On 1 January 2003, my first husband, Rob Frost, asked me what New Year resolutions I wanted to make. I suggested maybe a little textile course.
I began with a class in Regent’s Park, but unfortunately it closed soon after. As I was working full time, the best way seemed to be a long-distance course, finishing with a degree in 2006 from Middlesex University.
I taught drama from 1989 for five years, and then set up a performing-arts centre in Raynes Park, and ran it till 2005. I was managing a team of gap-year volunteers; so all this solitary work on textiles is very different. I only acted if I was really needed; usually, I was directing. But I like theatre sets and large-scale storytelling; so those are two connections with my work now.
Starting on this huge textile project “Threads through Revelation” was an act of faith. The three-year project, in terms of my salary, materials, stands, books, and leaflets, cost £120,000. If I’d realised it would cost so much I don’t think I would have started. Thanks mainly to friends and individual supporters, £104,000 has been raised. And I’m still trusting God for the rest. I did lots of commissions for the Deo Gloria Trust. Because of my work in cathedrals, it was probably easier to get the backing to do this large Revelation project.
Traditionally, women have stitched for the Church — and they have been unpaid. I often think, therefore, that textiles are seen as less important than other crafts and arts, and there can be a reluctance to fund the work.
Working on the Book of Revelation was inspired by going to see the work of the artist Marc Chagal in Vence, in southern France. I just stood in awe before them, and dreamed the dream that would become Threads through Revelation.
It’s taken up a lot of my time over the past three years and three months. The study of this strange book has made me grapple with issues of life and faith, death and judgement, hell and eternity, the new heaven and new earth. It has caused me to question and rethink my faith, but, ultimately, given me great hope that eternity can be a wonderful thing — an exciting adventure lived with a God who lovingly wipes away all the tears we shed in this stained world in which we now live.
Revelation is beyond words, and, in a sense, beyond knowing. I have always loved this last book of the Bible, because it opens up a glimpse of another world, a vision of what is and what is to be. It uses visual imagery more than words.
I’ve chosen to use the same images as described by John, although if he were having this vision today, I’m sure the army of locusts might well be stealth bombers.
Each of the 14 panels started as a plain old cotton bed-sheet. Not a new one, but one that probably carries all kinds of memories: moments of sadness and joy, hopes and fears, pleasure and pain, dreams and nightmares.
The sheets were hand dyed, then several layers of different coloured silks were stitched on top and trimmed back to give glimpses of lower layers of silk, and the painted fabric on the bottom. This technique seems quite appropriate for the revealing of the secret things of Revelation, and the silks give wonderfully frayed edges which give an untidy end result. Revelation is not neat and tidy. Life is not neat and tidy.
I’d never attempted to represent animals or people in textiles before, and discovered that my detailed sketches could not be translated into silks and threads. So I simplified the style to a more graphic design, showing most figures in profile, and using just a few stitched lines to represent the detail.
The work on each panel changes all the time as I read the text, sketch ideas, make design choices. In fact, I started again on the final panel, “New Creation”, because I wanted to make changes: not to have John represented, to make the city bigger, to change the shape of the tree so that it could possibly be used in future work, to place the bride in a central position, and to make the panel larger than all the other panels in the exhibition, because this is the final and most complete picture of hope found in the Bible. The Lamb is on the throne, the invitation to the wedding feast has been given, the fruit of peace and the water of life are available for all: a new beginning.
The most costly work I have done was Good Grief?, which began as a personal out-pouring of my raw grief after my first husband, Rob, died. Using old handkerchiefs, which have wiped up the tears of others who have mourned the death of a husband, a parent, a friend, a child, I stitched on words, images, and objects that represented for me thoughts and emotions surrounding grief, death, life, faith, time, solitude, future, travelling on, redemption. This work, initially stitched for my benefit alone, then became an exhibition and book, which has been helpful for others.
In all my work, my aim is to touch the lives of others. This, for me, is the main reason I do what I do.
Surprisingly for an extrovert, I’ve enjoyed working in the studio by myself on this large-scale project. My second husband, Andrew, has been very good at commenting on the work in progress, and saying when something is just not working, and then finding alternatives with me. We all need someone like this in our lives. Also, Andrew takes all the photographs; and I have friends who have hand-stitched the leather details.
I went to the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham to pick up some threads and materials, and came back with a £5000 long-arm sewing machine. How does that happen? But without this machine the large panels would not have been possible. On this machine, the needle simply goes up and down, and the stitcher moves the fabric around to create the line of stitch.
I’m now having a couple of months to “not do too much”, but I’m looking forward to possibly working on a few smaller commissions. If finances can be found, I would love to embark on two more large-scale exhibitions which link with the Revelation exhibition. The three exhibitions would connect — all being about a journey and all having the Tree of Life as their focus. While the Revelation story is a journey towards the Tree of Life, the Old Testament story is a journey away from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, guarded by angels and a flaming sword. And the Easter story has the Tree of Life at its centre — the tree on which Jesus was killed — the pivotal act that brings together our first view of the Tree of Life, in Genesis, and our last view of the Tree of Life, in Revelation.
I was brought up on a council estate in Peel Hall, Manchester. My father was a bricklayer. My mother took in sewing: the lengthening of curtains, repairs to furnishings, and alterations to clothes. Art was never thought of as something that could be done as a job.
As a teenager, I searched for love. One day, I heard a man saying that Jesus loved me, and if I wanted to I could say “yes” to the invitation to be loved. So I did, not thinking it was very important. When I told my dad what I’d done, he said: “Not to worry, love. It won’t last long.” But here I am, 45 years later, and the love of Jesus is the most important thing in my life.
When I was 20, I married Rob Frost, a Methodist minister, and had two sons, Andy and Chris — both now married to a lovely Jo, and both with two young children. I remarried five years ago, to Andrew, and we live in Devon.
My favourite sound is the burring of the sewing machine, and the snip of scissors through fabric.
I pray the Lord’s Prayer more and more: not sentence by sentence, but the prayer in its substance. Acknowledgement and praise of God as Father; for God’s plans on earth and not our plans; for today’s needs rather than tomorrow’s (difficult for me); for the ability to forgive when I don’t want to; to be conscious of the battle that rages; and to stand firm, recognising that God has it all sorted. His is the power and glory — for ever.
If I were locked away for a few hours with the company of anyone I wanted, I’d choose John, the writer of Revelation. It’d be fun to compare my thoughts and images with his vision.
Jacqui Parkinson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
The Revelation panels are on display in St Albans Cathedral until 5 June, then in St Giles’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, from 10 June to 29 July.