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CETG Online Talk on Monday 14th September 2020

Our Speaker – Jessa Fairbrother  

Her Subject – Stitching Myself into the Image

Thank you Jessa for your wonderful talk - generous,

intimate, engaging, thought-provoking, and so original!


Here is an overview of what she said as she shared images of her work over Zoom.

The first image Jessa shared was a piece of traditional crewel work - she has been studying at the Royal School of Needlework and this was her most recent finished work. But she wanted to tell us her "back story" - her journey to date.


Jessa studied English at University.  She originally wanted to go to Drama School but that was not to be.  Her father was very ill at the time and it was more important to go out and get a job, so she worked at the local newspaper, before going back to university to study Photography.  Her first project there was on ageing, she took a series of photographs of bald men showing images of them from the front and the back.


After this, she obtained funding from the Arts Council and completed a book of photographs of benches alongside a coastal walk in Wales.  The photos show a close-up image of the plaques on the benches alongside the view from that bench together with a short paragraph underneath about the person the bench commemorates.  If she was unable to discover the person’s details, the wording would state “unknown”.  Her job at the local paper helped with the investigation work here.


Jessa thought this project was about other people but, on reflection, it was most probably about loss and about her Father’s passing.  She finds it interesting how we commemorate and record someone’s existence. Jessa took a lot of photographs during her work at the local newspaper, she says it was “bread and butter” work and her “wilderness years”.  However, this led to her taking an MA in Photography. To obtain a place on the MA course, she had to produce a body of work.  The project she undertook was a study of women who keep their wedding dresses for a long period of time.


Jessa found women who had kept their dresses for 10 years or more.  She went to the ladies’ houses to photograph them holding the dresses against themselves - images which portray them holding onto their younger selves.  She thinks that the wedding dresses are a feature of the time they were worn, like a time capsule. Women often think they will pass them on, possibly to the next generation, but realistically this is unlikely.


At the end of her MA, Jessa reached another crossroads in her life.  In her final project she worked with a red dress - a dress that was given to her by an ex-boyfriend - that was totally inappropriate for her age.  She had never actually worn the dress but after a friend suggested she try it on, she did and then created a series of photographs from this.


At the end of University, she came across photos of women performing hysteria in an asylum, her work with the red dress came from a study of those images and was also connected to a family member who suffered with bi-polar.  This ignited her interest in the body, performance, and the construction of the body.


During this time, Jessa’s mother was at the end of her life.  Jessa left everything and went to live with her mother for her final nine months. Her work “2 Blue Hearts on Blue Sleeves” (the images all feature a blue dress) is all about being consumed by grief.


All of this is the back story to Jessa’s working life.  Up to this point, she hadn’t yet discovered her sewing work.  She felt very much adrift, having lost both parents.


Conservations with my Mother” started when her mother was very ill.  This is also when Jessa began sewing into her photographs.  She found this a very personal explanation of what was happening in their lives.  She was also grappling with the loss of her maternal life: her Mother had died and Jessa herself was not going to have children so there was “nothing before, and nothing after”. It was also a study of how the body fails.  She felt her body was failing and so was her mother’s.


Some of the photos are burned at the edges, and some are also embroidered.  Her strategy was to conceal her mother, she didn’t want her face to be visible and didn’t want anyone else to see her which seemed the right thing to do.  The embroidery in the work covers the face.  She calls this “photo memorialisation” which became an urgent act.


The photos of Jessa in this series are all taken inside, and the ones of her mother are in the garden, it was as if her mother was “leaving”.  There were not many photos and after they had been embroidered or burned, or both, they cannot then be reproduced.  Also destroying the photos made them fragile, delicate, very graphic, and treasured objects.


Flowers often feature in this series.  The flowers became a sign of fertility, sometimes Jessa grew plants through the photographs. She found she wanted to show more and more of her mother consumed by the garden, covered with embroidery until she was covered completely.


Another technique which now features heavily in Jessa’s practice came about from embroidering into photographs.  Jessa explained that to sew into a photograph, you have to turn the photograph over to sew from the front to the back and back the other way.  This is how she discovered how to puncture her photographs. She punctures the photographs from behind, making shapes and bumps on top of the photos.  The body image becomes a shell, with shell patterns pricked out throughout the image.


To do this, Jessa lays tracing paper already marked out with her design on the back of the photo and pricks through the to the front.  The patterns emerge almost like tattoos on the body images. She then began working between both techniques, the embroidery, and the puncturing.  The embroidery is being attached and the pricking is being unattached.


Constellations” (pricked and punctured black and white photos) and “Coordinates” (embroidered, colour photos) were shown at the Photographer’s Gallery, London in 2019.  It was a direct conversation of seeing women on plinths, looking up at the sky and reading the stars.  It was about using her body as a vehicle to have a conversation about something else.


Other commissioned work undertaken includes photographs of women MPs (along with other women photographers).


Earlier this year, she was asked to make a body of work for the Wellcome Foundation “Digital Stories” using her own body as a vehicle for conversation.  Each photo told a story.  This was a humbling experience.


During lockdown, she produced a series of photographs of her old highchair, highlighting how she was dealing with the lockdown experience, also showing that she won’t be passing on the highchair as she doesn’t have children.


As mentioned at the beginning, Jessa is currently taking an RSN Certificate qualification, to help her with her embroidery practice - it has already shown her how to plan things in advance.  She has recently learnt how to do bullion knots and is now putting lots and lots of these knots in her work. 


Jessa’s work is totally unique, unexpected, and beautiful.

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