touching on how trauma was passed around our society via poverty, childhood adversity, alcoholism and substance misuse, resulting in a huge proportion of the population being affected without witnessing anything obviously Troubles related (such as gunshots or an explosion). I thought long and hard about my Dad’s alcoholism and how this had a profound effect on me in our unhappy home. Memories of my uncle, a prison officer, being on an IRA hit list; checkpoints with heavily armed soldiers staring out of their armoured vehicles being a completely normal part of everyday life; our town being bombed so heavily that most of the centre had to be rebuilt; all of us segregated and the first question anyone wanting to know was ‘are you a Catholic or a Protestant?’
I’ve felt simultaneously weighted and relieved by these realisations, and noted that I need to continue to ‘make meaning’ from what has happened in my life – a point stressed by Professor O’Neill as the main way to recover from trauma and make sense of what can sometimes seem senseless.
You can watch the seminar here:
I therefore leapt at the chance to be involved in the project Stitch For Change, the brain child of Rossana Leal, the director of The Refugee Buddy Project. Rossana herself is a refugee from Chile who arrived to live in Scotland when she was eight years old. She understands more than most what it is like to flee from a situation that is dangerous and traumatic, having left her native country to escape the Pinochet dictatorship that saw thousands being disappeared, detained and killed.
Stitch For Change envisaged the completion of a Pandemic Patchwork Quilt, with exquisitely hand embroidered squares being stitched by Sussex based refugee families who are being supported by the project, along with anyone else who wanted to get involved. Participants were asked to stitch stories of their time during the pandemic; anything could be included. We gratefully received deeply moving stories of individuals’ displacement and other light hearted reflections on how coffee has been an integral part of making it through lockdown.
The project has been heavily influenced by arpilleras from Chile; their history and techniques were taught to us by fellow facilitator and artist Jimena Pardo, also hailing from Chile. We learned how Chilean arpilleristas would make their deeply moving pieces of textile work to express the pain of losing a loved one, using scraps of fabric and burlap backing. Jimena runs a collective called Bordando por la Memoria; they state:
'Our aim is to make collaborative textile pieces that highlights the need for justice and to keep alive a part of history that in Chile today is being systematically eradicated.'
You can find out more about the collective here:
You can find out more about Jimena’s own deeply moving story here:
We ran two weekly Zoom sessions and initially I was worried about the number of attendees, scared that we wouldn’t have enough to make the project a ‘success’. Rossana, completely unflappable and entirely trusting in the process and the richness of the engagement, taught me to trust that it was a matter of quality rather than quantity.
I learned a lot about the subtlety of important change and growth in individuals, and the necessity of examining project results in depth with an eye on individuals’ experiences as opposed to how many people had attended. I had a tendency to focus on the latter in the past, feeling the need for numbers and results in order to prove the validity of my work. I’ve had a deep shift in my awareness that it’s unethical to view a human being only as a number or statistic – and this type of number crunching is a skewed way of evaluating work amongst humans.
I’ve also realised that activities that can look rather unimpressive on the surface can actually be implementing profound changes in participants and that simple activities that are well delivered within a nurturing space are far more important than a project that screams with bells and whistles but that lacks space for reflection and connection.
I was moved by the positive response of participants – they seemed to glean a great deal out of the fact that we were simply a consistent, reliable presence in what was an otherwise tumultuous time. Even if they didn’t manage to attend every session, they were very much a part of the process and were held by the space even when they weren’t in it. I noticed that this increased my own capacity for compassion towards the group and myself, which has significantly benefited my art practice.
We are now in the throes of creating quilts from the individual patches with the help of textile artist and master quilt maker, Jane Grimshaw. The quilts are due to be displayed at De La Warr Pavilion at the end of the year alongside a programme of events.
Above all, this beautiful project has brought home to me with resounding clarity that healing is my only purpose: divide is conflict and integration is harmony, and this echoes in all areas of life from the inner to the outer. There is an academic term ‘Post Traumatic Growth’ which essentially means that you can be better for the things that you’ve been through. May we all work through our struggles and know the deep satisfaction of this growth.
Lockdown has been and (sort of) gone, and we are now living in a new kind of 'normal'. The pandemic has, of course, changed absolutely everything - including my relationship with myself. So it only stands to reason that it has begun to considerably shape my art practice.
This blog originally started out as a reflection on how nature can sustain and heal; never have I felt so held by the landscape around me as during these troubled times. I need to be in it like I need to drink water - the fear and uncertainty has driven me to bathe in nature's restful arms and connect with her ever changing light every day.
I feel much more thoughtful about everything I do; I'm slowed down and picking through the pathway of my life much more carefully and with greater attention to the subtle detail that lies everywhere along the road. I still see conflict everywhere. The internal battles we fight as we struggle to attain that elusive sense of inner peace. The wars that rage in the name of justice. Is this just an inevitable part of our human condition? More and more I see the nuances - we are neither simply good or bad, the oppressor or the oppressed. We are everything. It's just what we choose to reflect upon most that ultimately shapes who we become.
This summer we decided to abandon plans to jump on a flight to somewhere exotic and follow that subtle, dusty road north to the Scottish Highlands, reaching Loch Lomond, Ben Nevis and the Isle of Mull; a part of our island almost outrageous with moody beauty.
On our route back home I managed to pay a mini pilgrimage to Moffat; the town undoubtedly the seat of my Scottish ancestors. I am a result of the Scottish Plantation, Scots Irish, a combination that regularly made me wince in the past as people would proclaim we were 'not proper Irish', and inevitably connect us with Protestantism, Unionism and the role of oppressor in the Troubles.
For some time I considered that I had no right to sadness about the conflict that still rumbles in Ireland - surely I could lay no claim to sorrow about a situation that I must have benefited from? Now I know that no-one gains any advantage in war, killing, oppression and deep division. It may look like some have an upper hand from certain vantage points, but none of us know peace until we all know peace.
We all have the right to grieve the deaths of people killed in violent action, no matter whether we knew them or share the labels that others have placed upon us. A life is a life. We are all one people under one sky.
Gravestones bearing the name Moffat in the town's cemetery
Whilst in Northern Ireland visiting my Dad in March, I managed to meet up with the irrepressible Roberta Bacic once more. This woman is a diminutive yet dynamic force of inspiration; whilst I was mourning the loss of pre-Covid days, she gently reminded me that she had raised her children in the shadow of Pinochet – an era that they thought would last a year, but that oozed out into seventeen.
Pinochet ruled as a dictator in Chile – a country that I have had the great blessing to visit during an adventurous sojourn in Patagonia – commencing in 1973 just 2 years before I was born. To think of Roberta struggling miles across the globe as I grew up in my own grim circumstances reminds me that at this very minute someone is in the depths of their own conflict. Is conflict an evitable part of being human? I increasingly ponder this question the more I am absorbed in my work.
Roberta’s passion for Arpilleras and other Conflict Textiles was born during this time and I have written in a previous blog post about her vast knowledge and collection. I quote myself:
‘I am delighted to be returning to Limavady, Northern Ireland to see Roberta in action for her exhibition 'Embracing Human Rights: Conflict Textiles' Journey' at Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in March 2020 where I will have the honour of working alongside arpilleriastas from Spain, with the chance to learn more about the rich history of stitch in conflict.’
Sadly the workshop with the arpilleriastas did not come to pass due to travel restrictions that have beset the entire globe, but true to form, Roberta had still managed to pull the exhibition together in glorious form. I wander from piece to piece moved by the emotion stitched with dedication into each work. I am especially struck by an arpillera entitled ‘My Guernica’ that was created in the Basque Country by Edurne Mestraitua, exploring her family’s trauma of the fateful bombing 26th April 1937. Touchingly, she uses a pillowcase, which is a precious family heirloom, as backing. I am moved to tears by the delicate embroidery on the back of the pillowcase; the evidence of a human hand and a sense of history hurtling towards me through generations. As with Covid-19, I am overwhelmed by the knowledge that we are all connected, and every event sends out ripples across miles and years that we can never measure.
My final view of the exhibition, just before I descended the stairs and out into the Northern Irish grey light, was of the stunning Peace Quilt, created by Irene MacWilliam.
The catalogue entry for this item reads as follows:
'In this quilt, Irene MacWilliam expresses her deep concern for the loss of lives during The Troubles which impacted on every county and community in her native Northern Ireland.
As the work began to take shape, people sent pieces of red fabric to Irene for inclusion. The contributions came from Northern Ireland, Japan, the USA and England. Each piece of red fabric represents one of the more than 3000 people who died as a result of the conflict between 1969 and 1994. The white birds in some of the pieces represented to Irene the dove of peace; the teddy bear in another fabric reminds us of the many children who suffered from the loss of loved ones.'
I am reminded of the 3000 and the ripples that will extend beyond them for who knows how long.
The exhibition can be viewed online here:
My last blog entry was on 20th January and involved teasing hues from various food items to dye my old fashioned table linen. My biggest angst at the time was whether to add bicarbonate of soda or lemon to alter the pH pf my dye pot. Little did I know at that rosy and innocent time that the whole world would be, in politicians own words, ‘at war’ within a matter of weeks.
It seems that we’re no longer enjoying the apparent safety of the planet, cocooned in Mother Nature’s bountiful and generally harmonious arms. We all knew about the distant tragedies she could invoke – from Ebola to famine and tsunamis – but we didn’t think it would ever sit so quietly on our own doorstep. In the western world we soothed ourselves with the thought that we had made such collective advancements that we could bat back anything nature dared to throw our way. We were smug in our unshakeable certainty that we were in control.
Did we ever have safety anyway, or were we just labouring under the illusion of control that was never really ours?
Don Miguel Ruiz writes in the book ‘The Voice of Knowledge’:
‘You know, most people around the world believe that there is a great conflict in the universe, a conflict between good and evil. Well, this is not true. It’s true that there is a conflict, but the conflict only exists in the human mind, not in the universe. It’s not true for the plants or the animals. It’s not true for the stars or the trees, or for the rest of nature. It’s only true for humans.’
A part of me balks at the simplicity of this statement, but upon further rumination I believe it’s mainly about acceptance. Only humans find it difficult to accept the universe on its own terms and try so hard to control life itself in an attempt to morph and sculpt into something we find more palatable. The truth is, we never had any control over life – as my Nana would have said ‘you never know when you’ll be hit by a bus’. In some ways, we are no less safe than we have ever been, it’s just that the illusion of control has slipped and we have seen the somewhat gut wrenching truth that lies behind our shakily constructed facades – we do not control what happens to us.
One thing I do know for sure; non acceptance creates great inner conflict.
I faced my own personal conflict as the coronavirus situation started to gather a worrying pace; I had a trip booked to Northern Ireland to visit my father who currently faces his own daily battles with cancer. I found myself dealing with a stark dilemma: should I visit him anyway, risk picking the virus up on the plane and passing it on to him? Or should I exercise caution but possibly miss seeing him for the last time as is his life is taken by cancer? It was a quandary that I selfishly let him make the call on – he firmly wanted me to come.
Whilst back amongst the warm treacle accents I managed to visit Armagh for an exhibition of Troubles Art – on the very same day that the First Minister and Taoiseach were meeting in the town to discuss their respective approaches to the coronavirus crisis. An external and much greater danger had brought unity in their viewpoints for the time being at least. The artwork I viewed on that rainy morning was heavy and poignant – featuring, amongst others, imagery of Belfast residents riding black taxis at another time that public transport had been deemed unsafe.
I’m back in England now and I did not transmit coronavirus to my Dad. My own battle armour has cracked open and I realise that underneath all the tough, capable, white knuckled, timetabled activity that has been my ‘normal’ life, there is a soft, emotional creature yearning to be guided by the sometimes terrifying intelligence of the cosmos. I am simultaneously in grief and yet utterly relieved that I’m off the treadmill and that something that was striving so hard has broken into pieces. What a strange and discombobulating mixture.
Rather than taking me away from my work on conflict, this crisis has only drawn me deeper in, as I realise that a departure from inner harmony can be as painful as an external war. I see connections springing up everywhere where before there were none; we now have a WhatsApp group connecting everyone living on our street with talks of street parties once this is all over. Did we need this conflict to draw us closer together? Or is that just a naïve wishful thinking? I hope not.
Vaclav Havel wrote:
‘Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.’
I’m a self-confessed addict of vintage table linen. A delicately edged napkin; a faded hand embroidered tablecloth; stained, yellowed doilies. They have a wistful, yearning quality to me, with their fabric patina acquired from years of domestic and everyday use. They conjure up memories of childhood spent in Northern Ireland with vivid ease.
I’m constantly on the lookout for discarded treasures in charity shops, jumble sales and thrift stores everywhere I travel, so I was delighted to stumble across a little old lady selling a basket full of used napery at the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, the oldest fair in Ireland dating back to the 17th century. The atmosphere was replete with tradition provided by horse trading, country music and Irish dancing.
Goodness knows where she had acquired it all from, but it was freshly laundered and packaged into resealable plastic food bags and going for a song. I near enough purchased the lot, and dragged my bounty back to England with me for dyeing, sewing and chopping up into exciting fabric collages.
I adore the colours coaxed from nature; simmering cloth and paper with turmeric, onion skins, avocado and rusty items gives the substrates the most beautiful hues and marks. I’m constantly delighted by the element of surprise as I open bundles of fabric and paper wrapped up with leaves and oxidised nails and washers; the effects are almost always slightly unique no matter how much I replicate the conditions.
Once I have a bundle of fabrics and papers I am ready to start sticking and stitching them into a visual story that I hope pleases someone’s eye as much as mine, with the theme of conflict as my most used narrative. The dusty colours achieved from nature’s dyes complement the sombre mood of my work in a way that no manufactured paint could.
The colours of the earth are delicious, deep and dusky; they have a poignancy and subtle nuance that stirs my memories and reminds me that life is a complicated mixture of bittersweet experience.
In February 2019 I made my way up to London on a bitterly cold but bright day to visit The Gallery of Everything; a pilgrimage to this tiny temple of Outsider Art – a genre of art that I adore for its raw expression and unbridled courage. The exhibition featured the work of Belarusian artist Olga Frantkevick, starkly beautiful textiles about her experience of growing up in conflict.
The gallery writes of her:
‘Born in the former USSR in 1937, Olga Frantskevich was a child of war, living under German occupation until the age of seven. Taught by her grandmother to sew, and lacking in paper to draw, she began to embroider on sackcloth she found at the farm where she worked to support her family and younger siblings. In her eightieth decade, Frantskevich turned again to her family’s legacy of embroidery to capture her memories and the history of the war, exhibiting her works to the public for the first time on 2007. Frantskevich’s hand-woven tapestries tell, in brightly coloured and dreamlike tableaus, the story of the war. Personal stories, of her family, of her father, the partisan hero Kuprin Serger Gavrilovich, of a daily life of suffering punctuated by mundane chores and dreams of a better life. But they also capture, and preserve for future generations, the collective experience of the war.’
Fortuitously and unbeknown to me, I would make a connection at the exhibition that would deepen by understanding of stitching and conflict over the coming months. Roberta Bacic, a Chilean curator, human rights activist and Founder of Conflict Textiles who is currently living on Northern Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coastline, was present to give a talk about her collection of arpilleras. These evocative pieces are brightly coloured patchwork textile pictures made predominantly by groups of women, also known as arpilleristas. The construction of arpilleras became popular in Chile during the military dictatorship (1973–90) of Augusto Pinochet. With each piece containing a strong narrative thread, the women used them to tell the stories of the ‘disappeared’ – loved ones who had been taken by Pinochet’s cruel regime. Bacic has brought the arpillera tradition to Northern Ireland and other countries that have suffered conflict; holding exhibitions and workshops that invite local people to make their own stitched stories of war.
I was hugely excited to learn that Roberta lives just 10 miles or so from the town in which I was born, and I immediately contacted her to ask if she would meet with me during my summer visit. So kind and accommodating, she immediately invited me to her home for conversation and viewing of some of her collection. I was moved to tears by some of the imagery. Seventy years young, Roberta is filled with a vitality and passion about her field and travels the world, dedicated to furthering her work. I asked her why she had so readily agreed to see me and she simply replied, 'When someone shows such interest I feel it is a duty to respond.'
I am delighted to be returning to Limavady, Northern Ireland to see Roberta in action for her exhibition 'Embracing Human Rights: Conflict Textiles' Journey' at Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in March 2020 where I will have the honour of working alongside arpilleriastas from Spain, with the chance to learn more about the rich history of stitch in conflict.
Meantime the experience of meeting Roberta and benefitting from her wealth of knowledge leaves me astounded by the ability of the human spirit to express itself in any way possible through the most astounding of atrocities. It is deeply encouraging to witness how art can have such a profound and healing influence in these troubled times.
Roberta has a small selection of her collection on display at Ulster Museum, and you can find out more about her work:
It was 2013 when I visited Afghanistan; Finn and Paddy were 3 and 2 respectively. I still have the letters I wrote to them before I travelled – only to be opened in the event that I didn’t return. I’ve never been brave enough to read them since. Even as I write this, I can feel the emotion rising and swirling in my chest. Why I went, what I saw there. The fact that I bottled it all up in order to uncork and unpack another time when I felt more mature and more able.
I entered motherhood with my familiar baggage of crushingly low self-esteem. It settled on my back like a dull sickness when I was about 6 years old and never left my side. I don’t know how much of it came from our tempestuous family life troubled with alcoholism and violence, or the sullen atmosphere that enveloped our corner of the island steeped in conflict; most likely a tangled mess of both. All I know is that I rejected every aspect of my life in Ireland and in doing so cut off facets of myself.
The journey to Afghanistan started the process of reclamation. It was profoundly cathartic to meet women from all walks of life living, thriving and scraping by in a tumultuous mess of human misdeeds, conflict and tragedy. Of course I was drawn to that ravaged place by my own scarred upbringing – the flinching fascination with war. The one I will never forget is Nouria, a beautiful sad light shining out of her deep brown eyes, she had been raped by her father at a tender age and forced to bury the resulting stillborn baby in the back yard. Utterly sobering. A reminder that there are levels of suffering that make our own lives look like a picnic. In a selfish sort of self-obsessed panic I came back to the UK and thought about adopting her, but wiser folk reminded me that this would be an impossible task.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, I was seated at an intimate talk in Hastings with Dr Hakim and Maya Evans, a local Labour MP who has visited Afghanistan approximately 15 times since 2010 and who was kind enough to take me on my life changing trip. Hakim is the irrepressible supporter of the Afghan Peace Volunteers; an organisation that he lives and works with that promotes peace across Afghanistan. He explained in touchingly simplicity how the planet is experiencing a relationship crisis; a breakdown in our understanding that all humanity is connected. When one suffers we all suffer. I was reminded of the thing I knew unshakeably before that dark ache settled on me at the age of 6 – that love is the most important emotion we can ever hope to feel.
You can read more about the Afghan Peace Volunteers here:
You can read more about Maya’s Voices for Creative Non Violence here:
You can watch the film I made in Afghanistan here (containing interview with Nouria and others):
You can read the blog I kept during the making of the film here:
Let me be clear here; I didn’t know the Troubles the way some did. I didn’t lose a loved one, a limb, a life. But there is no war that affects only a few. Scars ravage deeply, tearing at the psyche of a nation. No-one looks out their window at their red, white and blue painted street, UVF flags fluttering innocuously on the breeze and thinks, ‘I’m safe.’
This most recent trip, I went back to have a careful, lingering look at the council estate I lived in until I was almost 7 years old. I remember it so clearly; playing with other children in the mainly car free streets that snaked round the houses, their kerbs painstakingly marked in the colours of the British flag. I hadn’t a clue what it meant. I didn’t understand the complexities that marked our estate as the property of the local UVF paramilitaries. But I can remember with a clear metallic taste in my mouth how heavy the air weighed around all of us, my family very much included. A patchwork of wispy recollections are knitted together in my mind; the sweet sound of John Denver’s country melodies, the vibrations through my chest of the Lambeg drum, the adults dancing and swaying drunkenly past me as I played with my dolls at their feet. The clinking of glasses as they poured more Vat 19, the tribal beats of the drums louder until I thought I would burst, great gusty lungs belting out old classic songs that harked back to a different and simpler time.
I remember the walk home from school, the short bike ride to the corner shops, the area of green where I planted some apple seeds, our patch of garden where my mother dug up potatoes, the holly tree at the front of the house, making mud pies with cow parsley sprinkled on top. A house burned out because there were informers living there.
We just didn’t know anything different. That was life, and I thought the whole world existed with that dense, dark atmosphere.
I was able to visit Northern Ireland this summer for some further probing into The Troubles, pondering how the conflict has shaped me alongside the stark, brooding landscape and slate grey roaring skies. One powerful morning I spent on the beach as my children sledged the sand dunes and I felt the elements full in my face; blustering, pummelling, crashing around me, with loud emotive wind borne cries - full of equal measures of hope and despair. It is a powerful place.
It's no wonder then that I've always been drawn to gritty, difficult places; coping with the births of my children by travelling to Afghanistan to make a documentary about the lives of women living there; thriving amongst the detritus of war and corruption. Living and working in Doha, Qatar, I eschewed the glitzy sanitised shopping malls for the smells and grime of a place I fondly nicknamed 'Little India'; where the many thousands of Indian workers would gather together to set up street corner restaurants, mend shoes and vend elaborate fabrics.
It's been 26 years since I've lived permanently in Northern Ireland and that's given me enough distance to return and investigate the environment with some objectivity. The trouble with residing in a place is that you can normalise the unacceptable - you no longer see what an outsider would see. The inherently threatening, intimidating imagery that surrounds during years of conflict can become invisible to weary eyes. During my visit I wanted to gain an understanding of what we all looked at as we walked the streets; going to school, the shops, church. The landscape on top of the landscape.
I hired a black taxi driver to take me the length of the famous 5 kilometre long Peace Wall in Belfast; separating staunch Protestant and Catholic areas, providing an uneasy peace in the form of an edifice towering higher than the Berlin Wall and covered with the markings of locals and tourists. What does this wall say? Protection? Defence?
For me, of course, it says fear. A haunting quote from a local child is printed on one section, 'We all love the 11th Night.....I like to carry the banner and the flag.' Another generation growing up to love the oppressive presence of hundreds of flags fluttering lightly on the breeze.