It confirmed to everyone. I was a fake.
Mothers Who Make is an international initiative providing mothers and makers peer support. It has been a saving grace for me during the last four months. I have made connections with women I may never have met without lockdown. Women who understand the innate need to be creative. Women willing to listen. Women who are willing to share. Is there any more comfort than someone holding you and saying, ‘I hear you, I get you and yes, I feel this too’?
I say hold, and I really do almost mean it.
It’s so brilliantly uncomfortably British to recoil at the idea of hand gestures (just one of these hugely successful added extras), but they have become so second nature I find myself having to sit on my hands so as not to look a complete tit in other zoom meetings – watch out for such exuberance if you should meet me anytime soon!
In this time, where so many of us desire to hold our friends and family, this group of women has found ways to make up for the 2D life that so many of us are living at present, make up for lack of body language and all those social nuances we take for granted in ‘real’ life. It’s funny to think that in the past months, while I’ve spent more time with some of these women than anyone beyond my husband and son, they’ve still never seen the back of my head and they don’t know how big my bum is.
It is now no surprise that I have found myself merrily strolling in a different direction, to that which I was aiming, so soon into this blog – so I will attempt to reign myself in – but really I am just setting the scene for a question I was asked a few weeks ago by one of the founders of Mothers Who Make.
Can you tell us more about your piece ‘180 Days’?
It feels, at this still relatively early stage in my life as a visual artist, that this (along with ‘I am not stupid’ – the springboard to an extensive set of works) is still one of my most important pieces.
I have made it in fabric (several versions), in stencil, in print, hand coloured – and I would be surprised if that’s the end of its possibilities, I hear my brain cranking up as I type…
180 days started out as a simple table of my mood.
It was 2014 and I had had a mental breakdown.
I was diagnosed with GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder), although alongside that it would have been accurate to diagnose Endometriosis.
Alas, at this point, I had another three long years to wait for that conclusion.
However, I was already beginning to twig that, or at least question whether, everything that was going on in my brain and body was cyclical.
So I started a chart. Simply, was the day good or bad? Or a combination of both?
I recorded it as G, B, or G/B. I did this for 6 months, or more precisely 180 days.
Ironically I never went back to check whether or not there were any patterns.
Even to this day, I haven’t done that, but with a diagnosis of Endo it’s safe to assume they are there if you look hard enough. (Check out my blog Endometriosis and me)
I put the first stitch into the centre of the original version of 180 Days, on November 5th, 2015.
I know this because I was in a rehearsal for Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea in Venice.
It was an unusual place to do it, and the fabric was large and stiff (as cotton Aida is before it’s kicked around for months with me on my travels – or nowadays – on my sofa). It was on the verge of inappropriate rehearsal behaviour, but I was too excited to wait.
The work was to take 18 months to complete, alas no more accurate than that, the last stitch must have felt hugely momentous – but I don’t remember it – maybe because I was hugely disappointed with the finished product.
Designing the piece was a very lengthy process too. The more recent version (I’m on day 63, so quite some time before it’s completion) took 3 months.
The colour palette was easy.
I don’t know whether I am unusual in my decisive and instinctive emotional reaction to colour, but my response is so strong that every single room in our house is decorated, or accented with, the colour red.
Almost my entire wardrobe was red until the day I dyed half my hair red.
At this point, all my wardrobe became black or grey, as I couldn’t handle the disparity that might occur between my clothes and my hair.
My shoes (almost exclusively boots actually) have remained red.
I fully accept now that what we wear, or our appearance, bears no real connection to who we are (I’ve stopped wearing makeup or brushing my hair in lockdown – I wonder how quickly I will feel the need when ‘real-life’ eventually rears its head?), but it does still feel part of who I want people to think I am – is it just a mask? – or maybe it’s ok to just accept it genuinely makes me happy, fulfils a deep inner need, and that’s ok?
Red, and the colours surrounding it on the colour wheel, feel warm to me. They signify contentment, safety, fulfilment.
The other half of the wheel, the blues, and greens, do nothing for me. I’m indifferent about green, but blue represents cold harshness and meanders heavily into the grey palette towards black – a colour I have never used in any version of 180 days.
Even my worst days, were not black.
Black is finality.
Black, in this context, is the end destination we all creep towards, at different, indistinguishable and unidentifiable speeds, from the day we are born.
The range of colours, within the ‘red’ and ‘grey’ criteria, are non-hierarchical.
While it might have made interesting art, and given me a further range of possibilities, to have scored my days out of ten – or better still twenty – at the time of recording, my only aim was to try to aide myself and understand… well, I was busy trying to normalize the reality, which was that I was living in constant pain.
The design of the original is, on reflection, a lovely marker of how far I’ve come as an artist, as a designer, probably as a fulfilled person – knowing a whole lot more about who I am, who I want to be and how to get from one to the other.
I free-hand drew my 180 segments onto graph-paper. I tried to make them look as equal as possible.
I may have checked it was the same width as it was height.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t an easy task, even within those loose rules, but the lack of clarity and precision within those parameters was to cause me immense disappointment for many years to come. Sounds overdramatic? It is but the truth.
I continued to cross those stitches for a full eighteen months, but in the course of that time, I developed as a visual artist much further than I could ever have imagined.
I had art lessons – through pencil, watercolour, gouache, ink, life drawing, printing, and felting. I became a part-time student (I got an NUS card – such excitement at forty-something!) at Leeds College of Art – Art, Design and Culture, Watercolour and Ink, Experimental Embroidery, Life Drawing. These courses were an amazing resource and the teaching of some was incredible – it is galling that the entire, extensive offering of part-time courses was wiped out as a requirement of Leeds College of Art becoming Leeds Arts University.
Fortunately, we were moving away from Leeds by that point, which considerably softened this blow.
The disappointment, or maybe the process of acceptance needed, on finishing the work, after so long, was considerable.
My main issue with it was its lack of symmetry and circularity.
Why the fuck hadn’t I started with a circle and worked inwards, rather than just winging it with the outside shape?
Namely, because the me that started out had no experience of making art. I had no practice in designing something and knowing what the finished product would look like. I had no idea that my style was going to innately turn out to be incredibly neat and precise – nothing less is good enough.
So I hated the completed work!
I found it incredibly unpleasing to my eye. It didn’t make me happy. I had none of the fulfilment and buzz I now know can be produced by creating something I really believe in and love. Something I’m incredibly proud of.
And then there was the BIG issue of the balance of colours.
‘Red’ meant a good day. ‘Grey’ meant a bad day.
As I mentioned, I hadn’t looked at patterns, as was my entire reason for recording the data, I think I thought it would be a big ‘reveal’ at the end.
A piece of art never really speaks until it’s completion.
I learned early on, that if I reject work at the point when I think ‘this looks shit’ I wouldn’t finish anything, moreover I would have thrown away work I am dead proud of.
Maybe the truth was I was very fearful of that reveal?
And indeed, I felt the whole thing just looked too ‘red’.
Like life, on balance, was fine, and therefore it diminished my experience of mental illness.
It confirmed suspicions that I was making a huge fuss.
I was an attention seeker.
There was nothing wrong with me and now I’d made a piece of ‘art’ that confirmed to everyone.
I was a fake.
I still feel the need to justify this.
However, taking a deep breath, since I’m being so honest, I will see it as not ‘justifying’, but as explaining the mental process I have had to go through to now love it.
And I do love it.
I love it enough to have replicated it in many other mediums – Admittedly, all a perfect circle!
I started recording the data not immediately I had the breakdown – I was far from a mental place where ‘hey, why don’t I write down my mood’ would have occurred to me.
Grey, dark grey, very dark grey, and more grey.
At the time I just needed it to stop. I would have taken literally anything anybody gave me to make the darkness go away. To stop the constant and unending brain chatter. To take the noise away. To give me space for just one easy breath.
I started recording about eight weeks after commencing anti-depressants. Citalopram to be more precise. Whenever I talk about anti-depressants with anyone I always find us comparing drugs – so there – it was, and is still, Citalopram.
I’m constantly searching for that moment when life looks a little easier and I might try coming off them. Unsurprisingly, with the world as it is, that moment seems to evaporate every time I think I see it on the horizon.
I look back on those red and grey days and remember what the grey days looked like. The red days were days that were not grey days.
But what did a grey day look like?
It took a long time to realize that everybody’s good and bad days are relative. Not just to them, but to their lives. To what’s going on around them. To their family. To their health. To their financial situation. To their week, their year, their decade.
It’s hard to pin-point just how my grey days of 2014 looked. But I know they were full of miscomprehension. Of irrational thoughts. Of panic. Of pain. Of exhaustion. And the red days weren’t empty of those things, I was just slightly more in control of them. No panic attacks. Red days definitely did not involve panic attacks.
And now I conclude that this post is getting dangerously close to self-indulgence. A plea for sympathy. Which it isn’t meant to be.
I have always tried, in my writing, to juxtaposition my life and how I have learned to live with chronic illness, against other, inspiring artists’ lives and work.
This is my first attempt at talking about my own artwork. Jumping between me and, oh, me, feels slightly cringeworthy and is a very fine balance!
I have ended up, predominantly – at least for now – making hand coloured prints because, beyond the fact that I find them incredibly pleasing and enjoyable to make, they don’t take 18 months to produce!
However, after a 2-year gap, last year (Easter, Edinburgh – another landmark and memorable moment) I decided it was time to return to the cross stitch version and to make the pleasingly circular version the original could have been! Graph paper, and a friend’s baby bath bucket, and the next version was on its way.
Not only a perfect circle but this time every single day, within a stitch or so, is exactly the same size.
I can only hope that this time I love the finished product.
Roll on 2021.
Hand Coloured Prints of 180 Days can be purchased HERE.