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Powerful textile art inspired by psychology research now on display

Heather Richardson and Bree Hocking stand either side of a large patchwork blanket hanging on the wall. The blanket is based on a map and is made up of white, blue, pink, yellow and black squares.

An eye-catching piece of textile art inspired by a major Psychology research project, which powerfully explores life in Belfast, has gone on display at Northern Ireland’s Linen Biennale. ‘The Belfast Quilt’ was the brainchild of Heather Richardson, Staff Tutor in English and Creative Writing at The Open University, who based the quilt design on the maps produced as part of the Belfast Mobility Project, headed up by Professor John Dixon, OU Psychology.

Heather explained the inspiration for the creative project; “John gave a presentation about the Mobility project at a research day in the OU’s Belfast office, and showed us some of the maps that demonstrated the ways communities in the city self-segregate. I was struck by how beautiful the maps were, which seemed ironic given that they were a representation of division. As I’m a keen textile artist, I thought the maps could be the basis for a quilt and set about developing the design.”

With support from the OU in Ireland, OU Psychology, and the Being Human Festival, a community stitching event, Stitches and Stories, was held in 2019 bringing 30 members of the public together to begin sewing the individual pieces of the quilt together, and to share their experiences of Belfast. The stitching event was used to build connections among the participants through storytelling and create a piece of art which opens up more opportunities to talk about segregation and belonging.

The pandemic lockdowns meant the quilt has only now been put on display to the public, appearing as one of the pieces in a group exhibition, ‘Common Threads’, held at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn as part of the 2023 Linen Biennale. Heather was joined at the exhibition launch by Dr Bree Hocking, who worked on the Belfast Mobility Project as a Research Associate, and is now Assistant Editor for the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

The Biennale, which has been held annually since 2018, celebrates and explore the heyday of Ulster’s linen production, connecting the renowned linen heritage of the area with contemporary uses and communities. Heather’s quilt project is displayed alongside artists from the UK, Northern Ireland, Turkey, Belgium, and the USA.

Professor John Dixon, whose Psychology research influenced the stitching project, said: “It is inspiring to see how our maps of residents’ movements through Belfast have informed the creation of this quilt and created the opportunity for dialogue about segregated and shared spaces in the city. This is a great example of how research in Psychology and the Arts can dovetail.”

Heather adds; “The quilt is made from upcycled Irish linen bedsheets, and I liked the idea that some of the linen we were working with while we chatted may well have been spun and woven in Belfast.”

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