Searching for Craftivism at the WI

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Over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in Craftivism, succinctly defined by Betsy Greer as ‘a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite.’

To date the majority of my craftivist activities have been held within the home as a way of presenting a simpler way of life to my children, an alternative to consumerist culture. Our proudest moments have included producing a homemade Christmas and a subversive response to the Queen’s Jubilee through punk inspired DIY fashion.

Although in this form my craftivism could be seen as a solitary act, blogging about my experiences and reading about the experiences of others has made me feel part of a community with a strong sense of shared meaning and mission. I have however always harboured a secret desire to be part of something bigger, something in a physical space involving others with opportunities to create social change through mass creative participation.

Since my renewed interest in craft, I have watched with excitement the emergence of a new generation of Women’s Institutes spearheaded by the likes of the Shoreditch Sisters (founded by Jazz Domino Holly, daughter of The Clash’s Joe Strummer) who have built upon the organisations long tradition of raising awareness of others’ needs through pioneering campaigns. The Shoreditch Sister’s campaigns use craft as a vehicle to get their message across; their vulva quilt which highlights the issue of female genital mutilation is an excellent example.

Writers Betsy Greer and Amy Spencer have both identified the influence of the Riot Grrrl movement, associated with third wave feminism, with the development of craft culture. It is little wonder then that the WI, an organisation founded by suffragettes, academics and social crusaders has become an attractive proposition to some members of the craftivist community.

Although I have a fear of large groups of women and structured leisure time activities I decided to venture out of my comfort zone and investigate the WI in my area. I had heard on the grapevine that Sutterton was the place to be, with large numbers and a varied programme of speakers; my friend Louise had already infiltrated the group and agreed to take me to the next meeting.

We arrived in good time and as I entered the well populated village hall I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being assessed on my age, appearance and the potential skills I might be able contribute to the group. I surveyed the scene; chairs and tables had been set out in a formal arrangement with some seating reserved by a carefully placed book or bag and there were designated areas for the raffle, most interesting napkin competition and charity stall. The President’s table boasted a beautifully embroidered WI tablecloth and a vase of freshly cut flowers.

The evening started promptly with minutes from the last meeting, correspondence from ‘county’ and ‘national’, a request for money to be paid for a forthcoming trip to Cromer, and members with birthdays were presented with a lipstick sized led torch. There was also a lively debate as to whether future Mystery Tours should remain a mystery – they should!

A Lincolnshire South competition was revealed which involved creating a scrapbook of photographs of members drinking tea; after another lively debate it was decided that their strategy should be to aim to represent 100% of the members and to present a good variation of locations, including a mountain if possible. It was at this point that I saw an opportunity to prove my worth as a new member; an involuntary spasm caused my arm to shoot up and before I knew it I was offering my services as the official photographer for the tea drinking challenge.

After an informative talk ‘my life as an evacuee by Terry Grantham’ where I was impressed to learn that the WI had co-ordinated the official WW2 evacuation scheme, it was time for tea. Photographing members with their tea was a fantastic icebreaker and I managed to rack up over 20 portraits in 15 minutes. The highpoint of this unexpected intervention was speaking to one of the older members on tea duty in the kitchen who made me smile when she declared ‘we need more spunk; we need to take more issues to parliament.’

Although my first experience of the WI was weighted towards Jam and Jerusalem rather than Shoreditch Sisters, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and was pleased to discover a pocket of militancy within the group. With this year’s ‘resolution’ being the ‘decline of our high streets and town centres I left with my head awash with possibilities… I wonder if the ladies would like to meet the King of empty shops Dan Thompson when he spends August in Boston as part of Transported.
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A Year in Photographs

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A year ago I spotted a tweeted challenge from my friends Jan and Chris at the Caravan Gallery. It was the first of 52 weekly photo challenges to be set by fifty-two accomplished photographers from a project unsurprisingly named 52 by 52, the brain child of designer David Gillett. I joined the community of 52 by 52 members, and over the course of a year we interpreted each photographer’s challenge in whichever way we felt appropriate and submitted a weekly(ish) photo to the project’s Flickr group.

As I have always lacked the necessary levels of discipline, dedication and commitment to keep a diary I am phenomenally proud to now have a year of my life archived in photographs. The 52 by 52 experience has had a huge impact on my creative practice and I feel the need to reflect on what I have learnt, my lasting thoughts and my favourite bit of the project.

52 Weeks of Learning

I have learnt to be braver with my photography both in terms of subject and sharing images. I use my camera in my professional life as a tool to document the projects that I work on but did originally specialize in fine art photography in my art college days. 52 by 52 has opened up the myriad of genres between these two tried and tested approached and encouraged me to be a photographic explorer of the world. I have discovered the sheer joy and pleasure of image making which I don’t think was there before; I have an insatiable desire to find the magic in ordinariness which reflecting on the year seems to be the theme connecting each of my 52 images.

The need for dedication, the time restricted nature of the project and the presence of an immensely supportive 52 community has encouraged me to have the confidence to share images that I’m not 100% happy with. For a control freak this has been a steep learning curve but has led me to view the way that I use Flickr differently too; it’s no longer my intention to present a polished portfolio of images but to create an open sketchbook of work in progress.

52 Weeks of Pondering

My lasting thoughts/memories from participating in 52 by 52 relate more to the experience offunctioning as a member of an online community and less to the completion of each challenge in terms of creating an image. In some respects taking the photo was the easy bit and the real skill of the project was contributing to the peer critique of other member’s submissions. I really enjoyed the camaraderie that built within the group as the project progressed and was surprised by the familiarity and sociability that grew through interaction that was limited to the written word.

I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of other member’s comments and intrigued by our shared understanding of the unwritten rules of online etiquette. We traded in appreciation and recognition and used our intuition to construct feedback that was supportive and helpful to each other.  Personally through avoiding flippant ‘great photo’ comments I learnt to be more perceptive and disciplined when offering feedback and invested the time to really consider what worked or didn’t work in the photos that I critiqued.

The discussion function on Flickr has also highlighted the democratic potential of online spaces for me. A total of 81 discussions were posted and responded to over the course of the year which gave the project multiple voices.   I’m keen to see if I can integrate the sense of openness and sharing that this type of interaction creates into my offline projects. I am currently experimenting by using a Flickr group to support a programme of offline photo-walks to encourage conversation between meets and to contribute to the planning of future routes and I am excited to see if there will be some positive or unexpected outcomes as a result.

52 Weeks of Favourites

Choosing a favourite challenge is a challenge in itself as the majority have opened up opportunities for eccentric behaviour, random encounters and full on adventures. Image making high points have included playing with light sabres after dark, stalking buskers, caravans and giant kangaroos, being pelted with custard, meeting Father Christmas and discovering a suppressed passion for railway architecture.

I am torn between two challenges as my absolute, unmitigated favourite and will therefore have to declare a tie for first place. The first is #40, set by Chloe Dewe Mathews, ‘The painter Bonnard said “Make little lies to tell a great truth”. Use that as your inspiration.’

My response was to use a Polaroid camera, which I had found in a charity shop, to add instant nostalgia to an image created in the present. Using real film reminded me of the fundamental principles involved in making an image and the value of creating something tangible. It was such a thrill to see the image develop and even more of a thrill to discover a whole community of Polaroid photographers through fellow member Meredith.

Challenge #48, set by Simon Roberts, ‘Take a photograph of an event. Focus on putting it in the context of the landscape and those watching,’ is joint favourite for similar reasons. I was really lucky to have the opportunity to visit Simon’s exhibition We English and was enthralled both by the scale of his work and the minute details held within. His use of a large format camera to create images reinforced the idea of reconnecting with the fundaments of image making. I made a conscious effort to slow down and although I shot my response in digital I tried to take an analogue approach and was really pleased with the results.

The legacy of 52 by 52 is a renewed passion for photography and I am determined to make a return to my darkroom days which will no doubt influence the future direction of my work. I am immensely grateful to David Gillett for creating such an inspiring project and unselfishly devoting every spare moment of his time to it. Bravo!

You can view my year in photographs here