Catherine Robins, assistant curator at the Thackray Medical Museum, and I held a preview session for the textile group at Leeds Mind of the workshop we’ll be running on 20th October. The workshop is part of the Love Arts Festival, celebrating creativity and mental wellbeing, called Discovering the Workhouse Embroideries of Lorina Bulwer.
I came across Lorina Bulwer’s embroidered scrolls whilst doing some research for Shoddy. While Lorina was from Great Yarmouth, where she was incarcerated in the workhouse, one of the scrolls was bought at auction by the Thackray Museum and is kept in storage (being quite delicate) there.
The densely embroidered scrolls are fascinating objects, I wanted to find out more and thought other people might like to as well. I won’t say too much more about Lorina Bulwer here in case you want to come to the workshop. The idea behind the workshop is also a chance to think about needlework as an outlet for strong emotions. And to see if there are any parallels today with Lorina’s experiences.
You can book for the workshop here: http://lorinabulwer-lovearts.eventbrite.co.uk
We had a really good discussion at Leeds Mind, sparked by the photographs of the scrolls as well as pictures of a few of the artworks from Shoddy. People related their own experiences which mirrored the thoughts and experiences of artists Lesley Illingworth, Mow and Vickie Orton (pictured). Their work focused on benefits cuts, unjust and confusing systems and the DWP. And the shoddy standard of the envelopes that the DWP uses – no wonder claimants’ information regularly gets lost! A tip: always seal DWP envelopes with tape, otherwise they are likely to fall apart.
As well as referring to the system as a maze (Maze of Life by Vickie Orton) or as like washing dirty laundry in public (Not Lost by Mow), the group likened the benefits system to pinning a tail on a donkey. Could be another inspiration for an artwork?
The density of the writing reminded people of the cramped writing style, using every bit of space on the paper, of friends and family when they had been ill and perhaps feeling persecuted or cheated. While the scrolls seemed to be a stream of consciousness with rapid thinking, they must have been time consuming to make, so perhaps would have been more considered than the impression they give.
We wondered whether we were returning to the days of the workhouse now and thought that the current systems were really no better. People then, and now, are made powerless and have no control over their own lives.
We also talked about needlework and emotions, as well as the benefits to mental health. People had found repetitive processes, such as crocheting granny squares, to be calming and soothing.
“She focused on her quilting while everything else went on around her.”
“Repeating something over and over has been proved to be good for your mental health”.
“The worse I got, the brighter the colours [of yarn] got! I needed to see them clearly!”
“I’m totally sold on it – on the importance of creativity for mental health.”
Finally, we had time to admire the banner that the group had created, which had been shown alongside the Shoddy exhibition at Inkwell the week before. Being in the exhibition had been the impetus for the group to add the finishing touches to the banner.