Deirdre Nelson: tales of the unexpected

Deirdre Nelson

“I can’t remember not knowing how to sew or knit,” Deidre Nelson explains. The prolific body of work Nelson has created in the past six years combines her intuitive relationship to making textiles with her equally instinctive ability to uncover nuggets of social history. Now well known for her talents fusing the two, the bulk of Nelson’s practice reveals her ability to translate social history into textile art.

Nelson remembers spending “more time reading and writing in the library than making” while a student of embroidered and woven textiles at Glasgow School of Art in the early nineties. The comment could suggest a self-consciously conceptual or even impenetrably theoretical practice, but this would be far from the truth. Humour reigns throughout her work even when, at times, it is bitter sweet. Nelson grew up in Northern Ireland. To rely on an old stereotype, she possesses the Gaelic talent for story telling. It may be the reason why her hours logged in the library have made her practice intelligent, but far from dry.

Nelson has remained based in Glasgow since her days as a student, although commissions and residencies now take her around the world. In 2006, she garnered the somewhat dubious honour of receiving a fine on her first trip to Australia for inadvertently smuggling apples into the West coast city of Perth. Matta Crowley, Nelson’s unsympathetic quarantine officer, became an unwitting source of inspiration for the work Nelson went on to create for the Jerwood Prize for Makers in 2008. Nelson’s use of her unpleasant run-in with Crowley is a technique she turns to again and again: turning the mundane, or even distasteful, into inspiration.

During her 2007 residency at the Curtin Institute of Technology, Nelson worked with an art student to dye thread with apple bark from the same type of apple Matta Crowley fined Nelson for “smuggling” into Australia. This thread was then painstakingly sewn, in the shape of a xanthosia rotundifolia or Southern Cross Flower, into the collar of a beige quarantine officer’s shirt to provide its wearer with a constant reminder of the need for empathy. Nelson went on to create three white shirts in the series for the London exhibition of the Jerwood Prize for Makers, each with embroidered flowers that posses attributes we could all be well reminded of: the daisy for patience, rosa eglanteria for compassion and the pasque flower for empathy.

Since her first trip to Australia, Nelson explains that she has “become more aware of making work that has a life beyond the exhibition”. Fundraising for charity has become an increasingly prominent aspect of her practice. For example, Nelson used eBay to hold a knitted fish auction on the Scottish island of North Uist in December of 2008 at the conclusion of her work with the island’s museum. Proceeds were donated to the Yellow Wellie Challenge, a fundraiser to support the Royal National Lifeboat Association (RNLI) whose existence is vital to the island’s small scale fishing industry.

In July and August of 2008 Nelson embarked on another artist’s residency in Australia, this time with International Art Space (IASKA) in the remote town of Kelleberren on the country’s Western coast. The work she produced during her two-month stay marks a distinct departure from her established use of social history. As the final artist in residence hosted by the programme, she felt “there had already been enough art that wasn’t relevant” and “I wanted to make art that was relevant to the community.” To help introduce herself and establish themes that would be meaningful to the community, Nelson joined a local craft group who were knitting clothing for AIDS babies in Africa. Here she found the “make do and mend values of bush craft” were being lived, rather than debated in the white cube.

On the whole, the community embraced her interests. But Nelson also found aspects of her Australian experience “all too much. I heard a lot of racism while I was there, an element of which I needed to shut out. I also found issues surrounding aboriginal culture quite disturbing and realised the history [of the region] I was reading was only white history.” For the first time, social history felt too sensitive a topic for her work. These challenges required Nelson to rethink her usual approach. Determined that she would “only use materials from the local community” she set about “working on small things”. While these self-imposed limitations proved challenging in such a remote community, they also allowed Nelson insight into the lives of those who, of necessity, were adapting to material limitations on a day-to-day basis.

To celebrate the conclusion of her residency, Nelson held an exhibition of work in the IASKA gallery that suggested, in her words, a “product show room”. Kellaproducts responded to the commercial pressures of the community and the local wheat production of the area, with products to help ease some of the negative realities faced by the farming community. Writing in her blog at the time of the exhibition, she explained, “kellaproducts aim to provide quality local products while respecting the environment, acquiring materials locally, and using water efficient technologies. Recycle, make do and mend is our motto.” The humorous kella collection included: kellarain, kellashoes, kellaearplugs, kellabags, kellatrucks, kellagmcrops (geriatrically modified) by the local craft ladies and kellahmcrops (historically modified).

Kellarain was “collected and bottled in jars to create a range of boutique/specialty rain, such as mood enhancing rain” to calm the farmer’s drought anxieties. Jam jars of rain, along with embroidered kellabags were auctioned on August 30, 2008 at the IASKA gallery with the proceeds of the auction donated to the Royal Flying Doctors who provide aero-medical emergency and primary health care services in regional and remote Australia. Kellashoes were an effort to bring fashion and the frivolity of dressing up to a community isolated from the whims of such urban indulgences. The nine pairs of embroidered earplugs were based on the indigenous flowers surviving amongst the genetically modified wheat grown in the area. Both the earplugs and the embroidered covers for the toy kellatrucks were meant to assuage the rumblings of train and truck transport that passed through the thoroughfare community “at all hours of the day and night”. The “geriatrically” modified kellagmcrops were named with the permission of the feisty knitting group Nelson joined, whose use of crafts such as knitting and baking continue to thrive in the community.

Nelson’s kellaearplugs, along with the empathy shirts, have made a more recent appearance on this side of world as part of the Dovecot Tapestry Studio’s exhibition of the Jerwood Makers Prize in Edinburgh. Here each of the nine pairs of earplugs waver on stems attached to a base sprinkled with salt. Delicate seed heads and pollen are constructed from tiny French knots with each thread masterfully adopting the scale of a wild flower in their battle against the elements. If, as Nelson explains, they were in part made to block out some of racist dialogue around her, then this makes the work all the more remarkable. Kellaearplugs turns hate into beauty.

Embroidery magazine (May/June, 2009: 28-31)