Mary Elizabeth Barron | Australian Bobbin Lace Artist
Making large scales is always a challenge, but making large scale lace from recycled material takes vision, courage, and a very innovative soul. And this all that Mary poses. A combination of unusual material, large scale, and patterns that resemble traditional lace is a unique, distinctive, and original mix. And not just that, but installing those large pieces in the space creates dramatic interaction of shade and light. Lace is taken to a new dimension, and the whole space is becoming one organic organism. Observant is naturally taken to this new dimension, becoming part of the scene.
But let Mary tell us her interesting lace story.
As a teenager, I read a book where the Grandmother was an elderly Russian bobbin lace maker. I found this fascinating and decided I wanted to learn one day. In my late twenties, I saw a beginner bobbin lace course was available at a Technical College about an hour away. I had a two-year-old daughter and said to my husband that this is something I want to learn but didn’t think I had the time to do it then. He said that if I want to learn this to just do it, I am unlikely to have more time. I was so pleased I took his advice as the last day of the course was the first day of morning sickness with our second child! I love the process of making bobbin lace. Working the bobbins is for me very meditative and calming. Finding time to do some lacemaking during stressful times helps me to calm myself and refocus. While I am making the lace, I clear everything else from my mind to emerge refreshed and better able to cope.
My daughters have seen me making lace from a very early age, growing up with a working lace pillow on a family room table. After finding my youngest daughter, a toddler at the time, at my lace pillow throwing bobbins back & forth saying she was helping me, I set up a second pillow with thick thread, chunky bobbins, and a simple design. The girls knew that any time they wanted to make lace, I would assist them in working on that pillow. They never touched my lace pillow again. The youngest would love to sit on my lap, moving the bobbins as I indicated when she was 2 or 3 years of age. We have happy memories of making lace together.
I work a lot with recycled materials in my art practice. In fact, I have loved making things from so-called rubbish ever since I was a child. I was doing coiled basketry, knitting, and crochet with bread bags and had all my friends and family collecting them for me.
Working the enlarged square doily using thread I made from clear plastic bags. The bobbins are old toothbrushes, disposable razors (blades either removed or covered) & some wooden ones.
It had been some years since I had done any bobbin lace and felt a strong urge to get back into it, incorporate it into my art practice, and develop my design skills. And use some alternative material.
Every year since 2007, I have made a ‘tree jumper’ for an arts festival in regional Queensland, Jumpers & Jazz in July in Warwick, where the town center is yarn bombed and trees are covered in tree jumpers. It gets very cold by Queensland standards in Warwick in winter (June, July, August is our winter). My tree jumpers have always been made from plastic waste materials and called Plastic Doesn’t Grow on Trees with a subtitle relating to the material or method I used to create it. In 2015 the Warwick Art Gallery asked for submissions for an external exhibition themed around textile techniques, titled Fabrication. My submission of a work, including large scale bobbin lace and coiled basketry made from clear plastic packaging, was accepted. My tree jumper that year was also bobbin lace made with the same material. The bobbin lace works made from plastic packaging were very well received at the festival. I enjoy being a fly on the wall listening to peoples’ comments about the work without knowing I was the creator, or even that I was there. On different occasions, I heard several people say that it looked just like bobbin lace, at which point I would speak up to say that it was bobbin lace.
When I made the first piece of giant bobbin lace from Plastic, I took a photo and sent it to my daughters. Their response was, yes, Mum, we know you make lace, so what’s new. I then took a second photo of the large lace next to the same lace design sample in a cotton thread to show the scale. The girls were OK now we get it, as with no size reference, the plastic thread just looked like a regular white thread. I design the Torchon style bobbin lace on a 2mm grid, make a sample of it using fine cotton thread to make sure it works both technically and aesthetically, then I redraw it on a 2cm grid to make the giant plastic lace—ten times enlargement.
I have taught bobbin lace and other things but not doing any at the moment with COVID-19 restrictions and dangers. With the first outing of my exhibition, Lace, just before the pandemic, I taught a short one day workshop for the gallery, just an introduction to bobbin lace, learning how to wind bobbins, do the whole stitch, and a few got to half stitch. About half or three-quarters way through the class, one participant, still struggling a bit with the whole stitch, showed me the photo of one of my works on the exhibition invitation and asked when do we get to do this? I pointed out an area on my Lace that was worked in whole stitch and said that this is what she was doing then told her you to need to be able to do the whole stitch and half stitch almost without thinking about how then you progress one step at a time learning how to make the different elements of the Lace and how to put them together. She was being somewhat overly ambitious for her first class. I exhibit mostly in Regional Art Galleries throughout Queensland. These are galleries in regional Queensland owned and run by Local Councils, which offer exposure to art and cultural exhibitions and activities to local residents. I do a lot of public programming in conjunction with my exhibitions at these galleries, including artist residencies, running workshops, doing demonstrations and talks. I have toured solo exhibitions throughout Queensland for the last ten years or so and participate in local group exhibitions. I have also had work in group exhibitions in New South Wales and Victoria, the other two states, along with Queensland on the east coast of Australia.
I am still learning to navigate social media and only do it in a limited way. However, I have received a lot (that is for me, I know it is only small in the greater scheme of things) of responses and interest from all over the world in this current body of work, making the large scale lace from recycled plastic packaging. Social media is certainly a very valuable tool in getting my work seen by a wider audience.
These are 1/10th scale versions of the large pieces made of thread created from clear plastic packaging. Logan River Lace, 3.32 m by 0.92 m and Albert River Lace, 2.8 m by 0.92 m are hanging on the outside wall of the Gallery, Mary River Lace, 11 m by 0.92 m, is hanging from the Gallery foyer ceiling. Bobbin lace is traditionally done throughout Europe. Each region developed a style and designs that reflected its unique area and culture. Thinking of this led me to the idea of making Lace the place where the exhibition is held. The first bookings for the exhibition are Gympie Regional Art Gallery and Logan Art Gallery. Both are river cities where the river has played a large part in the historical development and, therefore, the character of the area. The use of the river in the symbolism also relates to the impact of plastic waste. Clear Plastic is particularly bad in as much as it goes largely unnoticed on the environments of our waterways and oceans. Logan is a two river city, so I made a piece of Lace representing both the Logan & Albert Rivers. To get the shape of the rivers, I used maps of the Logan & Albert Rivers, which I squashed and stretched to fit the size of the Lace I wanted. I researched the flora of the Logan area then selected six plants to represent in the Lace. The fan shapes on each edge of the Lace represent trees and shrubs growing along the rivers. I enjoyed working out many variations on the basic bobbin lace fan design to create these.
These were very interesting lengths of Lace to make as most lace patterns repeat sections over and over to get the desired length, these do not. However, this did make more work as it meant instead of only working out a small section of design and repeating it, I had to work out, draw and prick out the entire length of all three laces.
I hope that you found Mary’s work inspiring and reading her story boost your own desire to explore and create to nourish your soul.