Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Beth Barron: Gathering Histories


Beth Barron: Gathering Histories

Gathering histories and memories of the past has long been the work of textile art. In fact textiles have long expressed words that tongues have failed to speak or forgotten to record. As a result, textile arts such as embroidery and quilting are seen by many to convey strong narrative content and can be read as texts upon which the unspoken and forgotten are finally sewn and pieced together.

The language of cloth is discussed by Anne Brennan in “Running Stitch and Running Writing: Thinking about Process”, when she writes of her memories of learning to stitch and write as a child and remembers that, from an early age, stitching more easily conveyed her ideas and emotions than the written word allowed. Brennan concludes that ‘… stitching from life, speaking from life: both seem to want to stake a claim in the territory of truth’. (Brennan in Craft and Contemporary Theory, Sue Rowley (ed.), Allen and Unwin, 1998). For the textile, truth resides in the life of its very material; its accumulated strength as fragments are assembled and drawn together through thread. Historians such as Judith Perani and Norma Wolff note that cloth, ‘like all cultural artefacts… has a life history. Depending upon the particular life history phase, the cultural value of cloth at a specific moment may lie primarily in either an aesthetic, social or economic function’ (Perani & Wolff, Cloth, Dress and Art Patronage in Africa, p. 10, Berg, 1990).

As record keeper and narrative, quilted and embroidered cloth undeniably takes on a social function. It can contain literal sentiments such as ‘Home Sweet Home’ that, despite their clichés, nonetheless reveal a hope and desire for happiness and compassion. It can also contain more abstract narratives of both hope and despair.

American textile artist Beth Barron creates stitched textiles that are narratives of memory and healing. Working with a variety of materials, her pieces are reminiscent of heavily textured collages. The materials that they contain could have conceivably been recovered in the spring-cleaning of cupboard detritus: fragments of lace, wishbones, photographs, hair, stained handkerchiefs. It is only later that we learn of the death, as well as life, contained in these works. For instance, some of the handkerchiefs Barron used in early works were inherited from a victim of Auschwitz. These fragments take their place among equally intimate materials and place a dark urgency and seriousness on the record keeping asked of these cloths.

The stitches that secure collected elements also act as embellishment: big, dark sutures that make no effort to conceal the project’s recovery and repair. In these works, piecing captures not only a mend and make do mind set but also a darker side of memory: fragments of death as well as life. At a glance, the dominant colours are reminiscent of sepia tones discoloured from age. But like a living room wall hung with aging family portraits, we instinctively know that the fading prints and frames conceal a patch of still fresh wallpaper beneath.

Barron’s recent works incorporate band-aids: children’s plasters decorated with cheerful cartoon characters, plastics and fabrics of darker colours for darker skins, shiny white plastics as well as those suspiciously grubby. Their presence seems to reflect both injury and the possibility of healing. What would otherwise be considered a contaminated surface creates surprising synthetic juxtapositions to the richly embroidered fabrics. Often, the oblong plastic strips are integrated into the surface design to such a degree that their former identity is concealed but, as one’s eye grows accustomed to their distinctive shape, hidden pieces are revealed. Humorous and odd at the same time, these works depart from a narrative of dark memories but continue on a symbolic level to evoke a narrative of recovery and renewal.

Literary and cultural critic Elaine Showalter traces the rise of the American short story written by female authors and the North American quilting tradition, noting that the fragments of time that women were able to snatch from their daily lives made the short story rather than the novel an accessible structure for fiction writers. Similarly, the piece-by-piece assemblage required of quilting as opposed to production, which requires extended time and concentration was wells suited to the multi-tasking required of many women’s time. In both cases the formats lent themselves to short bursts of attention and did not demand the luxury of hours of peace and quiet, work space or an extensive amount of resources.

In her essay, ‘Piecing and Writing,’ Showalter explains, ‘the process of making a patchwork quilt involves three separate stages of artistic composition, with analogies to language use first on the level of the sentence, then in terms of the structure of the story or novel, and finally the images, motifs, or symbols… that unify a fictional work’. (Showalter, ‘Piecing and Writing’, p223 in The Poetics of Gender, Nancy K. Miller (ed.), Columbia University Press, 1986.)

Barron’s chosen materials and techniques are the substance of textile story telling. Like the best story, these sentences, stories and motifs leave much space for our own interpretation to sound through the elements she has assembled.

Embroidery magazine (July/Aug. 2004: 22-25)