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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