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Artist insight: Marcia Bennett Male

Updated Wednesday, 12th May 2010

Marcia Bennett Male is a trained artist and stonemason. She talks about how her mental health inspired some of her work.

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Copyright The Open University


My name’s Marcia Bennett Male. I’m trained as a stone carver, a letter cutter and stonemason. I also trained as an embroiderer. My mother is a dressmaker so hence the textiles. But I’ve always, I’ve been brought up with, you know, pins on the floor and thread everywhere, so that is sort of my background as well. But I trained as a stone carver so that is my main medium.

I’ve always had, from late teens, I suppose, episodes of depression. But then I just put that down to the fact that all teenagers go through that kind of up and down episodes. But they continued and I would put a lid on it. I suppose being, yes I’m second generation Jamaican but I was born and brought up here, and I was partly brought up by this white English family for a good chunk of my life, and they were very very stiff upper lip and, you know. They were lovely, I adored them. Mrs Parker who I eventually called aunty, and it was very no nonsense, you know. You just got on with things, you know. So I was partly brought up that way.

It was a case of if I started to feel things closing in I would just put a lid on it and just get on. But eventually things would, as I say, leak out and I’d recover and I’d be back to normal if you like. But when I got into my 30s they were just getting more and more stronger, the feelings of depression, of the thoughts of suicide and the feeling that, you know, you’re just not worth the space basically. I just thought well everyone else is sort of getting on with it, you know, so why can’t I? Just shut up, put your head down and that, you know, British stiff upper lip stuff - which I did. My then boyfriend, now husband, was very very supportive, very very lovely and, you know, still is, so he helped me.

So it was around 2002, there were too many leaks. You know like a big dam, too many leaks happening and trying to plug these holes and. And that’s around Christmas 2002 my sister was driving me home from Christmas, a Christmas holiday we spent with our mother, and I just, I remember spending the whole of that Christmas just keeping a lid on it. Because you know people are always dodgy at Christmas aren’t they? You know, there’s always something kicks off at Christmas. And she was driving me home and I just let rip in the car, you know. I’m chuckling now but I just burst out into tears and Grace had to pull over and then she said look we’ve got to sort - because she knew I suffered, you know, had episodes.

So it went on from there. But it wasn’t until the following year I went to the doctor. She gave me a referral to the local psychiatrist. I had two meetings with her but she wasn’t very good. That’s putting it mildly. She was the scary face of psychology, she was going through the motions, and I was clearly a bear in a cage and she had to tick off certain boxes so she could get through this particular session. So that put me clean off the idea of seeing anybody again. Later on in 2003 I had to get some kind of help so a doctor put me on to antidepressants, and I really didn’t want to go onto them but it was clear I needed some kind of chemical help. And that was on the understanding that I was going to get some kind of psychological help, finding somebody else, so the pills were just to tide me over. And they worked! You know, they were fabulous.

I found I wasn’t scared. You know, I just found that I was just getting scared of everything, scared of going to my evening classes to teach, and I’m a good teacher, but I was scared as hell before each and every class. But the pills made it much much more easier and I started to enjoy myself teaching. The following year I had to go on to a higher dosage. Plus there was, you know, I was taking a lot of pills because I have adult acne, and it worked. It worked, but I was rattling around. I was taking pills for this, taking pills for that, taking skin cream and all sorts, and it was around that time I think I started doing the textiles.

Yes I’m trained as a stone carver. The kind of stone carving I do was classed as an architectural stone carver. I’m trained to do all the flamboyant floral cherubs, highly decorative things you see on churches, on buildings. I also do letter cutting and gilding, the high-end stuff. So I’m used to, with the stone, having to plot and plan and be very precise and be very buttoned down with the work sometimes. The embroidery, the textile work, when I was starting to take the antidepressants, I used this very formal traditional style of embroidery, couched work, and did this very flamboyant flower.

I was very random with the colours I chose. I had lots of scrap bits of wool that I just let rip with this flower. I wasn’t too sure where I was going with this flower, I just did it. And I’ve just found it very cathartic, you know, just sewing away at home. I wasn’t at the studio, it was something I could just almost switch off and it was working a lot quicker, a lot more random I think with the threads. The flower eventually, when it was finished, was, I did a small sort of medicine bottle, stylised medicine bottle, and this flower was coming, was springing out of it. ‘Wonder pills’ basically, and that’s how I interpreted it.

I enjoyed the process and one piece led to another. I had a book. It was the embroidered flags of the Fante people in Ghana. The style of characters that they used really appealed to me. They were these random mad little characters with elongated feet and, you know, crazy hands. I took the Fante flag people and just sort of made it my own a bit. And I started doing these crazy little black women running around with knives and, you know, that sort of thing. And that’s how it developed.

The embroideries became a bit more scary, only because I just got bolder. That first flower I did was again me just being very polite. The embroideries became my ventriloquist dummy. What I wanted to say, the comments I wanted to make, which I didn’t feel I could I make, but the embroideries, when I started to get a bit, you know, a bit more vocal in my head it came out in the embroideries. They got a bit more, they got more colourful, they got more harsh.

It took from 2003 to 2006, you know, to get proper psychotherapy with the NHS. They called it psychodynamic therapy. And so I was just so nervous, because I thought I’m a fraud, I’m not as bad as other people, you know. I need some kind of help. But there are some people who really need it, some people who are really really out there, so I’d be wasting their time.

When I first started with Barbara all I did was talk, and yes she did ask questions, and she did bring up topics, but for two years I was allowed to talk and I was allowed to talk about stuff that I would put in the embroideries. So I slowly relaxed, I was able just to vent. And sometimes I did let rip and cry and shout and beat at myself. She allowed me to do that without freaking out and I was allowed to eff and blind, you know, all over the place. Coming towards the end of the two years I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if it’s a case of it was a combination of the therapy and me just settling into my bones, because now I don’t give a rat’s arse.

So I haven’t done any embroidery for a long while because I don’t need it. I needed it then. I needed that quick creative outlet which was crude, random, colourful, using these scrap threads, deliberately not thinking too much about which colour went with which, I needed that then. I went off my antidepressants while I was still doing therapy. I can’t remember when. Maybe I felt when I started to get comfortable with my therapist and I felt I didn’t need them so much. I feel I have come out the other side. Yes, yes, I get down but I don’t worry about it. You know, you get down, you have a cry and it’s not like before. It’s not like before, another factor is just getting into, you know, your mid-40s you just relax into your bones. Having done the two years of therapy, much more likely to voice my opinion nowadays and if something is bothering me I will say so. I won’t bottle it up so much; I will say what I think. So yes it worked. The embroidery worked for me.


Calling it quits


Calling it quits by Marcia Bennett Male Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Marcia Bennett Male
Calling it quits by Marcia Bennett Male
[Image copyright: Marcia Bennett Male]


Copyright The Open University


This piece is made up of several motifs. The first thing I want to point out is the minstrel smile. That’s popped up on several occasions in my work. Now that is me with my stiff upper lip. You know, the happy minstrel, the happy black woman being smiley, putting a brave face on things. At the top of the work is the bluebird of happiness. I’ve also got every cloud has a silver lining. Again it’s a very traditional form of embroidery; it’s silver thread which is couched down, so that’s some silver work, so I did a little bit of silver lining there.

But the bluebird of happiness has, it’s very crude but it’s a piece of rope. As I’m saying it out loud this all sounds very sort of ham-fisted and crude, but it was working for me. I deliberately didn’t do a noose. Because that’s what I was thinking of, I wanted the bluebird of happiness to be carrying a noose in its hand, you know, but I thought oh god no Marcia. Yeah, I said to myself oh blimey, god. So I just did a piece of rope, you know, do what you will with that rope.

To the right at the top I’ve got a butchers knife. Again the whole woman with knife thing sprang up from reading Jazz by Toni Morrison, and there was a piece in there which just struck home how women developed over the generations, developed means of protecting themselves, but here the whole butcher knife thing just took on a different meaning really. It took on self harm, because underneath, you know, on the right there was a black hand. Again just very crude, obvious spurts of blood done in felt, you know, very cartoon like. Something that was very satisfying, embroidering blood; you don’t do that kind of thing with textiles. The hand’s got the pills dropping out of it, brightly coloured because all the pills I was taking for anti-depression and skin.

The moth, that depicts, in many cultures it has various meanings, but what it boils down to, for me, one of them was madness. I’m not mad, I just have depressive episodes. But for this I thought well I’m going the whole hog, I’m just throwing it all at this textile. So I put madness in there, I put the scorpion over to the left-hand side of the piece – that depicts death. At the bottom of the work is that little sort of, the green area, that is the yellow brick road, and that’s also the grass is always greener. It’s all these. You know the bluebird of happiness, every cloud has a silver lining, the yellow brick road, so I threw them all in there, and even deliberately sort of heavy-handed sunset in the horizon.

The main banner in the middle, which is empty that was the quit bit. The blank banner which doesn’t say anything, that was me saying that’s it. There doesn’t have to be anything on that banner. And for me it worked.

Calling it quits detail by Marcia Bennett Male Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Marcia Bennett Male
Calling it quits detail by Marcia Bennett Male
[Image copyright: Marcia Bennett Male]

Ms Sunshine


Ms Sunshine by Marcia Bennett Male Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Marcia Bennett Male
Ms Sunshine by Marcia Bennett Male
[Image copyright: Marcia Bennett Male]


Copyright The Open University


I use African fabric to wrap my hair up to keep the dust out of, you know. This workshop’s very very dusty, obviously. But I always have lots of scraps left over. So I used this bright yellow, black and white piece of fabric for the sun, the main part of the sun. Again it’s quite, it’s very crude, very bold, but this last piece I did there was, Miss Sunshine had, I gave the sun two little black arms and two little black legs, and she had little high heels. She was carrying a little sort of stylised handbag and she was walking along out of the darkness into the light, you know. Or she was carrying her own light. It’s cliché, it’s a bit, you know, but that’s one of the last pieces I did. So I don’t really see that so much as to do with my depression.






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