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Filling the Tins

I was heading to my studio one Sunday in July 2014 when I received a call from my sister. My mother had died. This was a moment I knew had been coming for many years, but was still, even with the knowledge that she was living on borrowed time, a shock.

My memories of my mother are, like all memories, a conglomeration of diverse experiences and emotions, and probably somewhat unreliable. They seem to mainly revolve around two things, what she used to say to me, and food. My mother's life was in most ways fairly typical for her generation, she stayed at home and “looked after the house”. She cooked, cleaned, organised, encouraged and cajolled.  My mother was pretty much 100% responsible for feeding us. The meals were very much of their time, meat, potato and two “veg”. Vegemite and tomato or vegemite and cheese sandwiches for school lunches. But the baking. Oh, the baking. In my mind my mother was the world champion baker. Scones, pikelets, fruit cakes, biscuits, the list goes on.

The memories of food were reinforced by the rediscovery of her recipe books. Tastes and smells came flooding back. Reading them also gave me a glimpse into my mother’s personality, particularly the way they are laid out and the cursive script she used. Their consistency of style gave a pointer to her need for, and expectation of, order and tidiness.

The dining table’s cultural importance is represented in many and varied forms throughout art, literature and moving image, and can be used as a metaphor with a diverse range of readings. It is a place for meeting, for communication, for learning, for grief, for joy among many other ideals. It can also represent power, solidity, and without question it is often the cornerstone of domesticity. A table can be a representation of abundance, or penury and everything in between. Interestingly it is also, in an historical sense, a recent and somewhat western thing.

My mother, as all mothers do, said things to me to encourage, scold, educate, express her pleasure, or displeasure, and all the other things that mothers do. My mother was born in December 1939 (my father a few years earlier) in the early days of WWII and at the end of the “Great Depression”. The ongoing impact of both of these events, even though they were over before she could comprehend them fully, would be a major part of the formation of her (and my father's) character. They would, to an extent, flow on to us, her children. We were encouraged to achieve, but not to an extent that we would stand out. We weren’t to be boastful, or overly proud of what we did. Playing it safe, being careful, not taking risks, staying out of trouble and not being an embarrassment or drawing attention to ourselves were important. The memories of what she would say flood back.

My mother was never one for clutter. She wasn’t a person who kept everything. She was good at a form of minimal living, I think like many of her generation she had two options, streamline or hoard. As she got older and more frail she began to pass things to us, her children. One of the things I was gifted was a Poole of England dinner set that her and my father had been given, I believe, as a wedding gift. This dinner set was used only on very special occasions. Packed with care it was dispatched from New Zealand to Hong Kong where I was living at the time.  Unpacked with care it was placed in a cupboard to be used for my own special occasions. One evening I arrived home to find the floor covered with smashed pieces of Poole plates, cups, bowls and saucers. After surviving some 57 years of children, earthquakes, house shifts and other events it didn’t survive a poorly made cupboard from Ikea.

After some consternation and self recrimination I decided I should do something with the wreckage. I had learned about the Japanese concept of Kintsugi some time ago, and the concept of making beauty out of damage was something that I was attracted to. The more I thought on the damage the more I found myself thinking about memories and their fractured nature. After some thought I decided to gild the damage edges with gold leaf. I looked at it as a reflection on many things, my damaged and fractious relationship with my mother, the way memory is imperfect and the ability to find beauty in the broken and damaged.

As the project developed I began to think about how to display it. My thoughts kept coming back to a table. I wanted to, somehow, include the things I remember my mother saying to me. Initially I considered somehow placing these on the broken pieces, but that was soon abandoned. Thinking more about my family dynamics I decided to have them hand embroidered into the edges of a tablecloth.

With the table I want to make reference to things that were important to my memories of my mother. To do this the table legs represent facets of her that are important to my recollections, and also to represent her role in my childhood. I have chosen four aspects, food, clothing, a physical form and a representation of an external life that wasn’t simply related to domesticity. For this I have settled on the following. Knitting needles, my mother knitted jerseys, scarves, socks, gloves and rugs among other things. The click, click, click of knitting needles was often part of the background. A rolling pin, baking was a given, money wasn’t wasted on buying cakes and biscuits from shops. From when I was a child my mother always wore her hair in two plaited ponytails. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that she cut her hair shorter so a hair braid is referenced. My mother had been a shorthand typist before she started a family, so the striker bars from a typewriter make the forth leg. On occasion she would take in some work, or volunteer to transcribe work for local groups. The sound of rapid fire typewriter keys hammering away still brings me a smile. It’s such a wonderful percussive sound.

My mother remains in my memories as many things, images, sounds, words, feelings and tastes.

And now maybe in yours.