Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Deirdre Nelson: My Dear John and Lush Betty


Deirdre Nelson: My Dear John and Lush Betty

Juggling teaching positions in the textile programs at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, the Edinburgh College of Art and the Visual Arts Studio in Glasgow, Deirdre Nelson continues to devote a substantial amount of time to her own textile work. The Glasgow-based artist presented two solo exhibitions in Scotland in late 2002, “My Dear John” at the Museum of Edinburgh (August 9 – October 26) and “Lush Betty (n) a whisky bottle” at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock (September 26 – November 23).

Nelson’s conceptual embroideries draw on a rigorous research-based practice inspired by historical archives. “My Dear John” is the culmination of a research period at the Museum of Edinburgh. The Ford Ranken archive, on loan at the time, includes a substantial collection of 19th century glass and the letters of the Ford Ranken family. Rather than the material qualities of the glass collection, it was the letters which inspired Nelson’s embroideries and digital printing experiments. Language and text have always been a strong aspect of Nelson’s design process, and she related that in art school she was always the first to, rather than sketching or photographing, read about a subject to gather ideas. The delicately embroidered cell-phone holders and bonnets fitted with telephone earpieces that make up “My Dear John” are both humorous in their incongruity and serious in their social commentary. The arguable icon of 21st century communication, the cell phone and its text messaging function (used widely in the U.K.), stand in harsh contrast to countless embroidery stitches of past and present and handwritten letters from the Ford Ranken archive.

“Lush Betty. (n) a whisky bottle” is based on a letter written in 1916, regarding an exhibition of embroidery and needlecraft at the Glasgow School of Art, that Nelson unearthed while researching Ayrshire needlework. The letter describes the conditions under which the women embroidered and in one passage notes, “some of the older workers would bathe their eyes in whisky not withstanding the sharpness of the pain because of the relief afforded and the temporary quickening of the sight.” For the exhibition, Nelson conceived of a series of pockets and containers in which this “worker’s helper” could have been stored. The work that required the use of whisky eyewashes also appears in pieces such as Repetitive Strain, a finely embroidered wrist bandage wrapped around a small glass bottle. For this labor-intensive work, Nelson has recently moved into experiments with digital printing; she pairs the speed of the digital printer with imagery that alludes to the eye-washes of the past.

The conceptual and intellectual role of the crafts is an area under scrutiny and debate by critics and practitioners alike, some of whom argue for a clear privileging of either the conceptual or the material. Nelson’s work stands as a positive example of a fruitful integration of the two.

FiberArts Magazine, summer 2003: 60.