Visual Arts


My first solo visual arts show

When I got married, my mother sewed my wedding dress. Eighteen months after my wedding, Mum died in a car accident, and my wedding dress became the last thing she ever sewed for me. On the 30th anniversary of her death, I unstitched the dress she made me. Then, over many, many months, I stitched the text of pearls onto the dress. One of the most enriching times of my life.

I don’t remember ever having a discussion with Mum about whether she would sew my dress, but I think that from the moment I told her I was getting married, it would have been assumed. Her sewing skills were exceptional, and she had always sewed for me—most of my childhood wardrobe, taffeta dresses for university balls, a week’s worth of tailored clothes for work experience and of course a twelve-inch ruler costume.

Eighteen months after my wedding, and thirty years ago this August, Mum died suddenly in a car accident. My wedding dress would always have been significant in my wardrobe of course, but Mum’s early death transformed it into the last thing she would ever sew for me.

One of Mum’s closest friends, who is still a treasured part of my life, said, as she was saying goodbye after the funeral that something she had done after her own mother died was to keep something of her mother’s in her wardrobe. Not to wear, not to pullout and look at, but simply to allow her hand to brush past it every now and then and in that way, carry her memory through her day. It was perfect advice.

I had always seen Mum’s wardrobe as something of my own playground, and was constantly ‘borrowing’ things. When she died, I kept the coats she had only recently finished, some clothes for work, and of course the wedding dresses—the one that she sewed for me and the one she sewed for herself. ‘Mother of the bride’ she would say with her trademark blend of glee and jaded cynicism. Those two garments are all that remains of our shared wardrobe, and across the years they have been sitting in my wardrobe, one of those things that I never consciously register, but am somehow conscious of.

At the time of first performing Pearls, I was also starting out on a new career as a funeral celebrant, and I felt that at the core of a funeral was the person’s life story. In the culture I grew up in we often describe stories as having a certain narrative arc marked by a beginning, a middle and an end. Life isn’t like that of course. The stories in our lives, about our lives, weave themselves in and out of each other. The meaning or significance we give to them changing in interpretation, magnitude or intensity. And this is certainly the case with Mum’s pearls. Not only in the story I tell in Pearls but as pearls is the jewel used to mark 30th wedding anniversaries it becomes a symbolic reminder of the 30th anniversary of her death.

At funerals, I often say that our relationships with the significant people in our lives don’t end with death. I sometimes worry that when I say this it sounds trite or cliched, but this is one of the most important things I’ve learnt in my experiences with death and grief.

The process of unstitching and restitching this dress has given me time with Mum in a way that I have never experienced before.

There were the sounds…the whirr of the machine, the scratching of the pins in their tin, the scissors clunking on the table…these are all deep from my childhood.And maybe from long before that.

There was the touch…the slip of the fabric on my fingertips, separating the seams, knowing that Mum and I are the only people who know this garment so intimately.

There were the many unexpected moments…standing up after the first few hours of unpicking, seeing the tiny curls of threads caught on my jeans and my jumper, brushing some off, leaving some there, allowing them to stay wherever they fall. Bringing traces of Mum back to my physical world.

There was the time…slow and gentle hours, unpicking the many thousands of stitches.Then, the machine set up on the kitchen table, sewing my own many thousands of stitches back in.

Hour after hour. And I was never bored.

 While I was working on this project I also realised just how many of the tools and notions from Mum’s (and even Nana’s) days at the sewing machine I have been using over the years. The stitch ripper, buttons, press-studs, even a box of tailor’s chalk. The pinsI’ve used to attach the fabric to the board are Mum’s (and the years have blunted them, so they were very hard to push in—as the callus on my thumb attests).

I had intended to pick all of the stabiliser away (the paper I used to write the story on to make sure it would all fit, and which keeps the fabric taut enough to sew). But as I pulled it away and looked at what was left behind, I loved its effect. It seemed it was a reminder of the project’s many literal and metaphoric layers.

And there was something deeper too in wanting to leave some of the paper behind. I didn’t want tofinish. I have never forgotten the night of Mum’s funeral as one by one ourfamily and friends left. I didn’t want them to leave. I didn’t want the day to end. I didn’t want to face the truth of tomorrow. And that is why the finaltask of this project remains unfinished. Endless.

On the gallery website they wrote:

Port Pirie Regional Art Gallery is delighted to showcase, Tracy Crisp Pearls: Unstitched Threads of Love, a deeply personal exploration of the bonds between mothers and daughters, the power of love, and the transformative nature of art. By repurposing her wedding dress as a canvas for the script of her show ‘Pearls,’ Crisp weaves together her mother’s legacy and her own artistic expression. The exhibition, held at The Vivienne Crisp Gallery, named after the artist’s mother, invites visitors to reflect on their own relationships with their mothers and the enduring strength of familial bonds. Accompanied by essays as well as video and audio clips, the exhibition delves into themes of grief, love, and artistic creation. Tracy Crisp Pearls: Unstitched Threads of Love honours Crisp’s mother, celebrates storytelling, and offers a space for contemplation, empathy, and healing.