The Artist’s Statement – Part Three

I will be hanging my exhibition in one month from today.

I freaked out a bit about a week ago.

I’m on track now, mostly after writing about my process, what’s important to me and why I’m actually doing this, in a clear and hopefully articulate way and sending it off to Ros at the Tig Gallery to add to the press release for the show.

This is the bit that’s always a mental and, let’s face it, emotional challenge – bringing it to a point of conclusion. For almost three years now, I’ve been working and making and sharing things online and (you have no idea how grateful I am for this) selling my work. It’s been ongoing and I’ve been loving it, but this…this is something a bit different. It’s exactly what I need and it’s come at exactly the right time but I can feel a real resistance to bringing it all to a head and saying “This is me. This. This is what I spend my time working on and it’s the best I can do, go look at it”. It feels easier to go, “Here’s something I made, I love it and I’m going to do some more of it soon”.
With an exhibition, I need to be able to say that this is it. For now. For this particular point in time, but I still need to stand in that space with everyone who comes along and say, “yep, this is what I’m about”. It feels like a very high stakes point in my work, and personally, it’s making me feel very vulnerable.

Shit, that’s the first time I actually realised there will be a whole load of people there and I’ll need to talk to them and tell them things about what I do and why I do it.

When I wrote my statement about my work and about my aims for the exhibition I had to really look at what I do and why I do it and one of the refreshing things was identifying that a very important aspect of my work is that it’s taken just to the point of completion and no further. It’s about transformation. Fabric into a face, cloth into character, stitches into soul. It’s also about my own desires, the ones that only really express themselves in my work.

It’s taken me nearly forty years to acknowledge that this is what I do. This is my thing. I don’t bring my work to a full, complete, polished conclusion, I leave aspects of it suspended and seemingly still in the process of transformation. I used to feel that this meant that my work wasn’t accomplished or completed and that I was somehow avoiding taking it to a conclusion. When I described my work in the past, I would sidestep this point because it didn’t seem like the right thing to say. I had to make excuses for it, or to promise that I’d get round to “finishing” it at some point down the line.

Even when I started making dolls, the reason I used calico cloth instead of lovely new fabric is because for me they were just tests. Toiles. Like when you make a pattern for a garment and test it out in simple, inexpensive fabric before cutting it in something luxurious. I thought I would make perfectly sculpted faces, and tested it out in pencil first. I thought I would make intricately detailed clothing for them, but the loose, layered collars worked better, and most of them looked complete when they were still naked. I kept intending to be a bit more “polished” with my pieces, but in the end it turned out that what made them mine was the balance between being caught right at the point where they were transformed from fabric into their own character.

The dolls for the Tig show are more raw than a lot of the pieces that you might know me for. The show is called The Book of Secrets, a reference to the grimoires and journals of herbalists and alchemists, the place where they keep their dreams and discoveries and desires and plans. Sometimes my dolls feel like little magical objects to me. Little votives or fetches that I can send out a little part of myself into the world through, or that I can see a part of myself in that’s hidden from me the rest of the time. A theme that runs through the show is desires and dreams, ones that are hidden and to an extent, pushed down into the subconscious.

I thought I would feel quite exposed showing that secret, hidden side of myself in this show, but instead, so far, it feels like a massive relief.

I couldn’t do it before. Not deliberately or consciously anyway.

In the last year there’s been a real shift for me in terms of how open I am with myself and a willingness to say what I really want. To acknowledge what I really need to say.

I didn’t think this blog post was going to go this way, but here it goes…

About the time I started to make this work, and for a few years before, I’d been going through a very difficult time personally. I don’t need to say what or how or where or why, because I am pretty sure that you know what it means to go through something painful. Something that changes you. Or maybe something that silences you.

So I started attending counselling about a year ago.

I started counselling because I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t not speak any longer. I was angry all the time. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t talk but I couldn’t stay quiet. I didn’t want to talk to anyone who cared about me because I didn’t want them to feel it too, or hear it or know it. It felt like all I’d be doing was spreading what I was feeling rather than easing it. And what’s more, I didn’t think anyone would believe me because I’d been seeming to function for so long without saying anything.

So without telling anyone, and for the first time in my life, I found a service that could provide counselling and I booked an appointment.

I spent my first session crying, but numb. I talked a lot about details and events and facts and things that had happened that had brought me to that point. My counsellor asked me about feelings. I said I didn’t have any. I looked for them. I really did try to find something that felt like an emotion but there was nothing I could touch. I knew where they were but not how to reach them.

The feelings came out eventually of course, over the next months. It took time. I resented my counsellor. Then I wasn’t so sure, then I switched to another one and eventually I felt like I could squeeze out something that mattered to me. Words dredged up from my throat and, bloody hell, it hurt. It actually physically hurt to speak, as if things had been buried down a well, and that every time I spoke something barbed and jagged was being dragged through narrow walls and up and out into the light.

It was exhausting.

The thing is though, that once I had found that safe place, and thank God I did, once I felt safe and once I felt heard, it wasn’t painful any more. Saying things and having a counsellor look at me and hear me, without any judgement, but simply acknowledging what I was saying, was the greatest relief I think I’ve ever felt.

I also realised in those sessions just how much I had said in my life that was really what I thought I was supposed to say.

In the past, if I had wanted to say something that wasn’t really expected or acceptable or typical, then I felt I would need some sort of defence or argument to back myself up, which meant bracing myself for a confrontation, or isolating myself to avoid one altogether.

And it went back through my whole life too. Every time a layer was revealed, there would be another one underneath it needing to be peeled away. I saw a pattern of not just self-capping, but self-smothering. All the things I agreed to or avoided or kept quiet about. When you don’t feel heard you either say what you think will be accepted, or you become silent.

I realised in those sessions that what I said and what I did was just the tip of the iceberg of what I felt and thought and most importantly, needed to say.

Over the next few months, it was as if a big blockage had been gradually dissolved and I felt clearer and happier and lighter. I felt that I could not only ask for what I wanted, but that I could also say no to what I didn’t want.

I felt like me without the bullshit. And by bullshit I mean the layers and layers of sticky crap and crud that builds up from years of painting countless glossy veneers over what I really needed to say.

Towards the end of the sessions, I told my counsellor that I was concerned about not being able to speak the same way once the course of sessions had finished. That I wouldn’t be able to be as open as I had been there. The world doesn’t work that way. Maybe it should, maybe it doesn’t need to, but in reality we need to edit ourselves to at least some extent to get along with the rest of humanity most of the time.

Her guidance was to seek out and to know and to acknowledge the people and places where I was heard. Even if they are few and far between. Not to expect it or need it all the time, but to understand that there are places and people who get it.

I want my work to be one of those places.

It’s hard to say that because, part of me still wants to make pretty things that people will like and want and find impressive, but fortunately (and again, you have no idea of the massive gratitude), I have people who support my work, either by buying it or sharing it online or telling me they like it, or whatever. And oddly enough, the pieces I make when I feel most vulnerable, whether that vulnerability comes from pain or joy, are the pieces that people write to me about. The ones that touch them in some way that they can’t quite understand.

Ruby, one of the first cloth dolls I made.

When I started to make the work that you maybe know me for, I had no idea that anyone would see it. I made it because I needed to have a voice and it was the only one I could find. The dolls could express what I couldn’t. I’m still not sure what they were saying, but making them was compulsive. They demanded to be made.

At the time, my first cloth dolls were forced to the surface and were guiding me more than I was directing them. It’s different now. I can look at where they come from and why. But I don’t want my work to be therapy for me. I want it to be relevant beyond my own head, but I think that it needs to come from an authentic place in me to do that. I hope that if my work comes from that place, it will reach the same place in someone else.


Like the other two Artist Statement blog posts, I really had no idea where this post was going when I started writing it let alone that it would be the end of a trilogy! The first one was me wondering what the hell I was doing, the second one was me wondering why the fuck I was apologising for it, and this one…. I’d like to round this off with some sort of clear lesson or message, but I don’t think there is one. Maybe that’s for you to decide.
True to form, a bit of this post was clear and real and focused, and now I’m letting it all unravel towards the end.

If you would like to read the other Artist’s Statement posts you can do so here and here.

For now, I’m off to do more work for the show.






24 thoughts on “The Artist’s Statement – Part Three

  1. This resonates so strongly. You know those temple bells that go on, pressing a near- silent vibration through the air that you have to be utterly still inside to hear, but when you are, they go on forever? That.

  2. beautifully written straight from the heart & soul of the matter, your work is vulnerable yet strong, having a solo show in a good gallery honours your lifetime of chasing dreams and turning them into reality, you are flying!

  3. I offer my congratulations if I may. It sure took courage and determination to delve down and achieve a goodly measure of self understanding, but undoubtedly you succeeded.
    I have a tendency to think of an artist statement (when I think of one at all!) as pampering to the expectations of others and I buck against that idea …. but maybe (in the fog of my of own limited artistic self) they’re actually written as much for the benefit of the artist as anyone ….sigh…. our world is rarely black & white & I have much to learn! lol
    Thank you for words, I have plenty to think on…

    1. Hi Laurie,

      Believe it or not, even with this, I am highly selective about what I share on here. It took me a really long time to feel comfortable sharing anything, but after a while I found a balance. This one was definitely a bit nerve wracking! I hope you can find the right balance for you. x

      1. Oh, I can believe it! I’m working on it. You inspired me to write a post today. At one time I shared more than I felt comfortable with on my blog, and I deleted a lot of those posts. Then it felt like it was fading. Not as healthy. Not doing what I needed it to do. Finding a balance between honesty and whining is not easy, but I think that honesty is essential. It doesn’t mean that you share every thought in your head, though.

  4. I’ve been sitting here thinking about what to say first in response to your amazing artists statement. You have great courage and strength to share your story. I’m an artist and an art therapist, have followed your work for a few years now, and have been excited to see the evolution of your dolls. It definitely doesn’t seem like your work is “therapy” but more of a maturing and growth based on how your own self awareness and experiences are shifting. Great job!!

  5. Your words produce that profound widening in my inner vision, like the most expansive horizon has opened to my view. True, the thrill doesn’t last forever. It gets clouded over again by the demands, busyness, noise of everyday. But then I read (or re-read) words that open again that forever horizon. And it never ceases to amaze me.
    Is it strange to say that I’m proud of you, even though we’ve never met? Looking back over my own journey (34 years so far), I feel worlds away from the girl who couldn’t even recognize and feel her own feelings, let alone communicate them to another soul. The memory of being utterly alone (inside) never quite leaves…though now I am able to feel and express myself. I’ve marveled that the other girl (as I now view the younger version of me) survived that most hopeless and dark valley. The longer I go on in life, the more I come to view the creative impulse as a wonderful and mysterious link to the divine.

    1. Hi Kirstin,

      I feel the same way about my younger self. It’s easy to feel afraid of begin back there again, but I absolutely agree that the way to look back is to ‘marvel’ that she made it through. Thank you for such a heartfelt comment. x

  6. This is the first time I have read anything you have written. I am 67 years old and you have made me question myself – is it time to be honest. thank you.

  7. From the moment I first saw your work I have been captivated….. I resonate so strongly to your process
    Reading this blog gives insight into your dolls …. their very contained presence says so much. I hope one day to be able to meet you and perhaps do a workshop (do you run workshops?) and see an exhibition….. one can but dream

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      You’re absolutely right! I struggled to even photograph my dolls in a way that wasn’t self contained and isolated. That’s shifting now, I hadn’t thought about it until I read your comment.

      I’ll be running online workshops in the new year! I’m also going to be offering private, one-to-one tuition online before the end of this year. I hope you can take part in one or the other or both.

      Take care,

  8. Thank you for your courage and for sharing a part of you here. Bravo. It will help a lot of us. And good luck with the exhibition – another beginning.

  9. Thank you for sharing…. I am pretty sure most artists I know (myself surely) have some first hand experience with the things you talk about here. And it is interesting that this essay of yours came as a response to the external demand of an artist’s statement for a show. It takes courage for most of us to be truly honest with ourselves in the best of times. We often don’t even know what we are hiding from ourselves much less *that* we are hiding things…..

    But the willingness to be honest about it to others is an even bigger challenge. And it is almost never as simple as what we can say about our work, our selves, now. We change, and our honesty about ourselves has to change with it. You can even say that the steps to being honest are some of the biggest changes we will ever make, so it is a bit of a chicken and egg process….. Maybe fundamentally so.

    One of the biggest hurdles, I think, is that we are trained to talk about the work, as though the work somehow explained things exhaustively. I have seen too many artist statements that focus on details of the work, explaining the work by what this and that are, what they do, what they ‘mean’. I tend to think that for many of us this can be a move in the game of hiding things from ourselves. It is as if looking harder at the pieces themselves becomes a distraction from where those things fit in the life of the person who made them. As if the work itself could be reduced down to its physical components and some of the relationships between them.

    Perhaps for some this is how it works. That could be all their work amounts to. But for others it may not be that simple. The game of chess is not simply these physical pieces and the rules that are used to move them. If we only look at the pieces we miss that the pieces themselves explain nothing. If we focus on the rules we miss the reasons why some people play and others do not…..

    Reducing explanations down to these things IS a form of hiding. Looking only in one direction avoids seeing other things. What we see, the things in our view, take a particular shape from one or more directions. Importance spins out from where we lay our focus. Things are steps in our path only because we place our feet just here, just so. Which is why honesty is not simply a difference of degree but a difference in *kind*. The whole of the story is not made from the addition of its parts alone. The story is the home where the parts actually become parts.

    Well, I rambled a bit, but your essay seemed to demand both that I acknowledge your gift to us, your readers, but also to repay it in some kind. If I cannot tell you what your words mean to me I’m not sure I can convey why I feel they matter. I have to be a tiny bit honest, at least, to show the marks your honesty have left in in their wake….

    Keep up the great work! Your gift is much larger than your dolls alone! I want to say that your gift is being the person you are, and I for one am tremendously grateful you are so generous in sharing yourself with others….

    All the best!

    Carter Gillies

    1. Dear Carter,

      Thank you, thank you, thank you. There are so many good points here I don’t know where to start. Yes, I absolutely feel that a lot of the descriptions of work, the justifications and even the motivations are an exercise in hiding from ourselves. When I worked in the fashion industry, I was drawn to feeling powerful and impressive and at the cutting edge; all the things I felt would cover up my vulnerability and, at that point, fragility. I think it was an important part of my process though. I don’t think anyone can open up to themselves, let alone anyone else until they are ready.

      I also particularly love your chess analogy.

      Take care, and thank you for your thoughts,
      Johanna 🙂

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