My Mother’s Treasures wins art award

After the Award

There has been a lot of interest in my mixed media sculpture, My Mother’s Treasures and this has been heightened after it became the winner of the Locals Award in the Hugo de Rietz art competition at Gympie Regional Gallery. On the night of the opening, before the prizes were awarded, quite a number of people came up to me to discuss the work. Later, after the prizes are awarded, others gathered to discuss the work. What was significant to me was it a lot of interest was expressed by men. Very often in these types of situations it’s women who want to discuss artwork.

So why would men be interested in an oversized sewing box? Maybe it is the spark plugs among the cotton reels or the radiator clamp around the pin cushion?  My mother, Joan Bissett, was a great sewer. But Joan was much more than a sewer, she was an all round resourceful person. When one looks at a traditional sewing box it’s very busy and it’s got lace around it and it’s made of satin or shiny smooth fabric, with cute covered buttons. My work is in contrast with that approach. It’s much bigger than a typical sewing box, it’s made of rough repurposed pine boards and all the linings are tough durable fabrics like hessian, denim and calico repurposed from flour bags.

 My mother was born Joan Beth Cree in 1925 so she grew up during the Great Depression. She came from a resourceful family. Her father Norman Crawford Cree (Crawfie) was born in 1889 in Maryborough and trained as a plumber and gas fitter. A business which still exists in Maryborough today is Cree and McCullough, which was set up by my grandfather and his partner, Mr McCullough, who built a house right next door to his in Bazaar Street Maryborough.  That’s where my mother grew up, attending Albert State School. Her father, Crawfie, received a lot of goods for his plumbing shop in large wooden crates and he repurposed all of those. He made a cubby house for his grandchildren, he made all kinds of shelves and benches for his home workshop under the house and nothing was ever wasted. Even the little loops that were made to for the hammers and tools to hang up were all repurposed stripping.

My mother was the fourth of six children: she had three much older siblings Norman, Winifred and William and when the Depression really bit, my grandmother was working down in the plumbing yard with my grandfather riveting up tanks.  Young Winifred was taken out of school to care for her three younger siblings: Joan (my mother) Eric and Noel.

As time went on the second World War was unleashed upon the world and that was a time when women had to take on jobs that before that have been traditionally male roles. During the war women learned to drive trucks, grow food and work in factories.  Joan was a very young woman at that stage. Her mother and her sister were both very skilled at needlework and she followed in their footsteps making a lot of her own clothes and accessories. After the war Joan became involved with a group including some returned servicewomen who were a rowing team and they took part in rowing competitions on the Mary River. In addition to rowing they had a very active social club and there Joan displayed her talents as a dressmaker and designer with a lot of costumes that were worn on these social nights. Joan married my father, Jock Bissett, in 1954 and this seemed to be the end of her amazing adventures with the Rowing Club.  However she still retained her great interest in sewing and made costumes on all different themes which her chidlren wore to school concerts and costume nights, as well as most of our everyday wear, even school uniforms. 

Getting back to the artwork itself – the use of durable fabrics like the hessian and the calico reflect the fact that women of my mother’s era had to be very resourceful. In the early years of her marriage her husband was a travelling salesman and she was alone for sometimes up to 3 weeks at a time with a family three young children, so she basically had to do everything. I remember seeing her with an old brace and bit with a drill in it repairing a window latch that was broken. I also remember her making from scratch a wooden doll’s house for my sister.

All the elements in my mother’s treasures are repurposed, discarded and used items and many of them did actually belong to Joan. These include the little cards of eyelets and press studs and a lot of labels from embroidery threads. The top of the box is an interesting collage including a piece of embroidery fabric that she had in her collection. some old bobbins from her very early sewing machines and the pin cushion secured with a radiator clamp.

One of the reasons for making this piece was that Joan died on the 19th of January 2021. What do you do with all those little bits and pieces that have come down to you through your family heritage? I accepted the challenge of combining many of them into one item which I felt would speak to people. At the time of Joan’s death we were not able to hold a funeral in the traditional sense because of COVID 19 restrictions. However my sisters and I came up with a plan to hold a memorial service once restrictions it been lifted. We were able to do this on the day before she would have turned 96 had she lived to see that birthday. This day was a wonderful opportunity for relatives and friends to celebrate her life.

Quite a number of friends had loved ones pass away during the time of COVID 19 restrictions and I feel this is one of the reasons why this piece has spoken to the hearts of so many.  We needed to find new ways to grieve, to celebrate our loved ones and to say goodbye.  Perhaps with this piece I’ve helped a number of people to say goodbye to the resourceful and spirited people who brought them into the world and who made their lives possible. Hopefully this small collection of Joan’s treasures can represent the memories of many who didn’t get to say goodbye in the usual way. I thank everyone who showed so much interest in this small sculpture. If you don’t get to see it at Gympie Regional Gallery before … it will be on display afterwards at Soma Soma Espresso café, Gympie, as Soma Soma are the generous sponsors of the Locals prize.

Opening night - Zela left with award sponsors John O'Brien and Sandra Phoenix from Soma Soma cafe.

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Susan Zela Bissett (Zela) is an educator, writer and artist with a lifetime involvement in environmental education and advocacy. Zela was born on Butchulla Country in Maryborough and has worked as an artist, educator, permaculture gardener, studio potter and consultant. She is passionate about sustainable lifestyles, maintaining habitat for wildlife and about unleashing the creativity in all of us.

10 comments on “My Mother’s Treasures wins art award

A great story. So much of this type of story telling is lost. So much resourcefulness …thanks for sharing

Thanks for leaving a comment Bron. Mum was very resourceful and I felt I had to do something with her treasures that would make them more than just a pile of odds and ends.

So lovely to read your story behind such a very special personal yet in some ways universal work, little wonder it touched so many people. Congratulations & very well deserved your work is always so full of deep meaning!

Hi Mary,
Thanks for your comments. I know you put a lot of energy into preserving those textile arts, although in a modern form. Sewing and handcrafts were something that Mum always did and she was always on the lookout for someone with a new baby or new home so she could make something for them. At the celebration of her life we had quite a display of all the things she had made for people which they had kept and treasured.

Hi Zela,
Loved hearing about the story behind your “My Mother’s Treasures” creation, plus the intricate, heartfelt story of your dear Mum that was the reason for it all. Our Mums are certainly our most precious treasure, and I’m sorry to hear that your Mum departed this world in January. No doubt a deep loss for you and all your family. Bleated sympathies to you all.
I can so identify with your descriptive of your Mum’s love for sewing – probably out of necessity because of the times that she grew up in, which evolved into an escape to be her own person in what she created and made for those loved ones around her. This is how it seemed for my Mum too, and I am so grateful that she shared her acquired knowledge of sewing (among many other things) with me for a lifelong joy. Along with that came her obvious dedication to all who were close to her, as was the way of the small communities in years gone by.
I also have a collection of many of Mum’s sewing knick-knacks, that even come in useful today in new projects, as I start to teach one of my grand-daughters to sew, knit and crochet. And of course my Mum is always looking over my shoulder through this journey with her great-grand-daughter. As you know, our parents were of the ilk where you didn’t throw anything out as it may become useful one day! I must admit I’m still very like myself today!
Thank you, Zela, for your insight, as it has caused me to reflect on my Mum and her role in my upbringing and how fortunate I was!
Cheers and love,

Hi Relle, I just saw this reply on my blog, I am not the most tech savvy of people. But it was very heart-warming to read it. I know that you are spot-on when you say it was her “escape” outlet for creativity. I also found that especially with all the restrictions around at the time of her death, it seemed even more urgent to do something to mark it, as we couldn’t have the celebration of her life until April. It does act as a sort of destination for all those little nic-nacs like her cards of hooks and eyes and so on. Because they were such a frugal generation, it feels wrong to throw out anything they had kept and treasured. I an considering doing one for Dad too.

Oh Zela…what a wonderful piece…am so glad it got the recognition it deserved. This is my first time to your blog…can’t wait to read more…hope you are well.

Thank you Tricia, It is nice to hear from you!

I am writing a story about Cree and McCullough for the family history society in Maryborough.I will include some facts about Crawford Norman and David Walter.David Walter married a Prickett and my husband is related to the Pricketts.I was fascinated with your story.I knew of Crawford jnr, Winnifred, William,Noel only but then found Joan and Eric.

Hi Marlene, I only just now saw your comment on my website.I have a lot fo family history info if you need more,

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