Wednesday 17 April 2019

Making the Invisible Visible

The Quilt and Stitch Show at Uttoxeter Racecourse was my first exhibition with Traverse but also my first exhibition with my current theme of work 'Making the Invisible Visible'. 'Making the Invisible Visible' is informed by my own experiences of invisible disability and chronic illness and as part of Traverse's theme 'Revealed', I have been keen to show, or reveal, the emotions behind the facade that many people with invisible disability and chronic illness develop.

Traverse's stand at The Quilt and Stitch Show, Uttoxeter. April 2019.

For those of you who don't know me, I'm profoundly deaf, not that you would know unless I told you. For me, it truly is an invisible disability and throughout my life, like many deaf people, I have faced comments such as "You don't look deaf"; "You are not as deaf as you pretend to be"; "You use your deafness as an excuse"; "Can you hear me?" said in either an exaggerated way which is totally useless if you lip read as it alters the lip pattern you are trying to follow or as a whisper behind their hand as they try to 'catch' me out. I could go on, I have many examples. The majority were not funny the first time I heard them, most make me feel very embarrassed and some are truly hurtful.

But the worst thing?

It’s that every deaf person I have met, whether people like myself who have been deaf (of varying levels) since birth or people who have had a hearing loss later on in life have faced these comments. And every deaf person and every person who has an invisible disability or chronic health condition (of which I also have with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue) who face this lack of understanding and support, put on a 'face', that is a face they hide behind, an "I'm fine" face that they face the outside world with to try to minimise any vulnerabilities shown to those who don't understand.

'The Hidden Face'

Using my own experiences and those of various people I have spoken with, I wanted to try and show the emotions behind the facade, the struggle that deaf people (and anyone with an invisible disability or chronic illness) face every day and reveal how different levels of hearing loss affect what we can hear.

Although I have had many a conversation and positive response from the other members of Traverse and a handful of other artists about the work I was creating, I wasn't entirely sure how complete strangers would react and The Quilt & Stitch Show was kind of nerve wracking for that reason! Every artist, whatever media they use, faces worries about how others will perceive their work and worries about whether their work is truly good enough. But I was also wondering if what I was trying to convey would be understood by those viewing my work.

On Friday, the first day of the show, Cath and I were stewarding the Traverse stand and it proved to be a very interesting day - for all of us as we all received lots of nice comments and support from visitors - but especially for me as I met several people who expressed their interest in my work. Three such visitors really stick in my memory of the day:

The first was an elderly gentleman who had age related hearing loss and he instantly 'got' what I was trying to convey - both from the statements that people say and from the difficulties faced with hearing loss in a hearing world. We did what seems to be a typical topic of conversation whenever I meet someone with hearing loss - have a good discussion over the difficulties of trying to hear in different situations, what different hearing aids are like and how hard it is to cope with people who don't understand that different situations affect how well you can hear and follow what is going on - I suspect some of this typical conversation comes from the fact I was an audiologist pre-children and have an inbuilt nature to want to help those I meet rather than a totally typical fellow “deafie” conversation but there is a bit of that too!

'Hidden Deafness' 1/3

'Hidden Deafness' 2/3

'Hidden Deafness' 3/3

I then had a conversation with fellow textile artist Jane Murdock, who is studying with the Open College of Arts and is also a fellow “deafie”, invisible disability and chronic illness warrior. Jane has written a blog post as part of her OCA research looking into how disability or chronic illness is portrayed in art and has included my work from the exhibition in her post. Jane understood instantly what I was trying to convey with the use of text in my Hidden Deafness series, a series of 3 panels based on the levels of hearing I not only experience each day but have experienced throughout my life.

Sound is all around us but how we hear sound is very different to each of us and much more so with hearing loss. Sound can be misheard, can be muddled or even just not heard at all and this leads to frustration, exhaustion, hurt and loneliness. The text was a piece of writing I wrote to try and convey in words the difficulties of being deaf and in each piece I distressed the writing and the stitching (which represents sound waves) to reflect the level of hearing loss being depicted and therefore, how much I could hear and understand of what was said. 

Close up of 'Hidden Deafness' 2 showing some of the text used.

My piece “Making the Invisible Visible” tries to show the hidden layers we have behind the perfect yet imperfect, strong yet fragile fa├žade to show the frustration and irritation we feel when in contact with those who don’t understand the struggles we are facing. Jane could really relate to the feelings being expressed and felt so enthused by my work that she could see ways she could take her own work further and also as part of her OCA course, continued to explore how artists through history have portrayed chronic illness or disability in their art. You can find Jane’s blog post here.

'Making the Invisible Visible'

Finally I met two profoundly deaf ladies who were very moved by the subject matter. Deafness isn't something that comes up in art, let alone textile art very often so it was quite a surprise to them to find something that was so relevant to them - the worries, the difficulties and the frustration that occurs every day.

A full conversation proved slightly difficult as their first language was British Sign Language and mine is English –  despite the common thought that deaf people can’t speak and can only sign, I was actually brought up using oral language/spoken English so I speak but sign very little (something I am working on improving). But we did our best and following “the conversation” (as mentioned above) we discovered that we actually live very close by, in fact one of the ladies lives only 5 minutes away, not a connection I expected to make from a small show in the Midlands!