It’s 'Four Thoughts' time and this week, we’ve been chatting to Somerset artist Jenni Dutton. Jenni’s created an incredibly special body of work known as ‘The Dementia Darnings’ and she’ll be exhibiting it at ACEarts gallery in Somerton, from 18th March to 15th April.
Jenni started the series of portraits in 2011, whilst she was caring for her mum who was developing dementia. We were so struck by the power and love within her portraits that we wanted to find out more... so we asked Jenni four questions we thought you’d also want to know the answers to. Here goes!
1. Can you tell us about The Dementia Darnings and why you started making them?
The Darnings grew out of the joy mum and I felt when we looked through family photo albums together. I decided to embroider - to draw with threads - some family members. It was amazing how many mum recognised. I then took one of the most iconic images of my mum and made it really big - 130x90 centimetres. I tried a technique using short running stitches, as though I was making a cross hatched drawing, building the tones to create the form. This was the first Dementia Darning and I’ve now made 15 over about 6 years. Each one takes around 4 months to make.
All of my previous work focused on my own life and experiences, but as my role as mum’s carer increased, it seemed only possible to continue by making her (and our situation) the subject. It was my way of including her in my work and I was so amazed by her reaction - her engagement with the process, given her deteriorating memory. She really enjoyed having me around… watching me curiously when I brought the pieces to her house to work on them. Using very familiar images from our past for the first few Darnings, I was involving her and the wider family.
The series developed as mum went into a nursing home. I kept on making the darnings and they became about ageing, as well as about loss of memory and the development of dementia. Some of the images show mum’s deteriorating health, but she still had spirit even though she was blind and bed-bound. I held her hand, talked and sang to her during that time and she responded as she was able.
To me, it's really important that the portraits are made on such a big scale - the largest size I can fit into my car! It means they become something other than just a portrait and my mum deserved to be monumental, despite being frail and bedridden.
2. We'd love to hear a little bit more about your mum. Can you tell us what she was like?
My mum was lovely. She was an army wife - very family orientated. She loved dancing and music. She was sociable and very energetic.
As the Dementia took hold, she continued to walk her little dog, Kimba, endlessly around Milverton until she was no longer safe to be left. That’s when she went into an excellent care home in Taunton - Calway House. About 18 months ago she died peacefully. Myself and my brother were with her when she passed away. My first grandchild was born on the day of her funeral - very special.
3. What are your hopes for the exhibition?
I’ve shown the Darnings around the country, but the ACE Gallery in Somerton is the nearest I’ve exhibited to home. I have new pieces to hang and I’m experimenting with showing them in pairs, rather than chronologically. The way the work looks in a new space is always interesting and I find the experience really moving, especially meeting visitors and hearing their stories that are often related to ageing and losing a loved one to dementia.
4. Can you tell us a secret about you or your work that no-one else knows?
When I’m passing the Darnings, I often say 'Hi Mum' out loud to her. It makes me chuckle.
If you get the chance to see The Dementia Darnings in the next few weeks, definitely do go along. There’s also a private viewing on the 17th March at ACE (everyone’s welcome) and a talk by Jenni there on Saturday April 1st, 2-4pm. We can’t wait to go ourselves. The detail and the emotion in the portraits is amazing.