BRIDGING THE GAP – (a new exhibition by EAST) 


 

EAST exhibitions usually have an enigmatic title and with BRIDGING THE GAP this practice continues.
Members relish a challenge and this current body of work is no exception.
EAST members have spent the previous year pondering the role of women both past and present. This includes specific examples of women who despite their gender and their circumstances have forged a path and a way forward either for themselves or for others to embrace.
Areas of research are diverse but each focus on either the individual or on trends that have emerged, changed, or are still changing.
Below you will see how each artist works to discover the themes that relate to their individual research.
In BRIDGING THE GAP, the artist and therefore the viewer is asked to consider what is the bridge and/or equally what is meant by the gap? 
It may not be one distinctive or single answer but a cumulative journey that starts with a small idea and eventually encompasses many interwoven networks.
When viewing this exciting new exhibition, BRIDGING THE GAP, one may  surmise that EAST has become the bridge – the link between our “women of inspiration” and the wider audience that views the final work.


Please click on any of the images for an expanded view

Inspired by Brigid by Kay Mullenger


What is each artists inspiration for the 'Bridging the Gap' exhibition?


When I first began to think about my current body of work, I was in the throes of a big house move and once that was over, I began to look at the area that I had moved to. Despite being only about 10 miles south of where I had been living it is in a neighbouring county, not an area I knew very well, and it felt very different. 

So I began by looking at the characteristics of the area and things it is known for. One of these is Matthew Hopkins and The Manningtree Witches. The book of that name had been published earlier in that year year and I came across a website whilst internet researching called 'Snapping the Stiletto: Campaigning for Equality'. They were about to start a creative writing project to revisit the Manningtree Witches and to celebrate the lives of the poor, targeted women that had their lives taken away from them.
The name of Anne Leech resonated with me but there is very little known about her. She was a poor widow from Mistley, and the mother of another of the accused witches, Helen Clarke.

Anne was searched for ‘witches’ marks’, probably watched and interrogated. She was the first person to mention meetings of alleged witches’ at Elizabeth Clarke’s house.

Anne was found guilty of murdering Richard Edwards’ baby son John by witchcraft. She was executed in Chelmsford in July 1645. That was about all the factual information I had to go on but I do know that Anne Leech, alongside the other persecuted women, suffered inhuman hardship, appalling trauma, torture and abuse and showed remarkable strength.

In those times, any lonely old woman who kept a pet or used healing herbs, risked a terrible fate and partly through fear, villagers could often be relied upon to act as witnesses to evil goings on.
In the Manningtree area, the names of the same group of “women searchers” regularly appeared on the original indictments. The witchfinder relied on discovering the witch-mark, a spot on the body insensible to pain and using the infamous swimming test which meant binding the suspects limbs together and lowering them into the village pond. The logic was simple, God’s pure water would reject a witch, causing her to float, while the innocence of those who sank and drowned would assure them of a place in heaven.

Ducking Stool

The torturing of witches to obtain their confession would be sleep deprivation, the use of tight restraints to induce cramps and starvation diets. The sentence of death when it came, was by hanging.

During my research I thought about life in the 1600’s and imagined how my life and Anne Leech’s may have some parallels and about the many differences between us. She would have trodden some of the ground that I tread and had somewhere she could call home near to mine. As I progressed with my own artwork research I went on a different line of enquiry, but I still think of Anne and how lucky I am in comparison.

I am now on the bridge connecting my last very old home and the completion of a new one.

My role has changed to being a custodian of a 16th century historical building to the creator of a present day/futuristic building.

Being in-between two homes I am absorbed in planning the next one. With my current work I am focussing on the land that will be the new home and its immediate environment, using resources and materials from the land itself as much as possible, to capture a sense of place. 

In the first stages of my self-build project I am investigating and getting to know the ground, acquainting myself with it before it is changed. In the process of collecting things I find on the plot, I am making a physical and emotional connection with the land, I’m feeling the seasons, experiencing the light as it changes and witnessing the contrasting sounds of the birds with the everyday man made noises.




The inspiration for this current work began with the portrait of a duchess.  Living in the eighteenth century, Isabella Montague (1706-1786) had wealth and status.  Yet despite all her privilege she had few of the freedoms experienced by most women of the twenty-first century.  

Coincidentally myself and the duchess probably travelled along the very same streets, but separated by 300 years she would not have had the same freedom that I can experience today.
 
My work is still in progress, but I am working on a stitched map that merges images and text to consider the social changes experienced by women in a small area of London.  The map itself will be a combination of hand stitching and applique. 




The Needle and The Pen

I have been looking at the growing number of women writers since the Restoration. I have limited my investigations to British female authors in order to make the task manageable but during these early searches I came across Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818), a contemporary of Jane Austen. During his lifetime he was often referred to as “Monk” Lewis because in 1796 he published a Gothic novel (The Monk: A Romance) which was said to have been influenced by Ann Radcliffe.

What really incensed me was this quote by him: ….as a rule I have an aversion, a pity and contempt, for all female scribblers. The needle not the pen is the instrument they should handle and the only one they ever use dexterously. The cheek of the man!

I began my research with Aphra Behn (1640-1689), the writer to whom we are most indebted as she broke the cultural barriers and served as a literary role model for later generations of women writers. Having managed to purchase a copy of the only novel she wrote, Oronooko: or The Royal Slave, I investigated other British women writers of note.

Eliza Haywood (1693 -1756) is thought to be the first woman to make a living from writing. She is credited as being one of the founders of the novel in English but I think she should be remembered as the first woman to publish a magazine for women, written by a woman: The Female Spectator.

Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840) was an important 18th century diarist and a member of the Blue Stocking Society. She wrote four novels, the first of which, Evelina, published anonymously, was extremely successful.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) and George Eliot (1819-1880) seemed obvious choices.  Unfortunately, Austen didn't achieve literary fame until fifty years after her death and, of course, George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) had to be included.

I felt the list also had to include Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) for her pioneering ‘stream of consciousness’ writing.

Finally, I arrived at the second half of the twentieth century and here the choice was obviously much larger.  I settled eventually on Doris Lessing (1917-2013) as, I think, her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, went on to define women’s roles during the second half of the twentieth century.

In order to show the growth of female authors, I used the Fibonacci series (1,1,2,3,5,8 etc.) which meant that when I reached the second half of the twentieth century I had selected thirteen novelists. As they are all British, I chose an oak leaf as a symbol and embroidered a panel in a technique relevant to their time, i.e. crewel work for the late 17th century, needlepainting and silk embroidery for the 18th century, white work and Berlin woolwork with beading for the 19th century and machine embroidery and applique for the 20th century.

In the 21st century, perhaps female authors and readers have ‘bridged the gap’.  In 1973 Carmen Callil founded Virago, the feminist publishing company, and in 1996 The Women’s Prize for Fiction (originally the Orange Prize for Fiction) was inaugurated in response to the fact there were no women authors shortlisted for that year’s Booker Prize for Fiction, despite the fact that sixty percent of novels published that year were by women authors.

Controversy still surrounds the prize but I think that anyone who reads fiction written by a woman is Bridging the Gap.

To quote Virginia Woolf writing in A Room of One’s Own in 1928 – All women together ought to let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it is she who earned them the right to speak their minds.


My starting point was an image of Josephine Cox a robust woman in 1944 digging graves in Australia.

The woman's job altered by war, no longer the wailing mourner.

While researching the domestic grave goods I became obsessed with the mythical Sin Eater and the idea of absorption of sin.. if only it was that easy.

Folklore suggests in the 19th century in the Welsh Boarders Sin Eaters were paid to eat a meal from the body of the decreased cleansing them of all their sin.

My mind wanders to the results of this job, a lifetime of these morbid meals, meaning that is a poor bloke somewhere rattling around full of sin.

 Tallying up the deeds on a full belly using the best china, on the journey to the next life.

My work about strong women has prompted me to rediscover the histories of ordinary women who despite abuse, trials and ordeals, strived to survive and protect their families against all odds.

To honour them I have created icons, sometimes portraits, sometimes symbolic objects, within precious embroidered frames, to represent them. Fragile and delicate Webs, made from old clothes and artefacts made by women, connect them, their stories are literally woven into the webs, reaching across time and space to honour and remember them.






Creativity vs Domesticity

My research for the next EAST exhibition focuses on female artists and in particular Gwen John (1876-1939) and her female peers who, once they had left the Slade School of Art, were confronted by prejudice and limiting societal norms, their creativity stifled by the burdens of domesticity.  Gwen John studied at the Slade School of Art which offered women an equal art training to that of men.  The genres often studied by female artists prior to this were limited  to portraiture, still life and flowers.  Gwen John’s brother, Augustus John, was already at the Slade where she joined him and where she met, among others, fellow students Ida Nettleship, Gwen Salmond, Dorilia McNeill and Edna Waugh.

For many female artists once they had left the Slade the issue was how they could develop an art career while running a home and caring for children as was the expectation at that time.  Perhaps one way of solving this dilemma was by marrying a fellow artist but while such marriages meant that both husband and wife could be professionals in the same field, in many cases it still could not erase the engrained expectation that it was the wife who dealt with the everyday domestic issues and child care.

Of the five students mentioned above, it was Gwen John who was the most successful.  Having moved to France and after having a passionate affair with Auguste Rodin, she wrote to a friend

“I think to do beautiful pictures we ought to be free from family conventions and ties ……” and in not marrying and having children she was able to pursue her artistic career on her own terms, unlike many of her female friends.  Often portrayed as a recluse, she was an ambitious artist who chose her art over domesticity and motherhood.  Gwen John is now considered an important female British artist and her life and work is currently being celebrated in an exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.


A fascination with the Victorian Era found me searching for an inspirational woman from this period to base my research on for the next EAST exhibition ‘Bridging the Gap’.

I came across 1st Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts. She was a philanthropist which fitted in very well with my topic of the Victorian poor.

In 1837 the Baroness became the richest woman in England when she was the sole beneficiary of her fathers will to the tune of £1.7 million, the equivalent of around £200 million in todays money.
When she was 67 she shocked polite society by marrying her 29 year old secretary, American-born William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett who became MP for Westminster on 12 February 1881. Because of her husband’s American birth a clause in her step-grandmothers will forbidding her heir to marry a foreign national was invoked resulting in the Baroness having to forfeit 3/5ths of her income to her sister.

Burdett-Coutts spent the majority of her wealth on scholarships, endowments and a wide range of philanthropic causes. One of her earliest acts was to co-found, with Charles Dickens, a home for young women who had turned to a life of immorality, including theft and prostitution.
She was co-founder of The London Ragged School Union which were charitable organizations dedicated to the free education of destitute children and also of the NSPCC founded in 1884.
Other causes for the poor were a sewing school for women in Spitalfields when the silk trade declined and the placement of hundreds of destitute boys in training ships for the navy and merchant service.

Becoming immersed in what the 1st Baroness achieved for the Victorian poor and destitute my research then led me into child labour, child prostitution, workhouses and baby farmers focusing on the most infamous of all the baby farmers, Amelia Dyer.
Each baby had been strangled with white tape, which as she later told the police ‘was how you could tell it was one of mine’. The bodies were then wrapped in parcel paper and thrown into the Thames.
In the summer of 1896, 57 year old Amelia Dyer was executed for the murder of a baby girl. It was a simple charge. The bodies of six more babies had been found, and further evidence pointed to at least 12 murders. Some experts have attributed more than 400 deaths to her.

My work for the next EAST exhibition “Bridging the Gap” is about floods and drought.

I discovered an article by Lindsey Jean Schueman, writer, and producer of the website One Earth, about women working for climate change. Click here to view the website. 

Schueman’s comments acknowledge the role of women noting, that without women, the Paris Climate Agreement would not be what it is today. A legendary group of women called the “lionesses” including Farhana Yamin, Christiana Figueres, and Tessa Tennant, met in the countryside of Scotland and came up with the guiding principle of ‘net zero emissions’ at a time when many parties to the climate convention were at loggerheads. This group expanded into one of more than 30 female lawyers, diplomats, financiers, and activists with the mission to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Schueman records that such precise targets and clear language allowed global leaders to finally understand the urgency and, with a clear objective, begin to cooperate to create actionable policy.

Further reading discusses the view that women in leadership positions create and improve climate change policy more often than men. A study of 130 countries showed that countries with a high representation of women in their administrations are more likely to ratify international environment treaties.

Policymakers, investors, and philanthropists need to understand that women can act as an immense force for change by leading their communities and the world towards a more sustainable future.

 Climate change is making some regions drier than normal and other areas much wetter than they used to be. This presents a huge problem for crops, animal grazing and managing the environment. Bridging this “gap” would be a lifeline for many communities.

Scientists have found a way to harvest drinking water from the air - inspired by cacti and desert beetles. This could possibly be the end of drought by capturing the almost limitless supply of sources such as fog and dew.  A  New York University team converted natural vapour to liquid using crystals. They told Nature Journal they were inspired in part by desert beetles which “fog bask” to keep hydrated.

Planting more trees and rewilding the countryside can help with floods. Nature often survives the harshest of weather. My work looks at the regrowth on trees particularly ones that have suffered from drought or lightning strikes.


When starting my research I was looking into the inhabitants of Foulness Island, which is just off the coast of Essex at the mouth of the Thames. 

At one time the only access was by boat or walking across the mud at low tide, this led to a very isolated community with very few home comforts, no utilities or indoor plumbing.

The main occupation was farm work or fishing for the men, and domestic work for the women, and it was how this very hard and basic existence affected the lives of the women who lived there that was going to be the focus of my research.

The MOD purchased the Island during the First World War for ‘research purposes’, and life changed for the islanders in the 1930s when the MOD build the first bridge connecting the Island to the mainland (Bridging  the gap) this freed the women from their  very modest and isolated lives. Women could now look for work off the island, which wasn’t possible before due to tide times changing daily and blocking access to the mainland, the old footpath across the mudflats called the ‘Broomway’ was now mostly redundant.

I became really interested in the old path (The Broomway)  onto the island and it’s history, it led out across the mudflats running parallel to the shore and was very dangerous. The way was marked with twig brooms or besom some accounts saying up to 400 where used to keep traveler’s safe and on track. The besom are traditionally made from birch twigs and during my research I  found out that birch trees or branches have been used as markers for paths, way markers or boundary markers for centuries. The myths and folk lore around birch covers nearly every country and I became more interested the more I looked into it.

Anna Lexington is a ethnobotanist, writer, researcher and blogger as well as appearing on TV and radio, she specialises in the importance of plants to people. She is also a voice for environmental injustices that are taking place today. Her book ‘Plants for People’ is noted as being the inspiration for the Eden Project by Sir Tim Smit. Her book ‘Birch’ was a font of knowledge to all things relating to the birch tree, and I found it invaluable for my research.My research started with a group of strong women who would have been very much in touch with their environment through their daily lives, it has now taken me to be inspired by a modern day environmentalist, another strong woman.


My work for Bridging the Gap is inspired by Brigid, a figure who seems to transcend time.  In the year of my writing this the Irish government made Imbolc (1st February 2023; the marking of the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox) a national holiday in her honour.  Whether Brigid is thought of as a pagan deity who was a healer and a mystic, or the Saint Brigid that Christianity adopted in her wake, she is an enduring figure that bridges the gap between the Christian and pagan worlds.

The materials I’m using include fallen wood – oak and holly - which I am working into a structure, with ancient weaving methods and fibres to bring the structure together.

I choose to interpret Bridging the Gap as being about connection between humans and nature as well as about people with each other.  I feel that the way we communicate with each other has a huge influence on how well and how deeply we connect with one another, and as we inhabit an increasingly technologically-governed world, I believe we are in danger of losing the ability to really connect on a human level and to explore what it is to be human, with all our gifts, joys, sorrows and flaws.  This need for connection is a major driver for me for making art, and is especially present in my work for Bridging the Gap.