From the moment I started to learn traditional patchwork, what seems like a lifetime ago, I have kept a separate creativity journal. It has swatches of fabrics, scribbled calculations of measurements, to do lists, notes from my coaching calls and from books, and diary entries reminding myself what I was thinking and feeling and defining my true goals. It documents my swift move to pure art quilting with commercial fabric and then to mixed media art. Interspersed with all that are excited scribblings about ideas for new work, annotated diagrams and recordings of facts that are begging to be used in some, as yet undefined way.
I find that I rarely go back through this material. yet, the writing down of ideas seems to anchor them in the back of my brain where they lie dormant, waiting for their growing season.
When I was given the opportunity to put on my Urban Scrawl show (which opens on May 12th 2016 at the View Two Gallery in Liverpool) I knew I wanted to do not only my abstract graffiti work but also some pieces that linked to Liverpool and its history. I wanted to go back to my habit of using art to tell a story. That is when the seeds of the Left Behind story, which had been in my journal for a couple of years, after a visit to the Museum of Liverpool one cold Saturday morning, began to push through. The family lawyer in me had been fascinated with the story and had spent a happy time in the museum writing down all I could, without any real idea what possible use it could be.
It is impossible to separate the history of Liverpool from its river. In its heyday, the shipping lines operating from the Port of Liverpool relied heavily on seamen from China and Singapore. Up to 20,000 such men lived in the city making Liverpool’s Chinatown the oldest in Europe. In the years following Word War Two, when there was pressure on wages and housing, a policy developed of favouring local men over these recruited immigrants. They were paid lower wages in an attempt to force them to return home for economic survival. In 1945 the Home Office initiated a policy of deportation, with men being rounded up.
Many of these men left behind British wife or girlfriends and children. (At that time British women marrying a foreign national would lose their nationality and become an Alien, so many simply cohabited.) These women were left destitute and their children lost all knowledge of their fathers. Some were placed in children’s homes or adopted. Others lived with stepfathers and their paternity remains the unspoken secret. the Museum has a whole display dedicated to Liverpool’s trading connections with China and this little known aspect of it. There is also a website called Half and Half, set up by the descendent of a deported seaman on which she and others are still seeking information about their fathers.
Also in my journals were notes from a class I did with Committed to Cloth in which I explored asemic writing in art and mark making based on calligraphy. Stacked in my studio was a box of dip pen nibs bought on a whim after reading a blog post about urban sketching.
When I thought about how I could interpret this story the feelings I got were of fragility, of something almost, but not quite lost, a story put away and forgotten until the scraps are refound. I thought about that mark making session which produced writing that was clearly referable to handwriting but yet had a secret, personal meaning. The resulting pieces in my Left Behind series are much more subtle and gentle than the rest of the Urban Scrawl exhibition. They are collaged from silk bought, appropriately, in Hong Kong and from a variety of papers on which I have used those nibs with copper ink. Hand stitching slowed the process down, mimicking the reflective times these ‘left behind’ families must have had wondering where their loved one went.
These pieces imagine the letters that initially passed between these couples before connections were finally lost. They are fragmented and torn to represent the snippets of memory and the tattered lives that remained after implementation of the forced repatriation policy. I have used the chinese ‘double happiness’ symbol; which traditionally is used to symbolise marriage. One solid half and one outlined half represents the disappearance of one spouse.