Ruby Joy Eade’s A Gentle Reminder

Felixe Laing on Ruby Joy Eade's exhibition at Toi Pōneke Arts Centre.

Date 8 September 2021 Text Felixe Laing Photography Emily Hartley-Skudder

Ruby Joy Eade, a gentle reminder. Installation view, Toi Pōneke Arts Centre, August 2021.

Ruby Joy Eade’s a gentle reminder is a construction of many hours of connection and reflection. Each fabric piece a thought stitched into a larger narrative; each quilt assembling moments that examine, and physically piece together, the artist’s family history.

Eade draws from her family’s history of working with textiles, her mother a milliner and her grandmother a wedding dress maker:

“My great-grandmother kept her wedding veil in a preserving jar on the mantelpiece. I’ve never seen it (or met her) but my grandma told me about it last year and it hasn’t left my mind.”

At times, beautiful and curious snippets of Eade’s oral family histories are peppered throughout the room sheet, inextricably linking the quilts and speaking to a larger exploration of identity that extrapolates on matriarchal histories and relationships.

There is an intimacy to the recording of this kind of history through the material memory of textiles and their relationships to our bodies and homes. These sensory, or visual, memories can be very evocative and although they might not capture the specifics of a person, often they uniquely capture a feeling.

Historically quilts were made as bed covers, recycling worn-out clothing and utilising small pieces of fabric that could not be used for other purposes. Across cultures, quilts have always told stories through their materials, patterns and text. Although Eade’s quilts are displayed in a gallery, they are still reflective of their genealogy and the spaces in which they were made. Eade has a studio but many of these works were finished on her couch or bed, and will return to these spaces. Unsurprisingly, many of the artworks are not for sale. Each quilt is built from a story, intended to capture and convey a feeling.

“They are artworks that exist mostly in our homes: made to live with, to sleep with, to spill things on, to smell and to touch.” — Ruby Joy Eade

Each piece is arranged resting on low level plinths like a smoothly made bed, or hung up as if to air on a washing line. These works are incredibly inviting with their soft finishes, delicate hand quilting, even positioning and scale. I’m taken back to those memories as a child where I would wrap myself in bedding hanging on the washing line, or twirling, smothering myself in the lounge curtains.

I’m drawn into Eade’s memory of Sunroom Floor, 2020, I feel the warmth of the orange-toned linens, diamonds of light scattered across a weekend morning: “At our house weekend breakfasts were spent in this small sunroom with a funny black and white floor, the checkerboard sliced up by a big border of black. The floor is gone now, but this is my quilt softening and staining with more weekend breakfasts (in bed).”

My favourite moments in the exhibition are when these histories reveal themselves through splashes of a sunflower pattern from a well-worn pair of tights (Sunflowers, 2021), inherited unfinished sewing projects (Barbara, 2020), loved and worn bedding (Courthouse Steps I (I dreamed of you again last night), 2021) and pops of bright linen scraps from the other quilts and checkered cushions Eade is also known for. Each project connected to the last, an instinctive process that explores her whakapapa and follows the textile-specific skills passed down and reinterpreted through generations.

There is a strength and endurance in this exhibition, a collection of thousands of hand and machine-made stitches that trace Eade’s family history and her own personal life. a gentle reminder is the first exhibition of Eade’s dedicated to her quilting practice. With an ease and softness we see her capture an intimate and poetic examination of identity and the emotional object. It’s a personal exhibition, with marks of the artist present throughout. If you’ve followed her journey on Instagram, you might have even seen how the artworks themselves impacted Eade’s daily reality—a finger injury from making is further testament to this.

Ruby Joy Eade, Sunroom Floor, 2020, linen with cotton batting and thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Two of Us, 2021, linen, wool and cotton thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Two of Us (detail), 2021, linen, wool and cotton thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Big Doll Quilt (detail), 2021, linen and cotton fabric, cotton batting and thread.

“Mum and Aunty Vicky remember a small wonky crochet blanket tucked around dolls in a pram. I remember it too, on the bed of my teddy. There is speculation about who made it, but I feel them in me, their broken diamonds, odds and ends of wool and wonky edges.” 

Ruby Joy Eade, Big Doll Quilt, 2021, linen and cotton fabric, cotton batting and thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Checkerboard, 2020, linen and linen cotton with cotton batting.

Ruby Joy Eade, Sunflowers, 2021, silk trousers, leggings, linen shirt, tablecloth and linen remnants, cotton batting and cotton thread.

“I had the sunflower leggings through my early 20s, wearing through the knees and bum. But mum wore them first. A few years ago, I found a photo of her, exhausted, wearing the leggings and holding baby me. 

No longer wearable, too many holes to repair, and very faded in places, they lived at the bottom of a drawer. Though slicing into them was hard, to see them flecked across the field of this quilt gives them a chance to live again, and be part of another generation.”

Ruby Joy Eade, Sunflowers (detail), 2021, silk trousers, leggings, linen shirt, tablecloth and linen remnants, cotton batting and cotton thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Courthouse Steps I (I dreamed of you again last night) (detail), 2021, linen duvet colour, shell buttons, cotton batting and cotton thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Courthouse Steps I (I dreamed of you again last night), 2021, linen duvet colour, shell buttons, cotton batting and cotton thread.

“When Barb’s sewing stuff arrived in several large Tupperware boxes we spent a day going through it. Among other relics—a new world plastic bag, filled with the cut-out pieces of a gauzy ruffled nighty.”

Ruby Joy Eade, Barbara, 2020, linen, cotton and synthetic fabric with cotton batting and thread.

“Lizi gave me all of her thread (I only need the blacks and whites she said). As I worked my way through the containers of thread, stitching together the quilt layers I recognised the colours of childhood costumes, wedding dresses and curtains.”

Ruby Joy Eade, Courthouse Steps II (All Lizi’s thread) (detail), 2021, cotton duvet cover, cotton sheets, bamboo sheets, cotton batting and mixed fibre thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Courthouse Steps I (I dreamed of you again last night), 2021, linen duvet colour, shell buttons, cotton batting and cotton thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Courthouse Steps II (All Lizi’s thread) (detail), 2021, cotton duvet cover, cotton sheets, bamboo sheets, cotton batting and mixed fibre thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Someone Special, 2021, linen, wool and cotton thread.

Ruby Joy Eade, Someone Special (detail), 2021, linen, wool and cotton thread.

Exhibition invitations: Ruby Joy Eade, a gentle reminder.

Ruby Joy Eade, a gentle reminderToi Pōneke Arts Centre, Whanganui-a-tara/Wellington, 31 July–24 September.