‘A Sense of Longing’, by Eileen Harrisson, at MOMA, Machynlleth,
10 January – 21 February 2015.
‘Harrisson takes for her starting point the poem ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ by Irish writer W.B. Yeats, and interprets states of human consciousness and longing through colour, sound and hand stitch’, the gallery information explains. It goes on to make this description:
‘She develops words into a musical key and draws together the aural and the visual through rhythms of stitch, the emotive power of colour and the sculptural qualities of cloth.”
These are precisely the elements I experienced when I visited the exhibition at its Preview on a dull grey winter’s day in January. Shafts of colour sang out with a poignancy that pervaded the whole show. It brought together a body of work that was made in response to the nostalgia of dreams, yearnings and precious memories.
Nowhere more so than in the central piece ‘Cloth for Night and the Half Light’, a visually stunning mixed media work. In its luxurious folds of blues and purples lies a poem for the eyes. Habotai and Ponge silks are worked with organza on a calico base, providing a lightness and a delicacy of expression. Dupion silk, with its sensual sculptural qualities, gives the work a dramatic presence, the blue and purple textile cascading off the wall and onto the floor in a waterfall of longing. Over it all there are sections worked with silk, cotton and metallic threads, silk fibres and machine worked lace. Gold leaf and coloured wire, along with mirror shards, add to rhythmic movement and poetic quality. This piece deserved to have a short poem of its own as its title.
Harrisson’s empathy, however, is not confined to a response to the poetry of her homeland. As she says:
“I share the poet’s longing to give everything and more to a loved one. The artwork also develops this theme beyond the personal to embrace a longing for the cessation of violence in our modern society, a dream of peace for the world.”
Her own experience of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland underlie a sensitive and gently probing treatment of yearning and loss during WW2, an experience with which many people still connect. ‘Continuum’, another mixed media textile piece, takes the standard issue army blanket format and transforms it into a highly personal encounter with family history. Along with ‘Requiem’, I was drawn to the stitched detail of the soldiers’ faces, conscious that these war memories, using real photographs, were about real people, people who played an irreplaceable part in the artist’s own family.
In these mixed media hangings, the use of thread and stitch takes on a reflective, meditative quality. I found myself dwelling on the images, and remembering the coarse woollen smell of my own father’s army uniform from when I was a young child many years ago. The exhibition brings together both a melancholy meditation of the past, and a yearning for better things in the future, a universal wistfulness. I am aware of the poet’s longings and the artist’s hopes reaching out after me with gossamer fingers as I leave the exhibition and walk slowly back into the town.