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CETG Online Talk on Monday 9th August 2021
Maria Walker – Rags to Riches: Finding Inspiration from the Past

Maria describes herself as a textile artist, specialising in themes of memory and narrative, but her work has always included a degree of mixed media.  The talk focused on work she produced after she found a bundle of letters in an antique shop, which inspired an exhibition called “The Lightfoot Letters”.

Even before finding the letters, Maria was using her own family memories and photographs to produce work centring on the hidden experience of women’s lives, expressed through the clothes and accessories they used.  She produced collaged images and replica items such as scissors, a handbag and hair comb from felt which she would machine stitch, often with text used as a pattern.


The letters from the antique shop were sent to Frances Lightfoot by members of her family in the early 1920’s, when she was temporarily living away from her home in Widnes.  They painted a vivid picture of daily life, including never-ending housework and local gossip.  This gave Maria additional material which she illustrated using photographs of her own family printed onto fabric, with fragments of handwriting from the letters as a decorative theme to comment on the lives of working-class women at that time.

As a result of a one-day residency, she met the poet Angela Topping and they began to collaborate using Maria’s images and quotes from Angela’s poems.  As Maria told her more about the letters, Angela realised that she was related to the Lightfoot family, and that Frances’ mother Ada, who was the most frequent correspondent, was her own grandmother!  Such a coincidence could not be ignored, and they decided to create an exhibition of joint work based on the letters, which was first put on in a gallery in Runcorn, near the Lightfoot home. The exhibition subsequently travelled round north west England, North Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland between 2011 and 2017.

One of the major themes of the exhibition was that the poor working class, such as the Lightfoots, leave no physical heirlooms for their descendants.  Angela, however, could see traces of her own poetic skill in the vivid turns of phrase used by her grandmother Ada in the letters.

Maria could now put faces to the names in the letters, using family photographs provided by Angela, and learn more about their history.  She showed a number of the works she had produced for the exhibition, explaining her inspiration and techniques.

A recurring topic in Ada’s letters was the hard work of the weekly washing, which her poor health made additionally onerous.  “Ada’s washing line” included a row of children’s clothes, some vintage and others made by Maria such as the woollen barrow coat (pictured right) stitched with words from the letters, cut out in the style of the paper cutting artist Rob Ryan


Angela’s poem “Lean into the wind” about her father skating on the frozen ponds in the local brick fields was used in the same way.  Snatches of the poem are transformed into lace-like words floating upwards from a vintage typewriter (bottom picture). Other works were installations featuring vintage items Maria found in antique shops: an old-fashioned treadle Singer sewing machine, an iron and child’s ironing board, and a battered suitcase filled with things Angela and Maria imagined Frances would need while she was away from home.


Towards the end of the talk Maria explained some of the techniques she uses in her work: image transfer using screen printing; collaged images ironed onto fabric using transfer paper; scanning, manipulating and printing an image or text onto tracing paper and machine stitching over the lines to copy the text or turn a photo into a line drawing.  She uses this last technique for her lace-like words, stitched onto felt with the spaces between letters later laboriously cut away.


More recently she has completed an MA in Fine Art, where her work has become more sculptural and abstract, and much larger in scale using unusual materials such as vehicle tyres to create sizeable installations.  Drawing on her lifetime passion for cutlery – perhaps it’s her Sheffield roots – she has also been creating strangely beautiful table utensils from found objects including shells, driftwood and bone.  Photos of Maria’s more recent work can be found on Facebook and her website and Instagram @MariaWalkerArt.

Maria’s talk gave us many strands of inspiration, particularly ideas for using family photographs, memories and documents and transforming them into works which record the hidden histories of the lives of ordinary people, particularly women, in a strikingly visual way.

Pictures (from top to bottom): 
•    Dorothy bag
•    The washing gets me down
•    Ada’s washing line – barrow coat
•    Lean into the wind


Text © Liz Wilmott CETG

Photos © Maria Walker

The Washing.jpg
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