Acknowledged uncertainties… now what?

In the context of my practice and creative works as an artist and writer, I am a weaver at heart.

Whether I’m literally spinning and knitting threads and fabrics together, constructing lines of poetry, or holding space for other people’s creativity in my educational work — I admit that I continue to be fascinated by this curious process of woven textures.

A few months ago, I was thinking about the title for an exhibition of a large scale art installation I’d curated in Scotland, exploring lineage and inter-connectivity. Whilst I thought about the essence of the project against the backdrop of social restrictions we are all experiencing, a phrase bubbled up in me that’s stuck throughout this winter season; we are all ’deeply woven’.

Somewhat ironically, I initially studied surface textiles for fashion at college. I was trained and became expert at creating beautiful clean structures that had very clear pattern and form. And yet, as the years have rolled on, I’ve had to learn that threads can be at times untethered, quite possibly frayed and often disrupted by tangles, knots or ladders.

Being a knitwear designer or weaver of any kind, requires an incredible amount of patience and practicing techniques in order to navigate ongoing disruption and construction of material matters.

Sample for Jennifer Sturrock SS21 Collection

It’s fair to say the world continues to find itself in a state of unravelling, an unknowing of sorts — of where we’re headed and what we once knew.

This of course is not new information, a year on from the entry of lockdowns and enforcement into very different rhythms across the globe, many of the original structures, institutions and patterns that held the fabric of our society together, are no longer in place. ‘A time of uncertainty’ seems to be the phrase across our media and conversations.

And so it would seem. Indeed initially, uncertainty or lack of knowledge — the metaphorical blank page can seem daunting, vulnerable and full of unknowns. Having removed all that is known from our perception, we are confronted with wild possibility, a place of unending opportunity, freedom to roam.

For some, this is an exciting adventure. The incredible vastness of this landscape offers a place that rejuvenates our energy and allows sweet relief from other times or areas of life bound by predictable structure and formula.

However, for a lot of us, it can be at times an affronting, challenging and uncomfortable position to find ourselves.

When we enter into unmapped territory, particularly near the start of another year, it is understandable and normal to feel a plethora of emotion. Faced with our own inability to perceive this new arena, we can be thrown into fear of what might happen to us or doubt in our experience or credentials for navigating such a place.

And yet, if we allow ourselves to sit there long enough, there is also incredible potential. It is a space to put pen to paper, and cultivate trust that we will in fact be carried through, albeit somewhat blindly.

Speaking of blindly, we often see this too in depictions of the Biblical transfiguration narrative, when Jesus takes some friends up a mountain and reveals his transfigured or so-called glorified form. A light so powerful — the people with him are often painted shielding their eyes or literally tumbling up-side down on the mountainside; their minds, bodies and souls at odds with a new way of seeing.

Similarly, many of the ancient mystics knew this process too of course — exploring blindness in dark clouds of unknowing — a facing and inhabiting of the void so to speak.

In light of all this unknowing and unravelling and — perhaps more importantly beyond that — a subsequent blank space, it is interesting to pause to consider what’s emerging for us now, or in the near future.

Like it or not, our previous assumptions are being challenged and underlying concerns exposed. It is a productive place to gauge our present securities and essentially, to let go!

Something I’ve found myself returning to often recently is that well-known phrase; ‘Trust, lean not on your own understanding’….

There is an instant vulnerability when we step into that environment. It is a sort of humble departure from our own strength to stand up in this world and acknowledgement, in most cases, that the best place to acclimatise, is to lie down.

In our lying down there is something of a surrender, perhaps a primal call or returning to be close to the dust from which we came.

I saw this play out vividly in my childhood as I watched sheep lose their coats in the large cavernous sheds on my uncle’s farm. Of course, I can’t claim that at the tender age of ten or eleven I equated the shearing process to an illustration of such a profound and necessary rhythm of life. But I do remember watching the farmers skilfully moving the sheep from one place to another, working the clippers through the thick layers of wool in such a repeated pattern, it could almost have been some sort of surreal version of trance-like dance.

I recall the gentle hum of the machines that filled the air as the coats, now detached from their owners, were thrown into the air and then folded in a precise sequence. Throughout the day the piles of fibres grew and could be seen everywhere, scattered on the floor like snow. The smell of lanolin, which is an oily wax-like substance that emerges from the sheep’s glands and is produced for keeping the animal warm, was palatable.

My cousins and I used to sit on huge boulder-like bags holding tightly packed fleece. And, as we perched, our clothes inevitably being marked by the oil seeping from the wool, we would survey the scene of detachment and dessimation.

It was not a literal death for the sheep of course, but the process did require a healthy trust by the sheep in the dexterity and abilities of the farmers, who wielded blades so close to the actual skin of the animal as they lay, one a wrong move could end in a slightly bloody outcome. Interestingly, I’m told that the sheep could in fact suffer and worst case die down the line if the shearing didn’t take place. This yearly rhythm is a necessary shedding, indeed an essential process for paving their way ahead and for new growth.

Similarly in my weaving work with fibres as an adult, when a physical tangle or knot occurs, the more I try to untangle it, in a bid to resolve quickly, and under my own parameters, the more the fibres knit together.

The art of dis-entanglement, is in fact found in resting or leaving the fibres — trying not to work it out, so that the threads can physically ‘relax’ and enable a gentle teasing out, unravelling and pulling away of threads for starting over.

As cliche as that could sound, there’s something in both these analogies that holds true and have an inkling, can be applied to our own circumstances, spiritual walks and life’s ongoing journeys, particularly at the moment.

Trust, lean not on your own understanding ….

I’ve rediscovered a verse recently that backs up the essence of that pretty well:

‘The conclusion is clear, the original rest is still in place. Divine rest (some may say our connection with God) celebrates the finished work; whoever enters into that rest immediately abandons his own efforts to compliment what has already been perfected.’ (Hebrews 4)

Often when we’re facing disruption, an unraveling and then beyond that, the impending blank page, we can be tempted to look for a familiar route out. Perhaps even dull our emotion by medicating or controlling it with something that brings quick and easy comfort to our growing anxieties….

But despite our beliefs, there is a landscape of rest to be embraced in every situation. We can trust that process, of unravelling into something of a blank slate, as a necessary and important step for creating the future we hope for — albeit painful at times.

In fact these moments are not sent to destroy the fabric of our lives, but merely create an invitation for fuller integration underneath the surface tensions — body, soul, spirit as one — something very beautiful and deeply woven.

Adapted from a transcript from talk given at the Breathe and the Clay online ‘Communion’ event, 5th of February 2021.

weaving waves, words and matter //@jensturrock