sarah burgess



Whilst working with pot shards collected from a local rubbish tip, where remnants from early 20thC hydropathic establishments are buried in ash and then revealed by the action of time and water, I found that the fractured nature of the shards and the incident of their loss resonated with ideas of fragility and moments of incident that disrupt the continuity of everyday life, specifically stroke and the onset of dementia. Being directly involved with illness in a close relative has been a background to my work and life during the last two years.

Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida 1984) writing on photography discusses the way in which for him the photograph doesn’t bring back the real presence of the images, rather it confirms that the subject once existed in time and place. This “punctum” informs my ideas on the recognition of something which speaks on a metaphysical level as well as being evidence of the reality of past experience. I cannot deny that someone owned and used these cups and plates, someone broke them and someone threw them away: Washing, sorting and arranging the pot shards in fluid relationships led me to investigate taxonomy and the writing of Georges Perec, whose work on the detail of the “everyday” encourages me to look for value in ordinary things and the narratives that they suggest. Writing in Life A User’s Manual (1987) Perec includes the dimension of time in tracing descriptions of how the arrangement of rooms in a building have altered over the years. This continuous state of flux influenced my fluid, ever changing, arrangements of shards and also later work, incorporating fluid interpretations of meaning and sequences of events. Exploring moments of incident and accident, I worked with falling and suspended plates and interacted directly with the shards to create circular “plate” forms with fractures of wrapped or contrasting shards. The reconfigured shards don’t fit one another and I value the fractures and spaces as much as the shards themselves. The shards, with their memories of lost lives, prompt research into souvenirs and our need for nostalgia. Projecting the future onto the past we yearn for an ideal experience, valuing the collected beach pebble as a signifier, recalling a half remembered perfect moment. This awareness of yearning, an attempt to capture something, has become a continuing element in my work.

Collecting detritus, the residue of shards from the tip, led to explorations of the relationship between art and archaeology. Both art and archaeology display “backward looking curiosity”, questioning who we are and where we come from. (Renfrew C. Figuring it Out. 2003) Artists and archaeologists use “lost” items to question established ideas about our world. Conversations between objects and their relationship to one another, both at the moment of discovery and in gallery display, facilitate dialogue and speculation. Surrealist and Dadist art questions everyday objects as if they are art, provoking continuing debate about what art is, or can be and asking the viewer to forget previous assumptions and look with new eyes.

Burning became important, referencing both the birth of the pot in the kiln, its death in the furnace and re-discovery in the ash tip as well as the idea of fire in the brain signifying the action of stroke. The inability to fully predict and control the burning process introduced a valuable element of randomness into my usual precise and ordered methods of work.

Exploring ideas around first-aid and emergency sewing kits as a further response to incident, it seems that their ordered contents are small worlds of hope in a crisis. These kits never quite deliver their promise; the plaster is too small, the thread runs out…… Limited resources provoke improvisational and surreal ideas of trying to repair damage and hold both physical and psychological ”things” together with inappropriate materials. These inadequate sources of help speak of their function but are impotent in a real emergency.Working with standard safety pins, I constrain their action and purpose with wrapping and binding and attempt to improvise a safety pin whilst celebrating the non-functionality of my pins. 

The autobiographical nature of my work over the last two years has reflected life experiences; dementia, stroke and caring responsibilities have informed and given impetus to my ideas. Whilst I do not want these experiences to define me as an artist, I cannot deny that they have coloured the way I see things. It seems important to keep both the branch and the safety pin active in my work, physically separate from one another but each informing the reading of the other. They speak of the dualities of passivity and potential as well as life and death. The pin, a manmade functional object with differing states, passive, primed for action or active. The branch is a functionless natural form with the potential for eloquence. Rather than the static wrapped state itself, my focus is on the shifting from one state to another, the state of flux. Both the pin and the branch encompass two states of being, a “before” and an “after” and their narratives express time and process. They speak of the regeneration of a broken, damaged thing and the ambiguities of their interpretation are an integral part of their being.  Uncertainty about the direction of travel has become important; being wrapped or unravelling. The same ambiguity emerges in the narratives implicit in my work with pot shards; smashed or reformed? The red branch is just an arrested point, a manifestation of a stage in a process.  The lying bush lends itself to further investigative work; fine wrapping of sections to test responses in both myself and other viewers regarding the direction of the suggested process and the way these signals are read. I recognise that a characteristic of my work is meticulous detail and I am drawn to the excitement of combining highly involved work with other pieces that are immediate and spontaneous. I see my role as an agent of change, bearing witness to extraordinary/ordinary things and celebrating the flux of life.


1975Cambridge College of Art. 18+ Foundation
1979 – 1983Chesterfield College of Art & Design. C&G Part 1 and 2 Embroidery. Dist.
1988Cert. Ed in FE. Huddersfield University
1983 – 1993Part Time and Fractional Post teaching for the Sheffield College, Chesterfield College of Art and West Nottinghamshire College.
1993 – 2000Full time lecturer, the Sheffield College
1993 – 2003Course Co-ordinator OCN Access to Art and Design
2000 -2008Fractional posts, Sheffield College
2000 - contTutor to textiles group, Mainly Stitch.
2003 - 2008.Personal tutor, textiles tutor HND Design Crafts, HND Fine Art
18+ Foundation, Access to HE
C&G Embroidery
2007 - 2011Distance Learning Tutor, BA Hons Textiles.
2008 – contMentor and tutor to Sheffield Mentor Group
2009Summer School, Stirling University.
2009Art in Action, workshops
2010Embroiderer’s Guild Eastern Region Summer School
2010Textile Study Group Summer School Tutor
2009 - 2011MA Textiles Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University
2011 - contFreelance exhibiting and teaching

I taught art, design and textiles in colleges for many years whilst maintaining my own practise. The stimulus of teaching was also part of my art education with the need to motivate  students often generating new ideas and ways of working with diverse materials. I do much less teaching now but it is still a powerfully motivating force for me.

Returning to study in 2009 on an MA Textiles course at Manchester School of Art provided an opportunity to explore the context and ideas around my work in greater depth. The experience of a late MA has been very rewarding and revealed links between my work and life that I had previously not suspected, opening up freer ways of working as well as confirming the importance of drawing in my practise.

Previous training in stitched textiles gives me deep technical knowledge and problem solving skills but recent work has become simpler, more restrained and powerful. Quality of line and mark are always crucial but I feel confident now about working with whatever materials and methods will express my ideas. Heavy materials such as wood, glass and ceramic shards are often contrasted with fine threads, semi-transparent fabrics and drawn thread structures. This approach was encouraged by collaboration with a glass artist, originally on commissions for stained glass windows but recently on more innovative, experimental work combining glass with textiles.

I enjoy collaboration with museum collections, the stimulus of unexpected objects sparks new ideas and connecting thoughts about display and the placing of work.

Living  away from a city has its limitations but my sources are close at hand and having a studio at my home allows me to work at whatever time of day seems right. Being surrounded by countryside has an effect on my work, not always obvious to a viewer, but cycles of life, growth and plant structure are often in mind.


Exhibition History

2014Art in Action, Waterperry House.
2014Printing Sheffield. Millennium Gallery Sheffield
2013SGFA Drawing exhibition prize winner. Menier Gallery, Southwark. London
2013Pinpoint 1. One Church Street Gallery. Gt Missenden
2013 Art in Action, Waterperry HouseExhibiting and demonstrating
2011 - 2012Derbys City Open. Derby City Art Gallery
2011MA Show Holden Gallery, Manchester School of Art.
2011Memory Blanks, Crewe
2011Individual and Collective, Textile Study Group exhibition, London Dublin and Harrofate
2010Visual Thinking. The Hub, Sleaford
2009 - 2010Textile cfor St Edmund's Church South Chingford
2008 - 2010Creative Dialogues, Bankfield Museum Halifax.
Walsall Museum and Art Gallery.
Taunton Brewhouse Gallery.
Peebles Art Gallery.
Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery.
2008 - 2009Art of the Stitch, The Waterhall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Deutches Textilmuseum, Krefeld, Germany.
Museum of Applied Arts Budapest.
2008G'love Stories. Wirksworth Festival.
2008York Minster, commissioned designwork
2008Prism Exhibition. Mall Galleries, London.
2005- 2007G'love Stories, solo exhibition, Ashton Under Lyne Art Gallery.
Bankfield Museum, Halifax.
Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.
2006The Art of the Stitch.
Bristol Royal Academy
The Hub Sleaford
The Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead
2005Not What it Seams, Part 2. Bankfield Museum Halifax
2004Stained class window, Designer and collaborator, All Saints' Church Matlock
2004Not What it Seams, Part 1.
London. Dublin, Harrogate
2003Material Works, Off the Wall. Curator and exhibitor, Enginuity, Ironbridge Gorge Industrial Museum.
2002St Wilfrid's Church Egginton. Stained glass design and collaboration
2001-2002Bold as Brass.
Cajoba Gallery, Birkenhead
Fire and Iron Gallery, Leatherhead.
The Otter Gallery, Chichester
Salisbury Museum
Museum of South Devon
2001Art of the Stitch
The Mall Gallery, London
The Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead
2000Textile panels series, St Helen's Church Etwell
2000-2001To Boldly Sew, Textiles for the Twenty First Century.
Dundee and Edinburgh