Having recently bought a new machine able to tackle free machining through paint, I decided to try Life 15 as a painting directly onto the cloth first, and then stitch afterwards. This small change gave me a lot of freedom to play and take risks with the painting style. I began with plain white cloth, and only a germ of an idea involving tree roots. There was no set story or image at the beginning of making the quilt, I simply launched in and added to the ideas as I went along. I found that hard without a frame of reference for either the story or the image.
Using some sketchbook images of life models for guidance, I put a pencil outline of a body directly onto the top layer of cloth. I had already layered up the quilt and was able to paint directly onto the cloth in monochrome washes rather like watercolour allowing the paint to bleed and also soak into the layers. I experimented with wetting the fabric before painting in order to encourage the spread of paint so that it overflowed the drawn lines on purpose. I loved the ethereal quality of the image. I then started painting with a fine brush and a slightly heavier wash in order to get the delicate details and tones of the body.
I built up all 3 female forms in this way, gradually adding more and more layers and details but keeping to a monochrome black and white palette. I then decided that I would add some trees and some minimal colour for the background of alizarin crimson mixed with black. The sky area was painted a very pale cerulean blue with some green for the foliage. I started to stitch the trees and the bodies, losing some of the lovely blurred edges in the process. A line of stitch is so definite!
My thoughts about the purpose of the quilt also began to distill, and I started to research mitochondrial DNA.
Most of us have heard of male primogeniture; that prejudice which existed in law for centuries, and meant that the first male child had the right in Common Law to inherit an estate to the exclusion of females from the same family. The hardships caused by lack of a right of inheritance must surely have had a devastating effect on women lives and the way they were treated, often meaning they were at best chattels, and at worst slaves. Although cases of hardship were less likely, inheritance law applied to the Royal family, and was only amended for them in 2013.
However, Mitochondrial DNA was discovered in the 1960s by Margit M. K. Nass and Sylvan Nass by electron microscopy. It’s enabled humans to connect the maternal lines of living people in different parts of the world, solving lots of riddles such as why Polynesians could trace their ancestry to South East Asia and not the Americas. In fact everyone alive today – including you – can trace your lineage back to one woman, Mitochondrial Eve, who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago.
My view for Life 15, Mitochondrial Roots is that, to keep it in the family, we should perhaps have had female primogeniture not male! I stitched the following words onto the large tree on the left hand side:
No matter what colour our skin is, or our language, or our culture, we all share ancestors from the people who built Stonehenge, or who rode with Genghis Khan, or set sail across the oceans in canoes, or who planted papyrus on the banks of the Nile. Everyone alive today can trace their lineage back over 2 hundred thousand years to one woman, Mitochondrial Eve.
Once the stitching of the text on the tree had been finished, I began to loosely paint in tree roots all over the cloth, using a brush and light wash so that the models looked like they were lying in amongst them, sitting on them, or emerging from them. The idea was to immerse the bodies in the roots and tangle them into a mass so they became connected and flowing. When all the painting was finished I began to stitch the names of all the women I could think of who played a part – good or bad – in our history. It was quite hard to find female names in the history books, not because they didn’t exist of course, or have a role to play, but because they weren’t recorded. List of names at the bottom of the page.