Following on from my residency at Emerald Community House (ECH) and in the lead up to this years annual PAVE festival I have begun stage two of the ‘Stories of Resilience in Cloth Art’ project – a workshop series where I invite locals to make their own cloth-artwork that tells a story about resilience and what it means to them.
As I’ve mentioned previously ECH is an innovative neighbourhood centre that is highly conscious of the fact that they are in a disaster-at-risk area of the Victorian Dandenong ranges. ECH takes proactive action through their programming to build local community resilience, for example: they run an award winning program that entails making attending a bushfire safety training workshop mandatory for all parents who place their children with the ECH childcare servie. When I first met with Mary and Non (ECH coordinators) they identified that there is a gap in the programing which they wanted to address. They wanted to develop a creative program that targeted younger women who are new to the area and women who don’t have children (and therefore are not involved with ECH through its childcare services) and engaged them around the subject of resilience and disaster preparedness. So, it was around this mandate that I designed my ECH residency and workshop project which I am also using as a case study for my PhD research into how art cloth-art and the strategies of craftivism can enact agency.
The idea is that each of us will create our own cloth wall hanging to be exhibited during the PAVE festival in the Emerald Community Hall which we are working out of, which everyone will then take home and keep at the end of the exhibition. Bruce Esplin, former Emergency Services Commissioner of Victoria and a friend and mentor of mine has kindly agreed to be at the opening of the exhibition and to say a few words about art and resilience based on his own experience as a photographer and a sculpture. Three local ladies (and one of their dogs, below) have signed on to be part of the project, and over the past couple of weeks we have been meeting on Thursdays to talk about ideas and start sewing. Already I have had a really interesting conversations and positive responses from this engagement.
When I asked the ladies (who I won’t identify by name) what resilience means to them and why they chose to live in Emerald as both were relatively new to the area (by rural standards at least – where you have to be second generation to consider yourself a ‘true local’) they all responded with comments about the importance of the landscape and the natural environment. This led to a conversation about the risks posed by the natural environment in their area and we spoke about those and what experiences each lady had with disasters and what plans they had in place in preparation for potential future disasters. Each women will be working to depicting images of the natural environment into their cloth hangings and in her own way working to symbolise in cloth her relationship to the local community.
Alongside the importance of the natural world the women identified that their personal relationships and history are another critical factor for thier own resilience and well-being. Each woman will be in her own way incorporating figures into the landscapes of their hangings. Using old clothes and fabric given to them from their loved ones the women have started to constuct a picture of how they will represent their stories. We talked about how it is possible in this medium of cloth to tell a very personal story in a way that they feel safe having on public display because it is possible to tell it in such a subtle way, using signs that fully reveal their secrets only to the artist. For example, the artist might incorporate a piece of cloth that was once a dress that belonged to their grandmother and which they associate with a particular time, place and memory. In this way the artist will be able to read the work in a way that tells a very different story to what others might see. The hangings will therefore tell many stories – as each person who views them interprets them and projects their own thoughts, experiences and emotions onto the work.
The conversation then shifted to a focus on art making and craft practices. In our conversations we identified that having the time to make art is a luxury that many can not afford, and that many more do not allow themselves. The women identified a sense that this is somehow because taking the time to do something fun and creative feels selfish. This feeling of guilt for taking the time to do something for themselves is a feeling I’m sure many women experience – as women we are still expected by society and in turn we expect ourselves to focus on others, to be caretakers to be busy and selfless. Furthermore, the creative work women do is continues to be undervalued – seen as craft not art. Particularly when it comes to working in textiles. This is something that came up during my residency and during these workshops, it is something they I will continue to ponder and to research. Finally, we spoke about how the project had opened up time for them to reflect, think and make plans for the future and how valuable this is to them. This too is something I want to understand more clearly. I’ve asked everyone to keep a note of how they experience this project as it unfolds and to write a bit of a reflection about the journey at the end of the project – I’m looking forward to reading them.
In closing, I feel that the fact that the three participants fit exactly into the target audience ECH identified is a testimony to the fact the project was designed and marketed successfully. However, In saying that it would have been nice to have more people involved and the fact the workshops are being held during the day on a Thursday has been indentified as a barrier to some who would have otherwise liked to participate. I’m considering delivering a one day master-class in order to engage more women in these conversations and hopefully get a few more involved in the making of cloth hangings for the PAVE festival.
Oh p.s. there was a little story about the project in the local newspaper: