“I was brought up believing that I couldn’t do all sorts of things because I was female”: on escaping housework for artistic creation

Emily Turner speaks with artist Rosemary McLeish about the inspiration for her art, including her feminist piece ‘What I Do When I Don’t Do The Ironing’

, 13 April 2016

What I Do When I Don't Do The Ironing, Rosemary McLeish

Recently, I visited Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, where I was lucky enough to see the exhibition Radical Craft: Alternative Ways of Making. The diversity of artists and artwork in the exhibition, communicating a variety of messages, emotions and perspectives, make it unique in the art world. Radical Craft brings together 34 UK and international artists, including many who have faced barriers in accessing the art world or consider themselves to be outsider artists, to showcase their creative work. It was there that I spotted Rosemary McLeish‘s brilliant feminist piece ‘What I Do When I Don’t Do The Ironing’, an eye-catching assemblage which explores McLeish’s response to the generation of women who were expected to leave work and focus on the home after getting married. I was lucky enough to have the chance to ask McLeish over email about her life as an artist and how feminism informs her work.

What does feminism mean to you?
It’s a way of life, a religion, the bedrock. It is the struggle to transcend gender by honouring, respecting and treating all as equals.

How do your feminist ideas come out in your work?
I hated the era I was growing up in, the ‘40s and ‘50s, because of the attitudes to and treatment of women. Reading The Female Eunuch at 21 politicised me, the first time I had ever read or heard anyone, male or female, express my opinions on the subject. Like so many things that gave us such hope in the ‘60s and ‘70s, something happened to feminism and somehow it lost its way and I despaired of it. I have lived it all my life, but I didn’t want to make feminist art. I am not a proselytiser. I didn’t make art until I was 40. My life experiences have been hard and painful and I wanted to make art which celebrated beauty and joy as a counterbalance. My feminism came out in my poetry. It is only recently, through meeting various young women, that I have been excited by the new wave of feminism. I thought younger people would not listen to my feminist ideals/ideas so I shut up about them. So now I am putting more about it into my art work

Who are you inspired by?
I am inspired by countless artists and writers. Food for the soul transcends gender.
I was lastingly inspired by Judy Chicago. Tillie Olsen’s Silences was an inspiration for the ironing board. Judith McNicol, who founded Artesian Trust: wonderful woman, brilliant artist, dear friend. She and Artesian changed me from being a painter and reluctant non-achiever in the art world, into an artist following my true path. Schubert inspires my practice, endlessly inspiring form, playfulness, structure and beauty. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a bottomless resource. Matisse was my first artistic love (right back to art books in my father’s study) and for years I followed his path – art as a relaxation and joy, a comfortable armchair at the end of a busy day. Whatever I go on to make, I will try and make it beautiful and joyous because of Matisse.

My art comes from ideas, though I wouldn’t call it conceptual art, which is not interested in aesthetics

Can you tell us a bit about What I Do When I Don’t Do The Ironing?
This piece, and the title for the exhibition, was inspired by Tillie Olsen, an American woman writing in the ‘70s. Her famous short story ‘I Stand Here Ironing’, a phrase that always resonated with me, is about a mother’s inability to have a proper relationship with her daughter, and suggests that the burden of housewifely tasks distracted her. She also wrote a book called Silences, which explored the idea that women did not become great writers, artists, sculptors, scientists and so on, not because they were incapable of doing great things, but because their position in society and role in life gave them no time or energy for them. Behind every man of genius there had to be a wife looking after him. At that time, Tillie Olsen was a revolutionary. I was brought up believing that I couldn’t do all sorts of things because I was female. And even if I could, my mother warned me: “You’ll have to learn to be stupid if you want to get a man.” This was not unusual in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. She thought she was helping me get through life.

Why the ironing? I don’t feel that this is as significant now as it was then. People don’t iron as much as we used to. I helped my mother with the ironing, as with other household tasks. It took us two evenings a week, three hours each, to get through it. Shirts for five boys and a man, clean sheets every week, tablecloths, underwear, towels – it was an enormous amount of work. I wanted to dedicate this piece to my mother, and I took a photograph of it to show her before she passed away. She couldn’t quite work out what it was, but her one heartfelt comment was: “That looks like an awful lot of work”! Some years ago, after expressing her delight in my artistic creations, she said to me: “I’m so glad you escaped.”

You produce a very interesting and diverse range of works – how would you describe your art?
I just follow my imagination. The art I make at present is called ‘assemblage’. I used to paint and draw; I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. My art comes from ideas, though I wouldn’t call it conceptual art, which is not interested in aesthetics. In assemblage, diverse found objects, skills and techniques are used in combination to create a whole. All of my artwork is in miniature.

I consider myself to be an outsider artist, not in absolute terms but in the sense that I wish to remain outside the mainstream ‘art world’.

I also write poetry and have been experimenting with different ways of displaying poems in a gallery setting.

Detail of What I Do When I Don't Do The Ironing, Rosemary McLeish 2

Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating your art work?
The process is complicated, and different for each piece. I collect things. I have ideas. I try to put the two together. Sometimes the idea comes first and I look for something to represent it, sometimes I see an object which inspires the art work. There are usually 100s of steps and 100s of decisions in the process. I prepare and paint a main structure, repair it if necessary, then decorate it to reflect the idea, with shells, beads, painting, fabric, feathers, other found objects, etc., turning it into a brightly coloured, highly decorative surface. Holes may be punched in at appropriate points from which I hang ‘danglers’, more found objects or miniatures that I make to represent various aspects of the idea. Or these pieces might be glued onto a surface.

What sort of themes do you like to explore in your art?
A difficult question, as I don’t approach making art in this way. I don’t think about themes at all. I respond to something I’ve seen or heard, or remembered, and something starts to take shape in my mind. I have ideas all the time. An onlooker might perceive themes, but they are just reflections of my inner world and who I am, really. Beauty and aesthetic balance are very important, and wit and humour, so I try to make things which are fun to look at. And I like to play about with relative sizes of things.

How do you feel your personal experience influences the type of artwork you like to create?
My personal experience is what I make art about. I believe absolutely that “the personal is political” and that the more personal and truthful you are, the more you express the universal human condition and experience.

To be more specific: the first and probably most important aspect of my personal experience is lack of money. If I had more money I would employ a fleet of assistants, make much bigger things, employ a publicist and a manager. The second is childhood damage, which inhibits me (still) from self-publicity, networking, getting my work out in the world. Thirdly, I work very slowly now due to ill health and depression and can’t make large works of any kind. I try to make a virtue out of this by making miniatures to reflect the way in which women’s art was perceived for so many centuries.

My childhood and upbringing impact more positively too. I come from a very cultured, creative, left-wing family. I have a passionate love of European (and other) culture of all kinds, which is reflected in my market ‘finds’.


Radical Craft is on at Pallant House Gallery until 12 June, 2016. I really recommend going along to see McLeish’s assemblage piece, along with the other artists’ work. I’ve also written up a piece for the Chichester Observer on the exhibition.

The exhibition then goes on tour until 2017 to Powys, Southend, Scunthorpe, Carlisle, West Kilbride, Aberystwyth and Wimborne.

You can find out more about McLeish at her website www.rosemarymcleish.co.uk.

Both images are courtesy of Rosemary McLeish, and both show the art work ‘What I Do When I Don’t Do The Ironing’.

The first photograph shows the whole piece. It is a highly decorated ironing board with lots of objects on the top of it. The ironing board is painted in bright colours with items like buttons stuck to the legs. Around the base of the top are dangling bobbins with different coloured threads. The crowd of items on top of it includes pictures on easels, an angel on a high structure looking blowing a trumpet and a bright red cotton reel.

The second photograph shows a close up of the top of the ironing board. We can see a tiny sofa and record player, a china cat on a rug, another miniature ironing board and a table with a sewing machine. The smaller ironing board has items on it too, including pencils in a pot.

Emily Turner is a writer and PhD student in the medical humanities. She tweets about culture, art, history and feminism @emilyjessturner

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