Setting the Sheets Free
Over the course of their commission with residents in St. Georges Court, Heather Parnell & David Mackie have been exploring the basic realities of cleaning laundry and putting it out to dry in the public gaze. Something many people still have to do, either through financial necessity or an innate desire, in this age of labour saving white goods with an insatiable supply of expendable energy.
Working in close collaboration with a core group of residents, who have travelled along fellow artist, Glenn Davison’s Yellow Brick Road, the artists have conceived a series of exquisite and tactile sculptural — but equally functional — washing line posts, the like of which haven’t been seen before.
These unique works of art made exclusively for the St. George’s Court estate feature concrete poetry epitaphs derived from an evocative poem created by Claire Potter and the residents (presented below) that draws on their poignant stories about laundry culture of the past and present.
The artists’ bespoke Poetry Washing Lines give voice to a common culture of the past, a longing for a more communal engagement in the future and a fitting tribute to an older generation who care deeply about their community and sense of place, against all the odds that austerity brings in the South Wales Valleys.
Washing is Work
Woman’s. Scrubbing board blisters on my knuckles, the old tin bath,
No bathroom, no softener, bucket for soaking, bending, plunging,
Purita and coal tar soap, Carbolic, blocks of Fairy to rinse out the swearing
so we’d be blowing bubbles for weeks, and no wash on a Sunday,
just chapel and cooked dinners. The mangle turning on a Monday
made everything tidy — good creases pressed with elbow grease.
Better the Line
than the dryer in the wet room — the fumes make us cough,
keep us inside, the tumbler on relentless, no open window,
just a pipe; the wall under my window is black. It’s all to do
with the filter. Better the line where I used to see Yvonne
and go for a cup of tea, our keys under the mat, our children
and chores shared. Better the line for joining people.
You need a bit of flap on your washing, both breeze and wind,
and a little bit of human connection; we’re all related anyway.
The Old Ways (Though the Effort was Immense)
My mother’s glass scrubbing board, tough and thick
Reckett’s blue bags to whiten the whites
Transformed grey hair made from age and worry. How
the clothes looked alive the way they waved
in the wind. We pegged in the frost, the bedding
stiff as boards, fresh, clean, glistening — good sleeping.
Dolly pegs and the washing dolly, bent backs, piles
of laundry, ever growing. Washing is work, is memories,
is pain, is motherhood.
Remember your Mother
teaching you to do it? To Peg? Mothers teach
daughters all sorts. I remember my mother’s words,
“Two nappies three pegs” you could share a peg
and a nod and chat with your neighbour; she enjoyed
that as her, setting the sheets free, the napkin
blowing white in the wind. My friend used to ask me
how do you get them so white? I boiled them as she’d boiled
them, in the bucket with an aspirin or false teeth soaking
tablets, they chattered alright on the line as my mother
nursed me Welsh fashion; the only way mime would go to sleep.
for thirty five years — my husband.
When the nappies were no longer needed
I sewed them together, made one big towel,
all squares and the best money could buy;
he’d bring it home pit-brown and his clothes
shaken and soaked overnight and shaken
and soaked and wrung out and empty
and washed and dried and ironed
and dirtied. My father trapped underground
in the fifties and Six Bells sadness. The past
and present; the clothes look alive.
Its Like an Ending
When there are no lines, just machines and clothes-horse windows
though it’s surprising how much they dry out of my window
where I sit and not be seen, think on days of folding
that was a choreography, kisses over the sheets, being
out of sync with my husband, but me and mam would fold the same
and wouldn’t have to say anything. My father’s jacket on the back
of the door, kept his shape. The shape is a lovely thing and smell, too,
though to that day, I’d washed all my boy’s clothes, bedding, freshened.
When we came home without him there was nothing left in the
basket or on his bed that still had his scent, nothing to cuddle,
to cwtch. So some people say they love doing their washing
watching it blowing in the breeze, but when something like that
happens, it’s an ending, an ending of everything.
Remember the Line
and the wind that blows all things
share a peg if you’re short
sew things together
we’re all related. Laugh
Clare Potter and the lovely ladies of St. Georges.