In 2012, I was commissioned by Shire Hall Gallery, Stafford, to make new work inspired by their building for an exhibition. The Shire Hall Gallery (now closed) was a contemporary craft exhibition venue within the historic Shire Hall court building completed in 1789. The wood panelled court rooms and holding cells survive along with the impressive entrance hall with plaster ceiling.
I initially intended to make a piece very much based on the textures and shapes within the building itself, but a display of criminal mugshots with their hands on their chests captivated me. There was something very personal and emotive about the hands. In the end I had no choice but to work with these images as my inspiration for the commission, and decided to focus on the images of women. The details of their clothing added even more personality to the photographs and led the way for me to make textile work about them.
I chose to use their hands as a repeating motif throughout the series of seven miniature quilts (a catch-all term for fine art textiles, not actually quilts). The idea of quilts worked for me as a reference to the lack of domestic comfort these women would have experience in prison. We normally associate quilts with safety and security.
I used layered fabrics to represent layers of history and of stories within the building, within the archive and within the women’s lives and a muted colour palette inspired by the sepia photographs as well as the structure of the building in wood, stone and lead.
The series of seven miniature quilts were displayed in 2012-13 and later purchased for the museum collections of Staffordshire County Council. They were displayed outside the court rooms until the Shire Hall was closed to the public in July 2017 and will be redisplayed in Staffordshire Record Office in August 2017.
I have continued to develop work around the Criminal Quilts theme and stories, still focussing on the visual imagery of the photographs and the motif of the hands but extending the size and scale of the work. A further small collection of miniature pieces made in 2013-14 were displayed in New York and I created a series of larger pieces for a solo exhibition of my work at the National Centre for Craft & Design in 2015. One of the pieces from that series won the Fine Art Quilt Masters competition in 2016.
Criminal Quilts continues into 2018 when I will be Artist in Residence in Staffordshire Record Office funded by Arts Council England and Staffordshire County Council. I will working on new Criminal Quilts and exploring the women’s stories in much more detail alongside archive volunteers and art students.
This phase of Criminal Quilts will be shared through community workshops, new information displays, learning resources and exhibitions in 2018. My artist residency and project officially launches in Stafford at the Record Office on Friday 8th September 2017.
Several of these pieces can be seen in exhibitions around the UK during August including the patchwork chair piece at Unit Twelve Gallery Staffordshire and the Criminal Quilts : Hanging piece at Minerva Arts Centre Llanidloes, mid Wales in Ruth’s exhibition Fragments.
Find out more at www.ruthsinger.com/criminalquilts
Dr. Fiona Peters is Reader in Crime Fiction at Bath Spa University in the UK. She is a Patricia Highsmith scholar and is director of the Captivating Criminality project.