Who Owns words once they are spoken

Last night was the closing party to Celebrate ‘Making Ways’. I came back from London especially for it. ‘Making Ways’ was an ambitious 3 year programme to support artists in Sheffield.

I stood in a group of people at Sidney and Mathilda last night and felt a deep sense of pride to have been a small part of what has happened here in Sheffield over the last three years, with funding for the arts and Artists developing from it, me included.  Most of all, I was proud of Janet Jennings who has tirelessly co-ordinated the project of over hundreds of artist applications, events, workshops, gallery programmes, supporting new staff and studio workspace development.   The Cultural Consortium of Sheffield bid for the money and won it, but it was / is Janet who has held it together.

In January 2018, during my MA in Knitting at NTU, I applied for an R&D grant in the 2nd round of Open Calls.  It was my first ever application – ever, ever. It was a pure application, heartfelt, possibly a little naïve, but for me –  very focused.  Out of 98 applications in that Open Call round, I was firstly shortlisted then, one of 7 who were successfully awarded the money for either their project or R&D. I was grateful and earnest but didn’t fully understand what the impact of that grant would mean to me.  I met with Janet to talk it over and planned then went to the furthest inhabited island in the UK – Unst – the home of Shetland lace knitting.

My application was called ‘Vod’ – and empty place.   Vod is a Shetland word for an abandoned or empty place.  I had fallen in love with the many abandoned croft houses that lie across the whole of Shetland.

I aimed to use a concentrated period of 10 days in May 2018 to:

  • Travel to and work in Unst Heritage Centre to research primary lace knitting and to record stories from the women who still create fine lace and of their ancestors. 
  • Find derelict crofts on the island of Unst, research and record the oral histories of these abandoned homes. (which I have started to do)
  • Make site specific work using photography as a platform develop a relationship between Contemporary Art, the stories of women knitters in Unst, the crofts, dialect and the elemental landscape.
  • to experiment with a one-off pop-up summer installation in a found derelict place on Shetland (agreed by the land owner) to develop audiences for photographic contemporary art which tells a story.

I already had one amazing contact on the small island of Unst (Rhoda) and over the previous two years had built up relationships with many knitters on mainland Shetland.

This was an ambitious aim in 10 days.  I embarked on the 9 hour train journey to Aberdeen from Sheffield, the 12 hour overnight ferry to Lerwick, the 2 local buses and 2 interconnecting island ferries to get me to the northern tip of Unst.  36 hours after setting off, I arrived. I’d done my ‘ethics’ training at NTU, I’d brought my books and recording equipment, cameras, laser cuts and power shima knitted lace entirely inspired by Shetland, its heritage and culture- I was ready.

I was a fresh, naïve 54 year old from a city who had spent many weeks on Shetland with women who enjoy talking of their knitting heritage and knew my stuff,  but Unst is a different land.

The thing I mainly learned is that even if you are trusted by one person in a small community, on a tiny island (some of whom have never left the island in their lives) it is not an instant green light access to connect with everyone.   I was taken in by a wonderful woman who was chair at Unst Heritage Site – Rhoda, who took me places and talked of her ancestors who knitted to subsidise the income of the family. I have beautiful recordings of her talking of her mother and aunt.  I spoke to other women but none wanted to share information, saw fine lace knitting,  I found abandoned croft houses that I fell in love with and recorded their soundscapes, I watched the sea, learned of the press gang stealing Shetland boys. I saw, heard and felt so many amazing things that it was the changing of me in a long chain of change.  

The main thing on the Island of Unst that I quickly learned and reflected on was that some lace knitters do not like to share what they knit or make in case you steal the pattern or idea and make it your own. This was definitely not my aim but it dawned on me after a few days and there was nothing that I could do that could change that in my 8 day stay.  Over months, I would have fully engaged, been part of the community and eventually been trusted and accepted. The major deeply moving light-bulb moment came when I understood that not many would talk to me about the past and the history of knitting because then the words would be out and I would have heard and possibly, they would no longer be theirs.  This learning was something that ‘ethics’ training cannot teach. You learn it by being in it.

In Unst, I wrote to Janet part way through the night in late May and remember writing – ‘who owns words once they are spoken’.   This is the main thing I learned at that time but since the R&D trip. But it is not the main thing that I felt and saw. I know that you earn the voices that you hear spoken and that those words are not yours. Since the R&D, I have gathered confidence, learned a new language, and found an honest understanding of my creative practice and built an aim to go further. 

After graduating, I applied for and was lucky to be accepted on the AA2A Artist In Residence scheme at Sheffield Institute of Arts.  This one year residency has built on my skills and technique and given me the absolute freedom to make work in that amazing building but I would not have applied for the AA2A had I not had the leg-up from the Making Ways  R&D grant in 2018. 

Last night I felt proud of Janet, of Sheffield, of Art and Sheffield, even a little proud of myself because I haven’t finished yet. There’s still so much to learn and research and find out and make.  I’m always just at the beginning of something new but there is so much more.

These few words are written in gratitude to Janet Jennings and ‘Making Ways’ Sheffield.

from Shetland to Sheffield Institute of Arts

Dear Gentle Reader,

In your haste to pass from one place to another, you may have accidentally fallen across this inessential corner and stopped for a moment, caught by the sight of cut paper or printed ink.   

This place of scattered and fragmented light, which writes across the sill, is an echo of everything that I have been in search of for some time now.

I have been here before, in a place of contemplation, only to wonder how many women have stood before me and looked out of this seaward facing window or leant against the door frame, waiting for their man to come home from the sea, knowing that he may not return.  The ever-present harsh wind, a constant reminder, battering the window pane and whipping the grass into knee high tufts.

Then, everything was about surviving and longing and waiting. Now, if you look, you can trace this across the walls in abandoned Croft houses on Shetland, some of which bear traces of decoration lovingly painted by the families that have long since moved away.

The world reveals itself to those on foot and I’m glad to have met you.

Tracey Doxey is a knitter, researcher, traveller, site-specific artist, writer and currently, an AA2A Artist in residence at Sheffield Institute of Arts until the end of September 2019.

R&D part two – Burrafirth, Unst, Shetland

Day 2 and 3

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What happens on an R&D trip to ‘record oral histories’ is:

For weeks running up to leaving – there are endless thoughts and ideas and planning

2 days before leaving for the trip, there’s overwhelming excitement

1 day before leaving for the trip, I become subdued

2 days of traveling, to the very end of the furthest island of our country

On arrival, I feel an urgency to get things done.  Then a slow realisation that time moves differently, so I roam the locality  – getting a ‘feel’ of the place.

2 days into the trip and I get the chance to meet the person I have been contacting who is my ‘hope’.

The meeting is tagged onto the end of a visiting tour group talk – it’s practical to do so – after all, it is 10 miles from home to the Heritage Centre. I have zero idea of how anything will go at this initial meeting – if we’ll get on, if I’ll be able to ask questions and – exactly what questions, for that matter?

We meet. Formalities are covered – ethics forms – respect and conduct from both parties.

I have to cover so much ground in so little time which encompasses: meeting someone new (for us both), judging the way the conversation is going – not steering or guiding it but by being natural and building trust.

Then, the whole day turns out to be a gift – a joy, because we become instant friends and trust / respect is the base – born out of two years of learning, researching in practice and theory to get to this place and person.

We nip to the tea room for lunch ‘The’ wedding is on the TV which is propped on top of a chair on the counter – The most northerly tea shop in the UK is heaving with people watching it – broadcast from sunny London. She walks around the tea room greeting most people – everyone knows everyone here, or they soon will.

I am invited to her home, the local area, she freely drives us around, offers tea and parkin and shows me Ham Beach, a place of great beauty surrounded by derelict crofts and an old fishing station house. We talk about endless topics and 6 hours flies by. She is incredibly generous of spirit and I hope to match that. There’s the offer of another meeting, a dictaphone recording and, I don’t entirely recognise the significance of it all but I am aware of understanding context and being here and a good woman willing to talk to me about her ancestors and I’m grateful.

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I go back to the hostel and listen to the recordings of her over and over again. The recordings lead to ideas. There are snippets which already develop my understanding of this place and what it was to be a knitter here in the early 1900’s.

I tried not to talk when she was talking but the conversation would have stopped. It is not about what I have to say but about what she says and, on my part, listening. Really listening.

Day Two

I dip at the magnitude of all of this that I have set out to do. Technical skills development on the road with a camera that isn’t mine and a Dictaphone I can’t switch on. The tripod is heavy and I don’t know the equipment well enough for it not to be a noticeable part of the conversation.

I dip because I want to record, film, write, make site specific work, FIND the right place, the right location to set up my work, to research its history, to feel the life that was, I need time to find the right ‘knitters ’ that live here now, read the censuses of knitters past, film everything with a camera that is neither mine nor I’m used to, record sound without the ever present wind, get from A – B in long distances on a bike, get people to trust me and all in 10 days – 2 already gone, I am dipping fast at the daunting prospect of it all. Will there be enough time, will I capture what I hope, will I achieve what I set to do in the R&D application. Critically evaluating before I have even started isn’t a good way forward.

On the third morning, I learn the Dictaphone whilst walking along the road down to Norwick beach. I record myself until I understand the stages of the recording facility – Record, talk, listen, delete over and over until I get it. I hear the background noises through the headphones and more ideas for recording come to me. Ambient sounds. Sheep, lambs bleating, sea gulls, the sea, other birds I don’t know, lapping water at a mill, the wind, always the wind.

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On returning, I discuss the hideous bike booking system with the hostel manager – 3 hours later, I get a bike. On a Sunday afternoon, the sun comes out – my life changes again.

Burrafirth

I bike towards Burrafirth but there are no signs to show when I’ve arrived. There’s just a spectacular beach in an inaccessible cove, a 3-mast ship sitting on the surface of the crystal sea and a croft house, visible from the road, with initially what seems to be some of the plus points that make it work for my site-specific work.

What I know works for site specific art

1. roofless croft house (good light)

2. 2 rooms, a barn and a byre

3. Windows and door still in the structure

4. Sea view

5. Remnants of a past life are like jewels

• Fire place / wood around a window

• Door intact / paint on anything -this

disappears over time

The derelict croft house on the hill is instantly perfect, two windows without glass, an open porch, a doorway, the most magnificent view and as I walk up the hill, it has ‘a crowning glory’.   Sitting like a rusty jewel in the roofless porch is a dulled pea green enamelled, rusted and stoic looking little ‘prairie’ stove. It’s perfect because it has a visible history and I can work in it and place lace or laser cuts at the windows – not for decoration but as a testament to and a celebration of the generations of knitters who once lived in this tiny two roomed place, miles from anywhere. I initially fail to recognise that this is Stack houll, – a croft house that I had earmarked two days earlier in the heritage centre when reading the censuses. There was a drawing and a photo of it from the 80’s -its porch standing proudly along with lists of knitters ‘by occupation’ living there since the mid 1800’s.

I take photos, feel the core of the place, the stove, the view, the nails in the wall, the low barn doorway. The wind wildly flapping anything flappable, fabric lace snags on every nail, stone, splinter and I make a good start. I pack up knowing that I will return. As I’m leaving this isolated place, a car pulls up onto the grass verge by the road. In all the moments, in all the day, in all the places possible and not possible – by chance, it is Rhoda. I meet her at the roadside and we return to Stack houll together. She’s come for the very first time herself. I follow her around with the dictaphone – hardly daring to speak – in the hope of capturing her joy of meeting this amazing place. She talks of her mother getting ‘the watter in’ her croft house when she was first married. No one had water in the house until the 50’s here. Then Rhoda, like me, stood at the door and wondered how many women had stood there before us looking out to sea to see if they could see the men returning from deep sea fishing.

Some, never returned.

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