Lace in Place

Deborah Dean, May 2012

An unoccupied Grade 2 listed Georgian building stands quietly on the corner of St Paul’s Square in the centre of Bedford. The decorative mouldings around and above its front door proffer hints of an elegant past but now the building sits, redundant and down-at-heel, with its windows staring blankly at the Square.

During the period May to July however, No 1 St Paul’s Square presents a new face to the world. Its fourteen windows are clad with large lace panels – a repeating pattern in crisp, white cord which plays across the surface of the building, offering the possibility of renewal – like a freshly-laundered shirt collar gleaming against the worn cloth of a jacket.

The idea of lace panels at a window brings to mind the net curtains of polite 19th century houses, where they discreetly veiled family life from the street outside. Yet as we draw closer, it becomes clear that these panels are attached to the outside of the building: they offer themselves up for scrutiny, drawing the eye to the details of their construction and texture. They seem to be as integral to the architecture as the decorative doorframe – more like the wrought iron window grilles found in traditional Spanish architecture, less like a flimsy fabric. The lace patterning asserts itself, investing the architecture with new character and at the same time inviting us to speculate about what lies within, what will happen next in the life of this building.

The pattern, as many local people will know, is taken directly from Bedfordshire lace: the central spider, with a branch of the river flowing around it on either side (a reference to the river Great Ouse which runs close by), held together by a network of connected leaves. Closer inspection reveals subtle differences between one panel and the next: a slight change of tension; the pull of a particular thread; a looser edge here and there. This subverts the apparent uniformity of the whole when seen from across the street and we begin to think of the work of many hands, many individuals.

The panels are indeed handmade. They are the work of artist Arabel Rosillo de Blas, commissioned by Bedford Creative Arts (BCA). They were made with the help of twenty-seven local people – some of them members of The Aragon Lacemakers but over half of them interested individuals with no previous experience of lacemaking.

Lace in Place owes some of its origins to Arabel’s piece Mantilla/Mi maja (2008-2010). A mantilla is a Spanish headscarf, usually made from lace, worn at weddings and funerals, and often passed down through families. Arabel had her own mantilla made by Spanish craftsmen, from silver filigree, replacing the usual purely decorative pattern with personal motifs drawn from memories of her grandparents and an absent friend. It grew from her more intimate, studio-based practice and yet her instinct with most new projects is to work on a larger scale, responding to sites outside the studio or gallery space and working collaboratively on some aspect of the creative process. For example, when BCA invited her to deliver workshops on rag-rug making for The Big Lunch in July 2011, she immediately scaled-up the idea by using the metal grid structure of a nearby fence as a support. At the time of writing, Fence Rugging; Guerilla Textiles can still be seen, brightening the railings around some waste ground on Midland Road with a shaggy coat of multi-coloured fabric.

The Lace in Place commission provided Arabel with a more formal opportunity to make an installation about and within the landscape of the place in which she lives and works. The selection of the building on St Paul’s Square came first, along with a desire to reanimate this overlooked piece of local architectural history. Arabel wanted to make the building ‘visible’ once more, through a contemporary intervention, which at the same time raised awareness of Bedfordshire’s important but somewhat hidden lace heritage.

Her research introduced her to The Aragon Lacemakers, named after Katherine of Aragon, who was imprisoned in Ampthill tower near Bedford during the divorce proceedings taken against her by King Henry VIII. She is thought to have taught lace making to the villagers and it became a thriving cottage industry until the introduction of mass-produced, machine-made lace in the early 19th century. The Aragon Lacemakers taught Arabel the techniques and processes of Bedfordshire lace so that she in turn could teach other volunteers.

Traditionally, Bedfordshire lace is made on a pillow. The pattern is pricked out on paper and marked by tiny pins, around which threads are twisted and crossed, each one weighted by a bobbin. This is intricate work and so the translation of the delicate detail of the pillow lace to the large-scale required for the windows of No 1 St Paul’s Square posed a particular challenge. Arabel’s solution was to replace the fine thread with 4mm polyester rope; screws stood in for pins and thick sheets of cardboard took the place of lace pillows.

At the same time, Arabel developed and staged Large Lace; A Choreography of People and Pattern, a performance to explore the challenging leap in physical scale that was required. Large Lace used her team of helpers as the pins and bobbins of the lacemaking process, and lengths of fabric instead of thread. Participants moved around each other to cross and twist the fabric strips to make lace, under the direction of the artist. Lace can be seen as a sequence of repetitive, choreographic movements of hand and thread, and Arabel’s previous life as a dancer came irresistibly to the surface here. One also thinks of lace tells in this context – the rhymes chanted by the child labourers of the early lace industry to help them build rhythm and speed, the metre of the poems marking time during the long hours of work.

Large Lace also tested ideas about teamwork and co-operation. Although the panels were designed in sections, so that people could work on pieces at home (with a gentle nod to the cottage industry of centuries past), much of the work was done together at BCA, ensuring that a strong sense of sharing and collaborative effort remained at the heart of the production process. The American writer, activist and curator Lucy R Lippard has said that ‘Collaboration is the social extension of collage’1 and the piecing together of different realities, lives and materials, to create something new is prevalent in Arabel’s artistic practice – to paraphrase her, it is ‘in her DNA’. 2
She gathers familiar objects and commonplace materials in a particular place and context in order to, as she says, ‘connect the unconnected’ 3 and create a new narrative.

For Eieren (Eggs).Bunker(t)raume (June 2000), made in Berlin, she collected four thousand eggshells from local restaurants and placed them in serried ranks on the concrete floor of a Second World War bunker. For her, the ‘confrontation between the fragility of the eggshells and the hardness of the bunker’s concrete created a new and emotive atmosphere.’ 4 The collaborative element emerged from visiting the same restaurants each week for three months, to pick up the shells they had collected for her; this became a sociable process – an opportunity for discussion and exchange of ideas about what she was doing.

Her project Business as Usual (June 2005) took place over four weekends in a launderette where people from a multicultural neighbourhood in the north of Rotterdam were invited to bring old clothes and to participate in dying them different colours. There was live music, and photographer Ximena Davalos made portraits of the owners and the users of the launderette, which were hung on the walls during the project; the launderette became a hybridised studio/meeting place/installation.

‘…no matter how long or short a time we live in a place we inherit the responsibility for knowing about it, valuing it, working to keep it viable, and illuminating our dynamic cultural spaces and their underlying, often invisible meanings and uses — for those who don’t.’ [Lucy Lippard] 5

This might almost have been written for BCA, whose artistic policy is to bring together artists, communities and place to do just that. But it might equally be applied to Arabel’s practice. Her awareness of the sense and history of place – a place familiar through lived experience and prolonged engagement – is key to her ability to draw others in to her world, creating a space from which they can view their own world through a different lens.

1Lucy R. Lippard; keynote speech for The Falmouth Convention, October 2010
2Arabel Rosillo de Blas; conversation, May 2012
3Arabel Rosillo de Blas; as 2 above
4Arabel Rosillo de Blas; artist’s website
5Lucy R Lippard; as 1 above