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.

‘Vod’ an unoccupied, empty place.

I am a Contemporary artist who works with textiles and photography.  I am also a knitter – sometimes a pretty good one.  And, I suppose I’m a designer of contemporary lace knit.

Recently, I took my knitting, which is fine lace knit,  back to the place of original inspiration, which, for my current project is Shetland.  I take the lace back to a found derelict croft – a home where knitting certainly would have taken place and lace could have also once been knitted there. The project is called ‘Vod’ which is a Shetland word for Unoccupied / Empty place.

Shetland has many derelict crofts, sometimes quite plain and simple, sometimes with a yard and gate, some with modifications such as a lean-to toilet room but always, they are deeply moving. There’s something powerful in the traces that can be seen of what  once was, their remoteness and their outlook. They all have a soul.  It’s compelling to stand and look out of a derelict croft house window.

It is mostly in the window that I place my work. Sometimes across a door

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The more crofts that I found in Bressay and Burra and worked in, the more I looked out of the windows and wondered how many women had looked out of that same window, waiting for husbands to return or for kids to come home and that was when I began to really get interested in the social history of the places and the women who had once knitted there.  Below are some of the archive images of women knitting by crofts, which are from Shetland Museum.

My practice began to explore particular social and political narratives of place and values of material production embedded in place/s.  Once I found the crofts, I began to research how the women were paid for their knitting and came to learn about the truck and barter system.  I long to hear Shetland women tell stories of their ancestors’ home life and history and this is why I want to go to Unst – the most northerly isle in the British Isles – parallel to Norway and below Iceland on the map. It is the home of Shetland lace knitting.  I’ll spend time in the Unst Heritage Centre and cycle around the small Island, taking in the surroundings. 

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Almost two years ago, when I started my part time MA at NTU, I was firstly inspired by Shetland knitted lace and my research was initially about the textiles only – how the lace was knitted and the motifs in it.  Over the last two years and over five subsequent visits to Shetland,  I have become more interested in the women who made the fine Shetland lace and how and where they lived, often in remote and extreme conditions. Learning this, and finding these places, developed a deeper understanding of the social and cultural context of lace knitting in Shetland. To express my respect for and love of Shetland lace and the homes once lived in and the knitters themselves, I respond to place and its associated narrative histories – in particular woman’s material and conceptual histories of creative practice.

There is a sublime energy in the derelict crofts coupled with the energy of a my contemporary take on lace knitting placed back into a abandoned building which creates a third energy – the site specific work itself.  I hope that my latest Site specific work has integrity, authenticity and soul.  The symbiotic relationship between my lace knit or lace engravings coupled with placing the work into derelict crofts,  is an act which produces contemporary art that speaks of place, time, culture, textiles, struggle, hardship and past lives.

I’m lucky enough to be returning to Shetland to finish ‘Vod’ and I hope to interview and record the oral histories of knitting and crofting from the women at the specialist Heritage Centre in Unst. These women keep the origin of heritage lace knitting alive. I want to respond to their stories by making a textile and photographic site-specific work around their stories and creative practice on Unst. I have not been able to reach Unst on my previous visits to Shetland due to Winter, ferry crossing availability or non-availability of space to cross the sea between the islands, availability of day light (5 in the Winter) and the closure of the Heritage Centre between October and the beginning of May.  I have not previously recorded oral histories and this is the only place where the lace stories originate.  Unst is 60 degrees North and I learned from my son today, who will be filming in the most Northern part of Norway in March, that there are only 90 degrees, then you are at the Arctic.

The reason that I can return to Shetland is that I have been awarded an R&D grant to research the stories of the knitters, their lives and to look at the knitting itself and to work in derelict crofts, this time, with the permission of the owners to hopefully arrange a pop up  installation in a derelict croft, around the Bank holiday weekend at the end of May. I will invite local artists, knitters and crofters for tea and cake and to look at the  work that has grown out of this body of this project  that has taken me a year and a half in the making

The Research and Development work in Shetland, is called ‘Vod’ – an unoccupied, empty place.

Thanks to Making Ways, Sheffield  for supporting this R&D trip and for supporting the development of my creative practice.

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