Wyllie O Hagan: Whitework – A Gentle Path
Denise Wyllie and Clare O Hagan are award-winning visual artists who live and work in London. Together, the two artists tackle and deliver huge art projects such as Whitework – A Gentle Path, which is a strategy designed for people to manage the fear of cancer through focusing on craft making.
In this interview, we explore their new textile art book, Whitework – A Gentle Path. They also share with us what inspired them to produce it and how it has affected people living with life-limiting illnesses.
Telling your own story
TextileArtist.org: How did the Whitework project begin?
Denise Wyllie and Clare O Hagan: We had an Art Science Residency at a Cancer Research UK funded laboratory in London in 2002. This resulted in the 42-metre artwork Transformations in Science and Art, in a permanent exhibition at the Royal Mint. From creating this 42-metre textile artwork came a sister project called Whitework.
Prompted by the artist residency we became mediators between scientists and advocacy groups concerned with understanding and treating the social, psychological, emotional and quality-of-life aspects of cancer. We explored methods in which art would help people facing cancer deal with complicated issues in their lives, in both a practical and spiritual way.
Why did you choose a craft based textile activity?
We find we are happier when quietly occupied, creatively stretching ourselves to enjoy five minutes of flow, where we forget the time and are completely immersed in craft making. We suggest that this is a way of switching off from replaying agitating and disturbing thoughts.
We designed the Whitework project to help people whose lives have been affected by cancer. We ran a series of Whitework workshops where people made a small textile artwork in white. Everyone had their own story and reason to create an individual piece of whitework.
Workshop attendees included a broad range of cross-generational people with a varying skill base, different backgrounds, and belief systems.
Art and humanity
You decided on using white textiles only, what was the reasoning behind that choice?
Whitework – A Gentle Path incorporates white on white textile materials, in abstract structures and designs. This allows the creativity of the use of materials and their different structures, textures and forms to be explored. Makers and viewers of the work can enjoy the inventiveness of the designs without having to read literal visual statements or pictures. The abstract designs speak of art and humanity, unhindered by words. They are imbued with personal significance and meanings outside the human voice.
What techniques did you include in the workshops
In workshops, we suggested a variety of processes for use. These including both traditional crafts and contemporary technological techniques. We provided materials ranging from delicate organzas and silks to coarse scrim. Fabrics were woven, knitted, bonded, stitched, fused, appliquéd, embellished as well as digitally printed.
A variety of people including designers, health and educational workers, and people facing cancer were invited to make their own individual artworks. We led workshops for groups in London
and the South of England including textile students, North London Deaf Children’s Society, The Women’s Institute, and New Horizons Afro-Caribbean Group.
What did you do with all the textile artworks?
Individual contributed pieces were combined to make a 30-metre textile artwork and this was exhibited in the UK and abroad. In 2004, we published this project at IPOS (International Psycho-Oncology Society), 7th World Congress of Psycho-Oncology, Copenhagen, Denmark.
To accompany this presentation, we made a new, more portable version of the artwork that included individual motifs sourced from the Whitework.
Do these artworks feature in this new book you have published?
Yes, the book contains almost 100 beautiful photographs of contemporary whitework textiles. Included are photographs from workshop participants together with work we have made.
Accompanying the images are insightful commentaries by the makers of the work, where they describe both the material and processes used and what prompted them to do it.
Messages of support and love
What are you aims for the book?
Our aim is that this book is useful to support people stressed in need of calm. We need focussed engagement to survive trauma and thrive mentally. It is not easy to be alone with dark thoughts. We hope that our book will enable people to take time out and quietly reflect on the artwork images and messages of support and love contained in them.
A further aim is to support Cancer Communities and Hospice Care so we are donating 20% of book sale profits for every book sold to these organisations. In addition, we are gifting 500 books to hospices in the UK and to women, newly diagnosed with cancer in the USA.
How has the book been received?
We have been both touched and delighted by the feedback we’ve had from people from many walks of life who’ve read the book. People really engage and get what we are doing with the Whitework. Comments we have received include one from Jane Ray, Artistic Director of The Whicker’s World Foundation, “It has changed my associations with cancer from grey, bleak, forbidding to light, hope, and thoughtfulness” and Joe Pitcher, co-creator of TextileArtist.org writes “Whitework – A Gentle Path offers both visual stimulation and a means of opening up a wider conversation about the inherent values of the craft. A beautiful and meaningful publication.”
Your book is published now, Is the Whitework project continuing?
Yes, it is, and we invite people to take part in our ongoing project, create and share their own textile Whitework. It will be great to see your readers contributions from all over the world, meet the makers and learn more about their approach and motivation. You can find full instructions on how to participate on our website here.
Whitework – A Gentle Path book is for sale on our website: www.wyllieohagan.com
or phone our UK Order Hotline: 07428567490
Published by Wyllie O Hagan, June 2016
Full Colour, 64 pages, softback
Size: 21cms x 21 cms
Price: £9.99 plus p&p
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