It’s an apt description of both Rozanne Hawksley’s working process and her extraordinary life, writes Mary Schoeser
‘You know me, I start by putting everything in and then take things out.’ From seemingly chaotic beginnings Rozanne Hawksley (née Pibworth, born 1931) crafts carefully considered pieces, working at first intuitively until an idea becomes visible. Juxtaposing a myriad of media to observe how each speaks to the other, she waits for a resonance, for a new ‘life’ to reveal itself out of discarded objects: ‘I need that dread-excitement feeling before I start offering up. I’ll know when the meaning comes through. I have to know.’
The transition from chaos to calm equally describes her life. Bed-ridden as a child for three years, a wartime evacuee, a misfit at school and at the RCA, where she had wanted to study sculpture but instead completed the ARCA in the Fashion School in 1954, she had married Asgeir Scott and found herself ‘in the wrong boat, on the wrong sea’. Adrift as her daughter died and her marriage ended with her husband’s suicide, the seas remained choppy for several years despite her happy marriage to actor Brian Hawksley in 1971. For 14 years she had worked as a designer-maker, illustrator and columnist, while also teaching at art colleges on the south coast and, for three years, in Washington DC.
It was only in 1978, after a decade as a lecturer at Battersea College of Education, that she was to find her métier. It was a difficult discovery, involving sabbatical leave to study with David Green at Goldsmiths, the unconscious depiction of a despairing life view, a nervous break-down and, at last, a Goldsmiths’ postgraduate diploma in textiles, in 1980. She had found a medium – or really, the mixed media – that could express what she had to say.
Much of what she has to say concerns death, the fleeting nature of youth, the frailty and suffering of life, and war. Some find her work shocking: the depiction of blood in … a treaty will be signed sometime today (1997), or the incorporation of a dead bird in I Will Fly South – for Mathew [sic], a memorial begun in 1995 after the death of her son. Her response is to wish everyone would give works more time. Referencing Goya, she says: ‘They don’t have to like it – just stand in front of it, give it time, and find the humour or darkness.’ Or tenderness, the result of her infinite care over the choice of materials and the execution of each piece. Whether about the hypocrisy of the eye blind to the suffering of innocent victims of conflict, or a personal response to music or literature, she feels keenly and conveys this in works lovingly, slowly and meticulously crafted.
While some of her pieces are baroque in their complexity and beauty, others are stark. Importantly, many of her disturbing works are small, avoiding the blatant visual brutality that a larger scale would convey, and instead insisting that the viewer step closer to engage in a hushed telling of a story. Her Veterans (1978 and ongoing), a haunting group of wax and clay figures bound in gauze and splattered blood-red, range from 5-15 centimetres high and ask the viewer to lean in to study their agonised and fearful features.
One cannot look at Rozanne’s work without being drawn in, without beginning to understand and empathise. These are not pieces made to garner admiration, but rather, to engender thought. She asks, too, that viewers see how base and rare materials are cherished equally, a nuanced plea for sympathy and justice for all.
A desire for both certainty and understanding underpins all of her work. The certainty comes through her hands, as adept with a needle as with clay, as certain with a pencil as with the placement of an animal skull. She had studied sculpture, architecture and anatomy during her national diploma in design; her knowledge of stitch and the sculptural qualities of cloth stems from her childhood environment and her time at the RCA.
Her hands are important in another way, as she holds tiny beads, glowing pearls and, especially, delicate bones: ‘By holding something one is trying to heal, there is an intimacy.’ For Rozanne, to grasp (hold) is to grasp (understand) and she extends this dual meaning into her work: ‘Even in the big installations there are small things, and all these relate to the hand that can hold a gun, hit, love, or nurture.’ Gloves, symbolic of hands, are significant in her work. They represent Captain Coram and Mr Handel in her 2012 Foundling Hospital installation of the same name. Her wreath of worn white gloves, Pale Armistice (1991), has become an iconic image at the Imperial War Museum, which commissioned the piece after seeing a similar wreath in The Subversive Stitch, a seminal 1988 exhibition at Cornerhouse, Manchester.
In the same year she contributed a child’s glove, Stigmata, to the Kettle’s Yard Gallery show Death. Rozanne by then was 57; her studio in Pembrokeshire had only been established the year before. It was her move out of London that marked the beginning of wider exposure of her work. Near-annual group shows followed, with the first of some dozen solo shows being the installation, The Colour Orange – a Line of Hope, at Myles Meehan Gallery, Darlington. A stark barely-lit large metal cage containing a few scattered objects and spot-lit orange was her response to the experience of Brian Keenan, who spent 54 months as a hostage in Beirut and later (in his 1993 book An Evil Cradling) described his ecstasy at being given an orange: ‘I lift my hand and feel and smell and lick it. The colour orange, the colour, the colour, my God the colour orange.’ Little in the installation could be described as a textile. How the definition of ‘textile artist’ had changed by 1995, when this piece was created.
Rozanne had first exhibited with the 62 Group in 1985, despite having an earlier piece rejected by them because ‘it wasn’t embroidery’. But ‘today anything goes, all is melding.’ She herself has had much to do with this change. While training teachers at Battersea College of Education, in 1969 she had introduced an interdisciplinary course, covering not only costume and textiles, but also music and performance. As a part-time tutor at Goldsmiths from 1980-87 (and during the same period a visiting tutor at the RCA and the Slade), she contributed significantly to the transformation of textile courses from technique-based to concept-driven.
As a teacher she encouraged students to follow their own interests, rather than trends. In this she drew from her own experience, so long driven by the expectations of others. Her shyness nevertheless had one benefit. As a ‘fly on the wall’ she watched and observed, taking in without filters. While she hated studying fashion at the RCA, she witnessed commitment through mixing with the painters and sculptors. By taking part in college theatre productions, on stage, she found a kind of confidence through the chance to become someone else: ‘I still do this through my work.’ She remains a superb mimic. Her knack for absorbing and recalling the essence of people also made it easy to attend fashion shows and afterwards rush elsewhere to draw what she’d seen. Later still she used this acute visual memory to draw the patients she met while attending a psychiatric hospital. She still draws, but mainly to cast down what she’s feeling in self-portraits that are brutally frank.
Considering her impish smile and quizzical lift of a brow, one could be forgiven for missing the fact that Rozanne has an unflinching gaze. As she is quoted in Rozanne Hawksley: Offerings (Ruthin Craft Centre/Lund Humphries, 2009):
‘I am drawn to the secret, the allegory, a meaning often hidden… behind the facade.’
In her current exhibition at the Royal Museums Greenwich, a selection of her work explores her long-standing absorption with the anomalies of war. Full Fathom Five – a commissioned piece for Queen’s House – is a memorial to the unmourned sailor. ‘Part of the loss was that families didn’t always know if the bodies were burnt, drowned or blown to pieces.’ This quiet installation includes a prie-dieu, its kneeler embroidered with the word ‘sacrifice’. The mourner is represented by a single glove. Long into its making Rozanne herself didn’t know who the mourner was to the dead sailor, which typifies her persistent search for a precise expression of universal emotions.
Also on display is The Seamstress and the Sea, the first art installation in any medium to be shown on the Imperial War Museum’s HMS Belfast in 2005-06. A commemoration of an imagined, haunted surviving sailor, it simultaneously celebrates her maternal grandmother, a military widow who sewed sailors’ collars for 30 years, starting in World War One. This is but one reason for Rozanne’s sensitivity to such subjects; as a child in naval Portsmouth she witnessed both the glory of officers’ uniforms and the pitiful state of wounded men. Her own family and their friends were all connected to the services: ‘I was aware of the differences to the minds and bodies of the survivors when World War Two was over… For example, my godmother’s son was Jimmy Clavell, survivor of Changi and author of King Rat.’
The Imperial War Museum has dubbed Rozanne an Official War Artist. She’s embarrassed by this: ‘I’ve only experienced bombing; the real War Artists – such as Don McCullin – were in the middle of it.’ If not an Official War Artist, I ask whether perhaps ‘outsider’ might be a better description. ‘Outsider? I’ve certainly been an outsider but Outsider Artists are totally untutored and unselfconscious. So I can’t say that I am.’ Like most familiar with her work, the Royal Museums Greenwich website describes her as one of the UK’s great textile-art innovators. Would this do? ‘I’m still trying to be an artist but words are so bandied about; can mean so many things. I like “well-crafted” and “craftsmanship” because I make things. But the meaning inside me is the most important. I try to do the very best for the subject I want to bring out – it’s all deliberate, even if it looks badly made.’ So you’re a craftsman? ‘I don’t think I’m anything.’
Rozanne Hawksley: War and Memory is at the Queen’s House, Romney Road, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF, from 28 May – 16 November.