Stitching the Unseen with Alison Blackburn

Fabric pods on a shelf

In July, experienced textiles artist Alison Blackburn (often referred to as The Stitchist) exhibited Seldom Seen at No.34. Seldom Seen is a display of pieces of work created by Alison as she developed a full body of work titled 28days, which she would later feature in group exhibition SICK! Living with invisible illness.

Seldom Seen was, for all intents and purpose, the antithesis to invisibility, with its bright fabrics, multiple sketches and many maquettes. You might think that showing the process behind the work might feel more vulnerable than exhibiting the work itself but when Ideas Test interviewed Alison and put this to her, she surprisingly disagreed. “No, I think it’s actually easier!” Alison laughed, “Because they judge they final work.” She explained how showing the processes behind the final work actually “has lots of possibilities and people can look at it and go ‘I wonder what happened when she finished'”.

There’s a real intimacy to be found from exhibiting the innermost thoughts of creativity. Seeing a list of prospective titles for Alison’s is an invitation behind the scenes of the creative process we usually don’t get to see. It’s somehow quite refreshing to see a torn out piece of paper with ideas and scribbles and notes all over. In fact, all the early drawings, the sketches, the mini models are like pieces of a half finished jigsaw. We’re used to seeing the final picture already put together but Seldom Seen shows us Alison’s way of piecing together the different parts of the puzzle.

The title, as well as the entire exhibition, alludes to a slightly deeper meaning though, too. Suffering with an illness that is invisible can be an isolating experience; creativity can be a great antidote to this. Whole communities have developed online, on Twitter, Instagram, Etsy and elsewhere, with their own hashtags and support systems. In some cases, there’s now even a market for products that are not only aesthetically pleasing and functional, but that also play a role in generating wider conversation around topics that are perhaps not spoken about as much in the mainstream media.

Stitched acronym PCOS
Photo credit Jane Pitt

For Alison, her focus is on Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (often shortened to PCOS). Using her expertise in textiles – a medium that Alison says is ‘a good medium to express anything, I think’ – Alison created sculptural pods as a way of designing a focal point that is bright, tangible and most significantly, visible. The pods took form using fabric that Alison has obtained from various sources over the past nine years; cloth leftover from other projects, fabric from other people’s clothing alterations and even samples of her own worn out clothing. Mixing sculpture with textiles to create something that is seemingly organic. The largest pod sits squarely on the floor in the Window Gallery, slightly hidden (but certainly not invisible). On the opposing wall, up higher and poised delicately on the shelf, are three more pods of varying sizes and materials. To the left, pinned into the cork wall, are a cluster of sixteen small 6×4 photographs. Demonstrating the work in varying degrees of completion, the photographs are a document of the sometimes chaotic but always creative progression of ideas.

Giant fabric pod for Seldom Seen exhibition
Photo credit Jane Pitt.

The glass cabinets, which were used so expertly by Laurie Harpum back in April, have been corralled once more. This time the glass gives way to snippets and snapshots of the intricate thought processes behind Alison’s artistic creations. One cabinet contained a series of recycled fabrics from which Alison would make the final pods, the other contained paper moulds from Alison’s attempts at first working out the shape in paper. The work in this exhibition has been a long time coming; some of her stitch samples show ideas that Alison has been working on from as early as 1995. That Alison’s had some of these ideas rolling around her brain since the 90s is a testament to two things: one, that it takes time and distance to be able to process and accept living with an invisible. Secondly, it’s a great reminder that patience and perseverance are fundamental when it comes to creativity. Don’t give up on that great idea you had walking home from work, in the bath or laying in bed. Pocket it somewhere and then come back to it. It might have changed or evolved from how it first looked a month, a year or even a decade ago, but don’t give up on it yet.

Extracts from an exhibition
Photo credit Jane Pitt

That’s one message to take away from Seldom Seen; when we sat down to ask Alison about her exhibition, we asked her what else she wanted people to take away from her work. She replied with an insightful answer. “It’s much more than just the end product,” Alison explained. “It’s all the preliminary drawings, maquettes, sample pieces, so that people could see what happens before you make the actual artwork.”

It seems there is an interesting observation to be made between the use of stitch to convey hidden messages. Prisoners of war in World War Two were found to have stitched defiant Morse code messages right under their captors noses. Similarly, needle arts have been used to draw attention to various social and political issues over recent years. Where having an invisible illness might potentially leave an individual feeling powerless, there is some retraction of power to be gained from turning that illness into something positive. Or if not positive, then at least pragmatic and purposeful. By forming exhibitions, artwork and the like, empathy, understanding and the ability to relate to these topics will only increase the more they’re featured in popular culture. Alison’s work seems to walk that line too and her workshop supported this further by introducing people to the focus of her exhibition as they created their own mini pods.

To end the interview, we asked Alison if coming to No.34 has inspired her to create any future work and the answer was an emphatic yes. “Yes, especially the workshop that I did, where I made some little ones,” Alison informed us enthusiastically. “Also one of the ones I made was white with stitching,” Alison explained, “That ended up looking like map contours.” This creation piqued Alison’s preexisting interest in “maps and walking and suchlike”, to the extent that it “might be a future project; taking walks and making work from those walks.” A future project of this kind certainly sounds exciting and everyone at Ideas Test wishes Alison the best of luck with all her future endeavours, especially her upcoming exhibition, SICK! Living with Invisible Illnesses.

You can find out more information on Alison’s group exhibition, SICK! by visiting their blog, or if you want to visit the exhibition yourself, it is on display until August 27th at Sun Pier House.