Handle with Care is a textile piece about my experience of caring for my terminally ill mother in 1979, the summer I turned 16. I had never thought of myself as a ‘carer’ until earlier this year when I was involved as an Arts & Health Practitioner in a community arts project in Devon called The Craft of Caring. The main project was engaging with carers in a series of workshops to make a piece of community artwork.
There was a call for art submissions from people about their experience of being a carer. After hemming and hawing for a few weeks, I decided to make this piece. Although I have done a lot of work on this loss over the years, I have carried vivid visual memories around with me for the past 40 years. This piece of artwork gave me the opportunity to process my experience in a different way than I have done so in therapy.
“This self-portrait uses photographic and stitched images,
layers of memory and text to capture the artist’s experience
of being an adolescent carer; an experience of a world unravelling
contrasted with the strength of will to hold herself together.”
I celebrated my 56th birthday last week.
My husband and I spent the day in Bristol shopping and meeting friends. I dropped off some artwork for an exhibition and collected a piece I had recently bought from a gallery. We finished the day dining at one of our favourite restaurants on the River Avon.
On that day I felt very connected to my mother Nell who died nearly 40 years ago at the age of 55. She was an accomplished seamstress. I started to learn dressmaking two years ago and wore a dress I made earlier this year.
Last year, when I turned 55, was a watershed.
I had lived much of my life, as many people whose parent has died too soon, with the subconscious fear that I will not live beyond her age of death.
In May I made a piece of artwork called ‘Handle with Care’ for a community arts project called the Craft of Caring. I got in touch with my 16 year old self who had much of the day to day responsibility for looking after my terminally ill mother. It was a difficult piece of work to make, but very liberating to find a place to ‘talk about’ many of the feelings and memories I’ve carried since that time. I am grateful that my artmaking gives me a place to process my experiences.
Now at 56, I am travelling into new territory. I feel at ease with myself and very focused on many creative projects. I don’t know if my mom is ‘somewhere up there’ looking out for me and aware of who I have become, or what her hopes and concerns were for me at the time that she died. I do know that last week on my birthday I felt that I am at the same time my mother’s daughter and separate from her, that I am the woman I am becoming.
Well, its been awhile!
My year so far has been pretty busy with entering art work and having it accepted into three exhibitions in the US. Completing and entering the work was the easy part. The challenge for me was to package, measure and weigh and then find a carrier to ship it over. Practical tasks can flummox me! I found a website called Parcel2Go.com which presents a range of options, shipping times and prices to choose from.
One of the shows was “Breaking the Silence: #MMIW #MeToo” in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in conjunction with Northeastern State University’s 47th annual Symposium on the American Indian to “Celebrate Indigenous Women.”
The exhibition aims to bridge and raise awareness about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Me Too movements. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women #MMIW is a mission among Indigenous groups across the United States and Canada to bring awareness and action to the disproportionate number of Native women who are victims of sexual violence and murder, usually perpetrated by non-Native men. #MeToo is a movement founded in recent years to create conversations surrounding sexual assault and violence and help survivors heal from experiences.
I entered two pieces into Breaking the Silence.
My Grandmother’s Shoes tells the story about how her sexual sovereignty, the culture and the very land was taken from my Muscogee Grandmother.
My Grandmother’s Shoes
Born in Indian Territory
her land was pulled out from under her feet.
Her moccasins were taken away from her at Indian School.
Rootless, ungrounded, barefoot
She walked down dusty roads.
Looking for Home.
New roads ran between boom towns
and oil fields.
Slicing through stolen land and
carving out Oklahoma.
There were too many men
with too much get rich quick oil money
and too much time
on their hands.
A pretty barefoot Muscogee girl
She found a pair of cast off red satin shoes
at the side of the road.
Cracked and cheap, too small
They pinched her feet
but made her feel like
A honky tonk Queen.
Men in fast black Buicks
stopped and offered her a ride
Once she got on that ride,
she could not get off.
She was spirited away.
– Melinda Schwakhofer, 2019
I am so proud and pleased that this work is being shown in Oklahoma. This is where the story belongs. People who are there, especially people of Native ancestry, will ‘get’ this work on the deep gut level that it has come from. In fact, My Grandmother’s Shoes was purchased in the show.
Bloodlines uses many layers including maps; text; self-portrait; my Muscogee relations as shape shifters; newspaper headlines from the 1970s and historical images of Native women. It tells of my adolescence when I was made to carry the story of my Muscogee Grandmother which was a story of sexual exploitation that had been handed down through generations. It shows how the thread of abuse can be passed between generations, and so can resilience and the will to survive.
I wrote down memories which I have carried for over 40 years.
Layers of memories, from our lifetimes and before our lifetimes, make up all of our stories. It is very powerful to tell them in any way we can – speaking, writing, making art work; and so profoundly healing for our stories to be deeply listened to and genuinely heard.
The 39th anniversary of my Mother’s death has recently passed.
This year, for the first time, I am living beyond the age that she was when she died.
Tonight, I was surprised, side swiped and bowled over by a deep upwelling of grief. Feeling absolutely bereft, not only with the grief which can still be so raw after so many years, but at an absolute loss over how to grow into my life. Since the age of 16, I have lived inside of, and pushed against and grown beyond the shape of my Mother’s life. But always with an awareness of where the boundaries and edges are. Now, in living beyond her years, the edges are gone.
Tonight I felt as though I don’t possibly have what it takes to go forward into the unknown. This beautiful snowdrop shows me, with grace, how to emerge from the dark of Winter and that perhaps I have already been through the most difficult part of the journey.
The small and fragile snowdrop flower is a symbol of rebirth, positivity and a bright future. The tiny flower of snowdrop announces the forthcoming of spring. This beautiful sign of awakening nature is considered to be the emblem of Hope.
My word for 2019 is ‘surprise’.
from Old French surprise “a taking unawares” (13c.), from noun use of past participle of Old French sorprendre “to overtake, seize, invade” (12c.)
I often like to plan things out and can be a bit of a control freak. This comes from a childhood need to try and create a sense of safety in a dysfunctional, often chaotic household.
But this year I am willing to let <some> things go where they may and to make the space for the unknown to emerge.