Gathering Memories

Ever present in my art practice is a concern with memory. It’s like a thread that runs through everything that I make, and it was there before I even realised it. Some years ago, I had a moment of clarity when I realised that the core theme embedded throughout my work is memory and that this is how I am attempting to understand the world.

An ammonite-like sculpture with candles and antlers
A Shrine to Our Precious Things: Croft Shrine (detail)
At the moment, I am looking at how we use objects to hold memories for us. It is something that I looked at a while back, when I made a piece called A Shrine to our Precious Things at Croft Castle & Parkland, a National Trust property in Herefordshire (the piece was commissioned by Meadow Arts). A Shrine to our Precious Things was an online collection of objects: I asked people to send in an image of something that held an important personal value to them and the story that accompanied it. I also created a live event over two nights, Croft Shrine, and invited people to light a candle to add to an outdoor installation. Candles are often used in ceremonies and religion to mark a memory (usually of a person) and I asked people to think of a memory as they added their candle. I also invited them to contribute to the online collection of objects linked to memories.


People place candles at A Shrine to Our Precious Things: Croft Shrine

More recently, I made a piece about grief, The Twelve Trees, and researched Memento Mori and Vanitas artworks; still life depictions of objects that often included reminders of the limited time we have to live, in the form of a skull, a clock, flowers, fruit and so on. Memento Mori is a Latin term that means, “Remember you must die.” This reminder of mortality is not meant to be morbid or make people fearful, but to inspire and motivate people to make the best of their lives, which became even more pertinent to my work during the Coronavirus Pandemic. This research led to an installation called Memento Mori and an animation called Object Love, commissioned by Worcester Art Gallery & Museum, that gathered people’s favourite objects from the museum’s collection or their own homes, and re-presented them as animated ‘still life’.

“Vanitas Still Life” by Maria van Oosterwijck, 1668. (Photo: Public domain via Wikipedia

I’m continuing to research objects and memory at the moment and have just finished reading a fascinating book called Stuff by Professor of Anthropology at UCL, Daniel Miller. In Stuff, Miller examines how things make us as much as we make things. He discusses the way that we interact with the objects around us, pointing out that there is no academic discipline that concentrates purely on material culture, despite the strong desire that humans have to own things. He discusses how objects have an impact on the people who own or interact with them, and how they therefore affect our behaviour. The first chapter is about clothing, which outwardly ‘might represent gender differences, but also class, levels of education, cultures of origin, confidence or diffidence, our occupational roles against our evening leisure’. Miller discusses how clothing is often seen as self-expression, revealing or concealing the ‘true self’ (depending on the culture you grow up in), but he also looks at the way that what you are wearing affects your behaviour; from the way someone in high heels would walk differently to that same person wearing flat shoes, to the careful ways of moving, sitting and walking that a woman wearing a traditional sari needs to undertake, in order to stop it slipping and revealing more of her body than she wants to show.


In a much more extreme way, ‘Living artwork’ Daniel Lismore’s recent exhibition at The Herbert in Coventry, Be Yourself; Everyone Else Is Already Taken, demonstrates how what we choose to wear also has an impact on behaviour. Lismore creates extravagant, highly decorated, sculptural outfits that he wears in public. He explains in a documentary accompanying the show that these are the things that he chooses to wear in everyday life. This clothing affects how he behaves: he discusses finding it difficult at times to get through doorways in some of his creations, and how the people he encounters respond to him, stopping him to talk about what he is wearing (not all of the attention is positive; he sometimes experiences abuse and was once stabbed).

Daniel Lismore, Be Yourself; Everyone Else is Already Taken

In 2018, I visited the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A, described as “A fresh perspective on Kahlo's compelling life story through her most intimate personal belongings”. I think about this show a lot, because of how Kahlo’s belongings were displayed with equal prominence to her work. Perhaps even more so, as the paintings were on the walls around the objects and clothing, which were positioned more centrally in display cases. We saw the artist’s lipstick, her medicine bottles, prosthetic legs that the artist painted designs on, the back brace that supported her spine and the distinctive dresses, blouses and skirts she wore. These intimate objects are fascinating because they are the everyday things that this artist used, making a woman who has a kind of mythical status, and an aura of glamour despite her suffering (she had health problems caused by a terrible tram accident she was in), seem more human and relatable, although I also wonder if there’s something a bit mawkish about seeing these very personal things on display after someone’s death.


I believe that objects mean a lot to us, and particular items are kept by us because they link us to other people. This is particularly important when we keep things that belonged to someone we love who has died. I will write more about this connection between objects and remembering in a future blog, but for now I will ask you to think about an object that you own that has a particular significance to you. Do you keep it because it helps you remember something specific, and have you imprinted some of the feelings from the memory onto the object itself? Feel free to leave a comment here, or send me a message.