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St Andrews Museum, Fife
13 September - 2 November
Reviewed by: Rosie Lesso »
Women in corsets and bustles, young children in white crocheted dresses and tailors with long fabric tape measures and yards of linen; Jeanette Sendler recalls with misty-eyed reverence these sartorial moments from eighteenth and nineteenth century Scotland from a time before industrialisation overtook small town cottage weaving and handmade tailoring. As the outcome of a year-long residency in Newburgh from 2007-2008, the work in this exhibition responds to Newburgh's textile heritage, using local materials like their characteristic unbleached or 'brown' linen - once a stable industrial provider, and local methods of production like flax spinning and handloom weaving.
But Sendler is not simply retelling this history. With a background in theatre costume design she is accustomed to visualising characters and inventing narratives, so has used her acquired knowledge of local history to imagine the characters that might once have lived in Newburgh. The tailor, his apprentice, the stampmaster, his wife - who makes Newburgh's plum jam - and his little daughter all have embroidered or textile pieces created in their honour, some full costumes, others delicate textile samples with found objects woven into their structure.
Her alternative approach to exploring local history is furthered in her installation Mapping the Body, which juxtaposes various objects and items of clothing with a more in-depth narrative. Sendler's character, a lady who leaves Newburgh for Edinburgh to make clothes for a Victorian household, is a romantic; at night her mind drifts woefully back to Newburgh's winding rivers and streets. A delicate transparent wall hanging represents her dream, with the place's contours and street names drawn out across it to resemble a nineteenth century dress pattern. Coupled on the wall with this story are a range of facts about the history of clothing including the distribution of pattern cuttings through women's magazines, which may well have secured this character's income.
Sendler's engagement with the people of Newburgh is also commendable. As expected of a resident artist she arranged many workshops for primary and secondary school children and adults, which are documented well in the exhibition space and have a lively accompanying publication. But her enthusiasm for the place is such that she has now not only chosen to live there permanently but has also set up a centre for 'Textile Excellence' in the town centre.
Least interesting in the exhibition are the glass display boxes containing items such as flax remnants and eighteenth and nineteenth century weaving tools which are shown alongside Sendler's projects as they suggest the archival methods of an old fashioned museum. But they highlight how engaging Sendler's creative and interactive methods of retelling history are, and this is indicative of the important role artists and makers can play in bringing history alive again.
Rosie writes about contemporary art for a number of UK based journals.
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