Wrapped up in a fairy tale: Jessie M. King and the production of wearable designs

Although Scottish artist, designer and teacher Jessie M. King (1875-1949) is probably most celebrated for her delicate and often whimsical illustrative work, this short article will focus on her clothing designs and dissemination of knowledge via her how-to-publication How Cinderella went to the Ball (1924).  

Wrapped up in a fairy tale: Jessie M. King and the production of wearable designs

Spotlight: Xenobia Bailey’s Aesthetic of Funk

Portrait of Xenobia Bailey by Daisy Chen

Xenobia Bailey’s career is as eclectic and colourful as the spiral crochet patterns that form a key part of her aesthetic. Having studied ethnomusicology at the University of Washington and Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute, she went on to work as a costume designer for Black Arts West and learnt to crochet at the Greenpoint Cultural society in Brooklyn. Her crochet hats infiltrated pop culture in the 1980s, appearing everywhere from United Colors of Beneton advertisements, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, to Elle magazine. 

“Crochet works well for practicing my craft and developing the aesthetic. It is labor-intensive, but it becomes a meditation, like counting prayer beads”

Bailey’s first influence, however, was her mother – “She created a beautiful ambience with nothing. She’d get these afghans and quilts from the Salvation Army to adorn the house in a way that was like an art installation.” Bailey’s refers to her art practice as an ‘aesthetic of funk’, which celebrates the idiosyncratic, the improvised, and folk art traditions that were built on thrift and any scraps of material at hand.  

$ Bopped – flow Mandela cosmic tapestry of energy flow of charged currency (a minor event), 1999,  Hand crotchet, cotton, acrylic yarns, 5’8in. Image courtesy Stux Gallery

“There isn’t a commercialised or industrialised African-American aesthetic, it’s more of a craft, and it goes through the music, the poetry, the food and everything. There is a mysticism that surrounds our aesthetic. It’s important for African Americans especially to have a place of being and sense of presence’

Xenobia Bailey, Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Tent (installation view, John Michael Kohler Arts Center), 1993; acrylic and cotton yarn and mixed media. Courtesy of the artist.

Central to Bailey’s ‘aesthetic of funk’ is the mission to make something joyful from ‘the legacy of trauma’ central to the African-American experience: ‘we can make a joyful noise in that funk…From that garbage comes fertilizer, and that’s where fresh seeds sprout.”  Mothership 1: Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent, which draws inspiration from Obeah healing rituals, is a striking example of the ways Bailey combines vibrant crochet, folk inspired patterns and ceremonial fabrics to create afrofuturist work that celebrates the cultural legacy of African American women. Her tent offers a space of sanctuary and solace, whilst evoking the dual nature of funk as both based in trauma but signifying joy: Bailey describes its title as referring to “Sistah Paradise, a fictional African medicine woman, or ‘Obeah,’ who was brought to the US as a slave… It’s a message of resistance, renewal, and racial pride through the process of crochet.”

Sistah Paradise: The Lead Mystical African (Haitian Aesthetic) American Folk Character, for rural, urban and suburban bedtime medicinal folktales and contemporary bedtime medicinal lullabies. Photography by Xenobia Bailey

Bailey has also created large scale artworks that translate her ‘aesthetic of funk’ into public spaces. Funktional Vibrations is a large scale mosaic that decorates the roof of 34thStreet – Hudson Yards station on the New York subway. A mystical, cosmic scene made of her signature mandalas, as well as light rays and shooting stars, Bailey wants this work to function as an ‘activator; it’s not only to be pretty, but to inspire’. 

Xenobia Bailey’s blog is available to view here. See below for a video of Bailey discussing her project “Paradise Under Reconstruction in the Aesthetic of Funk”

Jane Fairhurst: Wands, Fetishes for Uncertain Times & Women’s Work

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.

Interview: Ella Dorton on Craft, Community, and Culture

Back in 2013, when it was announced that Hull would be the UK City of Culture in 2017, an Arts Editor at the Times tweeted ‘Hull for UK City of Culture 2017. *blank*’,  adding, by way of an explanation, that they knew ‘nothing about Hull…nothing at all’. This attitude is, of course, typical of London-centric arts media, but it also speaks of a wider cultural contempt for a post-industrial Northern city that has struggled to find a place and an identity in the twenty-first century. Battling deprivation, economic decline and austerity, Hull has suffered from a lack of opportunities, hope, and vision. The City of Culture year gave its reputation a much-needed boost, as well as an injection of cash and a 365-day diverse programme of events that inspired confidence and creativity throughout the city. Yet some local artists criticised the organisers for focussing too much on big budget spectacles that brought in artists from outside the city and not enough on supporting long-established grassroots arts and culture organisations. Although the media might not know it, Hull has long been a creative city with a distinct voice. Poet Philip Larkin, a resident of Hull for thirty years, summed it up as a ‘a city that is in the world yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance’.

Hull-based artist Ella Dorton’s fabric portraits creatively capture the unique spirit of the city’s residents, giving a voice to those who have been left behind by society and, indeed, by the City of Culture year. Using recycled textiles and a collage-based technique, Dorton pieces together images of people in their homes, captured as they sit on the sofa discussing their life stories, dreams, and fears. Through the use of discarded textiles and the depiction of marginalised, working-class people, Dorton challenges the conventions of portraiture; her work disrupts the gallery and picks at the boundaries between art and craft, private and public space.  

For her recent exhibition ‘Journey to the Centre of the Couch (Couches & Other Good Ideas)’, she transformed the Humber Street Gallery into a living room: the stitched fabric scenes were hung to form a long circular wall, creating an intimate space which invited the viewer to get close to Dorton’s subjects and their stories. Cushions and lamps enhanced this atmosphere; Dorton wanted visitors to ‘relax, sit down, and feel at home’. Dorton is skilled at connecting domestic scenes to larger narratives of social inequality, late capitalism and ecological crisis. Her subjects voice their own sense of being implicated in challenges faced by the wider world, with one woman, a recovering heroin addict, explaining that ‘I can relate to the destruction of the planet because of my own destruction of my own body’. Many of Dorton’s subjects express ‘[grief] at the state of the planet’, fear, and depression but there is also a clear sense of hope, recovery, and care running throughout the work. 

Building community is at the heart of Dorton’s practice: she is a founder of Ground, an artist-run workshop and community space, and works on a number of community arts initiatives, including Mad Pride (2017), a project that aimed to ‘talk about how mad our world really is, about all the inequality and injustice, greed and violence, and how all this madness so often makes us unwell’ and ‘bring people together so we can help one another better navigate all this madness and build together a more beautiful world’.

I caught up with Ella to find out more about her practice, methods, and motivation…

 Could you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

My name is Ella Dorton, I’m 28, from Hull. I’m a care-worker, and I co-run ‘Ground’- a community arts and activist space in Hull, with a bunch of friends. I am also an artist! 

Tell us a bit about ‘Journey into the Centre of the Couch (Couches and Other Good Ideas)’, your current exhibition at Humber St Gallery – how did it come about? What inspired you to create this show?

In previous years, I’d been making large fabric portraits of people in my community, as well as fictional dystopian scenes of Hull flooded, an ocean of plastic etc. When Humber street gallery asked me to make some art for a show, I had an idea to combine these two ideas: I wanted to make portraits of people in Hull, and somehow incorporate some fantasy, slipping in bits of our conversations together and ideas they had about the world, in picture or word form. I found my sitters just by asking or being asked, often through Ground and ORTs (a sewing group for vulnerable women). 

I started with a woman called Cassie, who comes to Ground. I went to her house a few times, and we drank tea together, ate a bit, and I drew her and wrote down snippets of conversation we had. Cassie wanted her life describing with 4 animals, which represent different parts in her life: adventuring, her victorious battle with heroin, losing her son. Other people were less pictorial and conversations were directly stitched or painted onto the work.  

Climate change is on my mind, and I have been trying to figure out a way to talk about it through my art for a while. I didn’t expect that it would come out so naturally in many of the conversations I had with people I drew, so the work inevitably became a lot about that, as well as other subjects: motherhood, homelessness, addiction. 

I planned to make 6 of these portraits, and sew them into a circular room that you could relax, sit down and feel at home in [the gallery]. 

 

The use of old bedsheets and scraps of material is so effective, what motivated you to use these textiles? 

The fabric is all used. I like the aesthetic of using worn fabric; when someone gives you a pile of clothes there are loads of colours and patterns in there that I might not have chosen myself, which pushes the work in different directions and gives me a big range to choose from. The worn-out-ness of the fabric matches the worn-out-ness of peoples’ homes and lives. I like to recognise bits in the work….there’s my dad’s shirt, there’s Sally’s scarf, a bit of so-and-so’s sweaty shirt armpit there – and I think other people enjoy this too.

It’s important to me to make art out of scrap instead of buying new stuff. The fabric industry causes something like 10% of all greenhouse gases, the making, washing and disposing of it, as well as loads of other harmful effects on the environment, and the people that make it. 

It also means, of course, that making the art is virtually free (except for glue, thread, and machine upkeep), meaning I can sustain myself on a low wage.

What drew you to the concept of home and the everyday? Do you view the domestic as an inherently political space? 

I like drawing people in their own homes: the home is an extension of someone’s personality, and you can get to know a person through their stuff, their taste in décor, their messiness. In the home, people are in their own habitat, their own territory, and are often more relaxed and up for chatting. They can also seem more vulnerable and exposed, depending on the person and how they feel having someone coming into their space. I make good friends this way. 

I find a lot of beauty in the mundane, and enjoy drawing people doing everyday tasks, eating, cleaning, sleeping – we all do these things (or we should), yet we do them so differently. 

 

I love the way you stitched the voices of the community into the fabric. How important are issues of class and community in your practice?

I was brought up on North Bransholme, which is a council estate in North Hull. It had a bad reputation but it was a great place to grow up, because there was a lot of green space and not many cars. My parents are middle class from the South, and when I was younger I felt embarrassed of that, not wanting to be seen as ‘posh’ (there’s a lot of reverse snobbery going on). I’ve always found class a massively interesting and difficult subject to talk about, I find the diversity in people’s taste and culture in the UK a wonderful and interesting thing. However, I have seen pretty horrendous poverty in Hull, and a whole host of social issues that arise from that poverty and startling inequality. I’m trying to find a way to talk about it through art. The way I’m doing so at the moment is by talking to people and sharing peoples’ stories and ideas about the world. I started by asking my neighbours if I could go round and draw them, as a way of getting to know them and feeling part of a community. People usually seem to quite like being drawn, being seen as ‘art-worthy’ and interesting when often they don’t think they are. It’s exciting to be able to make and show work about these people and their ideas.

Finally, could you describe the work of Ground and what it means to you to be a part of an arts collective & community space? 

I set up Ground with some friends about 4 years ago, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We found out about a building that hadn’t been in use for a good 5 years and needed a lot of attention, and we loved it back to life. Thankfully, a lot of people were up for helping us out, and a pretty solid community around Ground grew. 

It’s situated on Beverley road, which is the main street into and through Hull, a street drinking hot-spot. Ground is opposite a methadone dispensary unit and a giant mattress shop, and next door to a Kurdish shisha bar. It’s an unusual place to have a gallery but we like that as we get a lot of different people through the door.

Ground is a space for art and activism, we run workshops, gigs, exhibitions, talks, and have studios upstairs. I love being part of an arts collective but it’s been hard work, it’s emotionally demanding and the organisational and admin stuff can be heavy at times. The best thing about it is teasing art out of people who think they can’t draw or make things, and collaborating together – the walls and ceilings are jam packed with peoples’ art and words. 


Interview by Lottie Whalen