Health through Art by Rebecca D. Harris (UK)

I wanted to share this work and give WCA readers more information as I really respected what WCA are looking to achieve – effecting positive change through art globally.  It’s important for me to be open and sharing of the work I do in the hope that those not able to see the work first hand gain something from reading or viewing online.

My name’s Rebecca D. Harris, I always use the ‘D.” as there seems to be a lot of Rebecca Harris’s and many are also artists! I’m an artist living and working in a small town Launceston, Cornwall in the UK.  My work is mainly textile based and the theme is predominately about the body.  My most recent work, Symbiosis, is a commissioned textile wall hanging for the Eden Project here in Cornwall, for a show Invisible You: The Human Microbiome which opens in late May 2015 funded by the Wellcome Trust. The unique exhibition includes a host of artists looking at the various aspects of the microbes that live on and inside our bodies.  

We are exploring the positive aspects of these single cell organisms that we rely so much on for good health. My work in particular looks at bacteria that live on our skin, I collaborated with a microbiologist at University College London (UCL) on this piece.  Professor Mike Wilson gave me a lot of information, mainly visual maps of the skin’s microbiota, the types of microbes we have on our skin and where they congregate the most.  Using French knots to represent the these trillions of microbes, each colour is a type of bacteria so when looking at the piece the viewer gets a sense of the diversity and distributions of what lives on our bodies.

This piece took many months to create, starting first on the computer with MRI scans to assist in drawing the contour lines, this was printed as a template before stitching the lines using a sewing machine, before the final part of hand sewing the thousands of the hand stitched French knots.  At this stage I toured the work to various public locations within Devon and Cornwall, UK sharing the process of sewing the piece and discussing the fascinating science behind the work.  

It’s important to me that I engage people with my work at all stages, not just the final reveal, the finished piece, and also I look at ways I can further engage the viewer with art and scientific concepts that are relevant to our own health. In total Symbiosis took about six months to complete, starting in September last year I spent those initial months creating the digital image on Adobe Illustrator, you won’t believe how much work went into that.  

Just before Christmas I then took the printed template of this image and used it to sew the lines onto the cotton canvas.  It was very difficult navigating the pinned paper and fabric through the sewing machine, there were lots of mishaps and therefore plenty of hours spent tidying up the work once this stage was done.  

Many people are impressed by the patience I have on the final stage, the hand embroidered ‘microbes’ but in fact this was the easiest and most relaxing stage.  Once I had interpreted the data received from Mike, who I was collaborating with, I decided which type of bacteria would have what group of colour and then set to work.  It’s not that you need to know which colour is what bacteria when looking at the piece and it’ll never be 100% accurate, it was just enough to give a sense of the diversity, congregations and distributions of the bacteria we have living on our skin.

The time and methods for others works varies,  for example I recently made a piece for the research department NeuroSoc’s annual charity exhibition and auction in aid of SANE mental health organisation.  The brief was ‘The Brain and Mental Health’ and was inspired by the recent work and research into microbes and our bodies my starting point was when gardening, soil provides a natural anti-depressant.  

There are particular microbes present in the earth which are disturbed by us digging and thus we inhale them, they are absorbed into the blood stream and stimulate serotonin production in the brain.  Just fascinating and very inspiring and so I created a piece that was a brain with roots, Rhizome (see image).  This piece was all hand embroidered with regular sewing thread to give a fine embroidery that resembled the drawn image. 

Previous bodies of work have started from a direct experience I have had with my own body and health.  In 2012 I was due to have a gastric bypass and at the last minute I cancelled.  At the time I was studying for my masters degree and making work about the home, and was using a lot of domestic items in my sculptures.  It became apparent that I was in fact making work about the alien interventions I was nervous about having at the time (see Untitled (stop valve), 2012).  From this I embraced the theme and made a body of work which explored the biomedical interventions into the obese body.

Whilst doing the masters degree my work was very much auto-ethnographical, it came from the personal but was about matters that affected and meant something to others too.  Following this I now have broadened this up where I work from subject matters that I find fascinating, which relates to the human body and health.  The body is something of concern to us all and I also like to use the body itself as a means of reading the work.  There is often some form of affect between the artwork and the viewer.  Textiles has this power, there is a direct relationship between cloth and the body, we have an intimate relationship with it straight after birth, it is our second skin and we have a compelling urge to touch it.  I often say about my work – where textiles are used to conceal, I use them to reveal.

I want people to learn or experience something from my work, to gain from it.  I am really dissatisfied by some contemporary art around, it all too often leaves me perplexed, that it’s too cerebral and frequently I see art that is about art.  How is this of interest to most people?  In my work I aim to be generous and accessible but still leave room for more depth.