Sharing a self-portrait isn't something I find easy to do, but I’ve thought about it and only recently realised what had been troubling me if I don’t reveal some of the story behind the making it would continue to be a mask. My self-portrait represents a period of time where my concept of self stood still and had to slowly rebuild itself anew with a needle and thread and several teams of Drs. The term ‘Make Do and Mend’ really should be a motto of the NHS because creativity and possibly an inappropriate sense of humour has guided me through the last few years of challenges. The emotions contained within the work vary as intricately as the number of stitches made.
The mask is a radiotherapy shell, I had Salivary Gland Cancer of the right Submandibular gland, not very common and unusual for my age/gender, but I can’t help but be unusual it seems. My story doesn’t begin there, thanks to my Hypermobility malfunction a year earlier my tumour was found quite by chance and I am very lucky. But it meant managing the two very different things at the same time with neck surgery and radiotherapy. Hypermobility Syndrome is a connective tissue condition that allows joints to move a greater range than they should, and muscles to over work, spasm, injure if not managed properly, it’s a condition that I was born with. Apart from being able to do party tricks I didn’t really know I had it until I’d burnt myself out so much I couldn’t walk, not my finest moment, at the time it was mismanaged but if I’m honest I knew what I had been doing wasn’t right. I needed monotonous physiotherapy to retrain my muscles and time to retrain years of stubborn thinking: like ‘if I just worked harder I could do it’ mentality, and understanding that pain is not a normal necessary part of life to function.
So my life slowed down, life outside continued to move and I found my needle and thread… and here grew my love for birds, through paper, through the window, at the park at the end of my road. I heard recently that John Buxton an ornithologist was bird watching from POW prison. Now I’m not equating time of illness to prison (although cabin fever can set in occasionally) but he describes the joy of birds as ‘inhabiting a different world to him…living in the moment’ for me they have that pleasure of freedom as well as beauty. So in the 3 years that I’ve become a ‘stitcher twitcher’ it seemed only right I include some on my self-portrait. The first is a Blue Throat and with his sweet song and beautiful coloured throat he is my celebratory bird. The Goldfinch was a late addition after I showed a Dr my head with only the Blue Throat on it. We would always joke that she would give me imaginary gold stars for my continued good work, which pleased me greatly every time, and she suggested I stitch a gold star on it. So for me the gold star of birds is the Goldfinch. It reminds me to always stay balanced even when it’s so very tempting to do otherwise.
Layered Liberty print the birds are embroidered 'Patrick's' boat print.
You might be thinking why stitch on my mask at all and how would I even think of such a thing? You’d probably be right. I fell in love with my mask, I thought it was a wonderful cast functional object from the moment it was made and I was hugely excited by it, even though my muscles will tell you a very different story. Lying there every session for the 6 weeks clamped to the table by my head, looking through the haze of the mesh at the odd faded trees and flowered light boxes on the ceilings gave me the idea for the fabric and stem stitching across the face - what else would I think of?? I thought they were the strangest and ugly things at the time, meant most likely for relaxation, but the image really stuck with me and I created the layering of quilting and stitching directly into the mask form. The area of yellow coloured stitch depicts the radiation field.
But this isn’t just about the malfunctions they are the starting point; it really is more about time and the process of mending, growing creatively. I’m proud of my unusual self now I don’t force it to things it's simply not made to do, I’m proud that it coped with cancer when it wasn’t quite recovered enough but had no choice in the matter. It really is amazing what you can do with a sprinkling of hope, the right kind of determination and a needle and thread for focus… and not forgetting amazing family, friends and the right medical mending people.
My muscles are much happier these days because I choose to treat them kindly, I will be 2 years cancer free in October, this year I set myself the task of a Birdseeker project because I can’t get enough of the feathered beauties… me my needle and thread are as you know inseparable and I hope I continue to be inspired.