Anita Renolds displaying her incredible artwork.

Ballivor artist creates beautiful artwork for local school inspired by the flax growers

A BALLIVOR artist who collaborated on a creative project for a national school in Kildalkey inspired by the flax growing and linen history of the area says learning about the rich tapestry of the industry in the locality was fascinating.

The Percentage for Art project was three years in the making for textile artist Anita Reynolds who created a wall hanging for Kildalkey NS inspired by the five local farmers who grew flax in the 1700s.

The Percentage for Art scheme is a government initiative whereby one per cent of the cost of any publicly funded capital, infrastructural and building development can be allocated to the commissioning of a work of art.

"When I heard the brief for the Kildalkey art project I was excited because textiles, history and the natural environment are three of my favourite things," Anita says.

"As the new school was built on the site of an old retting pond (an area where flax is left to rot) the idea was to look at flax growing and linen production in our area.

"I did some local research and my most fascinating discovery was the names of five Kildalkey farmers who were growing flax in our village in 1796 according to the British government’s flax growers list. Every farmer who grew a quarter acre received a spinning wheel or a loom if they grew over three acres.

"This was recorded as a list of names. Reading their names and imagining their lives connected me to the project in a whole new way. In my mind’s eye I could see beautiful fields of blue flax flowers blowing in the breeze all around the area in June/July.

"We can only imagine this now as the crop has not been grown here within living memory."

Anita’s research brought her to Lisburn next to visit the Irish Linen Museum where she describes the experience as being "like a child in a sweet shop" surrounded by fibres, fabrics and fascinating facts on the history of this flower.

"Here I gathered more ideas as well as photographs of the original flax growers list which is kept in the museum. Armed with my design drawings it was decided that I would spend a week working with each class in the school firstly introducing them to the history of linen and the whole concept of the artwork

"I presented a slideshow to the children and we discussed flax production and how it would have affected farming life and lifestyles of their ancestors in the locality. Afterwards each child drew a colourful flax flower.

"These beautiful little drawings were put together as collages which I had printed on lengths of linen and they now form the flax field on the large middle panel of the wall hanging."

After her work with the students Anita started on the design for the large textile hangings in her studio bringing together lots of her collected research.

"I loved the shapes and patterns of the Griffith Valuation maps of 1847-1864. I had also discovered the name James Rispin once again on these maps this time as a landholder in Kildalkey and I made the assumption that this was the same family mentioned in the flax growers list 50 years earlier.

"I decided to enlarge this map and use it as a patchwork in the upper half of the piece. The fields extend from golden sun rays in the top left hand corner. This is where I used the linen donated by parents, dying each piece the yellow, greens and browns associated with a pattern of fields.

"I had one lovely donation from a Kildalkey Mum whose family came originally from Liselotte in the Flanders region of Belgium which is well known for its linen production. This is one of the blue fields on the map part of the land owned by James Rispin named as a flax grower in 1796.

"On the left hand panel I hand embroidered the five names listed as flax growers in our little village in 1796.

"The third panel on the right shows a young lady spinning on her wheel outside a cottage surrounded by flax flowers. Spinners were mainly female and often very young. Being able to spin brought in an income for mothers who were at home with children and otherwise unable to earn or daughters not yet married.

The Ballivor artist says we should be proud of our linen history and hopes that one day the tradition will return to our shores.

"Flax growing is a thing of the past in our locality but this project has given us a chance to reconnect with that tradition and the knowledge lost.

"Linen is now considered a very eco friendly fabric with very little damage to our environment caused by its production so maybe in the not too distant future we may see meadows of blue flax growing in Kildalkey again.

"I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project and I would like to thank Mr Fox, Ms Halligan and Kildalkey school for trusting me with such an important commission."

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