Jenni Dutton – Dementia Darnings

The Dementia Darnings

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The series of portraits known as The Dementia Darnings were started in 2011 whilst I was a carer for my mum who was developing dementia. As I developed an understanding of the illness and how it manifested itself, we explored ways of engaging with the past often looking at old photo albums. I started to use stitching to ‘draw’ likenesses of family members onto a sculpture of a long dress made from dress netting. She recognised these familiar faces and enjoyed watching me create these simple likenesses.  I was trying to keep my studio practice going at this time and used the dress as a focus for a talk I was giving to the Bristol Embroiderers Guild, so I documented the process, which has proved a valuable way of recalling the way the work had developed and where ideas came from.

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I was planning to make work for exhibiting in a large cathedral like barn. To this end I thought I would try to make a very large portrait from a wonderful photo of my mother, taken in 1947 when she was living in Jamaica. I developed the piece ‘Mum with a Spotty Bow’ as though I was making a cross hatched tonal drawing. It was originally stitched through fine dress netting, without the canvas support, just suspended from the ceiling, but it distorted and stretched so fixing the Darning, (as it then became known) to a canvas support was the solution.

Mum with White T-Shirt & Black Cardigan

Several of the large scale portraits (130x90cms) followed as I explored the technique and possibilities, until I started to make likenesses of my mum using current photos. I often started the pieces in my studio at home and then would transport the canvases to her house where she would enjoy watching the pieces develop. She was excited, running her hands over the surface, comparing the emerging piece to the original photograph. And magnificently she often remembered the pieces and our working on them, even relating the experience to others the next day. The pieces are as large as I can get into my car!

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Making my mother the subject and focus of my work, while I was looking after her helped me to deal with her decline into dementia. I am aware that many carers can feel a touch resentful at having to give up a lot of their time to care for someone. Making the series of portraits gave me a very special relationship with my mum as her health declined

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As her situation became more untenable she went into a care home and after a while, I continued to record and explore ways of describing her decline via the Darnings. There has been a lot of soul searching around the subject of consent and ensuring that my mums image conveys dignity even when the subject matter can be seen as distressing. I have made 14 portraits to this date. It has always been tricky balancing methods used to convey loss and decline with the fact that this is my mother, so I cannot use techniques with any violent overtones such as cutting or burning. The stitching techniques I use are very basic, just a running stitch. The wool thickness is halved for the last 3 portraits as I wanted to convey her extreme frailty.

 

At one stage I was wondering if I could make one of her after she had died, but instead I chose to end the series with an image of her lying in bed when I know she was comfortable and not in any pain. She is now extremely frail, but there are still surprising glimpses of her amazing spirit. I shall continue to show the love that surrounds her through the work that I am making and hope that it will serve as a testament to her life.

 

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Mum Lying in Bed Holding a SheetMum Asleep in a ChairAll images copyright of Jenni Dutton
Jenni Dutton
www.jennidutton.com
Twitter @JenniDutton

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20 Comments

  1. These portraits are so beautiful; powerful yet delicate. I am in tears looking at them, especially the last two which reminded me strongly of my beloved mother in law; she died of lung cancer, and by the end had dwindled away almost to nothing. The cancer had spread into her brain and she lost all of her faculties. My own mother has Alzheimer’s and I am dreading walking the path again, seeing her dwindle down to nothing. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. I am in tears, your tender portraits of your mother also portray my own mother, gone now. You have captured her smile, her being, her spirit, and her decline to such frailty in such a way, that only great closeness could have allowed. Thank you for sharing these with the world. (I am in Michigan, USA.)

  3. Utterly beautiful- you had me crying with the beauty, strength and fragility that shines through all of your work. The thread of love that connects mother and daughter is self evident in every tender thread used. Thank you for sharing these captivating images of something so personal yet so universal.

  4. I am on old lady now and my mother died when I was a teenager, from breast cancer. I nursed her at home to the end. We couldn’t afford hospital fees and she wanted to die at home. These beautiful works of art show the same journey my mother took. Looking back it was so frightening then. Seeing these works has shown me so much. Thank you.

  5. These embroideries are so stunning, they tell so much it is dificult to find words to describe. Such a magnificent tribute to your mother, she must be a fabulous women to have inspired you to do this.

  6. This is a lovely series. I admire you for showing such love and care to your mother during her failing years. My sister has dementia and it so difficult to see her failing. She was an RN and knows exactly what is happening to her. So sad.

  7. These are incredibly poignant… I’ve wept a little at the love that’s gone into every stitch… she will live on in many people’s minds because of the beautiful images you’ve captured… you have an amazing talent as well as an amazing mum… The last 3 images where you’ve used fewer strands of thread to show her fading away broke my heart… I’m praying that you both have peace…

  8. Dear Jenni,
    Such emotional artwork I have never seen before. My heart is full and heavy with appreciation in how you have captured the intricacies of this life robbing disease. I love how you have used vibrant colours in her early days fading to delicate fragile ones. Thank you, you are an inspiration.

  9. These are amazing! Jenni’s talent & her connection with her Mother during her decline have created an insight into dementia for us all but especially for those who have not witnessed a loved one travel this path. She has captured it all so well. I see my Mum’s eyes there & in the last works my Mum’s last days. Nothing can replace someone so close but Jenni’s work must have, in some ways, helped her on the journey with her Mother and, I hope for Jenni’s sake, they’ll provide comfort in future.

  10. The portraits are beautiful, Jenni. When I got to the one where your Mum is lying in bed I cried because it looked like my mum did when she was dying and very frail. A very beautiful series. Thank you. xx

  11. Jenni, These are so moving and wonderful. What a wonderful tribute to your Mum and such a special way to remember her

  12. I think these are among the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. They are exquisitely rendered. I love the one, “mom with a spotty bow”but the last two portraits are incredibly delicate and moving!!! Congratulations to Jenni for creating truly original works of art!!!

  13. My mother is on this same journey and at 90 her strength of spirit shines through in just this same way. Jenni has found a wonderful way to celebrate her mother and I can see my mum’s own decline reflected in these beautiful and moving pieces. I think Jenni has been very successful in describing her mother’s situation while maintaining her wonderful dignity and strength. Very moving. x

  14. Comment left by a recent visitor: I feel moved to write to comment on the Dementia Darnings work by Jenni Dutton. They are so beautiful, tender and unique. I hope these amazing works of art reach the widest possible audience.

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