Helen Woolstencroft: from migration to me

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Dress with family photographs printed on the fabric Detail of Helen's dress 'Eva'.

In this guest blog for the Sankofa project and as part of Black History Month, artist Helen Woolstencroft reveals how family and history play an important role in her sense of identity as an artist. In this moving tribute to her grandparents,  Helen tells us about the source of inspiration for her work:

"From a young age, I was always curious about my family. Being of mixed race heritage, I always wanted to know where I fit into the world. I was captivated by my Grandad Lionel, and always wondered what his life was like in Barbados before he came to England during the Second World War. 

Young man and woman sitting with their arms round each other Helen's grandparents Lionel and Eva, when they were younger

My Grandad was my hero, he was a merchant seaman before he joined the RAF. He would make me glasses of Mauby with ice, swill his glass before taking a sip and talking to me about the good old times. He would say "Barbados was so small that you could cycle around it in one day"

My Grandad always encouraged me to be creative and to not listen to negativity about my race, he would say "Sugar plum you are perfect".

I remember sitting with my grandparents listening to stories and memories and thinking... wow, life must have been so hard for them when they got married because of racial segregation. My Grandad was Black, and my Nana Eva was mixed race.

The beloved memory of my grandparents got me through four years of university. I just wanted to make them proud of me.

The inspiration behind my artwork is my heritage, I turn the people that inspire me into my art. This enables me to re-live memories and special times through my prints and bring it all back to life. My Grandad died when I was fourteen in 1996, and my Nana Eva died in 2010.

Smiling older people Lionel and Eva

It saddens me that my daughters never had the chance to meet my Grandad Lionel because they would have loved him. Unfortunately, my Nana Eva got dementia soon after his passing and I believe it was because she lost her best friend and soul mate.

For my degree show, I decided to craft my final piece of work in the style of the dresses my Nana Eva wore as a child. I created a dress for my youngest daughter using similar influences that my Great Grandma from Ulster in Northern Ireland made for my Nana. The nostalgia associated within this allowed me to re-live their past and add elements of mine.

My prints are a collection of good times, enabling the generations of my family to all be together at the same time. They are works of love, togetherness and mixed emotions.

The migration of my family from Barbados, Ireland, America and Cyprus has made me who I am, and more importantly it has made me think about my place in the world."

All photographs courtesy of Helen Woolstencroft.