The Dementia Darnings
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.
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.
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!
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
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.