Stitching Stories and Shadows

Following Jeanette Orrell’s inclusion in House, an Oriel Davies Gallery exhibition (http://ow.ly/UerbO) opening on 14 November 2015; we take a look back at Jeanette Orrell’s 2014 Maker in Focus at Mission Gallery.

The following essay is written by Angela Maddock, artist and writer.


Jeanette Orrell | Maker in Focus

01 July – 03 August 2014

Jeanette Orrell originally trained in ceramics at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, now she mostly works with needle and thread, threads of all kinds. Jeanette stitches because she believes it enables greater immediacy, more control and a different experience of making which allows her work to develop alongside everyday living. This is important because Jeanette’s work is essentially autobiographic. It finds its place in the day-to-day experiences that characterise most of our lives: shared memories, objects, conversations and relationships with others, and for Jeanette, her life as a mother and granddaughter.

A pair of child’s black plimsolls, a hairbrush casting an extraordinary shadow, tiny socks and mittens and a ballerina’s dress stitched through with hair. Stories stitched into worn out shoes, the tale of a seaside holiday, of custard creams and coca cola shared by teenage friends. This was Jeanette’s work for ‘Maker in Focus’ at Mission Gallery in the summer of 2014 and I was intrigued.

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One of the black plimsolls is dropped into my open hands and I am momentarily confused when they sink at its unexpected weight. Not canvas and rubber, but lead rests in my palms and I am told to wash my hands afterwards, conjuring up childhood appeals for clean hands before food. This uncanny moment unsettles me, provoking thoughts of lead boots and sinking, a toxic plimsoll.

Jeanette has a thing about shoes. She hoards those that belonged to her daughters, shoes that mark their journey from toddlers into adulthood. In this context, the story she describes when we meet at her north Wales home of loosing one of a pair is significant, for it speaks of lost evidence of her daughters’ lives. Her shoe collection is also her raw material. She squirrels them away in her attic studio where, in this waiting room of sorts, the lost one assumed a very particular presence; it niggled at her. It was not its loss that was the issue, but more what is stood for. Her decision to replace it with one cast in lead expresses what she describes as “the weight of loss.” In the end, this lamp black plimsoll serves as a metaphor for the heaviness of searching for the mislaid, misfiled or lost forever. Jeanette sees the new one as describing: “a burden […] loss is a burden, it’s there all the time.” This lead twin is a substitute of sorts, but it is not a replacement – for, as Jeanette tells me, we can never replace the original.

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There are other plimsolls or pumps laid out on Jeanette’s kitchen table, one stitched through with the story of her daughter Honey’s first seaside holiday without the family, a tale of biscuits and pop shared on a seaside bench. Like much of Jeanette’s work, these shoes act as both memorial and fetish object; memorials to childhood pleasures and fetish objects that testify to Jeanette’s continuing attachment to her children, her desire to keep traces of their childhood close as they become physically distant. Soles worn soft from daily wear and canvas uppers that perform as carefully stitched diary pages, witness to their many ‘home from school’ chats.

In another room sits a wooden ironing board with a cover embroidered in red text. This ironing board belonged to her paternal grandmother; its role as domestic object brought to a full stop by the hand stitched transcription of stories she shared with Jeanette during her last illness. These uneven letters recall a child’s hand, a child practicing independence. Jeanette tells of a deep attachment to her grandmother and describes the stitching as her “labour of love”, a time consuming, meditative and absorbing process that enabled her to work both with and for her grandmother in what she describes as the “year of mourning” following her death.

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Shoes are not the only things Jeanette keeps close. She also collects her daughters’ hair: “all their hair from when they were babies until now.” There is a postcard image of this hair, plaits snipped from heads and held together by embroidered ribbon, a collective of Rapunzels. We discuss how haircuts perform as rites of passage, how they mark time. These haircuts, and their ensuing plaits, seem to act as pauses, commas, and in the final snip, full stops: a grammar of the journey to adulthood. Somehow, in gathering this hair, Jeanette holds onto time and in using it as embroidery thread, she extends its life.

Individual pale red hairs trace across tiny white scratch mittens and pierce the cloth of a baby vest once worn by her husband, Steffan. All these small things are perfectly flat, as if freshly pressed, and are stored in individual, hand made boxes. They are intriguing, uncanny and somewhat abject and, like the stitches that rendered the ironing board ‘useless’, the hair in these baby garments makes them unwearable: these are scratch mittens that will scratch. In all these things the quality of Jeanette’s stitching is striking, a painstaking, perfectly measured running stitch, which might echo the care we hope is given to children. We look at the baby vest, a vest I describe as more a ‘hair shirt’ and Jeanette offers a truth: “Motherhood can feel like that.”

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In threading hair through the ballerina dress, Jeanette has introduced a disquieting aspect into her work. She explains that this piece makes some people feel ‘uncomfortable’, a discomfort brought about, I suspect, partly by tactile dislocation but also by the intervention of signs of adulthood at the site of a child’s body. This reminds us that empty garments are never empty.

Eventually we return to the shadows, the things that struck me most when I first encountered her work. Jeanette shares a practical explanation, she draws each object – simple, domestic tools – at different times and as the light changes the shadows overlap, elongate and become dense. This makes sense, but there is something else, these dark shadows have a melancholic quality, suggesting an absence and longing that I feel says something about mothering and separation.

I leave with one thought resonating beyond others. Jeanette embellishes, yet her stitches are more than decoration, much more than surface. These stitches are tiny marks of care, acts of love that resonate with the complex nature of our relationship to others and their ‘things’.

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