Stitched Up

03/06/2017

Stitched Up is an exhibition featuring 24 contemporary international and national textile artists on show at The Lock Up from Friday 23 June 2017 until 6 August 2017. It coincides with the 150-year anniversary of The Newcastle Industrial School’s opening; and is resulting from a partnership between The Lock Up and Timeless Textiles galleries.

This exhibition conceptually provides a voice for the 193 girls who attended the Newcastle Industrial School, translated into contemporary fibre art.

The title Stitched Up is very apt in two ways…

Firstly, each of the artworks has been stitched – mostly by hand for many hours – capturing the story of ‘The Girls’. The artists have found themselves dwelling on the stories of these sometimes short lives, capturing the sense of being lost, homeless, not being heard or seen, and belonging to an underclass with no voice.

Additionally, the colloquial meanings of Stitched Up refer to the girls’ lives. Being sent to the Newcastle Industrial School or Reformatory was not one of choice. It was an arrangement approved of and implemented according to government mandate of the time. The girls’ family backgrounds and life circumstances ensured that they could be found guilty of a “crime” leading to their internment at the school.

The Newcastle Industrial School and Reformatory for Girls (established in 1867) was a NSW Government response to the passing of the Act for the Relief of Destitute Children in 1866.This occurred during the “Gold Rush Generation’ in Australia, a time of great societal upheaval. With a huge and ongoing influx of immigrants, it was an era of poverty, hardship and discrimination.

Children were particularly vulnerable, living in slums, with limited care or supervision, often finding themselves homeless. Survival put these children at great risk of exploitation by thieves and pimps. Child prostitution, violence, drunkenness and sexual abuse were commonplace in marginalised groups.

Under the provisions of the Act, children under 16 years of age could be taken from their families if they were arrested for a crime; in the care of thieves or prostitutes; or if they were destitute or found wandering the streets with ‘no lawful occupation’.

Between 1867 and 1871, 193 girls were sent to the Newcastle Industrial School and Reformatory (previously military barracks). Besides basic literacy, the girls were taught stitching. They were set to work sewing clothing and household items as a cost recovery exercise. The mandatory stay at the school was 12 months, with the prospect of being apprenticed.

The initial concept for the ‘Stitched Up’ project came from a chance discovery that some of the girls had been detained in the Newcastle lock up after short-lived escapes from the school. Following a meeting with the Coal River Working Party and discussions with Dr Ann Hardy, the project was co-curated by Anne Kempton (Creative Director Timeless Textiles Gallery) and fibre artist Wilma Simmons.

Having met with local historian, Jane Ison, Anne and Wilma were immediately captivated by the life stories of the young girls of the Newcastle Industrial School. The research and writings of Jane Ison and subsequently Canberra based anthropologist, David Eastburn and Bernadette Sheahan have inspired this project to engage worldwide interest in this fascinating part of Newcastle’s history. 

The materials used throughout Stitched Up reflect the cloth and colourways that would have been used by the girls to make functional items during their time at the school.

Stitched Up’ presents an extraordinary array of artistic works individually and collectively portraying stories of loss, betrayal, cruelty

Some of these items would have been used, reused and recreated. They would have been held, sometimes for long periods of time, in both the girls’ and the artists’ hands during the making process.

From small and intricate works of art to larger scale works, the contributing fibre artists have honoured the lives of 193 girls, lived and lost. They have been given a voice through a range of fibre art practices – creating, for example, a large quilt as a comforter; dolls to compensate for lost childhood; weaving together lives; mending stories through stitch; and creating collages by layering memories and history.

Adding further dimension and community participation in the project, 30 women from The Wednesday Maker’s group at Timeless Textiles Gallery stitched embroidered narratives of each of the girls’ lives, working for nine months on the project and resulting in seven volumes of cloth books, each page dedicated to one of the girls or a family of sisters. The stitchers used Jane Ison’s research to inspire their stitched interpretations and have developed a respectful and close relationship with their chosen girls. 

Moved by the life stories of the girls, Irish-born writer and poet, Anne Casey contributed a range of poems supportung Jane Theaus artwork including Cross-stitched:

Cross-stitched

Intertwining threads

Mirror images repeated over and over

Weaving in and out of each other

Twisted tales of

Cast-off shreds

Crisscrossing

Stitched together

And ripped apart

Slowly unravelling

Into so many missing parts

Disappeared

Like stitches dissolved

From long-forgotten wounds

Their memories marked

By the palest

Of gossamer scars

(Anne Casey 2017)

 

Thank you to all who have made ‘Stitched Up’ possible, remembering and honouring the girls lives.

 

 

 

 

The ‘Stitch Up’ project has been a wonderful coming together of a number of key aims of The Lock-Up’s artistic vision. By using the building’s history as a point of reflection, through contemporary artistic practice, The Lock-Up aims to give new and alternative voices and interpretations of history, time and place. Through collaboration and partnership with individuals, the community and other cultural organisations we aim to bring diverse, stimulating and cultural experiences to the many people who engage with the program from makers and participants to audiences.

 

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