|Julie Ryder, Liberty, 2017. Photo: Anne Kempton|
When I was visiting Timeless Textiles for my Chromophilia exhibition there last year, I walked through The Lock Up one morning before it was open to the public in order to get a sense of the place with a view to producing work for Stitched Up. Prior to this Anne Kempton and Wilma Simmons had organised for Jane Ison to talk to artists involved in the project about her research on the inmates of the Newcastle Industrial School (NIS) and together we walked up to the old site and discussed how it would have been in the late 1800's and how daily life was for these girls. It was a really informative session, and Jane's passion for research and her plea that every girl deserved to be remembered struck a real chord with us. Particularly with Wilma, who made 193 dolls to represent every one of the 193 girls incarcerated in the school. You can see images of Wilma's work in a newspaper article here.
Anne and Wilma have been passionate about organising this exhibition over the past couple of years and together have helped bring Jane's research to life. They have also spent time researching the types of materials and clothing that were worn by the girls at the NIS, and also by the people in local community at the end of the 19th century. They sent out swatches of fabrics and information to all the artists involved so that they could produce work that was authentic as possible.
So....back to the noose. The girl I chose to represent was Mary Jane Wright, and her story can be read online here. When I was alone in the Lock Up I had a very strong sense of the desperation and hopelessness that must have been experienced by any inmate there. The small, cramped dark rooms with graffiti on the walls seemed to have absorbed the misery and sorrow from bygone days. I don't know what I had been thinking but I had an immediate vision of a noose - not as a device for death, but as a metaphor for 'hanging around, endless waiting to be released, a sense of foreboding and doom, as in "a noose hanging over one's head". And when I had that vision, I almost immediately realised that the noose would have to be made of human hair to symbolise the fact that many of the girls were incarcerated because of their femininity - locked up for their own good because they had no visible means of support or were living from hand to mouth through prostitution. The girls in the NIS often sewed clothing or mended clothes for the local community, and I had the idea of the hair noose ending with a hair-embroidered word, "Liberty", on an antique irish lace handkerchief.
|Detail of 'Liberty' hair embroidery on antique Irish lace handkerchief|
Because Mary Jane was arraigned for her own protection, I imagined what she wanted most was freedom – Liberty – from the school, from her mother, and her mother’s devious boyfriend, and from her circumstances in life. Her family’s bad influence seemed like a noose around her neck, dragging her down, ensuring she stayed in limbo between one authority and another. The noose can symbolise intimidation, fear, condemnation and the suspension of time. The green ribbon that binds the plait of the red hair rope/noose is stitched in hair with the initials MJW and on the other side "saoirse" - Irish for freedom or liberty. The irish word is something familiar and personal and therefore attached to her body (hair) whereas the work she was made to produce – sewing – is in English denoting the cultural and physical relocation Mary Jane underwent from Belfast to Australia.