Motherhood has long been recognised as a seminal moment in a woman’s life, one that heralds deep personal and domestic change. Providing artists with endless inspiration, the annals of art history are charged with visual representations of the enduring bond between mother and child.
If we are to understand motherhood as a transformative experience, we can do no better than to look to the artwork of Simone Louise Gillespie. Based on the Gold Coast, Simone is a visual artist working in sculpture, installation, assemblage and painting.
Interested in art making from a young age, Simone explored her talent through oil and watercolour painting. However, a lack of creative career opportunities saw her turn to a steadier career choice as a television journalist and painting in her spare time. Having always known she would one day return to her practice full-time, it was motherhood that finally forced her hand.
As a young mother, the hours demanded by her career became unfeasible and influenced her decision to begin studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Queensland College of Art, Gold Coast. As Simone’s practice developed, her work took a surprising trajectory when she began to explore with thread, sewing it into her paintings. While she found using thread unsuccessful in oil painting, its fragile and textural nature when used in works on paper and watercolour painting continues to be a feature of Simone’s painted practice.
This playful exploration with textiles grew and led to the discovery of a new visual language. Spontaneously, Simone found her daughters’ old clothes in the wash and took to them with a pair of scissors: cutting them up and pinning them onto a wall in her house. When one of her daughters began to grow out her fringe, Simone would plait it so that it lay still. It was these moments of discovery that caused her to begin plaiting the fabric strips, forming the basis of her move to sculptural forms made from plaited material and wire.
In constructing these works, Simone loops, twirls and delicately trails the fabric into hundreds of metres of tangled rope to suggest the tenderness, uncertainty and interminability of the parental experience. The sculptural forms are the domestic writ large, as their very construction is based on the transformation of bed linen and clothing that once belonged to children and their families. Initially restricted to her daughters’ used belongings, Simone has branched out to incorporate materials and objects found in second hand stores.
One of her earliest examples from 2013 demonstrates the veracity with which Simone took to her ideas. The work incorporates a long list of objects appropriated from her domestic sphere: children’s clothes and bed linen; dress-up necklaces, bracelets and rings; skipping ropes; five hula hoops; a swing seat; ladder rungs; a vintage bed; copper wire; two pendant lights; safety pins; sewing pins; embroidery thread; sewing cotton; cotton reels and a sound recording.
Although by its very nature, a plait is formulaic, repetitive and planned, these aspects belie the spontaneity in which Simone works. Her cloth constructions demonstrate her continual exploration, experimentation and refinement in both large and small scale.
An example is The Small Hours, exhibited as part of February’s RAW Showcase in Currumbin, Gold Coast. While still working in a large scale, Simone has removed non-essential elements to present a more refined concept: the interminable task and process of putting a child to bed and the delicate/ fragile balance between waking hours and night-time dreams.
A further distillation of her ideas is evident in her most recent creations, a series of plaited fabric sculptures that were exhibited in her solo show, Inseparable Fragments at St. Thomas Studio on the Gold Coast. Formed from plaits, wire, thread and safety and sewing pins, they are simplified so as to make the fabric the central feature. Their small-scale allows for intimate viewing of the fine-grain details and a more immersive environment in which to ponder the complex layers of history and memory.
In Simone’s hands, material becomes a metaphor for her intertwined relationship with her children. The simple plait – a universal hairstyle synonymous with young girls – is here laden with meaning. As she continually experiments with these works, gathering new and different domestic materials, she grapples with the complexities of being a mother and its daily emotional and physical pulls.
The handmade quality of the cloth sculptures reveals the artists hand, yet also imparts visible traces of the people who at one time wore or used the clothes and bedding. The textiles are imbued with history and provide additional layers of meaning and investigation to her works. By appropriating the belongings of others, Simone intimately weaves her family stories with theirs.
This activates notions of mystery and memory, as the assembly of material and objects recall memories once lived and since discarded. A special quality of Simone’s works is that viewers can recognise their own lives in the familiar objects and cloth patterns, colours and textures: conjuring up once-forgotten reminiscences. Familiar phrases such as ‘I Love you’ and ‘I Love You More’ embroidered into the cloth trigger memories of loved ones and close relationships. Further sentiments are imparted by the soft pastel colours that suggest childhood, domesticity and femininity. For the artist, the process of making is emotionally charged. Simone has stated that, ‘embedded in the works is an emotional component of remembering and longing that is facilitated through the physical act of plaiting’.
Set to complete her degree within the year, Simone is excited about forthcoming opportunities upon graduation. If her student practice is anything to go by, the prospect of regularly exhibiting, receiving grant funding and completing artist residences can only build positively upon her foundations and push her work into exciting new directions. As her two muses grow, so will Simone’s conceptual response to her domestic environment. I am eager to experience the outcome.
Ashleigh Wadman is a mixed bag: curator, researcher and arts writer. Having recently returned to Queensland after developing her educational and professional experience in Canberra, Ashleigh is busy delving into the South East Queensland arts scene. She is passionate about showcasing the region’s talent on her blog.