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> > > Review: Cooltan Arts: Women of Dickens exhibition
sculptural installation at cooltan arts

Madame Defage

'Women of Dickens', an exhibition of art, poetry and textiles, was launched on March 14th at CoolTan Arts, with a series of workshops and a poetry reading. Nicole Fordham Hodges went along, and discovered a secret code.

A huge papier mache angel holding a tiny house; a stuffed model of Madame Defage knitting in front of the guillotine; a version of Miss Haversham's wedding dress so exuberant it seems to predate her disappointment: this exhibition is vibrant and irreverent.

CoolTan uses the women of Dickens as a hook to examine and overturn his stereotypes: victims, angels, embittered spinsters. Knitted and lace garments are hung playfully around the room. In 'The Tale of Two Cities'  Madame Defage knitted the names of her victims into her garments. I wonder if these clothes are also encoded.

I am drawn in by Billy Weston's searching portrait of Miss Haversham. It shows her eyes uneven with pain, bitter lines round her mouth, her wedding veil pinned in a harsh square like a frame which traps her in a picture of herself.

In Cathy Smart's artwork (pen, ink and watercolour) she symbolises Miss Haversham's awryness with a wonky cake, an overturned glass and a sharp knife. The tender curve of a youthful dog shows what could have been.

'She is nothing,' says Dickens' character Affery Flintwinch of Little Dorrit. She is  'almost hidden in a dark corner.' Antiqu'e has made something of nothing. Her portrait of Little Dorrit shows blue eyes and pink lips emerging through a clouded face, as if through fog or memory.

sculptural installation at cooltan arts

Miss Haversham's dress

At the poetry reading, Antiqu'e performs her poem 'She is nothing' with confidence and presence. 'Unseen but still here/ Unheard but still heard.' Her other poem explores the powerful identity that a poet can create: 'I am a song woman ...a spoken word woman... a measured only by my best woman.'

Jean Wearn Warner's poem 'Mother and Wife,' deftly steps over  stereotypical roles: ' more than a baby machine/ more than a milk cow....she is a woman' she asserts, to cheers from the audience.

The workshops begin: assertiveness, personal finance, self advocacy. I choose womens' poetry, facilitated by Kate Massey-Chase. We all write about our own hands, then make a group poem. I find myself writing of my left hand's secret, unsung life. My hand shakes a little with surprise at being recognised.

Next we think of women we admire, and knit their positive qualities into poems. What is the sound of belief, the texture of vitality? Unconditional love is a wind blowing through a curtain, a participant writes.  Almost without knowing it, I have knitted the start of a poem, pulling together strands of friendship and love.

I leave this gently powerful workshop slightly dazed, look around the exhibition with fresh eyes. We can create the fabric which makes us ourselves, I think. Is this the secret code? The holes in us, the secret and hidden parts can be knitted into this garment of self. We can pick apart stereotypes – and great literature – use these threads to make something vibrant and new.

Up-and-coming projects at CoolTan include publication of 'The Dickens News' to celebrate Dickens' bicentenary, with workshops on oral history, story-telling, creative writing , archiving and journalism.

CoolTan will be participating in London Alternative Fashion Week at the 20th April at Spitalfields. To find out more email

There's more about CoolTan arts projects, walks and workshops at