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Make Do and Mend

“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Both pictures this month show patchworks. The first was made by Mary Lee Bendolph and the second is anonymous, made by Amish women. Patchwork of its nature is a make do and mend, originating from an era when scrimping was a necessity to make ends meet. Yet these images show how it can be elevated to the status of fine art through sensitive design and colour work.

Mary Lee Bendolph was part of the Gee’s Bend Quilters, a group of patchworkers who were brought up on a slave plantation. She and her peers knew what hardship was. She says that her mother told her that “To get what you want sometimes you have to make do with what you have”. When, as a young woman she expressed an aspiration to be a seamstress, she hoped to be given a sewing machine and swathes of fabric. Instead, her mother handed her needle and thread, and scraps of fabric.

The Amish live an austere life with little in the way of modern luxuries (those things we would deem necessities perhaps). Their religion is similarly austere with a strict code of behaviour. And yet their patchwork quilts, made as practical items intended for use on the bed, sing with deep resonate colours which remind me of Rothko paintings. There is something spiritual and meditative about the simple almost mandala like designs that often appear to hover on the two-dimensional plane, colour floating on colour.

I have recently installed and opened a solo exhibition. This has been no mean feat in covid times and made more complex by the fact that I lost my studio space in May because my daughter came home and needed a bedroom. I have made artworks at the end of my working day, fitting it in between contracted hours and when the cleaners want to go home. I am used to doing this. When the children were little, I worked in our completely unconverted cellar whilst I could hear them running riot upstairs under the kind but extremely undisciplined care of a church friend who gave her time for free as I couldn’t afford childcare to make art. I have wondered whether visitors to my exhibition, having seen the works, imagine that I retire to a spacious whitewashed loft to create art. But, like many artists friends I know, this is far from the truth! And my discomforts are small compared with those who face oppression, injustice and other such challenges or difficulties.

On a recent visit to see my parents, my Dad showed me two diaries that my Gran kept called 'Providential Mercies Recorded' which I had never seen before. In them she tells some of her life story and of the number of times she found herself as a single mum at her beams end, without food to put on the table or wood to put on the fire (this was her only source of heat), and how each time God provided her needs (both practical and emotional) though the kindness of friends and strangers alike. What struck me as I read one such tale after the other, was the gratitude and faith which kept her going through really tough times. I became aware that her story could so easily be told in a very different way - with a sense of bitterness or injustice that she had been let down by the husband who deserted her, by the doctors who didn't treat her several times, the (then non existent) welfare system that meant she was reliant on others' aid. But instead a rich seam of thankfulness ran throughout her journals. I am not suggesting for one minute that we should rely on charity or that the welfare system shouldn't exist but I am noting that we often forget that make do and mend can be joyful, rather like the rich colours in the patchwork quilts above.

It is truly amazing what we can do with what we have, and the circumstances we find ourselves in. This is surely one of the lessons of the pandemic: that we do not need modern luxuries to be happy or fulfilled. That going for walks, learning a craft, spending time in meditation and many other free or cheap activities can be meaningful and can also lead to deep creativity. And that there are always ways to make difficulty into an opportunity. As I currently hurtle into a ridiculously busy Autumn, I hope I do not forget this principle.

Take another look at the pictures:

- Where in your life can you make do and mend?

- What expectations do you need to let go of?

- what in your life could be remade?

Meditative activity:

You will need old magazine/newspapers / papers that you would usually throw away like packaging, glue stick, scissors

-try cutting you papers up into geometrical shapes, maybe all the same

- Piece these together using, playing with colour, tone (light and dark) and texture

- see how something new and beautiful can be made from old ‘rubbish’

This meditation is commissioned by Leeds Methodist Mission

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