and the work of Fran Allison
To have your work associated with sentimentality could for many be considered an unforgivable insult. When I first approached Fran Allison with the proposition of writing a piece on the relationship of her practice to this highly loaded term she felt far from complimented. However through discussion Allison has come to the conclusion that the works she creates sit firmly within the territory of sentiment.
The reason for Allison’s change of heart is her new found understanding of the true definition of the term. Among other things it refers to personal experience expressed through feelings or emotion . This reading in itself is not distinctly different from popular perception, but the less then flattering connotations arise when sentiment becomes ‘cloying’. This subtle shift in perception changes sentiment from a straight forward expression of personal experience to a clinging, uncomfortable display. Allison believes that if the viewer, (including the academic), is made aware of the intended meaning of sentiment then they would be more open to an appreciation of work which references memory and nostalgia.
Allison believes that the negative associations many have towards sentiment and sentimentality is due to patriarchal conditioning. She considers there to be a distinct gender bias in the way individuals relate to the handmade which can be traced back to basic stereotypical differences between the sexes. The male system of response is considered to be logical, academic and orderly whereas the female becomes the antithesis; emotional, over-dramatic and unpredictable. Allison suggests that her work, which is very much entrenched in the arena of emotive response, becomes associated with this female response system and is therefore considered to lack depth. This is a reading she is very quick to dismiss. Because Allison’s practice is driven in many cases by a sense of nostalgia through the use of iconographic materials and symbols she believes she has the basic starting blocks to develop dialogues which critique readings related to the handmade and the domestic. By creating works which elicit emotional reactions Allison has provided access to ideas which more often then not work against stereotypical views of domestic craft and its association with sentimentality.
In her practice Allison has created a number of works which play on the relationship of domestic iconography to gender stereotypes. Her experimentation with the materiality of objects has led to an in depth understanding of how to reference issues while simultaneously questioning their relevance. In ‘pretty’ Allison combines all of the trappings of the ‘girly girl’ complex she has consistently rallied against. The neckpiece and brooch set feature all of the traditional associations, with shades of soft pink, delicate doily flowers and cushioned felt stems. Their overwhelming girlyness belies the distaste out of which they were conceived. Allison’s critique of the domestic does not stop at issues of femininity, her references to childhood nostalgia and the mother figure again question the way assumptions are made on face value. ‘Cheers’, a brooch made from the dislocated handles of two white china tea cups joined to form a love heart could be considered an analysis of the preconceptions we have about the happy home, the title relating a slightly forced over-optimistic joviality in the traditional call for thanks, which does little to reaffirm views that a women’s place is in the home. Both the ‘Bunnykins’ and ‘Running Bunny’ brooches rely on childhood associations that are both real and imagined. The children’s dinner sets these characters have been plucked from were designed to reinforce romantic notions of English country traditions which have no real application in an antipodean context. Childhood colonial conditioning imported from the motherland has dictated the way our memories have been shaped. These are not necessarily readings Allison has intended, but they clearly illustrate the breadth of interpretation that these seemingly innocuous works can illicit, and banish any preconception that her practice is an affirmation of antiquated domestic values.
Underlying much of Fran Allison’s work is an interest in ideas. Her practice, although very much about body adornment, is not solely based on an exploration of aesthetics. She is deeply aware of the impact iconographic materials and symbols have on the emotive responses of the viewer. Allison utilizes this consistently in an effort to draw attention to the gender biased readings of works experienced by makers exploring domestic themes in craft. Her willingness to embrace sentiment as an appropriate positioning for her practice does little to help break gender related stereotypes unless there is a greater understanding and acceptance of the true definition of this term. None of us can say we do not have feelings, that we have no emotions. The only obstacle left to us now is to concede that we are all susceptible to the lure of sentiment.
By Karl Chitham
Sentiment - The first in the Made To Order craft series appeared in ArtAll Magazine #77. This article has been published with kind permission from Artists Alliance.