A STITCH IN TIME…
Sharon Brown works with historic documents sewing them into fabric to create a truly unique piece of art
Born in Scotland, artist Sharon Brown has taught in Africa and she has just exhibited her work at Clitheroe’s Platform Galley to much acclaim.
Sharon, who came to England from Scotland to study Fine Art at Manchester Metropolitan University, went on to study for teacher training qualifications and in 1997, went to Botswana to teach: “It was a life-changing experience,” she explains.
“Teaching in sub-Saharan Africa was an eye-opener, even though the country was diamond rich the students I was teaching walked for miles to come to school and lived in very poor conditions.”
“I went out there on my own. When you have to establish yourself in a new country you find out who you are as a person. It really helped shape my character and approach to life.”
Having specialised in printmaking at university, Sharon has always had a fascination with old letters and documents and the personal histories contained within them.
“I am really interested in where the documents have come from and who has handled them in the past, the history of that piece of paper,” says Sharon, who bought herself a 1950s Bernina sewing machine in 2015, which she now uses to produce fascinating pieces of art working directly onto the historic documents with free hand machine embroidery and mixed media.
“It just felt right,” says Sharon. She acquires the documents from local vintage markets and junk shops, many of them are from the cotton industry era.
“I have handwritten letters, invoices, memos, all from a bygone era. I don’t really have a plan when I start work on a piece. I may get inspiration from the beauty and style of the handwriting, the content or how a document is laid out.”
“The character of handwritten letters fascinates me. I am intrigued by the shapes of the letterforms and the spaces in between. The rhythm of the sewing machine also inspires me and guides me – although the very nature of freehand embroidery breaks down the fragile surface of the aged paper, I am trying to preserve and celebrate a small part of history.”
Sharon who sews the documents directly onto calico fabric, recently produced a body of work using letters and documents from the 1950s and 60s from a Lancashire mill, Riggs of Rochdale.
“I found them on a market stall in Hebden Bridge. They really gave me an insight into a life that no longer exists. Some of the letters are job applications, which have been annotated by a secretary, who I feel like I know from her comments. It gives us a social and cultural commentary from that time. Some annotations comment that an applicant is ‘unmarried’ – you wouldn’t find that written on a job application today,” explains Sharon, who has taught art in Huddersfield for 15 years and is now living in Longridge, working as a professional artist.”
“I have loved teaching and found it very stimulating but I am looking forward to working as an artist in Longridge, which I love. I like the community spirit there, it’s a wonderful place to live.”
Sharon has a collection of handwritten letters from the 1820s that she is working on plus some love letters, from the 1940s during World War II, written between two forces sweethearts stationed in Belgium.
“They are too personal to work on,” she says. “I am going to give them to a war museum as I think they should be valued differently. A lot of these letters and documents would otherwise go in to a skip, they would have been lost forever.”
Sharon’s fascination with history has led her to become interested in a Mid-Pennine Arts project – Pendle Radicals – a four year initiative that explores Pendle Hill’s heritage of radical thinkers and non-conformists, from research investigations through to commissions of new art to celebratory events. Among the radicals that have captured Sharon’s attention is Ethel Carnie a working-class writer born in the 1880s, a feminist, and socialist activist from Oswaldtwistle. Largely lost to history, as a young woman she was a poet and journalist writing for the Woman Worker in London, she was also a children’s writer and author. She published at least 10 novels and her work is significant not just locally but also nationally, as she is the first working class woman in Britain to be published.
“The work exhibited in the Platform Gallery used Ethel Carnie’s book of poems ‘Songs of a Factory Girl’ as well as mill documents from that time period. I find this era fascinating and the Pendle Radicals projects is doing really important work to remind us of these extraordinary people who fought for what they believed in,” adds Sharon, who was the winner of the Ribble Valley Craft Open Prize and has exhibited throughout the North West.
“I often take my sewing machine with me to exhibitions and makers fairs to demonstrate how I create each individual piece. I enjoy talking to people about the documents, where I have discovered them and about their history.”
“Many visitors to the exhibitions say they have never seen anything quite like my work before and are intrigued by how it is made. I feel it is very organic and I think some of the best art is intuitive, it’s not forced. When something feels like it is right you don’t question it.”