I first came across Susan Merrick’s work when my daughter suggested I applied for the open call as part of the artist’s latest Art Council supported project ‘Statements in Semaphore’. Susan is artist in residence for FiLiA 2017 and is working on delivering, as well as myself and other artists, workshops to women in various settings including prisons and women’s refuge centres. In response to these workshops Susan aims to create a body of work which is commentary from the dialogue created with these women and the artists involved.
FiLiA, the organisation Susan is working with, stated last year that ‘Art has a unique ability to communicate the diversity of women’s experiences, and to engage the public with feminism in an accessible way.’ My arts practice is predominantly textile based and I see it as a comforting, accessible and familiar medium to broach and open up subjects to an audience. There is a cultural, physical and visceral dialogue with the viewer and my themes of the human body are often concerned with feminist views of how women are treated and seen within the world. I believe this is where both myself and Susan became excited about working together.
For my part in the project I am in the process of delivering three workshops at a Women’s prison near London which is supported by ‘Women in Prison’ charity. Only as a child visiting my father in the Dickensian prison of Dartmoor, I have never visited a prison as such. Leading up to my first day I had no idea what to expect, of course I had some nerves concerning the reception I might receive especially after a recent bad experience of teaching local teenagers where I am based in Exeter. I am from Cornwall with little cultural diversity and experience of the world, moving to Exeter is slowly adapting me to the 21st Century but I still possess that backwards view of London being a scary place and women in prison must be even scarier. Well they are not.
Upon arriving at the prison I was greeted by what you would expect, high fences, razor wire and lots of gates. That sense of enclosure was strong, as you passed through each gate becoming further and further removed from the outside world. Also, you were not allowed your phones and felt very isolated from that world these women are no longer allowed to be part of. For myself this was just a temporary part of my day, for these women, reality. A further frustration of not having my phone was not being to take photographs (cameras aren’t allowed either), as an artist entering that space there is such a wonderful array of photographic opportunities on offer you just had to glimpse and remember in your mind.
Driven a great deal of miles and needing to pass through London’s longest car-park/forcefield known as the M25, I was late. Eventually arriving I was welcomed by big smiling faces who were getting the tables very messy with paint. You don’t have to a psychologists to read this experience, they were feeling liberated, as much as prison would allow them of course. Of which, I was struck that they constantly referred to myself, Susan and Claire from ‘Women in Prison’ as ‘miss’. They were nervous of calling us by our names written on the address labels we all attached to our chests. It became more relaxed as the day went on but was testament to the prison system treating them like naughty children.
When planning the workshop, we were asked to get them to consider the art competition ‘Women in Prison’ are running with the theme – ‘Which Way’. My approach was to consider which way we see ourselves in terms of body image, self-esteem etc. I believe that some courses, twists and turns we make in life are greatly influenced by what we think of ourselves and as physical beings in the world that starts by *that* ‘gaze’ of others. To start we create a group collage, adding text and images from women’s magazines to create a large scale visual collection of how these women respond to this prompt. During the making of the collage there are wonderful conversations about how they feel they look, ranging from total body confidence to acceptance of scars and how they feel about life outside of prison and the decisions moving forward. To ensure there wasn’t too many clusters of individuality with the giant work, every five minutes the women are instructed to move around the piece. It allowed a sense of group identity within the work and a loss of territorial stance on areas completed.
Once finished the work is turned over, this is where random lines are cut all through its length and from these strips further cutting leaves the small fragments. Turning them over like playing cards the women then select the pieces they can add to the tiny sketchbook provided. This enabled them to return to their individual identity of aesthetic choices of selection and application. On the two workshops I have so far completed it was clear they were totally absorbed in the process and enjoyed the whole day. They communicated often how they need more art in prison and I was really touched with the feedback given, one in particular stating she almost forgot she was in prison. Let’s not forget that these aren’t hardened criminals, they are just everyday women.
I am due to complete my final workshop next week and although I won’t miss that commute, I shall certainly miss the experience of meeting such lovely women with fascinating stories they share through the art that helps them do this.