Winchester Discovery Centre: ‘Threads’ and ‘Stitching Stories: Making Common Ground’

Alice Kettle : Threads

28 October 2017 – 14 January 2018

Winchester Discovery Centre

Sea is the first of several planned new works which Alice is making for Thread Bearing Witness her major project which begins here at Winchester Discovery Centre, in the Gallery (with Alice Kettle: Thread) and concludes with an exhibition at the Whitworth, University of Manchester in autumn 2018. Sea represents Alice’s earliest experience, mediated by the UK media, of the migrant crisis, followed by conversations with her daughter, Tamsin (which informed the development of Thread Bearing Witness) and then the first of her meetings with refugees in the south of England. This first work illustrates this development of Alice’s perception, from a broad concern for groups of anonymous people as viewed through the distorting lens of the media, to a greater understanding of the impact on individuals and a search for a way to show support and represent them, through the shared mediums of textiles and stich. Alice’s sensibilities shine through as she talks about the making of this work, her concerns about appropriation, getting it wrong, misrepresenting strong people who have been through so much, reflecting a helplessness we all somewhat feel. Thread Bearing Witness is a form of portraiture, of which Sea is the first to give voice to its subjects.

Mark Segal – the artists agency


The Role of the Artist and Refugee Stories

Let us be clear; the artist deals in truths not realities. The role of the artist when engaging with narratives of displacement, of trauma, of violence is always one of interpretation. The ethical dilemma of representing and communicating the authentic voice of others is an issue relevant not only to refugees. The artist continuously and willingly treads these complex waters.

The artist works through technique and medium to try to make sense of, or give meaning to, the world around them. Like all manifestations of historical evidence that offers up different perspectives, the artist presents us with interpreted truths. How can we ever fully experience, or desire to, the actual lived experience of a refugee; this is not the role of art. Even if the artist is or was a refugee, art is the lens through which we can begin to appreciate, but never fully comprehend, the experiential. Art is only one facet of experience.

The artist should be a masterful storyteller. Skilful craftsmanship should invite the viewer into an exchange of ideas around the beauties and horrors of the world. Art offers us questions, not solutions; and, in response, we should take our time to think.

The greatest gift an artist can give to a refugee is to present their story well, and to take time to craft a representation that inspires action. Too many times, I have witnessed works of theatre or art shoddily playing with sensitive topics that in the hands of another artist would have a richness and complexity. Bad art playing with fashionable themes rightly attracts criticisms of bandwagon jumping. This does not mean a work of art should be overly sentimental, nostalgic or morose. Most important is an honesty and transparency about motivations and process: why and how stories have been obtained, what is the position of the artist in relation to their chosen topic, how a creative representation has come to be what it is.

Artists can ensure topics concerning human rights receive public acknowledgement and engagement. The artist as a storyteller can give a voice and a representative form to those narratives some may wish to suppress.

We have become passive consumers of the visual through an overload of media imagery. When viewing the work “Sea” by Alice Kettle I implore you to give time and space to truly looking. This piece signposts the beginning of a new phase of work and the project Thread Bearing Witness, of which “The Travelling Heritage Bureau of Displaced Women Artists”, is a part.

Absorb what you see, and through art find your own position in relation to the trauma, and pain, of others. Do not expect solutions, but continue to be curious and question who suffers and who causes such suffering.

By Dr Jenna Ashton

 Creative Director, Digital Women’s Archive North [DWAN]; Project Curator “The Travelling Heritage Bureau of Displaced Women Artists”, supported by HLF.


Opening Speech

The Discovery Centre, Winchester

25th November 2017


I recall that I first met Alice, ten years ago or more, in her peripatetic studio in the Guildhall: a studio for one singular work, set in a place of other civic workings. Alice needed the vast deep for ‘looking Forwards to the Past’, installed of course in this building – a work about this city and its particular narrative form an artist who has Winchester steeped in her soul, however much her sources take on the resonances of other places, both real and imagined. I like to think of the work downstairs akin to Chaucer: ‘The Winchester Tales’.

I want to focus now on two works in the two exhibitions ‘Threads and More Threads’: ‘Sea’, behind me, and ‘Suko’ which is on show in the equally remarkable presentation of Alice’s work (this, in itself, a symbol of her urgent creative energy) at the Candida Stevens Gallery, Chichester – and if you can visit the exhibition I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I also want to look at Alice’s work through the lens of Simon Armitage’s play ‘The Odyssey: missing presumed dead’ and if this seems eccentric, then I shall try to explain why.

In ‘Suko’ which Alice notes ‘is the flowering of life and the blossoming of womanhood’, her thread line is sparse against the milky linen. A single figure rests composed and fronds of vegetation (is this seaweed?) surround and float by her. She seems entirely settled and composed; the fronds wafting, the mood quiescent. There is languid grace as well as feminist power here.


Tim Ingolds says that ‘we swim in the sea of materials’ and this idea of confusion, merging into elemental drama and even chaos, confronts us in ‘Sea’.

‘Sea’ is a work of disturbing beauty where the sonority of its colour sweep, its tonal grandeur, cannot mask its narrative, the story of the nameless lost, the plighted refugee. Do we see here the present crisis of the aftermath of sinking, where fragile craft can no longer bear the torment of these waves, their arrowed, insistent, inescapable tidal flow? Or is this the Odyssey, too?


‘It didn’t take long. The end was quick. The mast
broke like a twig. The keel snapped. The hull
fragmented into kindling and smithereens.
Every man was pitched into the churning swell –
each face went past, gulping for breath, reaching
for a hand or rope or beam or spar or hope.
Arms thrashed, throats burned with salt, mouths
gulped down sea, breathed the sea until lungs
were leaden weights, till the heart was in flood’. [1]


Alice Kettle’s work will often, like Armitage’s ‘Odyssey’ occupy two places (the specific and the generic) and two time zones (the now and the storied past), at one and the same time. That is why they have epic sweep, and why their narratives have present purpose.

In ‘Sea’, this counterpointing is a dramatic device. Are these figures swimming or drowning, sinking or at the final moment, rising? Are we looking down or up? Is there hopelessness only here, or may the sheen, speed, stitch of gold or silver offer any light or glimmer of hope? Is the blue to black infinite loss? Is that the arrowed tidal flood of time or nature? Is this a narrative of now or the deepest then? How can there be such rich colour-beauty in this thread, or how can there be such urgent poetic grace in the faced moment of death?

‘ ….Then waves parted
and cracks opened as deep as the sea bed, that place
where blind fish live among colourless flowers
and the bones of whales and the teeth of sailors
lie among rocks, so just for a moment those men
saw the floor of the world before the sea slammed them shut’. [2]


Simon Armitage is giving us a vital image here, for we have to see his words for them to achieve their impact, to see those thudding monosyllables.

Alice Kettle is creating a narrative drama here, a play, we might say, where these, the nameless, hurled and helpless, are lost to time.

The one a play; the one a textile art; the one and the same.

These are great, terrible themes, where great art, in these moments, is more essential than ever. For what Alice has given us in this exhibition is her reading, her scholarship, her politics, her inexhaustible enquiry, her passion and herself.

Professor Simon Olding

Director of the Crafts Study Centre, UCA Farnham

[1] Simon Armitage, ‘The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead (Faber and Faber, 2015), p. 104

[2] Op. cit


















The Guardian
Saturday 11/11/17














Stitching Stories: Making Common Ground



An exhibition of works which use stitch to express ideas on the themes of the passage and movement of people and objects and the making of community. There will be an opportunity to contribute to a large stitched work by Alice Kettle in support of displaced people.

Textile artists Vanessa Rolf (above), Penny Burnfield, Jackie Langfeld and Margaret Lawson will exhibit works alongside members of the Winchester Embroiderers’ Guild and the Young Embroiderers. Look out for dates and times of stitching workshops and activities in City Space throughout the exhibition.


Vanessa Rolf


Judith Carson



Jackie Langfeld







group works with Jackie Langfeld