Walking into The Art House, I find myself both inside and outside, wrapped up in the centre of creativity. A house – where many artists seek and have sought sanctuary, to fulfil a desire to create. I begin with mere observing, in the name of art. This is my first writing residency. I walk through the spaces and remember that I must give freely and take freely. Before I do, I observe the glass panel outside door S6 and take solemn breath. There, I see a house made up of a billion stitches sprawled across a tabular surface, lying fretfully like a wedding gown waiting for its final amendments. A framed bouquet stands out, a cluster of yellow sunflowers like lion-headed guards standing tall, watching the corridor at 8am. I stare right back. Point blank. How they move, threatening like a needle bending back, pinned to a wall.
It is Wednesday 28 July, 5pm. The Art House have organised an Artwalk. I am keen to meet artist Helen Riddle for the first time. A group of us walk into the Wakefield Cathedral and there she sits on her B770 Bernina (not quite a JCB forklift but still a very expensive piece of equipment). She is attempting to build a new version of The Art House, with her foot tirelessly working and head bowed to the machine. To me it looks like she is in communion, her flesh and body an extension of the tool she operates.
A fleeting memory surfaces. When my student loan came through the first thing I purchased was a sewing machine I called ‘brother’, now sitting redundant at the bottom of my closet like an old relic. Running stitch took me far, the length of a ruler without going haywire. On occasions I would experiment with the zigzag. Unstitched cloth in four hours became a shalwar kameez, a traditional two-piece garment worn by South Asian people. Come evening it was already on. The gold mirror discs shone like new moons on earthy background, maroon tie-dye. Which part of the silk route was I draped in, I wondered. It has been over five years since I was last on a sewing machine… perhaps watching Riddle work rekindled this former love affair.
Riddle is a studio holder at The Art House who works with free-motion embroidery. When she works she wears pristine white nylon gloves (like a snooker referee), and a darning foot attached to her machine. Inspired by a love of urban sketching and capturing the banality of the everyday, she has replicated the house she works in. As we talk, Riddle reminisces about a smaller, earlier version of ‘The Art House’, reminding herself of the hindrance of working small on canvas. A disobedient risk, she is planning to work bigger and bigger still in embroidery – scale need not apply in the mind of an artist. But as we shall learn there are perils to working big.
Working in stitch can be precise, but Riddle confesses she is rather messy (in her work that is). Not that a mistake can be easily detected in a piece as detailed as this. When Riddle is engrossed she is lost in space and time knows no end. She is under a watchful eye, the eye of the needle. Release from the machine will often come when it is more appropriate to use hand stitch. Embroidery hoops are handy but not if it costs you stitching time. The constant fixing and unfixing. Instead, she freestyles. She starts to ‘draw’, weaving in and out to the trance of her upper body, in unison with her B770 Bernina. I find myself caught in a vortex of some kind, taking me back to when I first witnessed a dervish practising his art in Turkey. I was mesmerised…
Being at home during lockdown gave Riddle time and space to work on a larger version of ‘The Art House’. She rarely gets to see the whole house; when working her sight is curtailed to a small section covered by the foot of the machine. Her free embroidery grows into an installation of stitches, unpacking one to a billion, slowly painting a picture. There is no expectation of what Riddle’s version should look like and she is less concerned about reproducing the building as responding to the history behind it. She wants to pay homage to those who helped build the house, each mark/stitch capturing a nuance of their work. Take the black and white tile design by Robert Dawson that punctuates the upper area of the building’s façade: Riddle tries to depict the precise rotation and angles of a selection of the 2,500 tiles that comprise the actual mural.
On the opposite side of The Art House is the studio of Maybelle Peters. Formerly a library, a trail of rich history is now resurfacing through books that you can smell and touch. This is Peters’ own collection, including Patricia Seed’s Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (1996) and James Walvin’s Slavery in Small Things (2017). But what happens when history books fail to portray the complete picture? In Peters’ case she is left with a thirst to explore these histories physically and mentally through long walks; just her, her silhouetted shadow and a path.
Formerly an animator, Peters is now a visual artist who uses multiple mediums to explore what it means for a Black woman to exist in a particular space. In August she planned a leisurely, scenic walk from The Art House to Harewood House, a distance of nineteen miles. For a woman who grew up in the rural outskirts of London, this didn’t prove arduous. Selecting two slow routes she walked over two days, occupying space and time. With the grace of God, lockdown had come to an end, and by chance Peters walked on Freedom Day (19 July 2020), hence minimal restrictions. What does freedom look and feel like in a given space? How do you move from one house to another?
Visited by weeds, wild plants and dandelion heads, her walk was anything but lonely. She was especially taken by Harewood’s gardens, which she later tells me about as we sit in the newly planted gardens at The Hepworth Wakefield. We cannot help noticing the carefully curated boundaries containing the plants, how the tall plants with prominent heads sway in the soft breeze, guarding the boundaries. I wonder if many of these plants have been colonised from other spaces/ lands/ paths.
Peters was granted exclusive access to Harewood House and as a Black woman she is deeply aware of the links the property has to the slave trade. Earl David Lascelles, owner of Harewood House, does not shy away from the colonial past: ‘It’s a period of history that as a nation we’ve not come to terms with… a lot of the conflicts can’t be resolved until we understand our history properly’. Peters was resolute; she had two days to get to work, turning pages of history in-house, from books to stories narrated by the owners. By observing weeds on her route and walking the grounds of Harewood, and to use Peters’ own words, she is attempting to ‘unmap’ time and space, to expose what truth could look like in a particular moment and make history at the same time.
Peters’ research for a new installation piece includes the observation of weeds and how they occupy space. She is experimenting and germinating dandelion seeds taken from white puffballs in different mediums such as Rockwool, coconut coir, vermiculite and carpet. Some will grow and thrive; others will not. Immigrants and their descendants are often classified according to their position in the lineage, e.g. first, second and third generation. The classification of plants is similar, implying a genealogy through which a plant or immigrant is perceived. The category of ‘weed’ has parallels with people of colour, both undervalued and at risk of being displaced. Weeds are often wrenched from the ground as if a cancer to nature, obliterated before they can take over. Yet they are resilient, prolific, they thrive wherever they are placed.
Peters’ installation will open at The Art House in 2022, possibly arranged as a domestic setting with old carpets, Chintz or Morris in design, laid out. Hopefully the dandelions she has been cultivating will occupy some space; faded floral prints incongruous with bright yellow heads. I was told there may not be any instructions, notes or policing, with visitors free to navigate the space as they wish. How will they decide to move across a floor of dandelions: will they walk around or stamp on them? Will an urge arise to pop their heads off? It’s still early days, and it may transpire that the installation takes a completely new form and direction, as the work evolves.
Returning to Riddle, her piece titled ‘Memory Quilt’ explores Dementia and the impact it may have on her, her loved ones and her extended family. We take our conversation outside the residency, over lunch. I tell her that in my culture there is no equivalent term for Dementia and that cross-culturally there is so much to learn about this disease and how people living with the condition should be cared for. We agreed that the language could be kinder in nature.
Riddle’s quilt is a simple uncovering of what is happening in the workings of the mind. Its phrases document a process of diminishing responsibility, a reduction of the joys of life, a fragmented end (is this it, is this how we end?). As the late Jonathan Miler once said about the retention and loss of memories, ‘the occupied soon have to be evicted’. For a few months during lockdown, Riddle wrote a little note of memory every day, later transcribing them onto the quilt.
Perhaps ‘Memory Quilt’ will serve as a remembrance for Riddle’s loved ones, acting as a Madeline de Proust of all the memories that may one day be taken from her. She is gifting them while she still remembers, clear in her mind, without error or miasma. The outer structure appears healthy, but as the disease attacks, the memories misfire and disappear, hence the missing hexagons towards the middle of the quilt. What is awe inspiring is the level of detail; the story of cell disintegration, the chaotic puddles in the centre.
As a writer who has been through a health adversity, I too believe in exploring health issues and diseases as part of my creative practice. Writing about cancer, unpacking and taking my story to the world has empowered me to stand on platforms or create my own, if need be, in order to tell my story. Whether we use poetry or any other media to show trauma, we learn to liberate and relinquish loss, and to heal collectively.
It is the 9th of August and my last day for scoping at The Art House. This time I organise a gathering in one of the studios. Riddle and Peters talk about their respective work for the first time. I feel like an intruder and observer, both inside and outside, even as we are bound by the same space. Room S7 in the House is looking diverse; a black, a white and a brown woman, occupying space in a moment of history relinquishing ‘us’ to the passer-by.
Houses come in many forms and structures, some offer freedom whilst others withhold. Although its old library no longer exists, The Art House still serves as a centre for learning, creativity and enjoyment. Likewise, Harewood House is still teaching the history it arose from, from the proceeds of the slave trade. Through unreserved conversations and documenting history in their public profile, the owners are learning to accept the truth of the House they occupy.
I am grateful that this writing residency took place outside of lockdown. I was able to enter The Art House, breaking the fourth wall and meeting two awesome artists in person. Being in their presence has given me a deep sense of richness as a fellow female artist, exploring themes we carry inside us. There is certainly a spirit of collegiality at The Art House (dogs are welcome too!) and spending time there has shown me that every house should be given space to tell its own story, especially through the imagination of an artist. For me, as a brown woman, many doors to creative houses were closed, but at The Art House the door was open. But who has the power to unlock? Al-Fatah, it can only be.
Sheena Hussain is a British-born Pakistani poet, essayist and a cancer advocate based in Bradford. She was selected as writer in residence at The Art House 30 July – 30 September 2021. As part of her residency Hussain recieved mentoring from literary activist, theatre maker and published writer Khadijah Ibrahiim.
Helen Riddle is a textile artist based at The Art House. Maybelle Peters had a solo residency there from 18 July 2021 to 15 August 2021, with plans to work together further in 2022.
This project was supported by The Art House Wakefield and public funding from Arts Council England.
 ITV documentary Trevor McDonald & Charlene White: Has George Floyd Changed Britain?, 12.05.21.
 BBC Radio 4 programme Lost Memories: Jonathan Miler (1934-2019), 14.08.21.
 Al-Fatah is one of the attributes of God in the Islamic faith denoting ‘The-Opener’, and one of the ninety-nine names of God.