17 February 2022

Time for tea towels to have their day in the sun

| Sally Hopman
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Woman drinking tea

Rusten House curator Janita Byrne with two of her favourite tea towels, from her Italian holiday (left) and Insects of Australia by Queanbeyan artist Cheryl Hodges (right). Photo: Supplied.

Finally, that household staple, the thing that cleans up everything you don’t want, is to have its day in the sun – and we’re not talking clotheslines here.

The humble tea towel need no longer hang out in the drawer, crumpled up with that other dry old argument, the doily. From 26 February it will star in a new exhibition at Queanbeyan’s Rusten House Arts Centre, Art of the Tea Towel.

When exhibition curator Janita Byrne put the call out for tea towels late last year, she was overwhelmed by the response.

“They came from everywhere,” she said.

“It was beautiful. We received them from Queanbeyan, Canberra, Braidwood, Bungendore and Sydney – from all over.

“It was a very eclectic collection, from political ones to exquisite hand-embroidered ones. We ended up with more than 50 submitted – all visually exceptional.”

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The exhibition covers six decades of tea towels. When people were invited to submit their towels for the exhibition, they also had to provide a story. These ranged from artists’ responses to the COVID pandemic and the natural environment, to inherited pieces from mothers and grandmothers.

Ms Byrne said the tea towel as a travel souvenir was a strong theme in the exhibition, “encapsulating precious memories of exploration in far-off places”.

“One tea towel even inspired a book to be written,” she said.

“The stories of these tea towels are as important as the visual elements of the exhibition.”

The display will range from botanical illustrations to recipe instructions, political messages to humour and satire.

Queanbeyan tea towel

Even the history of Queanbeyan can be found on a tea towel. Photo: Supplied.

“The idea for the exhibition came when we were doing a clean-out of the Queanbeyan Visitor Information Centre last year,” Ms Byrne said.

“During the clean-up we uncovered a stash of tea towels,” she said. “They were just so kitsch, they were too good to get rid of, so I thought we needed to somehow get these in an exhibition.

“But we needed a story to go with them. I didn’t want the exhibition to be too highly curated, I wanted it to represent the community, to be part of it. That’s why I put the call out to people to send in their tea towels – and their stories. We were after collected or inherited ones and we even received some with original artwork.”

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Queanbeyan is also well represented with original work by local botanical artist Cheryl Hodges showing insects and natural fauna.

One of the plainest tea towels in the exhibition tells the best story. Never used, the tea towel was found in a travel trunk complete with proof of purchase dated 3 November, 1961. It was discovered to have belonged to a woman who left Italy for Sydney to marry her childhood sweetheart. The couple, who have since passed away, share a plot in Queanbeyan cemetery.

Ms Byrne has also contributed her own personal story, via a tea towel, to the exhibition. It’s an artist-designed piece featuring blue fish on a white background.

“I love it because I’m a Pisces and it represents a memory of this beautiful place by the sea in Italy where we went to celebrate our wedding anniversary,” she said.

Pink images on black background

Pangolin’s Revenge tea towel by Canberra artist Claire Young. Photo: Supplied.

One of the most thought-provoking pieces in the exhibition is by Canberra artist Claire Young called Pangolin’s Revenge. It’s a poignant piece but not without its humorous side, according to the artist.

“When the media started reporting, with pictures, that pangolins might have been the species from which COVID-19 jumped, I thought they were the cutest animals I had never seen,” she said.

“As I learned more about how people mistreat them, I thought that COVID was almost reasonable revenge on their part. None the less, the tea towel is supposed to make people smile.”

Art of the Tea Towel opens at Rusten House Arts Centre, Queanbeyan, on Saturday 26 February and runs until 14 May. The Centre is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm.

The exhibition forms part of the Regional and National Heritage Festival Program throughout April and May.

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