The Secret Staircase exhibition

The opening of The Secret Staircase exhibition at Rook Lane Chapel, Frome, this Thursday – will mark International Women’s Day (IWD) 2012 – but will also be exactly a year since I began working for the Rook Lane Arts Trust. To begin on IWD – and then to launch my final exhibition on IWD – fits very nicely with my feminist ideals.


Here is the preview that I have been posting about town:

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2012, artist Caroline Isgar and author Michèle Roberts will transport their exhibition/installation ‘The Secret Staircase’ to Rook Lane Chapel in Frome, Somerset.

On Thursday 8 March, 6-9pm, the exhibition will open – exploring mother-child separation. Roberts (winner of W. H. Smith Literary award, shortlisted for Booker) has produced the prose and Isgar (artist and printmaker) has created the visual artwork.

They were initially inspired by tokens discovered at the Foundling Museum, in London – identifying tags, rings, plaques, coins etc. Seeing the tiny tokens that women had left with their babies, in order to be able to recognise them later on – and knowing that they were eventually taken away by the authorities – was deeply distressing.

Roberts said: ‘It is heart-breaking to recognise the tokens as symbols of identity that are simultaneously symbols of loss.’
Out of the symbols of mothers losing their babies, they began to play with the idea of a daughter losing her mother and using tokens in the same way, to identify the lost mother.

The artist and author worked together at every stage of the process, Isgar creating the visual components for the exhibition – comprising of a woodcut block, a woodcut print, a printed text and an artist’s book – and Roberts writing first person narrative accounts, from the perspective of the daughter – and re-writing traditional nursery rhymes.

The prose is emotionally charged, picking apart the role of mother and treading fearlessly over the taboo feelings of envy and insecurity that are often rife in the mother-daughter relationship. In one section, Roberts writes:

‘For a long time I believed that my life was necessarily at your expense; that my freedom killed you. Now I don’t.’
Underneath the daughter’s direct speech runs a series of rewritten nursery rhymes, which express all that the daughter does not dare openly say:
‘Roses are red violets are blue ignore the child who cries boo-hoo’

Isgar has produced beautiful, emotive artwork. The images in the installation are enchanting but also slightly haunting – suggesting folklore, legends and myths, domestic artefacts and children’s writing exercises.

These images have been printed as an unusually large-scale woodcut (1 x 3 metres). The form of the woodcut block itself is a table, inspired by the elm refectory table at the Foundling Museum.

Isgar says: ‘Most fairy stories/rhymes have a sinister edge, which Michele has used brilliantly in her writing. The visual side, depicting archetypal images of the fox, baying dogs, a screeching owl – set against the domestic imagery and learning exercises, emphasises the imagination of the child escaping the mundane domestic life. The sinister edge particularly reflects the feelings of fear and insecurity one can experience as a child in a mother/ daughter relationship’.

The exhibition will run until Sunday 18 March 2012. Open daily 10am – 4pm.

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