Monday, 26 August 2019

The PhD: the Beginning

This is another poem which I wrote after starting work on my visuals. I am listening to other survivors' stories from the height of the Troubles and, stitching and painting about some of the things that happened, memories come back to me of my own experiences.

There was one particular event when I completely believed myself to be dead and was somewhat surprised to find myself still on this side of the grave! In truth, this experience has never left me. One of the no-warning bombs went off and I felt the push of the blast. I was at Queen's University in Belfast to attend a lecture but the lecturer had been delayed in London so the lecture had to be cancelled. This turned out to be quite providential, as the room where the lecture was to be held caught the full force of the blast  -  afterwards, it was a complete mess of broken glass and splintered wood. I had only recently graduated, so I went instead to a nearby room to consult career journals.

As the bomb went off, everything in the room seemed to melt like jelly, steel shelves shimmering and running like liquid, and I blacked out. I have no recollection of hearing anything, I was probably temporarily deafened but I felt a great excitement when I thought I had gone into death and no thoughts came to me of any anger at the perpetrators. It seemed an amazing thing that I had just died! My presumably last thought had been in connection with the Futurist painters and was, 'Are these molecules actually jumping apart or only appearing to jump apart?'  I went down into blackness and emerged into a white light, peaceful, like milk, where I existed purely as thought with no sensation of physical being at all. I waited to be met and to become or be made aware of what existence I now had. It was only when I realised that the little gold sparkles which appeared in the light after some time  -  I had always hoped it would be pretty!  -  slowly twisting and turning, really were dust motes shining in the sun that I foun I hadn't died after all! My emergence after this time in the white light, I don't know how long it was, into what was this mortal life, then seemed like the other side of the coin.

What had happened was that I had been pushed forward into steel shelves housing the journals and had then been hurled backwards, finishing up feet away against a wall. It took some time to think myself back into a physical body, miraculously in one piece, which could move. I had lost consciousness because I had hit my head first at the front and then at the back  -  I remember the pain and the blinding headaches for days afterwards  -  but I was alive, I am alive, I have had so much life since.

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 a -p - art, ripped and sh -  re - dd ed into

         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.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Fragility Exhibition

The Fragility Exhibition with Prism at Hoxton Arches seems to have been and gone so quickly! It's already well over a month since it ended and now we're looking to the next venue, the RBSA Gallery in Birmingham where our exhibition will open on Tuesday 8th October, closing on Saturday 19th  October with a Private View on Saturday 12th in the afternoon. I'll be there at the PV and am also stewarding on Sunday 13th in the afternoon.

I have two works in this exhibition, the wall piece A Sacrifice Too Great and little artist's book A Quiet SingingThe wall piece is made up of silk-painted and digitally printed fabrics, opaque and transparent, on a linen base with inclusion of dried flower petals and is hand stitched throughout. The book A Quiet Singing, also all hand stitched, is made up using mostly two different types of paper, linen and silk-painted fabrics.

A Sacrifice Too Great

I made this piece thinking of the fragility of society, how a peaceful situation can so quickly become one of terror and uppermost in my mind was what might happen to the position of the border in Ireland following Brexit and what impact this might have for the people of Ulster. The last thing we want is some sort of return to the violence and tension of the Troubles.

In the piece, the violence is represented by the shadowy figures of the gunmen, seen in this detail above and by the building where an explosion is happening, as seen in the detail below.

Stitched beneath the gunmen is a little scene from one of the many trips I made to one of my favourite places in Northern Ireland, a beautiful area of water and islands, Strangford Lough. I was born in Newtownards, at the head of the lough and we lived not far from it. In the background behind the water and near-ground islands, are the lilac forms of the Mourne Mountains. I love the water, the springy volcanic soils of the islands, the hills and valleys of the mountains.

These places were visited in the peaceful years of my childhood and their beauty is locked forever in my soul, the tangy salt of the rippling water, heady coconut smell of gold-yellow whin blossoms, spring of pine needles underfoot on wooded slopes. But the mountains were also visited in my adulthood when they were places where gunmen had hide-outs in the secret folds of the hills and I witnessed this myself on two occasions when men looking at myself and those I was with through binoculars, ran towards us across the fields, rifles in hand. We escaped driving fast on the narrow mountain roads.

The sleeping child represents both the fragility of humanity and also the vulnerability of children themselves. In sleep especially, the child needs to be safe and protected and one of the cruellest aspects of conflicts, it seems to me, is when the young suffer for the political aims of others particularly when these aims are sought through violent means.

I thought carefully about what fabric to to use to cover the child. The little boy was originally a drawing then watercolour of my son asleep when he was just under four years old, snuggled up under his favourite blanket. In the original drawing he held a favourite toy-companion not included in this portrayal. The fabrics that I chose to use are some of my silk-painted chiffon and organza, again not in the colours of the blanket in the original painting but in a neutrality of almost autumnal bronze-golds. These fabrics are semi-transparent though I chose not to use this characteristic over the child's form which is curled up and hidden beneath layers of covering. The folds are created through manipulating the fabric into the shapes I want then securing these with the positioning of small running stitches. In my work I use running stitch as I would a brush or pen, choosing the length and direction of every sitch I make and working in this way, the cloth maintains its sculptural folds in this and other pieces with no need of spray or fixative. 

This little figure floating on the linen ground shows just two of the many methods which the textile medium offers the artist, his body and pyjamas formed through through a network of hand stitches and coverings built up using the sculptural properties of the cloth itself.

My choice of linen as ground fabric is significant in that I have personal connections to the fabric itself and it has a great social and economic significance in Ireland. My grandfather was a designer of embroidery images for Belfast Linens in the early to mid-twentieth century and two of my cousins run a firm producing linen goods in Dublin bequeathed to them by my uncle who first worked for and later became the owner of the firm. The linen industry was very important to the Irish economy and, along with shipbuilding, to the growth of Belfast in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries particularly. Belfast was granted city status in 1888 and the city became the capital of Northern Ireland in 1921 following the formation of Northern Ireland as a political entity in 1920.

Silk-painted linen pieces are also stitched to the raw ground of the bleached linen where their colour and prominent forms add sombre voices to the work. To use linen fabric within textiles as creative medium brings with it associations of domesticity and familiality and also connotations with the wider economy and society which working with a medium such as oil painting would not do. Linen has a powerful voice and brings with it these associations of industry carried out in peace and domesticity of the family to the images of conflict in my work on the Troubles.

Visitor looking at  A Sacrifice Too Great in Hoxton Arches Gallery, London

The wall piece then speaks of the vulnerability of both humanity and society and the little book A Quiet Singing takes the discussion further to speak about the violence of the conflict of the Troubles but also the level of reconciliation achieved after the Peace Process of the late 1990s and the desire to continue living with this peace, however imperfect and despite tragic breakings that have occurred. Poems also speak of human relationships and the power of love.

Front cover of A Quiet Singing

The book includes images and five complete poems and is made up using Saunders Waterford paper 300 gsm with its lovely smooth surface, ideal for the words of the poems, the textured surface of Indian rag paper and fabrics including linen, cotton, organza and silk-painted mulberry bark.

The poem Belfast: Lagan Revisited is the second one on the book and starts with the lines:

It was black and red then;
shadows darker than coal
blood-bright puddles reflect
flames   shooting  high, colour
the night sky;

The words of poem go over two pages in the book and this is the first page

This image shows the book during making

As you will have seen from the above excerpt, colour features prominently in this poem and I used the properties of the organza itself to enhance what the words are saying. Silk-painted in red, the organza fabric was cut into sections that were hand-stitched together then placed within a 'frame' of  Saunders Waterford paper. Although the fabric page was created in a relationship with the poem that follows, it also forms a page in its own right and words from the poem and beyond are hand written on the fabric's paper 'frame'.

The organza page in its finished form. This also illustrates how the words of the poem are seen through the fabric.

The poem Gift: for my Father is another of the poems featured and included with it is this Portrait of my Father. The image is a photograph of an embroidery digitally printed onto cotton and mounted on Indian rag paper.

My father died in December 1991 and I wrote the poem for him in the autumn just about a year after he had died in words that came to me as I thought about him while listening to the wonderful cadences of Barber's Adagio. Music has an almost mystical power to move us and reach into the very core of our being and, although on revision I have played about with the position of the words, especially later in the poem, the words themselves remain essentially as they came to me to the flow of the violins from somewhere in the very depths of my soul. The image has featured in the MA Anthology a Grain of Sand published by Aberystwyth University and the poem begins:-

Beyond the window, wan grey sky
seeps onto rooftops, clothes-line
drips the reign of autumn;
within the room, I sit, still,
close my eyes and follow    
strings of violins sing sounds
of Barber’s ‘Adagio’, silk,
beneath sparrow’s pipe-trilled pizzicato;

I feel that when I am writing poetry, it is a process akin to writing music which I have also done during my life  -  many years ago, music almost became my main area of study and although my life moved in a different direction, the rhythms and sounds of music have continued to remain an important part of my creative process in the various media in which I work  -  colour, cloth, stitches, words  -   and I have at home a piano and a guitar which are precious to me.

One of the book's closing pages

Pictured here are A Sacrifice Too Great and A Quiet Singing on exhibition in Hoxton Arches Gallery. White cotton gloves were supplied so that visitors could safely look through the book and this method worked well in the exhibition with visitors making use of the gloves to examine what they wanted of the book.

Visitor making use of the gloves to look through the book

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

After Lyra

I haven't been keeping up with my blog for some time but I felt I must do this post today after watching the funeral of journalist Lyra McKee in St. Anne's Cathedral, Belfast.

What I am going to put in is a poem I actually wrote a couple of years ago that puts forward fears I had concerning what might happen to and within Northern Ireland in relation to Brexit. I was born and grew up in Co. Down and, after studying in Aberystwyth for my initial degree, returned to Ireland to work in Belfast at the height of the Troubles.

This was a very difficult time and, on one occasion, I was caught up in a bombing incident that led me to believe myself to be dead. At this time, I was a couple of years younger than Lyra and, not to tell the whole story just now, I felt thrown into a white light by the blast; formless and bodiless, I waited to find out just what form my spiritual being might now take and, after some time had passed, came to realise with great astonishment that the golden sparkles drifting and twinking before and around me heralded my continuing being in this mortal existence!

The experience had given me the overwhelming feeling that life and death were two sides of the same coin and, somehow, I was still on this mortal side and I have been for several decades since.

I have tried not to waste my time but have tried to live, in love, as best I can and use what I've been given. Sometimes, the onslaughts of my illness make me feel not up to the struggle to continue but I know how precious life is and I take measures to help, physical and spiritual, aided not least with Arthur's continuing love and support and the love and support of family and friends. One day, I won't be able to continue and the only things I fear about this are perhaps not being able to finish things started here or that are in my head still to do and the other, of course, the wrench of parting from loved ones. But this parting will not be forever, it is the love that is eternal and everything done in and for love will not end in pain but in a depth of love so warm and so joyful, it cannot be expressed in words or contained within this mortal frame.

At this time, as well as the shooting that killed Lyra McKee, we have too, the dreadful sense of futlity and pain following the appalling violence and loss of life in New Zealand and Sri Lanka; but the cruelty and blind ideologies that led to this taking of life pale before the strength of compassion and love that reach out after such atrocities; they will not have the last word.

This poem then, is, with the greatest of sadness but in the hope and unity of love, for Lyra.


I draw words down with
every thread, like birdsong
punched out of the dark.

Light plays on silk and
cotton fibres piercing
through the virgin linen  -

sparks candle-flame and
burning heat, not velvet
consolation of petals
smoothed between
fingers but spatter of air-

cracked moment, history's
strangle-hold in the now-but-
then thinking;    diffusing and

diffusing and diffusing,
walk back further and
further, petrol-tanker
holds its load of fickle
fuel, city's centre retains
                    stone on stone  -
racing blood
           beats a normal rhythm.

Surely not again mangled flesh
sorrowed on news headlines,
torn apart to sate what God-
forsaken desire, knock on the
door and a nation's grieving
              and for what,
                                          for what?       

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Poetry and Prints at Mid Wales Arts Centre

An exhibition with a difference this time for me, as I'll be there as a poet rather than an artist!

Normally, I would give readings of my poems at exhibitions of my artwork but this time I am taking part purely in my role as poet! I've had to move away from etching at the moment but that doesn't stop me enjoying the work of others and I have responded to the print Flora-1 in a new exhibition opening very soon at Mid Wales Arts Centre.

Cathy at MWAC has done a light, airy barn conversion to extend her lovely gallery space and I'll be going both to the opening of the Poetry and Prints Exhibition on Sunday 24th March then I'll return on Sunday 31st March to read my poem Nocturnal Whispers at the special Poetry Event organised by Pat Edwards.

I know some of the artists and poets but will be meeting others for the first time. Really looking forward to seeing all the prints exhibited, reading my poem and meeting and talking with everyone!