Gathering rust: a tribute to Derry women’s industry
A sculpture designed and then reworked by Louise Walsh to commemorate the city’s famous ‘factory girls’ may never be put on public display
Louise Walsh: “Ethically, as an artist, to re-envisage something that’s been made for a different site is a bit like making a rope to hang yourself. I don’t think officials understand the artistic process.” Photograph: Trevor McBride
Walsh is currently locked in a standoff with Northern Ireland’s Department of Social Development (DSD), which could mean her proposed tribute to Derry’s generations of female shirt factory workers will never be put on public display.
The four-tonne steel wheel is the main component in her celebration of factory women – “their strength, dependability, resilience and power”. Now, though, it lies weathered and emasculated behind the engineering works where it was made, five miles from its original intended site.
In 2006, Walsh – whose artworks feature prominently in Belfast city centre and Heathrow Airport – won a £90,000 public art commission to commemorate the City of Culture’s predominantly female shirt factory workforce. She threw herself into “a labour of excitement, love and folly”.
“Those women worked long and hard to feed their kids, pay the rent and manage situations when their men couldn’t get work,” she says. “They were the city’s backbone. Even during the Troubles, they got on with it. They kept things civil.”
At its peak, Derry’s shirt industry employed 18,000 people. Walsh envisaged something “huge and iconic – not patronising – about an industry and a commitment”. She themed it around a sewing machine – “the tool of the trade” – and hoped to celebrate the powerful industrial heritage acknowledged by Marx in Das Kapital: “the shirt factory of Messrs Tillie at Londonderry which employs 1,000 operatives in the factory itself, and 9,000 people spread up and down the country, working in their houses”.
Her proposal for an abstracted Singer sewing-machine on a Waterside roundabout was accepted by the DSD, which had advertised the commission. A seven metre-wide steel wheel would be linked by an overhead thread to an ornate front-piece across the road; the foot would appear to be stitching a white concrete collar on a shirt, sculpted in grass and sweeping down towards the river Foyle.
The DSD gave Walsh the go-ahead to start work, on the assumption that planning permission would be granted. However, in early 2007, after the sculpture’s main components had been fabricated, the artist was informed that Roads Service – a wing of the Department of Regional Development – had vetoed the project on the grounds that it might distract motorists. Planning permission was refused.
The following year, the DSD asked her to use the wheel for a new artwork that could be incorporated into a proposed redevelopment scheme at Harbour Square.
“Ethically, as an artist, to re-envisage something that’s been made for a different site is a bit like making a rope to hang yourself,” she says. “I don’t think officials understand the artistic process.”
Walsh returned to the drawing board in 2009, hoping that an unveiling of her redesigned tribute to the shirt-making tradition would coincide with City of Culture celebrations, marking that aspect of its history.
She conceived a new artwork, representing a walk through a huge Victorian sewing machine. Her original steel wheel, with a section removed, would form one end, while an ornate “needle panel” inscribed with texts gathered from interviews with shirt factory women, would be at the other. “It felt good to carry on.”