A blank canvas

Projects, War Widows Stories

Quilt ideas

I thought it might be of interest to record and share some of the creative thinking behind the project and the steep learning curve as it progresses…

At the start of the project I am faced with a blank canvas. No colours, fabrics, set themes, images, words are decided upon, the artwork can go in any direction. But I don’t want to go and meet my fellow collaborators with nothing, I prefer to go with a framework, ideas that can be discussed, elaborated on, edited or even teared up. So the fun begins.

fabric samples

Sampling for the War Widows’ quilt

Everything starts with the war widows themselves. Thankfully a lot of interviews and background material has already been gathered by Nadine Muller and her team. For me the artwork is another way to communicate the stories. So what might war widows’ want to communicate? And how do we celebrate their stories, their lives? their individualality? They have been left out of the history books, out of the museum collections, this quilt and poetry collection aims to make a small contribution to addressing this, it’s a domestically sized artwork with big ambitions.

Some of the most successful artworks I’ve collaborated on in the past are the ones that play the materials and techniques against the subject matter, for example in the artwork Fresh Air and Poverty, a quilt illustrating how the World Wars impacted poverty and strife, I choose sumptuous fabrics, associated with wealth and splendor, silks, satins, velvets, colours associated with royalty. I aim to make artworks that make you look twice, surprise and gently challenge. So this time I’m taking a selection of fabrics that have been worn by the armed forces, masculine, formal, speaking of authority. I bulk buy 50 shirts, and carefully take them apart, as I’m doing so the material whispers to me, some still smell of their last owner, are stained around the collar or cuff, some have a name written in marker on a label or hem. The structure of the shirt suggests things, the shoulder epaulet when removed from the shirt, becomes a decorative edge for the quilt. The shirt pockets could hold secrete messages, love letters…

I’m looking for inspiration for the quilt technique, something that is relevant and meaningful. A memory comes of a quilt seen at the Quilters’ Guild. ‘Crimea Quilts’, quilts were made by soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors, at around 1860-1880s… from military felted woollen fabric. The romantic story is that these were made by convalescing military men in their hospital beds. The actual history is rather fuzzy around the edges, we don’t know who taught men these skills, or exactly where they were made. Each quilt is unique, but many share a similar look. They are a intricate, beautiful, ambitious artform and seem a perfect starting off point. I start collecting images.

inspiration and ideas

Sampling, ideas and inspiration for War Widows’ Quilt

Each element of the artwork is thought through. I take to my first meeting with the War Widows’ Association the fabrics, images of the Crimea Quilts and suggestions for the sizes of the individual pieces we work on. Phil Davenport (the lead writer) has been talking about letter writing as part of the inspiration for the poetry collection. I’ve taken that idea and run. I’ve sampled tiny postage stamp size squares, patchworked together.  I’ve used the size of airmail letters and envelopes as templates for fabric rectangles, these I hope will be stitched onto with words or images.  I suggest the war widows write and stitch their names and the husbands with their date of birth and perhaps their husbands date of death.

Mary, embroidery

Mary’s and John’s names, DOB and John’s DOD. Work in progress

Our first meeting is a wonderful mix of laughter, lively discussion and food. Lots of food. The fabrics are examined and given approval and as I hoped spark of conversations. The ironing of those shirts, the men inside them. I am reminded not to leave anyone out- I put on my shopping list red fabric to represent the War Widows’ Association and tartans, how I love tartan.

workshop

Impromptu embroidery workshop

I am rather taken a back when members of the War Widows’ Association don’t just want to write their signatures and DOB, but they start to stitch, it’s 10 oclock at night and we are having a  fabulous impromptu embroidery session.  Un-finished work is carefully wrapped to be completed on train journeys home, in precious moments of peace.

I couldn’t have asked for more. Time now for more sampling, cutting out and preparation of hundreds of rectangles and squares of fabric. I might just have to get the iron out.

Lois Blackburn

 

Questioning the past

Projects, War Widows Stories

Talking with members of the War Widows’ Association at a formal dinner turned out to be a very informal affair, with much laughter and camaraderie. But it also produced a set of fascinating questions, devised by the women themselves, for us to ask as our work with the project War Widows’ Stories gets underway.

As we discussed these questions, little moments of people’s stories were shared. The shock of being told that your partner is dead, the impact of this violent news on everyday normality, that can never again be quite normal. The fear of telling children their father is dead — how to pass on cruel news kindly. Being a victim of gossip. Being angry because you’ve not been told the truth about the death. But most of all, how to get life started again.

Many people said, “We just got on with it.” But each and every one had a different way of doing so.

Here are the questions, some direct, some provocative, many very thought provoking. Perhaps as our project continues, we will find some answers. As well as more questions… 

As a war widow, what are you supposed to say, and what would you like to say?

Is the title war widow offputting? Even the term widow? How would you like to be known? Relict? Dependent? The last three digits of your husband’s service number?

Do you feel that people are on eggshells around you? They really want to ask: “Why are you a war widow?” What happened, and how would you like to tell it?

What didn’t you get told about your husband’s death?

We are trying to get to unknown history. How do we read between the lines of given history? The official version versus the spoken story, versus reality?

What are the words and images of your inner life? What symbols fit you? What phrases stay with you? What remains unspoken?

What is an object that symbolises your experience for you?

Why do you think people see widows as a threat to other people’s relationships? Have you been seen as a threat?

Was your grief ever used as gossip?

Was there a day when your burden suddenly seemed lighter?

survived with a little help

Trying out ideas for the War Widows’ Quilt.

 

Our ladies of the War

Projects, War Widows Stories

The Union Jack Club in Central London is a quiet pivot at the centre of British history. It is the club where people connected to the armed services traditionally come to stay when they’re in the capital. These doors have admitted corporals and Queens, generals and ghurkas. When you enter, you see wooden panels carved with the names of the heroes and (rarely) heroines of a hundred-plus years of wars. Colonial wars, anti-fascist wars, Cold War, the War on Terror, civil strife in Ireland, strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan. There are paintings of men on horseback, men in helicopters, jets, tanks, camouflage and bright red cavalry tunics. The library has deep green leather seats, and around you are the books that tell of these wars, titles like The Fall of Berlin, Rat’s Tales, Raiding the Reich, or No Time to Wave Goodbye.

breakfast

But we are not here to talk about battlefields, we are here to talk about their consequences.

Lois and I are staying at this iconic club to meet the group of women who run The War Widows’ Association, women whose remarkable lives bring a different perspective to those same battlefields.

Among the medals and the honour calls, they’ve also displayed great bravery in the face of conflict — but their stories are unheard, do not exist in the museums, are not recounted in the histories. And we are very privileged to be invited to take part in the first-ever gathering of their stories. Being arthur+martha, our contribution to this wider War Widows Stories will be a collaborative quilt and poems, that complement the oral history recordings and wider research currently being made by Dr Nadine Muller.

But today is a day for hellos, getting to know faces and gather ideas to fuel this longer conversation. The occasion right now is an evening meal for the regional managers of The War Widows’ Association: the big, bustling group is full of energy, jokiness, and a vibrant camaraderie as we sit down for tea. The cliche of widowhood is somber and soft-spoken, however this evening was spent talking loudly, eating heartily, laughing loud.

And yet, as we talked, other resonances came into the conversation— flashes of sadness, anger, my own memories of growing up around soldiers, and my mother who is also a widow. And suddenly this space, that seems so certain in its carved memorials and its place in history, is full of questions. And we wonder how to speak about it…

Philip Davenport, Oct 2018

 

Lois Blackburn introducing the art making to the War Widows’ Association. Photo courtesy WWS.

arthur+martha give thanks to our supporters for this project Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, Liverpool John Moores University, Royal Museums Greenwich, the Imperial War Museums, the National Memorial Arboretum and the Heritage Lottery Fund.