Sheila Harris describes the sorrow and hope behind her textiles
As an artist I like to work with textiles. I often bring my family and my experiences into my work. Before I went to Derby University to study Fine Art, I was a care assistant in a nursing home. Many of the patients would bring in small personal items. A small piece of furniture, a picture, their own bed linen - reminders of home. Often, they had made some of these things themselves. I have always been saddened by the loss of talented people. Their learning and gifts are gone when they die. However, in my job, I now saw this loss while the person was still alive. People were locked into this real, but unreal world. Not being conscious of being conscious. Looking into a mirror and not recognising themselves, not recognising their husband or children. Then for a moment, an afternoon or even a whole day they remember, but remember what? Not the nursing home, but their own home. They wake up to another world. A present world they cannot remember - the bedroom with a single bed; a dining room with forty other people they have never met. The confusion heightens and they retreat once again into their own world. My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s Disease and her name is Marion. This series of work depicts the decline in cognitive abilities, such as thinking and understanding, that are lost to the devastating disease Alzheimer’s.
The Monkey Quilt was made to try to explain the illusions that often come with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. The first time that we knew something was wrong with Marion was when she started to have illusions. Marion would wake up in the middle of the night with monkeys jumping on her bed. This was naturally very frightening for her. To cope with this, she invented a man who needed somewhere to keep his monkeys and in her imagination, she rented out a spare room to him. If anyone has read Iris and the Friends by John Bayley, you will know Iris Murdoch also had friends to whom she talked, and her husband could never see them. We never met Marion’s friends.
Over a period of time we had great trouble in convincing doctors, nurses and social workers that there was something wrong with Marion. She would talk about people who had been dead many years, as if she had been on holiday with them the day before. The illusions were so vivid, they were real to Marion.
The quilt is made in a traditional design of Monkey Wrench. The quilting is made up of a running stitch. The stitching draws pictures of monkeys and many other lines that go nowhere. You have to look hard for the monkeys - where they start and end. It was deliberately made this way to show how difficult and confusing Alzheimer’s Disease is for all concerned
I asked my daughter who is a student nurse, to write me a poem to go with this piece of work. Her poem was machine embroidered onto organza and hung from the ceiling. The organza is about five feet long and was made to be used as an artist’s statement at the beginning of the exhibition, My Gran.
The hexagon patchwork has an embroidered portrait of Marion at its centre. Around the portrait are pictures of her family, friends and herself, all now forgotten. The quilt was made to highlight the decline in cognitive thinking. Marion has forgotten the skills she had when she sewn the quilt and also the people.
The idea for this quilted work came after a day out with Marion. By this time, Marion has moved to a nursing home. She needs twenty four hour care after falling out of bed and breaking her hip. Marion has a good day. She recognises many old friends at the market, chooses some flowers and enjoys the park on the way home. As the day goes on, Marion tires and withdraws once again into her quilt.
After I had made the first piece (Marion), my course tutor was over the moon and said he could see a series of such work, six or so, for my degree show. I had sewn the hexagon patchwork over about five years in the ‘70s, from pieces leftover from dressmaking for my children. It was not possible to make six more pieces like this in three months. On one of the walkabouts by the University Dean, we talked about my work. I explained my problem. I had some of the original patchwork left as was originally made for a double bed. The Dean suggested I incorporated some of the patchwork into every piece. End of the Day was the first piece to do this.
The idea for this quilt came from a newspaper article in the Daily Mail. The author, Jenny Hope, talked about a new drug, made from daffodil bulbs, that should help in the battle against Alzheimer’s Disease in Britain. The visitor in this quilt brings flowers and drugs. The patient takes the pills, and with this, the hope of some extra time to remain independent and in her own home.
Marion does not recognise herself in photographs any more. For a time we tried to keep photos handy and to talk about them when we visited. This was an attempt to keep Marion focused on the present not the past. Marion found this distressing after a time and she would not believe she was the old lady in the picture. Marion still sees herself as the young girl in the mirror, although in reality, an old lady stares back.
I hunted for fabric that resembled wallpaper and I then dyed it with a light brown dye to make it look old. The mirror was made from an old photograph of Marion. The image was scanned into the computer and then printed onto metallic film. The image was hand stitched onto the quilt with braid forming the mirror frame. Marion’s hair was made by sewing six or more pieces of fabric together, all in varying shades of grey and different fabrics - silk, satin, cotton and Lurex. The different shapes were sewn tightly together in wavy lines. These were appliquéd to the quilt and the channels were cut. The ‘hair’ was combed with a teasel brush releasing all the many shades of grey.
There is a great debate going on at the present, about nursing people on a mattress placed directly on the floor. For those who constantly fall out of bed, it really is the best place. If you use a cot side, all that happens is that they fall from a greater height. This thought and a poem on comfort were the inspiration behind this three dimensional work. The form was made from chicken wire covered with Dacron and dressed. The head was made from polystyrene and covered with nylon. The hair was stitched with rayon, using two needles at a time. One needle was threaded with rayon and one with cotton.
The rayon was sewn in short lengths and tied with a knot of the cotton thread to the scalp. The cotton thread was used to sew the knot as the rayon would otherwise have slipped out of the knot. The rayon thread was then combed with a teasel brush and then dampened and set into a curly style of an elderly lady. By now, Marion only has a small piece of her quilt left and uses this as a comforter. The form was covered with a hospital type blanket. A poem about comfort was embroidered over the blanket and onto linen bandages.
S D Lawrence (student nurse) 4 December 1993
Comfort poem, as cited in Kokabaa K, The Art of Comfort Care, Journal of Nursing Scholarship 27(4)28.1.289 (1995)
Reminiscence therapy works well in the earlystages of Alzheimer’s Disease and with other acquired brain injuries such as strokes. When I was a care assistant, I looked at many photographs of weddings, new babies and graduations dotted around patients’ bedrooms.
In this quilt I used some of these ideas and other memories. The panels included images of local beauty spots, family events, favourite walks, hobbies and so on. I added tactile items such as shells, old money and safety pins. Real carbolic soap and perfumed rose buds were also attached to stimulate the sense of smell and to enable the partially sighted to enjoy the conversation. I first collected the various images, scanned these into the computer and printed the images onto T-shirt printing paper. The images were then ironed onto fabric. I co-ordinated the images with patchwork fat quarters and made up the quilt. The layout was designed to be used by a group sitting around a table. The quilt aids conversation during visits and has been used with people who have Alzheimer’s, their families and carers with a good response.
Sheila Harris studied Fine Art as a mature student at Derby University. As part of her second year course work, she developed the theme of memories. Her quilt telling the story of her family, separated by emigration, was featured in the Jan/Feb 2000 magazine. Sheila is now working part time for Leonard Cheshire in a day centre for people with acquired brain injury. She finds the work of personal care and co-ordinating art and craft activities, varied, challenging and rewarding.
The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that there are more than 750,000 people in the UK suffering from various forms of dementia. This figure is expected to rise gradually as the population ages. For further information or support, contact the society at Gordon House, 10 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1PH, tel 020 7306 0606.
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