Whitework: using crafts to help face the fear of cancer

Categories: Care.

How did the Whitework project begin?

We had an art science residency at a Cancer Research UK-funded laboratory in London in 2002. This resulted in the 42 metre artwork ‘Transformations in science and art’, in permanent exhibition at the Royal Mint. From creating this textile artwork came a sister project called Whitework.

Prompted by the artist residency we became mediators between scientists and advocacy groups concerned with understanding and treating the social, psychological, emotional and quality-of-life aspects of cancer. We explored methods in which art would help people facing cancer deal with complicated issues in their lives, in both a practical and spiritual way.

Why did you choose a craft based textile activity?

We ran a series of Whitework workshops where people made a small textile artwork in white. Everyone had their own story and reason to create an individual piece of whitework. Workshop attendees included a broad range of cross generational people with a varying skill base, different backgrounds and belief systems. By immersing themselves in craft making they switched off from everything else and just concentrated on the here and now.

You decided on using white textiles only, what was the reasoning behind that choice?

This allows the creativity of the use of materials and their different structures, textures and forms to be explored. Makers and viewers of the work can enjoy the inventiveness of the designs without being distracted by colour or pictures.

What techniques did you include in the workshops?

In workshops we suggested a variety of processes for use. These included both traditional crafts and contemporary technological techniques. We provided materials ranging from delicate organzas and silks to coarse scrim. Fabrics were woven, knitted, bonded, stitched, fused, appliquéd, embellished as well as digitally printed.

You have just published a book ‘Whitework – A Gentle Path’. Do these artworks feature in the book?

Yes, the book contains almost 100 beautiful photographs of contemporary whitework textiles. Included are photographs from workshop participants together with work we have made. Accompanying the images are insightful commentaries by the makers of the work, where they describe both the material and processes used and what prompted them to do it.

What are you aims for the book?

Our aim was to make a book that is original, fascinating, beautiful and useful as a way of supporting deeply stressed people requiring calm. We need focused engagement to survive trauma and thrive mentally. We hope that our book will enable people to take time out and quietly reflect on the artwork images and messages of support and love contained with them

How has the book been received?

We have been both touched and delighted by the feedback we’ve had from people from many walks of life who’ve read the book. People really engage and get what we are doing.

Your book is published now, is the Whitework project continuing?

Yes it is, and we invite people to take part in our ongoing project, create and share their own textile whitework. You can find full instructions on how to participate on our website.

Denise Wyllie and Clare O Hagan are supporting Hospice UK by donating 20% of profits for every book sold. They are also planning on gifting books to all hospices in the UK – if you are interested in receiving a copy for your hospice please contact Denise and Clare via their website

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