Keeping it together by Karen Alderson

There has been a lot happening in the UK since my last post; the bomb in Manchester and the attack in London, these events, combined with the election, are creating quite a charged atmosphere for everyone. Manchester is not far from where I live, the city prides itself on the peoples’ capacity to come together and support one another. I am holding onto this.

My domestic life also has been turbulent, my daughter has come home and the theme of support and repair is uppermost in my thoughts. Phew.

Walking helps me feel calm and, recently, I have become conscious of the earth beneath my feet, noticing, in particular, the patterns of road surfaces.

Memories of being acutely aware of the stones in the tarmac as I climbed out of the car after the road accident came flooding back, others who have been through traumatic experiences can also recount in great detail certain physical data: sights, smells, sounds, how things felt to touch. The present moment becomes amplified, a zooming into things we usually miss in our busy lives.

Taking the time to really look at what is directly in front of us is a way of meditating on the present moment, it can help to calm our over stimulated minds from information overload.  Read how Cait Flanders went on a social media detox

Getting perspective and staying grounded is leading me to become interested in the slow movement, here are two links to finding solace in the little things:

Here are some samples inspired by the surface.

I decided on which sample I liked and then incorporated stitching into a quilt. The quilt was flat and although this reflects the road surface I wanted to invoke some sort of altered sense of reality and so cut the strips up and resewed them to change the shape of the piece.

I went back to another piece and distorted that one even more. I then sewed it to a back cloth.

I have noticed that I tend to work on a piece of work in stages and usually have at least three pieces of work on the go simultaneously, working on one for a while then returning to another, letting the work “rest”until it begins to ‘speak” to me again. If I stay with one piece and “push” my ideas onto it then it loses something vital that I cannot explain. Clare Pearl and I were talking about each others process and how we develop a relationship with our work, her with a canvas, myself with textile. Clare mentioned how she had watched a video of Paula Rego explaining how she approaches a drawing: she begins with an idea and slowly the drawing takes on a life of its own which seems reflect a dialogue between her artist self and the dark feelings inside. Hmm, feels familiar. Here’s the link:

I put together a quilt from hand dyed fabric. I had used discharge paste on a piece of cotton to depict a railing but the image looked too representational. I ended up cutting up the cotton and inserting it into a quilt and then cutting up and resewing some more. It began to remind me of the mills just off Shay Lane.

At this point I was happy to leave it but after the terror attacks I felt this need to add hand stitch on some of the darker pieces, I left it for a day or two but then came back and had to cut it up even more, this time including cuts on the horizontal.

It feels finished now so the next thing to do it to attach it to some backing fabric.

My attention is now moving towards displaying the works and frame making, there are 6 months left before the exhibition (November) and the end is in sight so I feel a gear change. Secondly, I want to do some more handstitching, I have some ideas for this but they are not clear, it is about putting more human touch into the fabric, I may use some of the clothes I found on Brow Lane.

Getting through the difficult stage by Karen Alderson

The past month has been a challenge, a lesson in welcoming a different outcome to what a part of me had planned. I had had ideas of finishing a corset and returning to the walk, however, neither of these things have come to fruition. It seems as if “the work” wanted to go in one direction and I was trying to make it go in another.  A case of one part in me imposing its ideas of how things should be instead of attending to what actually is and finally, through frustration, and a lot of internal conflict, letting go and the work miraculously shifting.

Instead of returning to the walk I went back to the images that I had previously collected.



From these photographs I drew and painted being particularly interested in the colour and patina of the metal.

Inspired by the blues and greys I hand dyed some more fabric and then used discharge paste to take off some of the colour. I placed the fabric onto batting and quilted along lines I had made. Once I had finished, the quilt seemed flat and I felt this urge to distort it so I took my scissors and cut along the lines and resewed it with red thread. This time I was pleased with the way the fabric changed shape.


From here I began to think about distortion and how to make ridges in the material, I tried pin tucks but these were too straight, although looking at them now I may play about with adding chording and changing the tension of the stitching. I like the thread that is left at the end of the lines.


I took small dyed pieces of fabric and sewed along small folds. But none of the experiments “worked” in that they didn’t give me the effect I was looking for. At the time it all felt a bit like groping in the dark, looking for something I couldn’t quite see.



I decided to dye some more fabric with grey and rust hues, this seems to have a soothing effect, an activity I always return too when nothing else is working. I used some of the fabric to do another small quilted sample using the cut up method to distort but the sample was too small, but again, looking at it now, I can see potential.  Hmmm…

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This lead to an idea about folding in order to sculpt the fabric. I folded a small piece of thin fabric but this didn’t seem to work.  Part of me wanted to go BIG, make a huge folded sculptural piece but I don’t have the space or the fabric but maybe this could happen in future.


I tried to ridge another piece but the fabric was too thin.

I watched some videos about smocking and took a piece of cotton and drew a grid and spent a couple of hours meticulously basting stitches over the intersection points finally pulling the threads to create a rouched effect. Again, this did not feel “right” and I felt somewhat disheartened.


By this time the studio was in total disarray, samples of stitching, dyed fabric, pins and wire covering every surface. It was a chaotic mess but the rain was pelting down and my usual escape of walking wasn’t an option. I picked up a thicker piece of fabric and began to iron a ridge, it felt right, I took it to the machine and sewed over the fold, it felt right, I carried on, it felt right. Was this a Goldilocks moment?

Ridging sample

I took some other samples and began to put them next to one another.

And suddenly things began “to work”.

Reflecting on the creative process it seems important that I continued through the unknown chaotic phase even when the ideas didn’t come out as expected. However, there was a point when I began to question what on earth I was doing. And it is interesting that when I look at the samples and experiments  I see other possibilities than when I first made them, so it is worthwhile getting distance from the work and not getting too hooked up on the thoughts & feelings directly afterwards.

This all reflects a difficult month personally, however, I’m pleased to note, as the saying goes, everything changes and eventually things do come to some sort of resolution if I allow myself to experience difficult emotions and trust that my inner artist has a plan.

Corsets and the Scottish Highlands by Karen Alderson

Just before Easter I spent a week in Mallaig in the Scottish Highlands, I went alone and daily found myself sitting at the backpackers hostel window observing the comings and goings of the small port.

View of Mallaig harbour from the hostel

A waitress from a nearby restaurant accompanied me on a day trip to Skye, it was interesting to hear her feelings of disappointment at the lack of tourist shops and cafes on the island.


I had been reading “CounterTourism” by Phil Smith and remembered his assertion that tourist guide books only focus our attention on constructed dialogues about place.

My aim was to drive aimlessly on the island, do an initial reconnoitre before returning again for a focused visit, my aquaintance proposed we visited “The Faery Pools”. We managed to combine both, but when we arrived at the tourist hot spot, miles from anywhere, it was full of other people looking at one particular spot in the landscape and ignoring the rest of the vast expanse of land surrounding it.

The journey to Scotland did me good, getting out of the studio and my usual environment helped me to come alive by becoming aware of different sights, sounds, smells.

Will Self proposes that modern day society moulds us into the micro environments of home, work and consuming echoing the Situationists slogan of “Work, Consume, Die”. It is only 200 years or so ago that we only had horses or bicycles or our feet by which to travel on land, therefore since evolution began we have orientated ourselves in space by walking so that by not walking, i.e. travelling by car between these micro environments, and by the use of sat navs, a sense of disorientation comes upon us, we become easier to manipulate and to look outside ourselves for markers for how to be i.e. advertising.

Walking without a map in a new environment or the local environment without a goal in mind helps us to sharpen our senses to what is happening around us, to begin to look at things that we do not normally see, to break the hold of the illusion that media has over our construction of the world (The Spectacle), to wake up. This really came home to me as I walked around Mallaig, a tiny town but teeming with new sensations.

On the basis of this trip I have returned and considered walking the route again, taking notice of the surroundings without a video camera just to see what my experience would be a second time, I have a need to zoom out again, to research the history of the area, I have contacted the Halifax Antiquarian Society.

Meanwhile, in the studio I have been working on finding out how to make a corset from scratch using the drawing of the fence as a base shape. Firstly I traced the shapes, cut them out, enlarged them, traced around them onto white cotton and then sewed them together and put wire in between the base shapes.

For the first mock up I drew the shapes onto a piece of white cotton, backed it with cotton batting and put a sheet of cotton on the back then used a straight stitch to sew the shapes. I placed wire in the galleys between the shapes

For the second mock up I cut the shapes out of cotton and then sewed them together, I wanted to see if it altered the shape at all. It didn’t, what it did do was to make the process of making three times as long as I had to sew each shape to the other making sure I left enough room for the gully for the wire.

My plan is once I am happy with the mock up I will make another with hand dyed fabric, I am considering using the colours of the iron railings that look onto this fence than the light grey of the actual fencing. I have this sense that I want to incorporate other elements from the location. Time to get my walking boots on.


Borders, separation, repair, talks by Karen Alderson

I’ve been asked to give an artist talk, so far I’ve created three power point presentations and I’m still not clear. Do I talk about my life?  This project? How much do I tell? What do I leave out?  I recently asked  a group of artists “What do you want to know when you  listen to an artist talk about their work?” “Their starting point” one said, “What sets them off.” I begin thinking about another way to tell my story .

Identity. How have we created and continue to create our present idea of ourselves? What are the twists, the turns, the important people, the early influences, the unconscious motives, the economic context?

Time to reflect.

Last week I found myself bidding on Ebay for a vintage old Silver Cross Pram . I had plans to take it apart and rebuild it with car parts taken from vehicles that had been written off. I have shelved this idea for a future exhibition, I’ve given myself permission to not immediately follow every idea that comes into my mind as I write my morning pages. A part of me is rushing, panicking, wanting to make a big statement, not believing in the work that is already steadily emerging at its own pace. I return to it, like returning to the breath when ones mind has wandered during meditation.

The “Pram”idea came about with a vague memory that my mother had had a car accident when she was 6 months pregnant, she had never told me & when I asked she confirmed that this had actually happened. I found myself drawing newborn skulls and becoming interested in the fontanelle.

I obtained a piece of sheet metal, the sort used to repair cars and wanted to make it into the shape of a skull with a space at the top for the fontanelle. First I had to cut a depression into a log and then beat the piece of metal into shape.


This took ages and it did not turn out as I expected, I found it hard to make the fontanelle space at the top smaller than I wanted.  Panel beating was physically hard work.

However, I do like the shape and now intend to make some lace to attach to the edges of the opening. I have been learning how to tat, something my aunts did when I was a child. I find it immensely soothing and like the idea of  juxtaposing the hard metal shape with soft, intricate lace. I guess I will have to drill holes into the metal to attach it.


Sorting through my new found source of scrap metal pieces I find one and put holes in it with an awl and a hammer. Again I intend to “repair” it with lacemaking.

Returning to the earlier  wire and latex piece, I make a frame out of wood, drill holes in the sides then sew each piece of latex  to the uprights. As I sew I  listen to the abridged version of the book. “The Rule of the Land” by Garrett Carr on Radio 4.  The book is an account of the author, a mapmaker, walking the border between Northern and Southern Ireland. It is a meditation on borders and how those that live near them negotiate the imposed separation & how it moulds their identity. He describes how Barry McGuigan, who lived in Clones, a town in Southern Ireland located on the border, was able to slip into Northern Ireland thus being able to have access to greater resources. Later he took on a British identity to enable his path to becoming Boxing World Feather Weight Champion.

Carr also talks about the Peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement & how Senator George Mitchell utilised vocabulary that encapsulated inclusive decision making in order to involve paramilitary organisations in decommissioning their weapons. It was the use of words as an initial bridge so that groups on opposing sides could choose to walk towards one another without a loss of face.  I thought a lot about how skilled Mitchell was in his sensitive consideration of honour, autonomy and choice in order to build trust & how this was essential to enable agreement and consequent peace. The ultimate goal was to use participants’ words to create the agreement, differences may still have existed but a symbolic unification had taken place.

I re read this article about reducing the sense of separation that some aspects of modern life create.

As I stitch the latex to the wooden support I think about the edges of each material & how different they are, as I handle the latex it it feels like I’m sewing skin.


My other plans are to make some small  simple weaves that will be inserted into a piece of broken fencing. These will replicate darning & will represent the act of reparation.

Car Doctors and broken boundaries by Karen Alderson

Car Doctors and broken boundaries by Karen Alderson

2017 has so far been a turbulent year, I am emotionally worn out and have found it hard to concentrate on the project. For me, creative practice requires space to contemplate and engage in the deeper aspects of the work.  I am fixated on the image of the railings and keep going back to the shapes made by the lines. In January I wrote notes regarding experiments putting stabilisers in fabric, similar to bones in corsets. The aim was to play around with distortion of shape by bending the wires in the fabric.


Here I used wire inserted in between two sheets of fabric.



The shapes in the fabric that emerge between the inserts also attract my attention.

I make a wire stencil of the  broken fence,put it on some white sheeting and spray it with grey and white car paint. Later I use red car paint and whilst the stencil is still wet I place it on more sheeting.



p1080575I wrap wire with hand dyed grey cloth and place it on a film of latex.


At the time of writing the latex is still wet & has dribbled on the floor so I’m looking forward to how it will be tomorrow.

I find a piece of broken fencing in the fields and photograph it. I love the distorted squares & angles.


In 2015 as part of a project called Subways, Street & Sidewalks I became interested in fencing on a derelict site. Fencing is about boundaries, broken fences represents transgressed boundaries, inside and outside merging, fusing, separation breaking down, sealed entities spilling their contents, material moving across the threshhold.

I was thinking about the point at which a barrier, like skin, is cut and the outside comes in (& the inside goes out)  and you are no longer a complete whole. No longer safe, unable to maintain the boundary, the prior identity changes it’s form. Even after the skin repairs a scar can develop and, if deep enough, a worry that it may happen again. One’s inner sense of self has now a memory of being entered, of the barrier being cut or torn, violated.

I want to amalgamate the hard and soft of metal and skin, both boundaries, both able to be transgressed, the car being an extension of our personal boundary, acting like a metal skin, yet with our skin inside. I wanted to have something physical to carry around than an invisible feeling, something tangible that others could see than this ephemeral sense of distorted & broken incompleteness, a container that cannot contain, a safety barrier that isn’t safe.

A have a new friend who repairs the body work on vintage cars, he sees himself as a car doctor & calls rust “car cancer”. I like the medical metaphors and ask if he has any rusty metal panels I may have. He does and now I intend to shape a sheet of metal into a sphere that is open at the top, like the fontanelle on the top of a baby’s skull. To do this I will have to chisel a round depression in a block of wood so that I can beat the panel into shape. If and when I manage to do this I want to cover the metal with softer material and a layer of latex to signify skin. This feels like a shift away from the warped fence image, things are finally moving.

Then there were 3…by Karen Alderson

Last week Julie, Jane and myself met with Ebony at Bankfield Museum and set the launch date for the exhibition, this will be on Saturday 11 November 2017 12-4pm in the Education room upstairs.  All are welcome, there will be drinks and nibbles. The exhibition will  be situated upstairs in the left corridor. The launch will take place on the same day as the Calderdale Open Exhibition and so there will be lots to see. This feels both exciting and not so exciting.

I begin to worry as I cannot “see” how I will display the work I have already made. We have 9 months to complete, I’m being premature, a baby can develop in this time, I’m doubting myself. It is a good motivator but those who suffer from anxiety will know, such situations can trigger a sense of being frozen if not managed.

Another big change is that Edie Jolley has left the group due to needing time out to look after herself after big personal changes. We will miss her and wish her a speedy recovery and strength on her journey. On the basis of this change and in line with looming deadlines for publicity we have decided on a new name for the group: Ellipsis… This is defined as “the omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues. Jane Pugh suggested this name which indicates our changing group status from 4 to 3 artists.

For the past month I have been busy film editing, or, more accurately, learning how to edit film, it is a laborious but rewarding process. My intention is to complete it by early February so that I can concentrate on stitch. I showed the unfinished film to someone who said the film brought to mind the phrase “repairing yourself”. This was a response to one shot where I am mending a T shirt found on Brow Lane.  I took it home, washed and ironed it and then set about mending the holes with a simple darning and running stitch. I had been reading “Slow Stitch” by Clare Wellesley-Smith who advocates the meditative act of stitching. After the excitement of Friday’s meeting at Bankfield and the change in the group I needed something to repair my frayed nerves. The repetitive stitching certainly helped. p1080556

I continued to think about the word“repair’. “Re…pair’ which suggests the putting back together after something has come apart; there has been a split, a rupture, something in pieces that has lost its unity.  So when we repair something or repair ourselves we are attempting to return to a previous identity of unbroken. However, this is impossible as we cannot erase history, we cannot return without having had the experience of damage, it fundamentally changes the nature of someone or something. The quality of repair will also change the prior state.

Post modern theories of illness point out that the medical narrative is one of “fixing” and returning a person to their prior unblemished state of health after a trauma or illness. However, in many instances there are incurable diseases, irreparable disabilities or where people have to live with tragedy, loss of a limb or a function.  These people are misfits in the system as they cannot be returned to their former identity. They challenge the medical establishment’s myth that health can be fully restored & everyone can “go back”. We never do, we’re continually transforming ourselves. Sometimes the adaptation to the new identity is the most important part of the healing journey. c.f. The Wounded Storyteller by Arthur W. Frank.

I like the Japanese practice of Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi, the repairing of broken ceramics with cement mixed with powdered precious metals. It is a philosophy that sees breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to hide. It challenges our culture’s obsession with the perfect body that is promoted in the media via airbrushed images and the focus on youthful bodies.

Visible repair challenges the assumption that we can go through trauma and then return to an identity we had before as if nothing had happened. We are the sum of our experiences, the more life we accumulate the more cuts, breaks & rips we endure. To hide these is tantamount to ironing away our wisdom and our individual repair skills to fashion perpetual emergent selves. I intend to investigate repair and distortion through stitch.

Railings & Weaves by Karen Alderson

As part of my “zooming in” process I go back to the railings on Brow Lane. On closer inspection the impact had been such it had knocked one of the the railing panels about a metre back into the grass. As a quick way of securing the boundary the landowner had used garden wire to weave across the space. I took photographs of the weaving, drew it and made a print block from the pattern. I used images of the railings & the weave in the next process of batik & printing.


I hand dyed some cloth to replicate the grey and rust of the railings and then used batik to draw railing shapes.

Using a home made jelly plate (which was a tedious yet rewarding process in itself) I made the following prints.

I took the batik prints, backed them with batting and begun to hand quilt in between the batiked lines, I wanted to bring the railing shapes forward and as I stitched the cloth began to rouche distorting the fabric and which led to a sense of corporeality. I looked at the weaving with garden wire & I saw that it resembled a corset where the wire was like the chords used to tighten it. These two thoughts lead me to investigate corset making and see the railings as distorted ribs emphasising the body metaphor, as if the impact of a car crash distorts the self whether through physical injury or shock and trauma. I begin to plan making a distorted corset as a final piece.