Stitching over history, memory and collective joy – Stephanie Francis-Shanahan’s living sculptures

A blazer and a skirt flutter in the wind at Pett Level beach in Hastings. On it are pictures of a man and a woman, across time, sown into the fabric and glazed with glue. Words travel through the garment in embroidery and the pink tulle skirt reads: my own darling (image right). As an image, it presents a ghostly figure, embodied by the movement in the wind and the stories woven into the textile. 

Stephanie Francis-Shanahan is an artist working across mediums. When asked to describe her work she says: 

SFS: I often describe it as a stream of consciousness that’s semi autobiographical and uses the connotative power of clothing and the body as experiential being and living sculpture. That’s like 700 words at once. And now, if I remove the definition and actually just talk like a human – one of my tutors […] describes it as my life happens and I make work about it, which is the most accurate description. I’m interested in our collective spaces and emotions and how we can use that to support protest movements and resistance, but mostly to make people (who are usually told that their life isn’t important) realise just how special their presence is.

At first glance, Francis-Shanahan’s work can seem saccharine, in its colour and its references to pop culture, whether that be WKD, Elton John or football players like Jordan Pickford. Her art is felt before it can be verbalised, it embraces anyone who sees it, inviting us to step into a world that we recognise as partly our own. An important theme in her work, particularly in her recently published book ‘Dream Baby: I am my own sunshine’ (2020) is collective joy but this can be deceptive, as below the glittery surface her work tackles issues of working class struggle, grief and resistance. To this she added: 

SFS: More recently after realising a lot of childhood trauma, it’s allowing the work to be a place of more than just joy. It was really really focused on joy for a long time and realising that with that fixation you were missing out on a lot of things. It’s kind of like, you can’t have the sun without the rain – you know that phrase?  

Costumes are a big part of Francis-Shanahan’s process but she does not view them as clothing, instead seeing them as living sculpture. Garments are clothes until they are put on something that resembles a body at which point they take on their new sculptural form. The living sculpture also becomes a living archive through her work as much of it draws on history, both personal and collective, to tell a story through the pieces that she makes. At times this has meant taking literal family archives  and using pictures and fabric from her own history to make the work, at others it has meant using wider historical experiences as her material, particularly looking at histories of working class people and Irish migrants. Most often she does both, situating her own history within a wider historical narrative.

Stephanie Francis-Shanahan, still from ‘patron Saint of social mobility’.

Francis-Shanahan’s works document the transition, from joy to grief and how these emotions are collectively felt. The beginning of her work with living sculpture in this way was when she was completing her BA. At around this time she discovered experiential art through Billy Elliot, as she had never been exposed to Ballet properly before. 

SFS: I took myself to see Swan Lake at Royal Albert Hall [after watching Billy Elliot] and spent like 60 quid on a ticket using my student finance.[…] So I’d gone the other way, learning about high culture through low culture.[…] I was literally sat in the round, three rows from the front, I’d got myself the bougiest ticket […] only two minutes before it started did I realise that ballet didn’t have any talking. I was sat there like: I’m going to get so bored…[…] Obviously I wasn’t, I was hooked from the first 10 minutes. 

Stephan Francis-Shanahan, ‘billy u were always a star’.

The work that came out of this is titled ‘Billy u were always a star’, boxing shorts that were customised with a bright pink fringe and collaged with words and images. This was the birth of Francis-Shanahan’s process of repurposing and customising clothes through embroidery, stitching and embellishment. In this work she explored the effects of masculinity in a working class context through the lens of her dad’s experience in the 80s. This came to be one of the key characteristics of Francis-Shanahan’s work – the layers of meaning were literally sown into the pieces and in the way she conceptualised them, layering wider narratives around masculinity with her family’s experiences.

Other projects are more personal, starting from family history and working outwards. The blazer and skirt combination at Pett Level beach titled ‘All my love to you’ were a project of devotion and exploration into anticipatory grief. The images show her Nana and her husband Sid, who Francis-Shanahan was never able to meet. ‘My own darling’ was what he used to call her Nana. The images of the work were taken on the anniversary of her grandma’s passing and were a way to reclaim the day and fill it with joy. Pett Level beach is the site where her family’s ancestors walked from Essex in the 1800s to find work — the image is a great example of the way Francis-Shanahan has always intuitively been able to tap into the power of photography, as documentation of her work but also as a narrative device. Through her work, the process of working with archives, garments and images is an exercise in reclamation over the fabric of history, something we see repeated across projects which features family images, letters and other archival objects. 

SFS: I didn’t realise at the time, but I was trying to reclaim my voice within these narratives and family history. My family history has been troubled and dominated by negativity. It’s been so owned by other people, so by me taking these items it’s half me trying to fix the history and re-write it and half me being like fuck all of you I’ll make what I want and I don’t have to have honour and dedication and respect for these items. There was more anger in it than I realised, coupled with this real desperation to be written into that history. 

Working with printed paper, PVA glue and thread, the works themselves are also really fragile, and it quickly became apparent that what she was making were transient costumes that were destined to fall apart. Every time they were used or worn, irreparable damage would happen and that’s how she began to think of them as records of the living sculpture, every tear a record of them being worn. The material aspect of Francis-Shanahan’s work is literally becoming memory, not only because it archives history but also in the way it falls apart. 

Talking about this part of her work, I feel as though I have been talking to someone with a lifetime of experience despite the fact that Francis-Shanahan is twenty-five years old. She has been making this kind of work for decades as her practice began when she was only six. It’s how she processed her emotions and her experiences. In her own words:

SFS: Making work is what kept me alive.

In 2019 she staged an exhibition in her home titled ‘life is just a precious minute baby! (one nite can change ur life)’ (images above) in which she made her and her mum’s council flat look like a gallery. It was her first retrospective and she showed everything she had ever made, including drawings made when she was a child. After the show, she went through her entire archive, chose what she wanted to keep and got rid of the rest, realising that so much of what she was holding onto were the upsetting and difficult times she had processed in the works themselves. This also applies to her living sculptures, which represent an important but painful period of her life, through which she worked through the entangled relations of the personal, the familial and the historical. Francis-Shanahan now feels like a divorcee (in her own words), as she’s trying to find out who she is without the living sculptures and the process they represent. Having just finished an MA in Fashion Image at CSM and gaining confidence in her ability to make work in institutional spaces that used to feel as scary as they were inaccessible, she’s ready for a change. 

SFS: I believe in everything I’ve been talking about but I don’t see that I would keep making the same thing.[…] And maybe my art is just going to get really rubbish now but I feel more freedom in it. […] I’m over this overtly working class iconography and it sounds like I’m over it because it’s trendy now but I don’t want my background and where I’ve come from to ever mean that I can only make things about one thing. […] I’m proud of those images but in some ways, making work about it has felt like tokenising myself […]. I don’t ever want to be a pastiche of myself. 

Whereas some people have locked archives away, Francis-Shanahan has chosen to use history as a material in her work, it’s events are part of the fabric of her garments and are collaged with Hello Kitty, Arsenal FC, and her family. Archives are materials to be used and misused as part of her work, they don’t need to live in a box or an album and by using them she is extending the histories they represent, building onto the layers of meaning captured in images, letters and memories. This isn’t a process of destruction but of reinterpretation and acceptance.  It is a process of resistance and liberation and an assertion that whilst we are all products of histories, we are also agents of change.

Words: Anahi Saravia Herrera

Biography: Anahi Saravia Herrera is a London based creative researcher, writer and community organiser. Her practice revolves around a creative research process that leads her to different results, whether that be creating playlists and sounds, writing or developing performances. 

As a writer Anahi is most interested in art, artists and exhibitions that live in between disciplines and voices that are usually excluded from the mainstream. She is particularly interested in archives and how they can be used by artists and communities to document themselves, their communities and their personal histories. Anahi is an organiser and activist with the Women’s Strike Assembly and the Designer and Cultural Workers Union. 

Currently she is thinking about the transnational Latinx community and particularly in the diaspora experience of the Latinx community in the UK, which is largely invisible. She is working towards a project that aims to platform children of the diaspora in London. 

All photography copyright Stephanie Francis-Shanahan.