Torn Apart: exploring emotional barriers - Beverly Ayling-Smith

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exploring emotional barriers


University for the Creative Arts Falkner Road, Farnham, Surrey GU9 7DS, UK TEXTILE THINKING - the imprint of the International Textile Research Centre, University for the Creative Arts First published 2020 Images - Joao Pedro, except pages 6, 7 & 13 Design & Production - Gerry Diebel, Beverly Ayling-Smith has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1998, to be identified as Editor of this work. Individual essays Š the authors 2020. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organisation acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by the University for the Creative Arts or the authors. ISBN 978-1-9995961-7-0




Torn Apart: exploring emotional barriers


Introduction Professor Catherine Harper Deputy Vice-Chancellor University for the Creative Arts September 2020

This pandemic makes prisoners of us all. Walls surround us, the domestic is a jail, the global becomes an unknowable territory, the world shrinks and somehow is too vast. Melancholy seeps through webs of loss, damp with grief, spidery with sorrow, the bereft buttered over with misunderstanding, anger, fear and loathing. Misplacement is endemic. There’s a sour smell on the air. Cardinal humours – blood, phlegm and bile – are violent on the mind. Beverly Ayling-Smith’s Torn Apart works straddled this infected time, sucking in a viral sensibility that contaminates these cloths and renders them toxic. The repetitive ennui of 12 Weeks of Isolation is palpable, the punishment of canvas with bitter inky vitriol is overwritten by ragged and strange calligraphic messages seeming to beg for understanding and forgiveness. The prisoner picking out scab lyrics on a wall, marking time, mapping slow death. Sorrow and Pity just about holds the edges of a psyche rendered feverish with mourning, frayed nerves selfdestructing with the stench of burnt remains into Tangled. The dreadful tension of current time is manifest in Wall of Memory, where regiment and control struggle with the distress and abjection so apparent in the treatment of the cloth. Here Ayling-Smith is the sense-maker, attempting the balance, healing and relative harmony of Embedded. Torn Apart is a timely exhibition that will for many of its viewers actualise Quaker George Fox’s 1647 concept of that which “could speak to my condition”. While Fox sought and found spiritual succour, the contemporary secular culture in this moment of existential crisis has similar need. 2

Wall of Memory 2017 - detail Bedsheet, paper, thread 270cm x 175cn

In Ayling-Smith’s artwork, her body is variously present in the dimensions of the pieces, the signature traces of sweat and scent and breath and skin embedded in their material substrate, and the repetitive references to the somatic breach of bitumen bruise and sewn-up scar and weeping wound whispering through their weave. Sometimes with visual art practice, the moment of emergence from studio to gallery is serendipitous, with context – social, political, cultural, local, global – adding unforeseen weight and meaning to already loaded work. Ayling-Smith’s statement details her originating ideas and her process through text and textile references into the production of a comprehensive, authoritative set of works. She locates her work in personal and political terrain, in memory and in memento mori, and in allusion to the (in)visible walls, (in)tangible boundaries, (im)perceptible margins and (un)touchable skins that both form and lift barriers to emotional content and response. But her work does more, drawing Fox’s concept of ‘speaking to a particular condition’ towards the ancient Greek concept of kairos, this is a right, critical, opportune moment for thought or action. In the damaged, unravelled, scoured and stigmatic details of the collection sit attempts at resolution, order, even cure. The devastated surfaces, like individual lives in viral trauma, are wracked and torn, but the overarching atmosphere – detected through viewer distantiation, consideration and reflection – is of calm. These pieces tell us gently that while this pandemic makes prisoners of us all, there will eventually be release. Professor Catherine Harper 3

Wall of Memory 2017 - detail Bedsheet, paper, thread 270cm x 175cm




2020 Bedsheet, acrylic, wax, thread 168cm x 45cm

Torn Apart: exploring emotional barriers Dr Beverly Ayling-Smith September 2020

This body of work explores the expression of the emotions of life, loss and grief and the experiences of acceptance and peace, through the metaphor of cloth: tearing, staining, mending and stitch. Emotional barriers are typically described as mental walls that prevent us from openly communicating our thoughts and feelings to others. Although we can mend and patch over to heal and protect ourselves these emotional walls are never completely solid and impenetrable as are physical barriers such as the concrete wall of Berlin and the weathered steel of the Mexico border. These rigid structures keep out the unwanted, the undesirable or separate warring factions. They keep in their guarded population, protect their people from invasion or contamination. A wall is impermeable, resistant to ingress and fortified with fear and hatred. We deliberately erect some emotional walls in our (self ) defence to protect ourselves. Walls which have been in place for a lifetime have been assailed and buffeted and become eroded, with cracks and hidden crevices where we can hide our pain like prayers pushed into the gaps between stones. But is this protection helpful or does it eventually also act as a barrier to emotional exploration, examination and evaluation and eventually imprison? Do they result in hindering our openness, efforts at understanding, acceptance, reconciliation and resolution? Shame researcher Brene Brown suggests that it is in making ourselves vulnerable that we achieve true authenticity and strength, going on to say that numbing vulnerability and putting up walls to ’protect ourselves’ has other 6

consequences. She states that numbing vulnerability ‘doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light’ (Brown, 2012: 137). Brown defines vulnerability as ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure’ (Brown, 2012:34), and the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as being ‘able to be easily physically, emotionally, or mentally hurt’ (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, 2020) but I would argue that it is also showing that one is hurting. Experiencing an emotional trauma and not being able to express the resulting pain for fear of showing weakness is the type of emotional barrier I have been exploring.

Tangled 2020 - detail Bedsheet, bitumen, thread 168cm x 45cm


These barriers could be better described as a membrane – like skin. Historically thought of as an impermeable, tough outer layer, under the microscope the cellular structure of skin and the pores and channels between the cells became apparent and it was revealed that solutes and molecules can pass through from one side to the other, like a corridor or passageway allowing access in or expulsion out. Like a wall of gabions filled with stones. This type of psychological wall or membrane can allow unwanted intrusion in or emotional seepage out. The pain of emotional trauma is a unique experience for each individual. The memory of that trauma and its associated feelings and emotions will be unique and will change with the passing of time - perhaps fragmenting and dissolving. In an echo of the way Freud describes mourning as a wound that heals with time, Charlotte Delbo, writing about her experience in the Holocaust, stated that ‘her Auschwitz self was encased in the skin of memory so that it could not touch her now. But the skin of this memory is not only ‘tough and impervious, but also broken, ruptured and scarred’ (Delbo, 1990 cited in Bennett, 2005:41).

She writes that in dreams ‘sometimes … it bursts and gives back its contents … I see myself again … just as I know I was … and the pain is so unbearable, so exactly the pain I suffered there that I feel it again physically … it takes days for everything to return to normal, for memory to be “refilled” and for the skin of memory to mend itself ’ (Delbo, 1990, cited in Bennett, 2005:41). This permeability of the skin of memory is like a wound opening up to bleed again. The return to the being-in-themoment of new pain is like the trigger for the return to the first days of trauma - a chance encounter or thought can plunge the mourner back into the initial stages of that traumatic experience starting the process from the beginning again. This can happen through any number of experiences and each will be specific and unique and very personal to the individual bereaved person.

Embedded 2020 Bedsheet, acrylic, wax, thread 168cm x 45cm


Barriers and walls have an intrinsic hardness about them whilst vulnerability suggests a softness. Creating wall-like textile pieces therefore contains a tension. And so the question may arise as to why cloth has been used for the artwork in this exhibition. Many people have written about the role and relevance of cloth as artwork but from my personal perspective it plays such an important role in our lives – from swaddling to shroud – and is used to evoke memories of events, people and places causing us to have an emotional connection with it. It also has the ability to soak up liquid as stain, dye or paint which suggests that it is an appropriate medium through which to express emotions. Muscle memory in repetitive action is a familiar concept and this is similar to the bodily memory of remembered touch. We see the cloth used in textile artwork, bodily memory informs us, and we know what it will feel like. There is therefore an interplay between the imagined sensory tactile response to textile artwork in the gallery space as well as an emotional response to the visual appearance of the work.

As the artist Ewa Kuryluk wrote ‘Light, portable and flexible, cloth is ideal for picturing the flow and ruptures of inner life. Cloth, as it is folded and unfolded, stored away and unrolled, seems suitable for representing memory, both as a texture woven in a laborious process, and as a sequence of images and words impregnating the fabric with mercurial speed’ (Kuryluk 1991:180). Much of my studio practice uses cloth that has been torn into smaller pieces to create rag-like fragments. For me, the torn edge of a fragment of a larger piece has particular qualities; it is the edge of forgetting, the physical evidence that this fragment that remains was once part of a bigger whole. The whole cloth contains the memory that we are trying to retain, but it continues to fray and fragment as we continue to forget with the passing of time. Torn cloth, eventually discarded as useless rags is like a fragment of that memory, the only remaining reminder of events and relationships that serves to trigger what has otherwise been forgotten.

Wall of Memory 2017 - detail Bedsheet, paper, thread 270cm x 175cm


Some of the works in the exhibition have been stained with bitumen as a metaphor for life events that mark us. One of the physical properties of a stain is that it soaks into the fabric and becomes an intrinsic part of it. It integrates itself into the threads of the cloth and remains there as a part of the canvas or cloth. The origin of the word stain is from the 14th Century Middle English term steynen and from the Anglo -French desteindre, meaning to take away the colour from something (dis-colour). The German word for stain is das Mal, meaning sign, mark or spot. The Latin word is macula which is also used in theology as the word for sin (Kuryluk, 1991:180). This gives rise to the notion of sin being a stain on the soul and is the origin of the term for the (im) maculate conception of Jesus. The accidental spillage of food or drink on clothes is embarrassing but nothing more. The stain of sweat on

clothes under the arms is more than embarrassing; it can be a source of shame as is any leak of urine or blood that other people can see; a humiliation by the self or by the critical other. Mary Douglas states that it is at the margins of ideas that the most vulnerable areas lie, and that ‘we should expect the orifices of the body to symbolise its specially vulnerable points’ (Douglas, 1966:150). She lists bodily fluids such as blood, milk, urine, sweat, faeces and tears as marginal and therefore dangerous. This echoes the passage in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament of the Bible lists the ways in which the Israelites constructed their eating and cleansing habits in such a way as to protect themselves from bodily fluids such as blood, semen, urine, faeces and pus (Leviticus 15).

The Sorrow and The Pity 2018 - detail Linen, acrylic, thread 130cm x 90cm

The stain is a record of the time when the staining substance was expelled from the body, whether involuntarily or as a result of violence. Stains therefore represent a substance that is on the border, both inside and outside the body, a liminal substance that disturbs and unsettles. As Janis Jefferies has described ‘through their odour, stain and smell, clothes carry traces of another life, embedded with stories of the migrant limbs that were once housed within their folds’ ( Jefferies 2001:4). Pennina Barnett describes stained cloth as ambiguous and indeterminate as it consists of elements that are from the inside of the body but that exist outside. It is this ambiguity which she states ‘confounds, disturbs, yet also fascinates’ (Barnett, 2008:203). The choice of materials and the size of the works are central to my studio practice. Previously I have used materials traditionally associated with death and burial: lead and linen and more recently bedsheets and pillowcases – I have to use what I consider the most appropriate materials for the work. The size of the pieces is also important. Some of the works in the exhibition reflect on the shaming and staining of life experiences, making the work appear abject and a container of hurts and traumatic events and is made more relevant as they are the overall dimensions of my body (168cm x 45cm).


We all carry some of these emotional barriers with us and we share the life experiences of trying to know ourselves and deal with burdens that these walls can represent. Thankfully, there are many ways in which emotional barriers such as anxiety can be alleviated. Relaxation processes and meditation are often cited as ways to overcome emotional barriers. Many artists describe stitch as a meditative process and talk of being in the zone when they make.

12 Weeks of Isolation 2020 - detail Calico, ink, thread, lead 34cm x 23cm

The repetitive action of putting the needle in the cloth, drawing the thread through and performing these actions again and again can set the mind free. Sometimes it can enable a meditation on a particular thought or emotion, and sometimes the mind simply relaxes into the slow process resulting in a deeper emotional commitment. Stitching in silence can aid this and focussing on the process rather than the outcome can enable mindfulness in making. Working in this way can bring a greater understanding of both the materials being used and the meaning behind the work. The benefits of stitch practice for mental health issues have been well documented and stitching in a calm atmosphere can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and heart rate (Wellesley-Smith, 2015:112). It seems that we can spend our lives building barriers against the things that hurt us, trying to be strong, to build our inner armour and avoid being vulnerable as we get on with the day to day business of living our lives. Yet perhaps these emotional barriers ultimately trap and perpetuate our feelings of sorrow and loss. As Brene Brown has written Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path (Brown, 2012:34). Dr Beverly Ayling-Smith



Barnett, P. (2008) ‘Stain’ In: Pajaczkowska, C. & Ward, I (eds.) Shame and Sexuality. London: Routledge. pp.203–215. Bennett, J. (2005) Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press. Brown B., (2012) Daring Greatly: How the courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Penguin Life, UK. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus (2020) Vulnerability. At: english/vulnerability [Accessed 1st September 2020] Douglas, P.M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge. Kuryluk, E. (1991) Veronica and her cloth: history, symbolism, and structure of a ‘true’ image. Oxford: Blackwell. Leviticus 15. In: The Holy Bible (New International Version) London: Hodder and Stoughton pp.117-119. Wellesley-Smith, C. (2015) Slow Stitch: Mindful and contemplative textile art. London: Batsford.

Wall 2019 Bedsheet, acrylic, thread 45cm x 168cm




2019 - detail Bedsheet, acrylic, thread 45cm x 168cm

The Sorrow and The Pity 2018 - detail Linen, acrylic, thread 130cm x 90cm

The Sorrow and The Pity 2018 - detail Linen, acrylic, thread 130cm x 90cm


12 Weeks of Isolation


2020 - detail Calico, ink, thread, lead 34cm x 23cm

Tangled 2020 - detail Bedsheet, bitumen, thread 168cm x 45cm


Dr Beverly Ayling-Smith Beverly Ayling-Smith is an Associate Research Fellow at the International Textile Research Centre, University for the Creative Arts. An artist and researcher, her Doctoral research examined how cloth can be used as a metaphor for loss and how it can connect with the emotions of the viewer. Beverly has exhibited widely in the UK and internationally; she has work in the Whitworth Art Gallery collection in the UK and in collections in the USA. She has presented her research at international conferences and has had her work published in the UK. Acknowledgements Thank you to Professor Lesley Millar, Director of the International Textile Research Centre, UCA for supporting this publication and Professor Catherine Harper, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, UCA for writing the introduction. I would also like to thank Gerry Diebel at Direct Design for his advice and input.



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