Monday, 20 April 2020

Working in Quarantine


Quarantine. Erm... so that's happening. Little did any of us know as we made plans at the beginning of the year that by Spring life as we knew it would  look completely different.

The cultural sector was hit early on, even before lock-down, with theatres, galleries and cinemas all closing and putting many people's employment in a dubious position. Artists and creatives especially are feeling the effects as the country is held in stand still. Commissions, exhibitions and the opportunity to network and collaborate in the usual way are cancelled or postponed and for the many artists and creatives who are classed as self employed the chance to make money from our work is limited.

With this in mind I want to point out a brilliant fund that has been set up to support Manchester artists affected by the current situation. The Manchester Artists Coronvirus Hardship Fund was created by freelance theatre director and maker Laurence Young who made the Go Fund Me page to help other creatives who are struggling financially because of the Covid-19 outbreak. His generous initiative has already aided a number of Manchester artists but there are more on the waiting list. With grants and bursaries being rare and successful applicants being few, this straight forward first come first serve gesture is truly wonderful!
As for myself, I knew that 6+ weeks of quarantine at home were going to be tricky to say the least but offered a chance to be productive too. I took a last quick pre lock down trip to the studio to grab as many materials as I could and set up working from home. So far I've been producing a real mixture of pieces from my kitchen table.

Firstly I wanted to start a new drag embroidery to reconnect with my love of stitching and focus on something that brings me joy, make up!


This is a work in progress inspired by make up artist Heather Moorhouse and is a continuation of my '...And the rest is drag' series. I plan to make it quite lush and textural inspired by some of the things I'd seen on my residency at Manchester Jewish Museum last December. I have more plans for work from my residency and these will follow in time.

I've been lucky enough to gain a few commissions throughout lock down and these have taken some precedence helping financially but also breaking up my time up and giving me deadlines to work to.

I began with a small commission for burlesque performer Suzie Sequin who wanted a picture of herself as Snow White surrounded by all her childhood pets and foster animals for a new pet service she will be launching later this year. This was a really fun piece to put together!





I'm now working on a set of pieces for a lady who works in a governmental role and wants some work for both personal and professional purposes. The first is this luxurious pin up portrait. It's currently a work in progress, but I'm thrilled to be going back to my roots and making someones pin up fantasy come true!


During lock down I've also been continuing my pet portraits and I wanted to share this piece of the handsome Colonel Custard a most fabulous ginger who belongs to a friend of mine.



Creating, in any form is important to me, but as the weeks have been passing and the days rolling into one another, I do feel very grateful and lucky to have my own outlet and purpose. 

I hope quarantine is treating you well whatever and wherever you may be. Perhaps its a good time to grab your own pencil and paper and try something new or start that idea you had, or finish that idea you had. 

Get creative, but above all, stay home, stay safe.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

2020 so far...

Can you believe its 2020? I still keep writing 2019 and frantically scribbling over the last two digits, but so far I've had a good year, January has been fun.

 I've been continuing my research into needlework activities classed as women's work or feminine pursuits. Following from my residency at Manchester Jewish Museum in December, I came away with a lot of ideas and thoughts I'd like to pursue. I'll be concentrating on some of these in my next post so stay tuned.

I'm currently working on a portrait commission which will be a surprise gift (the recipient isn't online so it's safe to share). This work in progress is based on a beautiful photograph of the client's wife taken in the 1970's and I'm painting it in a romantic mood with colours that put me in mind of that era. I've been listening to lots of Roxy Music while painting this...


I've also been doing portraits on a smaller scale of people's pets. This came about after I took part as one of the artists drawing 3 minute portraits at Levenshulme's Christmas Market in December. Some punter's asked me if their dogs could sit for a picture and from that night I've had people getting in touch to ask if I can draw their own animal friends. These quick A5 pen drawings are so fun to do!




This month also saw the start of the Manchester Open Exhibition at HOME where my Joan Collins embroidery of Alexis Carrington Colby is showing. The opening night was absolutely packed with over 2000 people queuing to get into the gallery! It was really great to see such a lot of enthusiasm for an exhibition. There are over 500 artists with work on show and its well worth a visit. The Manchester Open runs until 29th March so make sure you put it in your diary... oh, and you can vote for your favourite pieces too, just so you know...


I've also been working on getting my Dolly Parton embroidery finished this month. It was this piece of work that helped to trigger my feminine pursuits project, yet I have to admit I've been having issues with it since I began.


This is an image of a very young Dolly from 1977 caught in a pensive moment. Her hair is big her lips are glossy but I don't feel like it's right. Maybe I'll capture whatever 'it' is in time... maybe I should start again...

Lastly, as a little side project I've been enjoying writing on my other blog The Page Dipper, a book blog featuring reviews, feelings and observations about the books I read. I love reading and this was my way of chatting about all the thoughts I'm left with after finishing a book. It's still early days so every time I post on it the format is different as I'm finding my style. Anyway please go and check it out, I read fiction, biographies, history and art and I write about the books that really capture my imagination.

Until next time, if you'd like to get in touch about my work or just say hello check out my Instagram @gemma_parker_Artist to find out more.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Manchester Jewish Museum - Day 5


Yesterday was the last day of my artist residency at the museum and I can't believe how fast it's gone yet how packed and intense it was. Monday feels like a lifetime ago!

I spent the morning pulling together all the info from my research to make a short presentation that was to be held in the afternoon. It was really helpful to gather my ideas and put them into words.

People who came to the presentation included other artists from the Jewish Museum's network and staff members. Before we began there was a little Hannukah/ Christmas lunch including kosher foods of bagels, cream cheese, fish balls, vegetable crisps, hummus and blended herring (which I tried, but the less said about that the better), and to finish delicious donuts.


For my presentation I spoke about my week at the museum (please scroll back to previous posts to read more and see images of the things I did and found). I also elaborated on where my thoughts were now heading thanks to the research I had carried out

All the embroidery I’d seen relating to ceremony both in the Synagogue and at home had served some purpose of concealing, protecting and adding a theatrical nature to it's purpose which set it apart from everyday activities.









I really enjoy the idea of turning a simple cover, mantle or bag for something important into a desirable object, and how the creation of these items could be used as an act of devotion and mindfulness in itself; the process of making, the end result and the use of the item all connecting ideas of ritual and ceremony.

This got me thinking about personal rituals and took me back to my initial interest in identity and what are classed as 'female' pursuits including glamour and needle work. One of the main purposes of my research was to reassess the assumptions associated with these pursuits and side step the snobbery that prevents them from being given unquestionable status as art forms in themselves. 

I remembered one of the ladies from the Women's Textile Group telling us how her mother used to sew and embroider covers for everything in her house, including the cassette player! I loved this idea so much and it stayed with me throughout my residency. I began to look up covers and bags used in everyday life for items generally connected to women







...and then covers, mantles and bags made for every day items that don't usually have them



If we could use the ceremonial language of stitching and needlework for items we use that help to define our sense of self, we could create our own moments of mindfulness and self expression in ritualistic stitching. We could even use the things we make to memorialise moments or people that are important to us or make us feel good. Perhaps in this way we could re-frame the assumptions about female pursuits and open them up to all genders and backgrounds, taking away the fear of labels associated with women.

This is something I'm going to investigate further and try for myself. I love the idea of creating paraphernalia for 'moments' in the day. 

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Looking through Manchester Jewish Museum's archive was a great way of unlocking women’s stories and chance to reveal some of the secrets the collection holds.

I have been really touched by how unifying the needlework has been, connecting women in coming together to practice the art that also supports families and communities.

I’d like to say thanks to Manchester Jewish Museum for this opportunity which has been invaluable in giving me an insight into Jewish practices and women’s roles in the community and faith. I have so much to think about and work upon now and it’s given me a new direction for my work.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Manchester Jewish Museum - Day 4


Today I spent the morning looking through the museum's 'Oral Histories' for anything relating to women's needlework. There is a long history in Manchester connecting the Jewish community to the cloth industry beginning in the 16th Century with pedlars, shopkeepers and merchants and continuing through Manchester's Cottonopolis period and beyond with garment factories and tailors.

From looking at the oral histories catalogue there were many families with members working as machinists during the early half of the 1900's, however this wasn't really the strand of women's history I was after. I wanted to find any references to hand based crafts and domestic needlework.


Tackling the epic oral histories paper index took a little time, as I looked up every category I could think of relating to needle craft and women's roles. Finally I hit on something under 'women's work'. This turned out to be a rather sweet recording from 1976 of the Misses Louise and Sarah Aronovitch who were both born in the 1880s.

They spoke of how as youngsters living in Plymouth Grove in Manchester they would meet at the houses of other Jewish girls every Sunday to 'do sewing', making frocks to take to the Jews' School and hand out to the girls there. Their father would provide the material and wool. As they put it, ‘We started what we thought we ought to do, you see?'. Louise later took up nursing and went on to become a doctor, a rarity for that era especially for a woman from a minority background.

Louise with German POWs at 2nd Western General Hospital

On the digital archive I found a couple of other small references about 1900's Manchester women being taught embroidery lessons at Hebrew School as well as other needlework including lace, knitting and crochet. This was something they seemed to look back on fondly but did not elaborate further.

This morning I also found the file of Rose Freidman who was born in 1907 and explained how her grandfather while living in the area of Strangeways in Manchester went into making lace (nicknamed 'Duddlework') as there was a big trend for it at the time. 'Kids would have it on their drawers, pinafores and dresses'. This career earned him a lot of money and he'eventually 'made good'. While not relating to the needlework of a woman, this does illustrate how popular the craft was and how it was an every day part of regular life.


 
Similarly Pearl Gollenbeck, a lady born in 1901 spoke of how needlework was still very fashionable back in her youth, and played a role in her marriage;  ‘My trousseau, it was bought at Affleck’s, all the trousseau and me linen was made, and I had my initials put on, embroidered on, PG, like Pearl Gollenbeck, bolster cases, pillow cases', it had, 'bed covers with crocheted edges that my mother bought and crocheted insets. She made me such a marvellous trousseau, and tablecloths.’

I'm guessing that Pearl's trousseau was all shop bought including it's decorative inserts, however her mother was the person who curated it and put it together. This is an interesting example of women's roles evolving with the times and increasing financial circumstances. This could illustrate how needlework in the home was to eventually die out as an essential way of life as consumerism took hold.

While not exactly bulging with stories about needlework, the few snippets I did find in the museum's archive gave an insight to a world very different from today, where women were naturally inclined to stitch or be involved with the needle process in some way even keeping the selection and buying of stitched goods in the female circle . When the craft took a side step into commercial industry it then became the realm of men, and I did find many other references to men in the tailoring and cloth manufacturing trade.

This makes me wonder if women's craft is less valued because hand stitching is not seen as profitable. Interestingly this was something that was echoed by the Women's Textile Group who I met on Monday. When asked why they thought women's stitching wasn't given a biiger platform they answered, 'it's "professionalism" verses home orientated arts and crafts'

However, I have seen the time and effort that many women put into the items they made for the Synagogue and the home and what an important role they play in the Jewish community's faith and identity. Perhaps it is the language of stitching used for ceremony that gives it an added gravitas.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Manchester Jewish Museum - Day 3

 

This morning, after having some kosher chocolate and a brew, myself and Laura tackled the rest of the items I wanted to look at in the museum's archive. These were pieces that fell into the categories of 'Sewing' and 'Textiles'.

First up was something I didn't get around to looking at yesterday but is well worth the mentioning. A stunning silk pillowcase embroidered with thick gold thread which would have been used as part of a circumcision ceremony. This one in particular was made in 1906 in Aleppo Syria as a wedding gift to a couple who eventually settled in Manchester.

Not only was this piece a treat for the eyes but it held some interesting details including an Arabic word which is thought to say 'in the name of God'. This is intriguing to find on a Jewish item but makes sense when you put the location it was made into context, the Middle East being a place where both Jewish and Muslim faiths live alongside one another and overlaps are bound to occur.

 

Similarly, the strange symbol to the right of the central 'S' standing for the initials of the couple, depicts a Hamsa Hand, which as I learnt from the Women's Textile Group on Monday is also found in both faiths and symbolises protection, happiness and luck.

I found it particularly affecting to think that this wonderful item was made in Aleppo while it was still a prosperous city full of culture. This piece is a connection to the people and stories that made up Aleppo's rich history before the current devastating war took hold and changed everything.

Next up a peek at some Torah mantles. These are decorative covers which hold the holy scrolls found in the Synagogue. These items are huge and heavy and we were only able to unwrap a little of them to get the idea. I found it interesting that instead of the textile embroidered mantles found in European and cooler climates, Middle Eastern covers were made of ornamented metal which wouldn't perish in the heat.



Luckily we found some miniature replica mantles which would have been used for educational purposes. They illustrated how the full items look and function. The textile ones had more of the heavy fringing and thick embroidery depicting religious symbols and foliage I have gotten used to seeing on many of the ceremonial objects seen already.




All the items I've looked at that are used for ceremonial purposes in the Synagogue or home have had some form of cover or bag, and I am really intrigued by this idea. These textile items are usually made and decorated by women's groups or female family members to be used in devotional practice. However the act of making them is also devotional, the women giving up time and skills to create beautiful objects for loved ones and their communities.

With this in mind I wanted to look at a selection of Tefillin (for more about Tefillin bags see yesterday's post) and Tallit (prayer shawl) bags .These were all located in one handy box that held a variety of shapes and styles, from the highly ornate to the most simple and plain.




 

Some bags still held the objects they were made for



They were all hand embroidered with the initials of the owner and other decorative work such as flowers, or symbolic crowns and stars from Judaica. Some had birds and lions on as part of a crest like pattern which Laura pointed out was strange since animals aren't usually depicted in the Jewish faith.





I enjoyed the colours and designs on these bags and thought that in a different setting they could be mistaken for women's bags. There is a repeating pattern of using rich reds, blues, greens, golds, purple and creams in the religious items we looked at and this is something I'll definitely be using in my own work as I frame my ideas around women's needlework and identity. 

I like the paraphernalia of these items and the theatrical nature of them sets their purpose apart from every day activities. They offer a window to something extra and important, yet I cant help thinking that like anything that is used regularly, we can grow blind to it's beauty and meaning. Perhaps this is one reason why women's efforts and creativity in textiles are often overlooked.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Manchester Jewish Museum - Day 2

I am currently sat in the research room of Central Library in Manchester. It's very quiet and it's got long banks of desks with large grey pillows at every station. These are for laying archive items on while they are examined, which is something I'm going to be doing in just a minute.

You see, myself and Laura, the Creative Producer from Manchester Jewish Museum, have just been down into museum's archive store and found a host of incredible items I want to look at. The museum is currently housed at the library while it's main building is undergoing a major construction and restoration project.

The museum's entire collection of objects, documents, photographs and oral histories is temporarily located in the library's underground store which has fancy shelves that move across the floor opening up new materials to explore at the touch of a button.


Yesterday Laura and I had spent time going through the museum's catalogue to find items that fit my research into women and textiles, specifically items made as acts of devotion. This could be devotion to their, faith, their families or general documentation of life events. The catalogue did not disappoint and today we found objects that fit our search for 'embroidery'.

Starting off, we found a set of huge Ark curtains made for a synagogue which was once in Manchester (the Chaye Adam Synangogue in Cheetham now closed, having merged with other synagogues in the area). Ark curtains surround the Ark which holds the Torah scrolls used in the Jewish faith. This particular set were made and presented by the 'Ladies of the Chaye Adam Synagogue' in 1935 as a memorial to a 'Hannah Judith Tynas'.



The embroidery on them was done in thick gold thread and after all these decades the workmanship is still perfect. In fact the entire pieces were in very good order, all being hand made. Traditionally, women are not meant to touch the Torah scrolls, so I liked the fact that women had made something integral to the ceremony and included the name of their female congregation member in the decoration. It seemed to me, they had used the options open to them to ensure they had a definite presence in the holy observation.




In the same box holding the curtains, unbeknown to us, were a second set of Ark curtains, this time in a rich red velvet decorated with lavish sequins and metallic fringing. I liked these very much. The different textures and colours made the pieces very tactile and both sets of curtains depicted leaves and greenery. Laura explained that trees are important in Israel where there is a lack of them. Every year, people have tree planting drives where others in the UK pay to have a tree planted in order to create orchards. This is a way to give back to the community and provide food and produce.

Next up for observation was a Matzah cover. The covers are traditionally used to cover the Matzo bread during the Passover supper (See yesterday's post for more about Matzo bread). They contain three pockets in which to place symbolic matzo breads and the cover I wanted to see is a great example of a home made item handed down through the family.


It was brought from Poland around 1914 by the Leinhardt family when they left for Berlin. Eventually, in 1933 the family came to live in Manchester and brought the cover with them. It was handed to the museum in 1984. The cover is obviously very old and well used. I discovered the pockets by accident when I picked it up, not realising they are a trait of all Matzah covers. There are still bread crumbs inside, which add to the history of the item. It makes me wonder how many Passover meals it has seen and how many generations of the Leinhardt's have grown up around it.



The decorative work is very delicate and deteriorating now but you can still see the care that went into making it. The box that held this item also held other examples of Matzah covers, though none as fine as this.

Other discoveries in the box included finely embroidered cloths which I can only guess from the info I have found are Challah cloths. These are used to cover two braided loaves for the Shabbat.

Apologies if I am wrong in my guess, but I wanted to share one of these cloths as I thought it was so well embroidered and I was touched by the care that had obviously gone into mending where the fabric had perished. It has been a cherished item in someone's life and shows hand stitching used for both decoration/devotion and repairing. Two aspects women often carry out in the home.



There was also a gorgeously embroidered Tefillin bag which would have held Tefillin boxes used in prayers by orthodox males. It was an unexpected find so came with no information, however what I enjoyed is that the bag is so attractive and embroidered with the initials of the owner. It's a pleasure to hold and look at.




During this research I've been looking for rhymes and patterns in Jewish women's needle work and the overarching one is that every piece serves a purpose yet isn't just purely functional. Items are highly decorated with embroidery and rich colours not only signifying their importance but making them a pleasure to use. The decoration on items of Jewish faith from the most humble to the most ornate are linked by the use of women's time and combined effort. Women's industry and creativity have helped to shape the face of Jewish life in the home and the synagogue.

A very different yet special item Laura wanted me to see is a black silk shawl with an embroidered floral design. It was made by a Jewish woman in a Displaced Persons Camp after her liberation from a concentration camp. This unnamed woman had been in the camp with her husband and two children until the husband died and her children went to America. The Woman was unable to join them due to health reasons and eventually died in the camp too.

The beautiful shawl was given by the women to a Joyce Toacher who was in the English Army and came from Stockport. She was also the person to provide the material and threads for the shawl to be made. Eventually the shawl and it's story were donated to Manchester Jewish Museum. Apparently the Jewish lady had kept diaries of her time in the Displaced Persons Camp but they were destroyed upon her death.




The shawl remains as a legacy of the Jewish woman's story. I can only imagine the emotions she must have had from her time in the two different camps. Loss and sadness perhaps shock and anger. She may have used the shawl as a project to still her mind and focus it, the stitching and placement is perfect. Embroidery can certainly bring an element of mindfulness, and creativity helps to channel energies. I hope this project helped her in some way. It is an unassuming object that was given as a gift of one person's time and devotion to another. It is special in so many ways.

Lastly I just had time to look at some paper embroidery patterns, listed as belonging to the donor's mother and possibly originating in Russia. These cheerful cross stitch patterns also contained ideas for samplers, which are historically used as a young girls entry into needle work. They offer a chance to show off the stitcher's skills and offer a test of ability, with those samplers deemed successful being displayed in the girls home and eventual marital home as a marker of her competence with a needle.


Earlier today I'd seen an example of an actual sampler from 1882 which served as both an example of skilled needle work and a memorial to it's creator. This piece had been made by Rosamund Kohn in Germany. The phrase at the base translates to 'Reminder of my school days'. Rosemund married and had children yet unfortunately became a victim of the holocaust.This sampler, though simple and familiar is a testament to her.


Each item I've looked at today has been more than just it's appearance. Hand made objects always have a story to tell. They hold traces of their maker, they gain meaning through their use and purpose and sometimes they act as a document of time, person and place. I think that gives each piece of needle work I've seen today a greater resonance. The Jewish women who have made them have shaped themselves and the world around them with every stitch.