Saturday, 3 April 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies: Mirrors

Something I've noticed while watching the films of the Forties is that mirrors are often used as devices to show the leading ladies inner thoughts, turmoil and unease. In films such as Gaslight we see the character of the wife driven to near madness by her manipulative husband reflected in her music box, her slip into despair shown upside down and distorted. In Possessed, Joan Crawford's portrayal of the hallucinating Louise is shown as several images in the same shot, reflected in her dressing table mirror, and Rita Hayworth is shown in a multitude of false and real mirrored images in a hall of mirrors revealing her duplicitous nature in The Lady from Shanghai.

I began to play with mirrors and reflections in my own work as I figure out my feelings of lockdown/ Covid anxiety and unease using classic movies as inspiration. The first thing I realised was that shooting with mirrors is really difficult when you don't have much room or designated space. Trying to get the reflection I wanted in the mirror and the camera isn't easy. A lot of the time I got unwanted furniture, fridges, cat food bowls, and even the camera itself either shown in the mirror or behind it, so setting up took some time. Here's an early try out where having sections of the room in the mirror really limited what I could shoot, especially as I was holding the mirror at the same time. I do like how there is an unspoken story in this image though.

Eventually I hung the mirror on a plain wall where the reflection was plain too and this made taking the images much easier, though as it was on a landing, I didn't have much space to move. I played with having myself and the reflection in shot and just my refection which in this set up worked much better.

This really created an otherworldly feeling of being trapped or separate from the real world. Not knowing what to do in the mirror, a lot of the time I just stood still and looked straight ahead. Or as in this case turned my back on it completely, adding another layer of separation from the viewer. There's a mysterious element to not seeing a person's face that leaves you feeling unresolved. I also like how my 1940's set hair looks quite sculptural and is what really 'makes' this image.

Lighting was also tricky because, using the limited sources I have at home, I was trying to light myself but then looking into the mirror the reflected me could look lit in a totally different way. That's when I started to experiment with a smaller handheld mirror. This way I could move about to get the best light, but it also gave the images a new feeling. I tried a few videos using both mirrors trying out simple movements and looking into the mirror and at the viewer through the mirror.

On a different day I played with the handheld mirror, moving it around my face while being filmed and photographed from the front. I was able to have set lighting this way and I really liked how the reflections and light changed as I moved the mirror. I moved very slowly and then slowed the video down even more to play with anticipation of seeing the face change in the mirror. I'm not sure if this worked but I enjoyed the aesthetic and creating this piece.

Behind the glamour there is always a lot of faffing and retaking shots. I like that in a way, these images in themselves are a manipulated version of reality existing in an alternative world, a reflection of my mind during the pandemic.

Monday, 22 March 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies

It started back in January when I watched the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard. It's a film I've enjoyed before, but this time something about watching the character of Norma Desmond descend into madness all the time looking magnificent, while I, like the rest of the world struggled through a pandemic, really struck a chord with me. Her stunning expressive face and glamourous deterioration was so awe inspiring that the next free afternoon I had I was grabbed by the impulse to channel Norma and take some photos of myself.

I enjoyed the experience and the resulting pictures so much that the next week I watched another classic movie with a strong female lead, the 1947 hit 'Possessed' starring Joan Crawford. This film has Joan slowly losing her grip on reality through her obsession with a playboy architect who doesn't reciprocate her feelings. The film culminates in a 'did she, didn't she' murder, as hallucinations mix with the real world.

I've always loved the films of old Hollywood for their glamour and melodrama, but watching them now, particularly in 2021 during lockdown 3.0 my attention has been grabbed by how the female stars portrayed women on the edge, losing their minds with impossible glamour and endurance. While watching old movies has always given me comfort, these suffering powerful ladies are also giving me strength to face the current challenges around me and my god, I love them for it! This was the first time since lockdown started last year that I felt compelled to create something entirely for the joy of it.

I've since been playing around with the visual styling and language of these old movies to try and convey some of the various feelings of paranoia, isolation, threat and fear that Covid has installed in many of us over the past year, leaving many like me, stuck in a world of uncertainty and stagnation. There's a satisfying fit between the aesthetics of Film Noir and melodrama and these times of Covid; A constant feeling of threat, danger and psychological angst.

I began by channeling the stars of the films I have watched, not trying to look exactly like them, but to gently reference them through make up and styling, and try to pick up some of the pitch of their performances in my poses and lighting. I also have really enjoyed using black and white photography to create that otherworldly feel of old films that are so evocative and alluring, whilst completely of their own time.

As I started to explore ideas I tended to allude to general styles of the old Hollywood era instead of the actual stars. I also began to play with projecting images onto myself to layer narrative. I have never used myself as material in my own work, except for the odd painted self portrait (see the banner to this blog for instance), so photographing myself was and still is strange to me. It feels very immediate and open to use my own image this way.

I also began to experiment with video, just short trials to see how things looked like here where I projected Corona Virus cells over my face, purposely staying still like a paused film as the pandemic washed over me. It made me also think about how stuck in a moment we all are during this world event.

I watched the British 1940 film Gaslight which sees a wife begin to believe shes losing her senses through the mental manipulation of her husband, It's a fantastic film and gives a strong sense of outside influence invading ones mind. On the back of this I made a short clip about Hands, Face, Space and the unease and paranoia that was being felt as we went about our daily lives, using some of the film's soundtrack to perform to (sound on).

I am not overthinking any of my process, just making sure I enjoy making it and seeing what comes out. It's important to me now more than ever that I don't stress over the outcome, which is ironic when I am using the stress and anxiety myself and many others have experienced over the past year due to Covid as part of my inspiration.

In short I am enjoying using so many of the things I already love, like dressing up, (I'm trying out original 1940's and 50's setting patterns to set my hair into authentic waves and curls, which is an added boon as we can't visit hairdressers at the moment), glamour and camp, history and story telling to make work that is literally getting me through.The preparation is as much fun as the actual making of the work, though setting up my phone to exactly the right angel to avoid getting unwanted items in the shot can be stressy, especially when photographing mirrors (more of that to come in future posts!).
I'm not a technical person, so I like the simplicity of just grabbing my phone to experiment, clicking and creating an idea and a mood. It's all work in progress, but yes, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close up...

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Makeup and Needlework

This is my latest drag inspired embroidery created over lockdown before Christmas. While I was stitching it I was thinking about the many things I'd learnt from my residency at Manchester Jewish Museum aaaallll those months ago (pre-pandemic, remember that?) when I went to research needlework produced by women as acts of devotion to their faith and family and how their identity was manifested through stitching.
In this latest work I've purposely used rich textiles and colours to evoke the sacred language found in devotional pieces and used in worship because, for me, the act of embroidery has been somewhat devotional, giving me mindful space to breathe as I create,
especially during recent turbulent times.
But that isn't the only time I've found moments of contentment and peace. Over the past months, my morning routine of sitting in front of my dressing table, pouring out my make up bag and gazing into the mirror as I apply colours and shapes has also been a balm. On those days when I cried because it all seemed too surreal or when anxiety got the better of me and I felt angry and powerless, that simple moment of focus and creativity gave me calmness and strength. 
This is something I thought about a lot as I stitched the false lashes and lipstick into my drag embroidery, and it became clearer to me that there are many correlations to be drawn from both make up and needlework. I think the following passage from Rozsika Parker's brilliant book, The Subversive Stitch explains it perfectly. Here she concentrates solely on embroidery but her words can be applied to cosmetics too:

'That embroiderers do transform materials to produce sense - whole ranges of meanings - is invariably entirely overlooked. Instead embroidery and a stereotype of femininity have become collapsed into one another, characterised as mindless, decorative and delicate; like the icing on the cake, good to look at, adding taste and status, but devoid of significant content'
There are many comparisons that can be drawn between cosmetics and needlework, the most deep rooted being the paradox each holds in relation to women; a mixture of freedom to express ones self and find power through creativity, and a general presumption that taking part in these these activities at all confirms the participant is a feminine stereotype.
I've got to be truthful, I have found it extremely difficult to concentrate on any personal work since the first lockdown last year and this has impacted on my prior direction of work and ideas. Instead, I have stayed busy by taking on private commissions and these have been an amazing opportunity to stay creative and keep my head above water both mentally and financially.

As we enter a third lockdown in a brand new year I feel more drawn to my personal work and I hope to begin to re-explore previous ideas and start new pieces picking up where I left off with the 'Sacred Heart' embroidery pictured above. I can't promise any definite outcomes and I feel any pressure on myself will be detrimental, however, for the fun and joy and sheer pull towards the things that excite me I hope to continue. I will post as and when it feels right. As for all the other things like commissions (which I am still taking) and outside projects, you can see updates about them on my Instagram, so please head on over and take a look.

 Until next time, despite the current situation, I hope that this year brings purpose and gratitude, health and creativity.

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. 


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.