Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Exhibiting in Donegal

Just a little bit about an exhibition that travelled to Donegal. The exhibition was War-Torn Children and was organised under the auspices of Conflict Textiles, headed by Roberta Bacic who curated the exhibition.
Conflict Textiles is home to a large collection of international textiles, exhibitions and associated events, all of which focus on elements of conflict and human rights abuses and is an ‘Associated Site’ of CAIN (Conflict Archive on the INternet) at Ulster University, Northern Ireland. If you click on the following link you can find out more about the organisation and exhibitions put on by it:-


The War-Torn Children Exhibition included arpilleras, photographs and posters and was shown in the Regional Cultural Centre Letterkenny, artists exhibiting in it bringing into focus the devastating impact of war on children, families and communities. The piece I showed here was Her Pillow, the Earth, the first time my work has been exhibited in Donegal. I have previously shown work in Dublin with exhibiting group Prism Textile Inspired Art. 

Her Pillow, the Earth   full image

The figure of the child is taken from a drawing I made of my daughter when she was just a toddler. My intention was that, in placing the child in outline surrounded by a sweep of fabric like a shroud on one side and ruined buildings on the other, her fate was slightly ambiguous in that either the child had died or she was a refugee sleeping on the ground; it would be More details about the piece and the impetus that led me to create it can be found by using the following link:-


War-Torn Children had previously been shown in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast in spring 2017 and it will travel to the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural later this year where it will be on exhibition from 5th September until 29th November 2018. I will be giving a talk/workshop during the exhibition on Friday 5th October 2018 and further details of events and activities during the exhibition will be posted in due course.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Stitching the cape

In preparing for my Conflict Exhibition in Mid Wales Arts Centre, one of the pieces shown in the exhibition is a nurse's cape that I'm embellishing with stitch. This cape is one actually worn by a nurse whose name is stitched on the inside of the cape and I was very kindly given this cape when I visited the hospital just over a year ago. I had to hand in my cape when I left.  The nurse who wore this cape worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast and this has direct links with my own history, as I was a student nurse for a while in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, until I had to leave because I didn't have enough resistance to infection.

The two hospitals share the same site and are directly beside one another, though the building I worked in is now being replaced by a new one  -  I'm not sure if any of the old building will remain.

A view of the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children

I will always treasure my time spent as a nurse and perhaps because it was for a limited period, I remember very clearly many of the patients I nursed and wonder how their lives have worked out. I also, of course, recall many of the procedures I learned and feel it was a privilege to have been a part of a team of people dedicated to healing.

The main front entrance to the old building

This Hall of Residence for nurses was right by the hospital and I lived here during my time as a nurse. It is being demolished now to make way for a newer building!

My nursing was in the 1970s , at the height of Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' so working at this time in Belfast involved experiences not always part of nursing sick children. One of these was when a bomb was planted in the carpark of the Children's Hospital  -  I was on duty at the time and some of the  children who were very ill couldn't be moved, so we had to pull down the blinds on the ward and move their little cots as far away from the windows as possible. Mercifully, the bomb was diffused. I have such admiration for the soldiers who perform this hazardous duty. They save so many lives, always at the risk of losing their own.

The Quiet Room

This room is for meetings now but when I nursed in the late 1970s, it was the quiet room where the body of a child who had died would be placed. Part of our training was to sit, alone, for an hour with a child's body. This was because a child could die when we were alone on night duty and we had to be able to deal with this situation. I sat once with a young boy who had died owing to leukaemia; he was extremely peaceful and I felt peaceful with him. 

To return to the nurse's cape . . . .

Self wearing the nurse's cape in Mid Wales Arts Centre at set up of Conflict Exhibition September 2017

I had to hand in my cape when I left my nursing but I did love it! Nurses' uniforms have changed so much now and I don't think the capes form part of them any more but those capes that seem to have been worn since the 1900s until recently were so warm!  Deep navy in colour and made of heavy, felted wool, they could be lined either in red or blue  -  a shade in light ultramarine or royal blue, so differentiating clearly from the outer navy hue  -  and the lining was also wool.

The cape in position for the Conflict Exhibition.

A sweep across the gallery with the cape in its corner and more of my pieces on the wall.

The cap told a story, in this corner of the gallery space, of healing and survival together with the two portraits of my Dad  -  one in his RAF uniform c 1943 and the second a stitched piece that I made in 2016 from a pencil drawing of him that I had done c 1970. Alongside these were the little cotton scrap from a nightie with the red stitches, a poem to my father, some of my 'The Invitation' books and business cards, mostly the ones with a detail from Requiem: les Fleurs du Mal.

My father was a survivor of both WW2 and the Troubles. Sadly, he died in 1991 before he could see the Peace Process that got under way just a few years later.

Stitched portrait of my father.

With some images on the cape now, there are more that I will do and I have found stitching by hand into the felted wool is quite different to stitching into cotton or linen. Threads of the stitches tend to sink into the wool as I stitch so a slightly different technique is required.

I am including various images on the cape and am allowing it to grow organically so the whole thing is not planned out beforehand.

The hospital is situated on the Falls Road, so I have stitched this in Gaelic and English on the cape and beside this, the outline of a baby. The figure of the baby connects with my time nursing children and there is a memory of a particular baby who I nursed that will never leave me. He was only a few months old and we knew we couldn't save him, so care was palliative.

One day, this tiny child kept down half a feed and smiled at me  -  I was so joyful for him and had just come from being with him when there was a commotion in the hospital with people running  -  a six-year-old girl had been shot through the head on the Falls Road. She was rushed to theatre but I don't know if she lived or died. No doubt, the shot had not targeted her deliberately but it seemed so ironic that I had come from a baby who knew nothing of life except how precious it was and how he struggled to keep it. He fought for every breath he took and here was a child whose life may have been taken in an instant  -  the tragedy of conflict.

The figure of the girl going to help the wounded victim of a bombing says much to me of healing. I am also stitching cloud/smoke billows around several images on the cape. In Japan, some kimonos are cloud kimonos and my cloud images speak of the smoke from bombings but also of skies where clouds drift in times of conflict and of peace.

A hankie corner and the blanket stitch is done all round the border of the cape.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Prism at the RBSA

Below is a link to my Thread of the Spirit blog and a post in it on pieces that I have had in Prism's Another View Exhibition in the RBSA Gallery, Birmingham. These pieces are two from my Conflict work based on experiences of the Troubles and photographs I took recently of Belfast as it is now.

It is a moot point whether the post should have been here in the PhD work or with my other exhibitions, as the work is closely connected to what I am doing with the PhD but if you would like to have a look at it, just follow the link below.


Friday, 28 October 2016

Etching with 'A Belfast Peace'

When I visited Belfast almost a year ago, I took a lot of photos of the city as it now is, as opposed to when I knew it in the 1970s and 1980s. In those decades, it was a very tense place to be because of the violence that plagued the city and Northern Ireland in general but I'm very glad to say that it is now a much changed place with so much happening socially, architecturally, in the arts and in tourism. The same is true of Derry/Londonderry which I have now visited for the first time. I was here to attend an exhibition opening in the Verbal Arts Centre and I'll be posting about this visit in my 'Thread of the Spirit' blog. In this post, I will include images and details of another exhibition 'Stitched Legacies of Conflict' on at present in the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in Limavady, a few miles from Derry, as I have one of my conflict pieces 'Continuum', in this exhibition.

The photographs I took of Belfast last year inspired me to make a piece within my 'Conflict' work which looks toward a peace which has begun and is ongoing, if still not perfect. Added to the pleasure of thinking about a peace that seemed impossible for so many years - the Troubles are generally spoken of as lasting 30 years - the medium for my new work is etching, something I carried out with such joy as an undergraduate and to which, thanks to the help of Andrew Baldwin in the School of Art, I have now been able to return!

View of presses in the Printing Department, School of Art, Aberystwyth University

The bench I work at in the Printing Department.

I started off with a copper plate  -  I had only worked on zinc before  -  and used the new ground for etching and aquatint called BIG (Baldwin's Ink Ground) that Andrew developed as a non-toxic method for etching and aquatint - when I worked in the medium years ago, health and safety weren't regarded in the same way that they are now! It was such a pleasure to be doing etching and I have fallen in love all over again with the plates, the prints, the method and process  -

Photo of my etched copper plate on my bench.

Inking up the plate  -  the 'Titanic' workers with 'Rise' behind.

The image that you see on the plate has, as its main components, my interpretation of a bronze sculpture in East Belfast of three figures that represent the 'Titanic' workers of 100 years ago and, behind them, a sculpture in steel by the Falls Road known as 'Rise'.

The figures of the three workers, sculpted in bronze by artist Ross Wilson, stand on the Newtownards Road and, unveiled in 2012, they depict the 'yardmen' walking home, a tribute to the industrial legacy and folk history of the workforce of East Belfast. This was made as part of East Belfast Partnership's project Re-imaging the Newtownards Road and some of the most contentious murals in the area were removed and replaced with 'No More' and 'Ship of Dreams' community artwork.

Harland and Wolff's iconic cranes, Samson and Goliath, one of which I have pictured here, can be seen rising above houses in the background at some distance behind the bronze figures. I have not included the cranes in my etching.

This is a night-time photograph I took from the car, using my phone, of the sculpture 'Rise.

Built to represent hope and known locally as 'The Balls on the Falls', it is a structure in white and silver steel, almost 40 m tall and 30 m wide and I think it is particularly effective seen lit up, when its two geodesic spheres, supported on slender stanchions, seem like ethereal lace against the dark of the night sky. The large sculpture stands on the Broadway Roundabout at the junction of the Westlink and the M1 motorway, a main road into the city with access to the Falls Road via Broadway and it is visible from a considerable distance and can be seen by both sides of the community. Artist Wolfgang Buttress, who designed the work, wanted it to be simple, universal and the same when looked at from every angle.

The print showing the sculpture 'Rise' with the 'Titanic' figures.

From plate to print

For the very first trial pull, black without extender was used but it turned out to be much too dark, so extender and Prussian Blue were added. This use of the extender to thin the very dense ink and adding the blue to the black gave a much more subtle colouring to the image. 

Using a single ink mix, Prussian Blue with Black and extender.

Andrew talked to me about the method called a 'double drop' which would involve inking the whole plate in Vermilion, using extender to define and give the desired character and effect in particular areas, then repeating the whole process using Prussian Blue. I thought that Vermilion could give a warmth to the image, so we tried this out on the plate. However, instead of the sepia tones I had been expecting from the mix of red and blue shades, the colour that resulted was very much more burgundy than sepia and I didn't think this tone suited the piece. Vermilion is also a very strong colour and, as well as the tendency toward burgundy rather than sepia, I felt the colouration Vermilion gave with the 'double drop' was much too strong, drowning out the blue shades almost entirely and robbing the piece of the subtler atmosphere the Prussian Blue had given it.

Experimenting using Vermilion as a 'double drop'.

Inking up and printing to find the right colour balance and treatment of the inks.

The solution was to use a recipe of Prussian Blue, Black, a little Vermilion and touch of extender as the initial colour for the entire plate. The plate was inked up using this colour recipe, then extender was applied to appropriate areas where a softening or suffusing of tone was wanted. After this, Vermilion was applied only to sections where it was needed and again suffused using extender. The result was a satisfying blue/black with the vermilion adding hints of warmth to the lower sky and foreground of the image.


The finished print on Somerset paper. I gave it the title 'A Belfast Peace'.

I was thrilled when Andrew said he would like to include my print in his exhibition 'Breaking New Ground'! This is an exhibition of prints using the etching and aquatint ground known as BIG, developed by Andrew. The exhibition features work by artists from all over the world and it opened on Friday 7th October in the School of Art Gallery, Aberystwyth University and runs until Friday 18th November 2016.

I find this is a really exciting addition to my processes and I have now printed onto linen and am stitching the etching on paper  -  next blog will include images for this next stage in my work! 

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Poetry and Sick Children's Hospital

In January, I had a wonderful time recording volunteers reading my poems in the National Library. It was so interesting and moving to hear Colin, Mary, Paul and Mike reading my words, to hear their interpretations of what I have written and to see them moved by one poem particularly, 'Fragments', written out here beneath the photo of Ed and myself.

I had organised the day and poems but Ed came along to act as sound technician and his help here was invaluable. He has a great skill in working out the recording levels so that nothing peaks and each reader's voice comes across really well. Ed and I have cooperated before on the music elements of my installations and we work very well together.

These recordings have given me a lot of material to work from and Arthur took some photos to make a visual record of the day. The Drwm room's auditorium was an excellent venue for the recordings and I am very fortunate to have been able to hire it. The library staff, too, were all friendly, courteous and helpful and I'll be really happy to use it again if I need to do some more work like this.

Self with Ed in the Drwm Auditorium


People morphing in and out of
smoke like clouds,
hides mangled bodies   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

at thirty-five,
    at sixty-eight  -
wandering,     dazed,
shirtless, shoeless  -

‘he was right out of it’

Massive explosion just
removed her from this earth  -
we were screaming and panicking,
screaming but deafened,
     bones slammed tight
    couldn’t hear anything
            no sound    -

as nine-year-olds to die?

devastation, just
     devastation   -
heroes were police and
ambulance crews   -
came to help the dead and
dying, not knowing if
another device would
remove them from this earth   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

he was running  -  shouting!
spotted the thing in the
back of the car,
warn everyone   -


in his teens,
           caught full force
of the blast   -

‘he was blew to pieces’   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

looking for her children,
she drew level with the car  -


removed her from this earth   -

as nine-year-olds to die?

‘no sound, not of bird
        or anything’

he planted the bomb,
        went to the pub,
ordered a whisky   -

she was lying there,
her body full of hacks,
skull of man or woman
embedded in the railings   -

as nine-year-olds,
         as   nine-year-olds to    die  ?

Before this time in the National Library, I had been back over to N. Ireland to go to Belfast to visit one of my old places of work, the Royal Victoria Hospital. I had worked here in the late 1970s and beginning of the 80s, first of all as a student nurse in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children and later as an Art Therapist in the Geriatric Unit of the RVH.

When I returned home after graduating from Aberystwyth University with my initial degree, the Troubles were raging and jobs in the arts were few and far between. I had been led to believe that my university degree would still enable me to work professionally in an art studio but this was not the case. The etching I had done at university was 'as monks had done it' centuries before and I absolutely loved it but I knew nothing of the then modern techniques of photo litho offset, was told that my work was 'fine art' and I was an academic  -  this last said, on one occasion, as if it might be some kind of disease!  -  and so I struggled to know what to do. I thought of further study at Belfast Art College, of teaching there, of teaching at Queen's University but there were differing problems, including no posts available, with all of these things.

I followed a career for a couple of years which, in the end, I decided just didn't suit me and then I thought of that which had also attracted me for a long time, nursing. It seemed a compassionate path to take, especially in light of the bombs and terror that daily plagued Ulster; healing, in the face of destruction, seemed the right thing to do, so I started to do interviews to get into the profession. My own health had suffered over the years, so it was at the Royal that I found a sympathetic ear to my desire to nurse and they gave me a chance to train in the children's hospital, as they thought my physique wouldn't cope with adult nursing.

The position as student nurse, as I possessed a degree, had some problems but I very much enjoyed studying biology and other aspects of the nursing course and found being on the wards so interesting and rewarding. Eventually, however, my health did give out and I had to leave because I didn't have enough resistance to infection. However, I will never forget my time as a nurse, the people I met, staff and others, conversations I had, the job itself which always felt so much more than 'a job' and, above all, the children and their struggles, so very early in life, against implacable illness. I have expressed my feelings about this and written of situations I faced in my poetry and this is all part of my investigations into and interpretations of life in the Troubles.

It was a pleasure to meet Margaret Rooney and Colin Cairns (my maiden name, as it happens!) and I so appreciate all their help in getting me in to the hospital and seeing around. Margaret took myself, my sister, Joyce and Arthur round, gave us lunch and. afterwards, she even gave me a nurse's cloak identical to the one I had during my student nurse days! I loved my deep navy cloak  -  these cloaks were made of  heavy, closely felted wool and were so warm to wear  -  I don't think nurses have them any more, which seems a shame  -  gone, along with caps and the old dresses and aprons which had been the uniform for many years.

The Sick Children's Hospital building  -  a new one is presently under construction.

Statue of small child in the hospital by the entrance hallway

Former Quiet Room

This room pictured is now a meeting room but, when I nursed in the hospital, was where the body was taken when a child had died. It was a part of the training to sit with a dead child for one hour, alone, as, if it happened when you were on night duty, quite possibly alone, you had to be able to cope with dealing with death. I sat with a nine year-old who had passed away with leukaemia  - his body so still, he looked completely at peace.

Plaque for Florence Bostock

This plaque is on an inner wall in the Children's Hospital  -  I stayed in Bostock Nurses' Home during my nurse training period.

A funny little anecdote regarding the Nurses' Home is that an announcement went out one day asking nurses to stop sunbathing topless on the roof, as this was distracting the army  -  so that's why the helicopter was going round and round and round .  . . .!  (I didn't actually take part in this activity myself!)

One thing I did do was wear my hooded dressing-gown with the hood up one evening when I was crossing over to the kitchen to make coffee  -  someone at the other end of the lengthy corridor jumped up in alarm  -  I gave a wave to reassure them  -  at least, I could be a friendly ghost!!

Beautiful stained glass window in the hospital

Close-up of the Good Samaritan

Hospital entrance

Statue of Queen Victoria outside the hospital.

Looks a bit gloomy in the photos and we did have to dodge the rain but the very next day, the sun came out!

Thursday, 26 November 2015

To choose a thread

I have been working with a variety of black threads in the dark areas of my large piece and have written a report on how they have worked out in practise. I find this a useful exercise partly because, although you think you'll remember what has occurred while using a thread or fabric and how they have worked out overall, memory, in this instance, does not usually cooperate as fully as one thinks it should! The notes are useful, then, because I can refer back to them when I next need to make a decision on using or buying black thread.

Here, then, are my findings on the black threads I have been working with.

Little image showing the threads

1.  Splendor   Black  5801

A 12 ply strandable silk, this is a very nice dense black which works well using one strand  -  excellent for building up shapes/forms. Two strands are, as would be expected, denser and heavier but, as usual, I prefer to use the single strand  -  more subtle. This thread is also not too 'springy', so behaves well while working.

Au ver à Soie,  Soie D'Alger          Black 4106   (A)

2.  A 7 stranded silk, each strand slightly thicker than the Splendor, so gives more coverage. Again, a really comfortable thread to use, behaves well in the needle and a good dense black  -  as with Splendor, I think it is worth getting more of this thread  -  its use is slightly different because the thread is slightly rougher in appearance and is a more textured silk than the Splendor.

3.  Au ver à Soie,  Soie de Paris     Black 4106

A more 'springy' thread than the previous two, so needs more guiding through the needle which makes it a bit slower to work with; if it is not carefully guided, it tends to snag. Each strand is very fine, so I am using two to work with, though the single could be very useful for a really small or detailed area. Black is rich and dense, so good colour.

4.  Mulberry Silks Black   W 000

I'm using the fine thread and it is also available in a thicker version. A really nice thread to work with, as are all the Mulberry Silks  -  lies down easily, nor springy in the needle. Slight drawback to this one is that the black is not as dense as the above three  -  like a charcoal black as opposed to a lamp black  -  so not so useful for the present large piece I'm still working on  -   it gets gradually nearer to completion with every stitching session.

         4  a)   W 755

Another Mulberry Silk and this one is a charcoal and a good one  -  makes a very useful hue when shading black to grey, so well worth having.

5.  Anchor Stranded Cotton    Black 403

A nice dense black and, being cotton, no problem with springiness. Difference as opposed to silk is that the cotton does not have the lustre of silk but, this said, it is a good, useful thread.

6.  Soie Crystal  by Caron    Black  56101

This 12-ply silk strands very readily and, like Splendor and the two Au ver à Soie threads, is a rich, dense black. It is comfortable to use, not really springy and, in thickness, each strand is slightly thicker than Splendour but not quite as thick as Soie d'Alger. Have used both one strand and two together very successfully  -  another good thread to have!

7.  DMC Linen   L 310

I inherited this thread from Marion Jones via her husband after Marion's death and it is just one of many that have been so useful to me. I very much enjoy her choice of colours and really appreciate this unexpected legacy  -  very many thanks to Vernon. It seems a shame that I never met Marion in this life, it would have been so good to talk about her work which I like very much. To go back to the thread, it is, as with the silks, a nice dense black and I like the depth and texture of the linen fibres, only problem being that the linen tends to break easily in the needle which is a bit of a shame but otherwise, a very good thread.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Hue of Sorrow

Exciting news is that I have an article published in Embroidery magazine in the present (Nov/Dec) Issue 66 of the magazine. The editor, Jo Hall, asked if I would write an article about the work I am currently doing for the PhD, so The Hue of Sorrow was born.

I really enjoyed writing the piece! It's great to see it in print and here is a preview:-

Courtesy Embroidery magazine  embroiderersguild.com/embroidery