Quintessential Quilters With an Abundance of Talent.

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This could have been my beloved Aunt Chrissie’s motto as well as my older sister’s! Both talented artists displaying brilliance with needle and thread and sewing machine. Aunt Chrissie taught sewing, Cate takes what she absorbed to prize winning levels beyond basic dress-making and design …

I was privileged (and gobsmacked) to attend the Australasian Quilt Convention on Sunday 19, 2015, at the  Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne. A memory day with delightful company ( thank you DF and CG) plus unforgettable images. I left with an increased appreciation of the amazing talent of many people – my older sister, Cate included!

In a world where we are bombarded daily with doom and gloom, it’s important to seek joy and immerse yourself in beauty and see the constructive side of humanity, whenever possible.

Motivated to see Cate’s entry in the Lest We Forget Challenge organised by the AQC to commemorate the centenary of the ill-fated WW1 Gallipoli Campaign, D and I caught an early train into the city and walked up from Parliament Station. The free travel for seniors on a Sunday a price hard to beat. There is no excuse for Melburnians not to explore their city by public transport on the weekends because even for others the travel is cheap.

Arts and Crafts really grew as an arts movement in the 19th century, but sewing patchwork and quilting has been around a lot longer. As a skilled activity it is growing in popularity in our society, probably because people have more leisure time and disposable cash, to turn what were items of necessity into beautiful works of art. These slide shows of the other entries in the Lest We Forget Challenge show just how creative and beautiful quilts can be.

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Talent Exhibited 2015
Mairi Neil

A salute to Australasian Quilters
their art worthy of the Tate
Delightful treasures to enjoy
Sighs of envy at  awesome talent…

Sewing a skill forever developing
begin early or late
stitch by hand or machine
tackle projects big or small

Quilts on display perfecting
the importance of the artist’s eye
Colour and perspective creating
visions beyond the mundane

Nuanced narratives revealing
words as stitches
stitches as story
story as history …

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The grand venue perfect for the convention. Magnificent 19th century architecture surrounding and complementing the designs displayed. How wonderful for these high-domed ceilings and ornate walls to echo with the buzz of chattering visitors, exhibitors and enthusiasts explaining and discussing the delightful work on show.

Paintings of cherubs and angels smile benignly at modern art and craft suppliers spruiking their wares.  Experts in their craft conducting seminars and workshops, companies advertising the latest machines, demonstrating kits and finished products.  Rooms off the main area filled with keen learners and experienced quilters glad of the opportunity to indulge their passion.

And it is a passion.

I loved hearing my sister’s expert commentary as she discussed the merits of exhibits, the level of difficulty, the immense skill necessary to achieve the desired result – and of course the difference between hand sewn quilts and machined quilts. I appreciated her enthusiasm because that’s what I feel about words and writing.

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Cate has experienced complicated grief like me and as I turn to pen and paper, she picks up needle and thread. Many of the quilters submitted pieces they had started when diagnosed with breast cancer or were experiencing other trauma. Just as writing can be therapeutic, so can any form of art and craft. To ease pain by focusing on a project or labour of love instead of the grief or challenge is a good start on the journey of healing.

In 2009, when Mum was dying in Maroondah Hospital, a nurse suggested we place the beautiful quilt Cate had made for Mum on the bed, to remind her  of home, and to brighten the harsh whiteness of hospital bed linen.

Memory triggered, I reminded Cate she had started making me a quilt to comfort me through chemotherapy in 2010. However, life can intervene, projects can remain unfinished or lose their focus, other priorities occur. If it arrives, it will be treasured, but as a writer I know all about the dips and curves and changing nature of creativity!

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 sewing defined

A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
As she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
As she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
Contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
Many still struggle in shadowed light
Exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

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No sign of sweat shops at this convention and plenty of laughter and intense conversations as people took respite in several cafes sensibly placed in corners. We too succumbed to the enticing aroma of fresh coffee, toasting bread, naughty fried food and sweet scrumptious desserts.

Because of the record crowds we nipped across the way to the Museum thinking their cafe would have smaller queues. However, it was the opening of their WW1 exhibition so it didn’t take us long to rush back, flash our butterfly stamp at the gatekeepers and grab something to eat with other quilters.

Of course, there was another gallery of quilts to show the spirit of the ANZACS and honour those who sacrificed their lives at Gallipoli. Jan Irvine-Nealie, one of the world’s most talented quilters honoured those early soldiers in beautiful quilts presented as a retrospective and Lucy Carroll’s Gallipoli Quilt honoured all soldiers moulded by the ANZAC tradition.

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But the exhibition wasn’t all about the Gallipoli Centenary – thank goodness – because in the last year we’ve been into overload in Australia with every aspect of the campaign and WW1 dissected and projected on our screens, at festivals, museums, on stage, at book launches, photographic exhibitions… You name the media and it’s been done.

There were magnificent examples of work representing various interpretations of “True Blue”. I loved the variety. They reminded me of the astounding varied responses from the same writing prompt! To think these pictures are created by scraps of material and wool, hand stitches and machine – what patience and persistence, what talent!

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There were quilts that made you have a double-take and ones that immediately inspired verse or a story – many of course a complete narrative in themselves:

The Connection
Mairi Neil

The glance
Has lingered
Emotions soar

Caresses and whispered words
Open eyes; feed a receptive heart
Natural laws of attraction at work
Nuances of touch press flesh tenderly
Ephemeral or eternal memories,
Casual coupling or
Ties that bind?
In a moment of passion
Our lives change
No turning back time…

There were plenty of quilts showing a sense of humour as well as social commentary and one that poked fun at the judges:

the judges are so particular

Intricate designs passed down through centuries and reinvented by modern quilters, William Morris influenced panels,  interpretations and  new creations showcasing the boundless expertise of Australasian quilters. A comfort to me who has difficulty threading a needle nowadays never mind planning a masterpiece!

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A truly inspiring day and one last look outside at the wonderful trees in autumn finery and my pocket notebook works overtime.

Autumn Leaves
Mairi Neil

autumn leaves and tree exhibitob bldg grounds

Autumn, a time of contemplation; leaves
Underfoot, scuff and swirl
The wayward wind encouraging dance
Unaccompanied by music…
Maroon, magenta, green, gold, burnished brown
Never dull. Colours raked and piled
Light fades early
Easter celebrations and
Anzac marches ensure
Valour and sacrifice remembered at
End of day fireside reveries
Smoke and thoughts wafting skywards

Some days we are truly blessed to be with people we love and to experience the inspiring and creative qualities within our community. The following witty observations spot on!

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Literary Non-Fiction – Marrying Creative Reminiscing with Factual Events when Writing Memoir

Nonfiction is a very old genre. Go back to The Confessions of St. Augustine. For so long, individuals have attempted to understand how one lives and what one is to make of one’s life…

There is a bit of self-congratulations in “literary nonfiction.” One reason I prefer it is because it embeds the work in a tradition and a lineage. Instead of implying this is something new, it says this type of writing has been around for a long, long time. In English literature, there is the great tradition of the English essay, with Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt and Lamb, Robert Louis Stevenson and de Quincey, Matthew Arnold, McCauley, Carlisle, Beerbohm, and on into the twentieth century, with Virginia Woolf and George Orwell. By saying you write literary nonfiction, you’re saying that you’re part of that grand parade.

Phillip Lopate, 2008

This week I’m struggling to write a piece for the celebration of the life of a dear friend, Margaret who is not expected to survive much longer, in the palliative care ward of Calvary Hospital. Too frail to be moved as planned, to Canberra’s hospice, Clare Holland House, she has been shuffled in and out of  ICU, but is now in a private ward crammed with flowers and cards, where she can say goodbye to a constant stream of visitors, the attention and outpouring of love a tribute to how many lives she has touched here and overseas.

We flatted together when I  lived in Canberra attending ANU, we waitressed together at the Staff Centre on campus, we shared tragedies and triumphs, attended demonstrations for Aboriginal Land Rights and Peace, shared a love of reading, history and travel.  I’m eternally grateful for some of the memories we created together including some valuable life lessons on my road to maturity.

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Always practical, Margaret helped me through a devastating crisis offering more than sympathy and emotional support. A few years older than my twenty years, her wisdom and care saved my life and sanity.

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Her friendship, one of Life’s blessings, as was the opportunity to fly to Canberra recently and spend four days with her and some other friends, before her health deteriorated.  Three friends have been stalwarts since I was eighteen, now they have a bedside vigil of indeterminate length. Thankfully, in the digital age, I’m kept informed daily – sometimes more often – via text, email, and long telephone conversations as we try to make sense of this time in our lives.

When a group of friends of many years face the disintegration of their circle, it’s like facing the imminent death of a sibling – sometimes worse because most families grow apart, develop separate lives whereas friends can be constant and consistent. My Mother, who was fond of quoting her own father used to say: God gives you your relatives, but thank God he allows you to choose your friends. 

And so, living in a surreal time-zone, waiting for the inevitable telephone call, I’m frozen with indecision, grieving the loss of Margaret already and yet nurturing a minuscule fragment of hope that somehow a miracle will happen and the last six weeks have been a bad dream. It is déjà vu – my friend Caroline’s death 2001,  husband John’s death 2002,  Dad’s death 2005 and Mum’s death 2009 – with myriad funerals in between of friends and distant relatives. I seek solace by the sea and visit Stony Point where we’ve scattered John’s ashes and where, when it’s time,  I too will feed the fishes, travel with the tides… a quiet, serene place of solitude that never seems to change…

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I often visit Mordialloc foreshore and find an early morning or evening walk the most beneficial – an unsurpassed meditation time.

Mordialloc Beach 2013

Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. Eucalypts and pine trees compete with salty air and the whiff of abandoned seaweed.
The blue-green sea a mirror for fluffy clouds of whipped cream. Dainty dollops on a pale blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop this glassy sea. Bathed in white sunlight I imagine I too drift and dream.
In the distance palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the Creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand stinging legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the grey-green mirror and my peaceful contemplation. Waves lap and soap around my feet as I retreat to the shelter of eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt now bittersweet.

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At this point in time, creativity is at an all-time low.  I’m so grateful I have students and classes to encourage and inspire me to shake out of the doldrums.  Whether it is memories stirred or the confronting reminder that my breast cancer could easily metastasise like Margaret’s, or facing ageing and worrying about unfinished business, or the reminder of past losses and grief – my spirits have been depressed with energy levels just enough to complete necessary tasks – the inner well dry and desolate.

Several years ago, I started teaching memoir and classes to encourage others to record life stories and think about their legacy. In the process, I’ve written thousands of words reflecting on my own life, family history and my parents, along with poems and short stories. This blog is another way of  leaving a legacy for my daughters – writing down thoughts and events, ideas, memories and dreams in essays, short stories, anecdotes and poems – like an online journal, but not just stream of consciousness or venting – more focussed on what I want to express at  a particular time, or about a particular experience.

All the reading I have done about the memoir genre explains it can be about anything personally experienced, or a life event significant enough to want to retell, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life –  that’s what I tell my students  – and so it is true for me too!

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I hope I can do justice to Margaret’s legacy when the time comes and be privileged to hear what she means to others.  Eventually, the sun will shine inside me and I’ll feel joy because the sun rises each day as Mother Nature reaffirms life each morning.

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler