By Eileen Harrisson –
I grew up by Bangor, Co Down and, after obtaining a Joint Honours BA in Italian and Art from Aberystwyth University in June 1975, I returned to Northern Ireland. The severity of the illness that had led to my father being invalided out of the RAF during World War II was one of several reasons that precipitated my decision to return. During this time, which saw the height of the violence of ‘the Troubles’, I held posts in Belfast until my marriage in December 1981 entailed a move to England.
Due to a neurological condition affecting my muscles, stitch has been my principal visual medium since 1993. I first addressed conflict through stitch with the piece Requiem, les Fleurs du Mal, made to commemorate the centenary of the death of my grandmother’s brother, Thomas Keith, in the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915 (see featured image). Shortly after this, I began my large, collaged work: Continuum. This considers how, from the two World Wars to ‘the Troubles’, humanity continued to suffer from conflicts across the globe (FIGURE 1) and it was as this piece was nearing completion that I embarked on PhD studies in Fine Art at Aberystwyth University.
Fig. 1 Continuum (detail, including my father and his RAF squadron)
As part of my investigations into the physical properties of the textile medium, I listened to linen thread pulled slowly through calico fabric held taut in an embroidery hoop. On hearing the surprisingly powerful raw growl when augmented on the computer, I felt transported back to the streets of Belfast in the aftermath of the bomb blasts. Salomé Voegelin has noted how sound flows directly into our bodies in a way in which the visual image cannot do.[i] Just as the sense of smell can transport us to another time and place, so the sense of hearing was now doing just this for me. Struck by the power of its immediacy, this sound inspired me to explore my experiences of ‘the Troubles’ through stitched art which, in turn, became the theme for my PhD. I had reflected on ‘the Troubles’ through poetry but now the textile medium was offering me a way to address conflict and the issues it generated in visual terms. As people, we have a physical relationship with fabric: we are wrapped in cloth when we are born, wear clothes all our lives and are again dressed when we die. Thus, stitched artwork offers the viewer a physical connection with the body in the haptic properties of the textile medium and now I had found an unexpected connection through sound as well. Throughout ‘the Troubles’, the shock of a bomb explosion splitting the air echoed through the body, as I experienced many times. On one occasion, I was so close to the blast that I heard nothing; just felt the push in the small of my back before losing consciousness. The sound of the fabric’s growl flowing suddenly into my body brought vividly into the present those incidents from the past.
My working process is cyclical in that stitch leads to words which lead into further stitch and through this process I explore the symbiotic connections between stitch and word as both meaning and sound. The exhibition Stitched Voices, curated by Roberta Bacic of Conflict Textiles and first shown in Aberystwyth Arts Centre, featured my work Continuum. Roberta invited me to write a poem especially for the piece and the two were subsequently developed into a film in which I read the poem and on which I collaborated with my son, professional musician Edward Harrisson. I was very fortunate in being awarded funding from the Arts Council of Wales to develop the music used in this film.
The image of a crying child, seen in Continuum, (FIGURE 2) visualises what I found to be one of the most disturbing aspects of ‘the Troubles’: the suffering of children. I address this issue in my poem, Fragments, in which the line, “as nine-year-olds to die?“, acts as a refrain. I made recordings of four voices: that of two Irish males, one from England, and a female voice from America. They read lines from my poetry and these readings were produced as a track in which the voices overlap and flow in and out of one another to mirror in sound the visual layering of the stitched pieces, with the lines from Fragments featuring strongly. The readers’ nationalities and their gender are important in that they both represent different regions involved in ‘the Troubles’ and also how both men and women worked directly on the path toward reconciliation.
Fig. 2 Continuum (detail)
I have said how the sound of a stitch took me to the streets of Belfast in the 1970s. As well as landscape, a location has its aural equivalent in the soundscape and within this, noise and its counterpart, silence, form patterns. The significance of these patterns then lies in the nature of the presence or absence of noise. Historian David Hendy refers to this when he says, “When a bell rings, a factory siren sounds, or the skies fall silent after a terrorist attack, noise – or its absence – is charged with meaning”.[ii] During ‘the Troubles’, Belfast was punctured by patterns of noise and silence by frequent bomb blasts and in the course of my research into the wider picture beyond my own experiences, it has been an almost strange sensation for me to hear others speak of this shattered silence, in words so like my own, when not even birdsong is heard. My poem After opens with the lines:
“no birds sing”
Scattered, torn, confetti-
light bodies fall, bomb
blasts song of sparrow and
screech of gull into
My hand-stitched piece Litany gives a visual embodiment of the smoke-billowed moments being recalled not just once, but over and over again, as the mind does with such memories. (FIGURE 3).
Fig. 3 Litany
Visualisation of ‘the Troubles’ through the medium of stitch also brings with it an engagement with gender. I invited my American colleague, a woman, to read my poetry, as women were not only victims and sometimes perpetrators of the conflict but it was women who initiated the movement for peace. Exhibition visitors might recall family members, usually women, carrying out sewing in the home but this connection with the feminine through domesticity has implications that go beyond the domestic. Although women are now deployed as soldiers in war zones alongside their male colleagues, conflict is still regarded as being largely masculine with the domestic sphere as mainly feminine, so to produce images of war in the gentle medium of hand stitch is to bring the feminine within the field of the masculine. The linen ground on which the works are stitched further introduces connotations of social and economic history, as the linen industry has long been important to Ireland and to Belfast in particular.
I work with stitch as an individual but women in Ireland have met together to make memory quilts as a form of coming to terms with their experiences of ‘the Troubles’.[iii] Moreover, other women across the world, as Roberta Bacic explains in discussing her work with the collection Conflict Textiles, which I referenced above, confront issues in their past through making arpilleras. This illustrates how the medium of textile is used as therapy within the community. The rhythmic nature of hand stitch is also, I find, a therapeutic activity in its own right and this is linked to another property of the medium, its ability to heal. To pierce the cloth in a stabbing action is to create holes that violate the surface of the fabric but the network of stitches then ‘heals’ the wounded material. Thus, it can be argued that stitch on cloth also serves as an effective and comforting metaphor for the healing of wounds carried out by so many nurses and doctors throughout ‘the Troubles’. One of my works is the Nurse’s Cape (FIGURE 4), a cape worn by a nurse from the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, and on which I have stitched images related to conflict, healing, and hope.
Fig. 4 Nurse’s Cape
As I have brought my personal memories of ‘the Troubles’ to material form within Fine Art, I wondered how these might be received in today’s society. I have now encountered a number of people and organisations that work to collect and preserve artefacts from and memories of ‘the Troubles’. These include Conflict Textiles; Karen Logan of the Ulster Museum’s project ‘Collecting the Troubles and Beyond’; Belfast Linen Hall Library’s Troubles Archive; Writing the Troubles and others, so it seems we all can bring our experiences to add to the official historical documentation of the period and provide further material for research into it. My PhD has enabled me to explore what it means to provide visual as well as verbal testimony. It has also prompted me to consider the importance of my chosen medium as a vehicle for expression and to reflect upon what stitch can bring to an understanding of the effect of the conflict on individuals. Hopefully, in some small way, my work, and that of others, serves as a voice calling out against the repetition of conflict in the future.
(Images: Eileen Harrisson)
[i] Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards A Philosophy of Sound Art, (New York and London: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2010), pp. 46-7.
[ii] David Hendy, NOISE: A Human History of Sound & Listening (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013), p. viii.
[iii] Karen Nickell, “”Troubles Textiles”: Textile Responses to the Conflict in Northern Ireland.” Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture, no. 3 (November 2015): 235-251.
After bringing up a daughter and son, I obtained my MA in Art and Art History from Aberystwyth University and have stayed with the university where I am now in the final stages of part-time study for a PhD in Fine Art. I take part in group and solo exhibitions in the UK and abroad, producing wall pieces, artist books, and installations. I also give talks about my work and as well as readings and performances of poetry at exhibitions and other events. A member of the Embroiderers’ Guild, Textile Art Group Prism, and The Textile Society, I write music; have had poems and artwork published in various magazines and anthologies; and live with my husband in the beautiful mountains of Snowdonia, N. Wales.