Immigrants seem to be much in the news around the world today, primarily from the external political perspective. It seemed timely to present the work of two immigrant artists, Valerie Kirk and Sara Lindsay, who left their native countries of Scotland and England for Australia many years ago, and whose conceptual focus has concentrated on various aspects of their personal experience as immigrants for most of their time in Australia. The work in this on-line exhibition is a sampling of their work during the last decade. Many of these images shown are one of a series of tapestries, drawings or other media and thus do not convey the total impact of seeing the entire body of work together.
The inevitable consequences of immigration are conflicts of personal identity, the adjustment to cultural differences and physical place, the importance of memory in retaining ties to the native culture, and the inevitable feelings of displacement and loss. These are hopefully balanced in a positive way by the excitement of discoveries made in the adopted land, and the challenge of making a new life. For people who leave their birth country for another as young adults, there is always a sense of having a foot in both worlds, and of having been uprooted from the familiar. Even when the language remains the same, as in the case of the two artists in this exhibition, there is still a substantial adjustment to be made. It is a familiar enough phenomenon that many have recorded their thoughts about the experience:
“I have been working… to incorporate in the manner of telling a sense of place, of not just who I am in the present byt where I am coming from, the multiple voices within me…” (Bell Hooks)
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” (Simone Well)
“All immigrants and exiles know the peculiar restlessness of an imagination that can never again have faith in its own absoluteness… Because I have learned the relativity of cultural meanings on my skin, I can never take any one set of meanings as final…” (Eva Hoffman)
“Perhaps there’s no return for anyone to a native land-only field notes for its re-invention.” (James Clifford)
Both artists use the labor intensive medium of tapestry as a means of exploring the issues surrounding their adjustment to Australian culture. Interestingly, textiles in techniques other than tapestry have been an important point of departure for both as well. These textiles serve as mnemonic devices to evoke times and places from past experience. Increasingly, both Kirk and Lindsay have expanded their work in tapestry to include mixed media informed by their textile research.
In Valerie Kirk’s case, the Ayrshire embroidered whitework christening garments and Scottish Sanquhar knitting she uses as historical textile referents from her birth country of Scotland, not only take viewers to a different time and place, but serve as additional examples of the value of labor intensive textile production to human culture. Their inclusion in her thinking validates and reinforces the time she dedicates to the development of narrative in the equally slow process of woven tapestry. The historic textiles, in combination with images of local flora and fauna, form part of a personal iconography, which serves as the springboard for drawings and tapestries. The tapestries from Dwelling, the drawings based on needlework, the series Looking Forward, Looking Back are rich in historic textile reference, and in the case of Dwelling also refer to the landscape. The stitching she does upon the surface of many of her tapestries suggests that embroidery is as important an endeavor in her work as weaving. Found pieces of slate from Scotland offer an unexpected ground upon which some drawings of embroideries were done for a mixed media installation in 2003. The hardness of the slates makes a stark contrast with the implied softness of a textile tracing on their surfaces. They serve as fossilized textile artifacts. Kirk’s work presents a complex narrative expressed in a variety of media, and displays the results of the various influences, personal symbols, and response to textile history and landscape which have accumulated in the artistic life of this artist as she has traversed the border between two cultures.
Sara Lindsay, born in England, and a long-time resident of Australia, works in an abstract style, the narrative she develops less immediately accessible to the viewer than that of Kirk. For many years she used strips of black and white checked commercial gingham as a primary weaving material, creating tapestries of quiet beauty and great subtlety. When combined with constructed dresses in matching gingham material which also hung on the wall, as in The Roundedness of Return #1 they evoked a strong sense of human presence. The black and white gingham worked conceptually as a reminder of the duality of the immigrant experience. Looking at Lindsay’s work over a period of years one sense tremendous self discipline, an interest in pursuing a line of inquiry at great length, and an intellectual curiosity to integrate personal experience and emotion with literary reference. In one of her most recent works, represented by the tapestry Cinnamon and Roses, Lindsay presents a very personal record, or as she describes it, a timeline, of her mother’s life, using strips of naturally dyed muslin and lace as weft. The piece engages the sense of smell as well as the visual, since it includes cinnamon sticks and rose pedals, important for the meaning of the piece. Her interest in stripes, long a rich open source of design in textiles around the world, is reflected in both her recent tapestries Pedestrian Series, and the subtle gouache stripe drawings. Stripes also operate conceptually as a visible counting device for the timeline, and a reminder of the slow building up of tapestry as it progresses row by row.
Valerie Kirk and Sara Lindsay, both transplanted from Western Europe to Australia, utilized that experience as a conceptual resource to create work which draws from more than one culture. Their work i strengthened by the use of non-tapestry textiles as a point of reference, or as actual working material. Kirk’s interest in the historic textile, and Lindsay’s use of weft strips of commercial cloth with specific associations, provides an excellent example of how artists working in tapestry can enrich their work by examining the conceptual possibilities of textiles within a larger cultural context.
Sharon Marcus, Curator
All quotations are from the exhibition catalog About Place: Recent Art of the Americas by Madeleine Grynsztejin with an essay by Dave Hickey, The Art institute of Chicago, 1995.
About the curator, Sharon Marcus
Sharon Marcus has been working as a studio artist, educator, project organizer and writer for more than 20years. She is a former publisher/editor of the International Tapestry Journal. She has also served as both organizer and participant in a number of collaborative artist’ projects. She is a former board member of The American Tapestry Alliance. The Center for Tapestry Arts, Contemporary Crafts Association, The Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, and a former regional representative of the American Crafts Council. In 2003, she was selected Educator of the Year by Contemporary Crafts Museum and Gallery. Her interests have focused on tapestry for much of her career; however, in recent years she has developed an installation format, which often includes work in mixed media.