Secret Letter Writing

Secret Letter Writing

The Stories of Six Strong Women and an Artist

For me creative process is like writing secret letters to people who will never get to read them. It's preparation for the talking, which I'm not so good at. Secret letters are safe, you can write everything you think and feel, which for me is a lot more than I’d ever tell the person who isn’t going to get the letter. By the time I actually talk to the person whom the letter addresses, the version they get is a lot more polished.

It’s the same with an exhibition. What I think of making and the process it takes to make the work is a raw, messy, explosion of thinking and feeling, those secrets never appear in the final work. What the viewer sees is the carefully curated end result. This blog is an account of some of the raw, messy explosion. Letting the secret out.

The first version I make is never what gets exhibited, and a lot happens in between. It’s the hidden process so many creatives can’t live without, that I want to unveil here. Letting all those carefully folded pages and bits of red string come undone.

There’s always a political issue I want to explore publicly. It’s often about women, refugees and climate change. I like to make work that looks beautiful, but makes people uncomfortable when they read the statement. It’s a metaphor for the way I see the world. I see things that are shiny and attractive on the surface and I’m seduced by that, often. Like cloth for example. But then I think about the woman who made the cloth for $1 a day and I wonder, what happens at home for her? What can I do to help? Other times it’s my massive, greedy carbon footprint and how that contributes to climate change and environmental refugees. Basically I’m contributing to their shit situation. It makes me feel uncomfortable, all the time.

I get inspired by things I read. Some things stay with me. Like this extract from 'The Atomic Weight of Love' written by Elizabeth J. Church.

I use art as a platform for talking about things in public which people struggle to talk about. I'm in conversation through my work. I ask people to think past the shallow level of analysis we so often get presented on TV, I guide them to explore how they feel and what they think beyond the emotive first response.

This project celebrates the achievement of strong women in the Townsville Community, for them the personal is political. Women who hold it all together, quietly, without taking up much air time.

Once the topic is set in my mind I figure out what I’m going to make to tell the story. Paper sculpture, knotting, installation or sewing? This time, it’s sewing. Dresses, six of them. To represent Dr Rosita Henry, Jeanette Wyles, Dr Anneke Silver, Meg Davis, Shirley Close and Virginia Hurst. These strong women have been writing secret letters professionally for a long time. Their contribution to the community and their families is well thought out, informed and polished from years of hard work.

It’s a different mindset when I’m creating in partnership or collaboration with others. This is the first time I’ve worked with a group of women to share their stories through art and to highlight the important contribution women make to the community. It's intimidating making a dresses to represent strong women.

I had to think about a dress design which would suit all six women. So something fairly neutral, but strong and also welcoming. I spent a lot of time researching, old books, new books, websites, magazines. It’s pretty frantic around this point. Then it calms down a bit when I get that happy feeling, ‘I found the dress’! Print, quick.

Choosing the cloth is never easy, I stick to cloth that feels a bit raw. I like buying a whole bolt, even if I don't need it. There's something about carrying that roll of cloth to my car, driving it home and then leaning it up against the wall. There just is.

A whole bolt of cloth

Next comes working out how to make the pattern. Things change in this period. I found a black number in my cupboard which was pretty close to the eureka moment printed image. Thank you Elly Murrell, you gave me that number.

the pattern sample

Then I make a factory:

  • Adapt the pattern.

  • Cut out the template

  • Roll out the bolt of cloth, get a nice straight double layer.

  • Trace the template

  • Before pinning, figure out which way around to place the pins, so it’s a smooth run on the machine.

  • Pin the double layer around the tracing.

  • Cut

  • Start messing around with pleats and add ons.

  • Think about how to customise each dress.

This is when all 2 675 tabs in my internet browser stay open and running.

I sit there and look at the first dress. Drink cups of tea (look at the dress), do a backbend (look at the dress), walk the hill (think about the dress), do laundry ( look at the dress), eat some food (look at the dress) think about the women I’m representing with the dresses (look at the dress).

Research pleat folding techniques, You Tube, you are my friend. But not so much the annoying people who talk for ages before they just show me what to do! More pleat folding (look at the dress).

I realise I don’t want the dresses to be white, they should be pale, light, just a whisper of a ghost, grey.

Research emergency dying techniques. Call a friend, get some tutoring.

By now my whole living space is transformed into a studio and there’s a spot for everything. It’ll stay that way till the end, when the work is installed and I’m hoovering the last pins and bits of string off the floor.

The situation manifests in my mind by about then too. It gets empty enough. It makes space for creativity.

It’s so peaceful I feel happy to do endless repetitive tasks. All that shit we call life and pretend to enjoy, just fades into white noise. I hear the blades of the scissors cut into the cloth. I feel the cloth in my hands, how it slips over my skin. I I forget to change the album which has been on repeat since I don’t know when. I work till it feels link I have glass eyes.

I often long for people at this point, wanting to share how I feel and what is going on in my mind, but I know that anyone else's presence will totally change the dynamic. Time to be alone. It's only when I'm alone for long periods of time that the bliss comes. People find that hard to understand.

Time to dye.

Make the samples.

A friend helps me. How much water, how much dye. Will the pins affect the dye? Make a sample, is this too dark? Add some water, make another sample. Pre-soak the dresses first. Water play. Big tubs in the backyard near the hills hoist. Stained feet and hands.

Do the dishes, take out the bins (go check the dresses) Panic about the colour (go check the dresses) Bring them in when they are dry.

Leave them in their spot for a few days (look at them). Go to work (think about them).

Spread out all the treasures which could be added to them.

Some new things I chose because of their colour or texture.

Some old things I've collected on the beach, things people gave me, things I collected because I thought I might need them, things I've used before.

My creativity often spreads then to writing and taking photos.

Your territory remaining untouched, endures a dull ache (all those quiet tears cried as they wash the laundry)

Seeping leak with unknown source (the doilies are clean, everything seems fine)

unravelled unwound undone (she runs the water over the dishes, trying to ignore how much her shoes hurt her feet)

Love her like the ocean breaks on the shore

Love you like open hearts love warm tears of joy

In between all of this I'm sewing the individual dresses. Testing colours and add ons. At this point it all just comes from nowhere. The creativity is omnipresent. I find it easy to say no to social invitations and I find it hard to cope with intrusions into my space and time. I just want to get on with it, alone.

Anneka Silver

Meg Davis

There is a massive sense of relief as I hang the first mostly completed works up. Keep working on the next pieces (look at the nearly finished ones). Cook dinner (look at the nearly finished ones). Go to yoga (think about the nearly finished ones). What's missing, what should I add, is that enough detail? Will it look ok in the collection with the other dresses?

When the works are finally finished and I can see them all there together I always cry a bit. It's a mixture of things. The process of creativity is complete for now which leads to a sense of loss. I measure my life and my achievements by how frequently I can arrange things so that I have time to engage in making my own artworks. There's the relief that it's over and all those ideas are out. My mind and my body can slow down a little. There's the separation anxiety, all those works won't be in my space anymore, the things I've made will be out there in the public eye and I must let them go with good grace. This is when I feel content, there's no endless mind chatter about my expectations. Did I meet them? have I become who I want to be? I realise that the only real expectation I have is to make, if it turns out well, that's a bonus. Generally I don't really care if I show the work or if some people don't like it. Of course if they do, that's lovely. But some one else's idea of me or their deadline for me and weather or not I've acquired success doesn't mean anything.

I like to invite writers to do a professional job for the exhibition comment. It's good to gt an outside perspective. This time the lovely Carla Hutchinson-Reade has done a wonderful job describing the project.

By now it's time to document the work. This is when I show the works to other people. This time the wonderful photographer Gabrielle Bohl was the first person to see them when she came over to take these fabulous photos of the works.

Dress for Anneke Silver

Anneke Silver

Dress for Meg Davis

Dress for Jeanette Smallwood-Wyles

Dress for Shirley Close

Dress for Rosita Henry

Dress for Virginia Hurst

I would like to thank all the strong, amazing women who participated in this project. It has been a really fantastic experience.

This project was funded by the Regional Arts Development Fund through the Townsville City Council.


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