Site icon Johanna Flanagan

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.






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