Art and Ethnography

Jane’s approach to the production of art that refers to ancient or other cultures comes from an intention to firstly understand something of those cultures and this she does through reading. Sourcing books and information in various outlets including the internet, those books in turn referencing further reading, thus she gathers information to inform her artwork. She describes her work as “like an iceberg with two-thirds of it hidden, the research, and one-third on display, the art”. Through research Jane aims to gain an understanding of the cultures of the past and the role of the female within those cultures.

Such is the case with her Wands for Fryr. Here she read of the Ancient Norse wise women the Volva who used their wands to weave the fates of humans and particularly to influence the outcome of battles by accompanying their warriors and observing the fighting from higher ground they could determine the fates of those in the battle using their wands. The wands were distaffs, a tool of weaving regarded as magical and so deeply connected to women that the word is used to describe people related through their mother as the distaff side. 

So significant was this connection that Jane determined to create her own wands. Collecting ash staves, making the connection with Yggdrasil the mighty Ash tree of the Vikings, she wound each one with strips of cloth then added found objects, animal bones, beads, bells, plastic toys, oak galls, nazars, small mirrors, shiny buttons, coloured threads, each addition giving totemic power to her wands and imbuing each with apotropaic magic.

There is significance to the found objects Jane uses in her work, each one is carefully selected from pieces she has collected over the years many of which have come to her as gifts from female friends or items left in her studio by fellow artists and visitors. Some have been collected from flea markets and bazaars whilst travelling and others she has gathered whilst walking in the fields and woodlands near her home. Each object carries with it a person or place remembered.

She imagined the wand carriers waving their wands, the light flashing from various shiny objects, the banshee wail of ululating women calling upon their goddess Fryr all gathered on a hilltop creating an awe inspiring and powerful female presence.

Wands for Fryr detail
Wands for Fryr  (various heights to 2.5 metres)

Following a timeline from the Ice Age Venuses of the Paleolithic, the goddesses of Minoan, Ancient Egyptian, Old Norse and Ancient Greek cultures of the Neolithic Bronze Age to the present day Jane observed the diminution of the female in the human story. Her response was to create a series of textile sculptures including 

Women’s work is never done…. a vitrine filled to overflowing with knitted Venus figures that she continues to make, each with a safety pin for a mouth to signify the silencing of the female story and Matronae, (Three ages of woman) three female figures made using orange felt and representing the wise women of Celtic and Ancient Germanic origin. The significance of the three ages of woman reflects Jane’s recent status as grandmother with a daughter and granddaughter, the lineage of the distaff side.

Women’s work is never done…(70 x 40 x 25cm) and detail (24 x 20 x 4cm)
Women’s work is never done…(70 x 40 x 25cm) and detail (24 x 20 x 4cm)

Matronae (50 x 60 x 29cm)

Following a decade of research into age old belief systems and folk magic Jane created her own objects of agency, Fetishes for Uncertain Times, as textile works that challenge form and function in a shifting world where previously held certainties are no longer in place. 

Created from randomly shaped fabric off cuts sewn together in no particular order their asymmetry a device that serves to confuse the evil eye. The shape only emerges as wadding is forced into the fabric shape whose surface Jane then decorates with amulet devices in the form of twisted threads, shiny buttons, sequins, nazars and beads, embroidered knots and wavy lines all serving to avert any negative forces. 

With the creation of textile works Jane acknowledges the enduring association of the female with the production of cloth and is grateful to the generations of women who have passed on their skills for her to employ. 

Throughout her research Jane came across the phrase Mysteries of Women and seeking to uncover its meaning she eventually came to understand that pregnancy, childbirth, spinning, weaving, knowledge of healing plants and herbs, complimentary medicines in the form of clay figures and chants and incantations spoken in relation to the phases of the moon are some of those mysteries. She had discovered a deeply rooted female power that has never been completely eradicated by monotheism.

As sacred objects and to give them a sense of animation her textile sculptures Fetishes for Uncertain Times are elevated on metal stands to form an omnipresent installation.

Fetishes for Uncertain Times
Photographer Matylda Augustynek

With these textile works Jane confronts the viewer and asks them to reflect upon their own relationship with cloth and our current disassociation with the deep history of global textile production and its importance and intimate relationship to all people. The production of cloth is as ancient as ‘civilisation’. It has protected, decorated and defined us as clothing, been taken as treasure-trove after battles and cherished for its qualities.  However, mass production has brought us to a place where we no longer value cloth, we have become detached from its production and large amounts of cloth and clothing end up as landfill.

In her work Jane has chosen an individual, anti-formal direction that co-exists alongside the mainstream, making available useful strategies for negotiating meaning into objects. She circumvents the idea of ‘progress’ and by referencing nature and ancient ritual opens up rich areas of content. Producing objects that mimic the timelessness of authentic ritual objects, which follow a set pattern and remain unaltered over generations creating a reality that is timeless and independent of circumstances.

Jane Fairhurst studied at Liverpool Art College in the early 1970’s and gained her Masters in Fine Art with distinction from John Moores University, Liverpool in 2010. She established Cross Street Arts studio group in Standish, Wigan from 1999 and is a studio member and trustee of the group.