By Sarah Laurenson
Jen Deschenes has a gift for telling stories through textiles. She gives old fabrics a new life, adorning silk stockings and parachutes with delicate embroidery and hand-printed designs.
Jen trained at Glasgow School of Art and the Royal College of Art. Her work and her identity as a maker is steeped in the culture, history and folklore of Whalsay, the island in Shetland where she grew up.
Named after its whale-like shape, Whalsay is probably best known as the home of Shetland’s fishing fleet. All that coming and going, along with memories of things from far off places, has influenced how Jen sees her craft as a way of telling tales.
“I like to imagine myself as a storyteller but in a different medium. The entire body of my work is in the recreation of intimate and nostalgic objects or imagery to tell stories of or from the past.
“As a child I loved spending time in my granny’s attic. I was fascinated to find books full of drawings of boats from my grandfather’s side of the family. It inspired the way I draw and look at material, and also my love of paper ephemera.
“I have always been drawn to things that hadn't come from Shetland: furs hanging in granny’s wardrobe, china sets and delicate silks brought back by sailors from afar, books published elsewhere.
“I like to explore ideas about how materials are traded and move around the Earth. The things of everyday life with their own unspoken stories – objects and remnants like the pottery washed ashore smoothed by the sea – set apart from their everyday use, become echoes of the past.”
Whalsay, or the ‘bonnie isle’ as it is known locally, is renowned for the craftsmanship of its hand-knitters. On the surface, Jen’s work is a world apart from spiders-web lace and colourful Fair Isle garments she watched being made by the women around her as she grew up.
Look a little closer, however, and her work seems to mirror the processes and narrative qualities of the crafts she was immersed in during those formative years. In an exhibition of bed-jackets, she explored ideas of womanhood, specifically being a woman from Shetland: “I created a narrative, a visual love story, using the feminine medium of textiles but speaking of fishing, man and the sea.”
“My mum and her mum have been a massive influence on my life, and I have been accustomed to them always having something to ‘mak’.* I admire knitting so much and always have. The sound of knitting wires is akin to a ticking clock or breathing; they are a time marker.
“Mum is a perfectionist. Her knitting and stitching is beautiful. Everything has to be made to a certain standard. I suppose, unwittingly, I have picked up the same perfectionism, but I am equally fascinated by the idea of wabi-sabi - to find perfection in the imperfect.
“I am intrigued by the overlooked and disregarded in life. I think that’s why I am drawn to delicate fabrics and processes; trying to make beauty out of overlooked stories and materials, and finding perfection in them. They are not the easiest of materials, but they are very giving.
"It's also why I love embroidery. It is a slow activity, quietening. Stitches are like words on a page that cannot be read.”
The relationship between Whalsay’s men out at sea and women at home was the inspiration behind Jen’s work for Naked Craft, an exhibition currently touring Scotland, having recently finished a run in Canada.
“I found an article about a bronze horse figurine that was found in the walls of a ruined kirk in Shetland. Charms like this were left in the belief that they would cure ailments and ward-off evil spirits. Fishermen have always been, and still are, highly superstitious. Sometimes the charms were left by women, ever conscious of the fragility of life at sea, to keep their men safe.”
“During a residency at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop I became fascinated by the foundry and pouring bronze. I decided to make figures based on the charms to represent ideas of superstition, passing time and objects for protection.”
Jen fused her ideas with other craft techniques to make a series of boat effigies - vessels and containers for supernatural objects, with sails embroidered to represent journeys across time and space.
Such imaginative wanderings take Jen off to other places, drawing her ever farther north: “I feel more attracted to bleak, cold looking islands, like Fogo off Newfoundland, and others in Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. There is something kind of magical and untouched about those places."
“I love the openness of Shetland - the hills, the sea and tranquillity. Islands will always have a draw for creative people. I think it is due to the idea of a place being separate from everything else, somewhere to think and be free. And there is something so very special about being near the sea.”
Through a process of gathering, keeping and reworking materials, Jen transforms the most unassuming of objects into microcosms of other worlds in other times. Her delicate and thoughtful pieces recast the notion of islands as peripheral and isolated places into something far more interesting: richly-connected communities, where all sorts of things come ashore.
* Mak is the Shetland dialect word for ‘make’
Sarah Laurenson is a researcher and writer specialising in craft and design. She is the editor of 'Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present', an illustrated collection of essays on wool, knitting and weaving. Originally from Shetland, she now lives in Edinburgh where she is completing a doctorate on the history of Scotland's jewellery craft.