Sunderland student exhibits artwork based on family's wartime history

A Sunderland University art student has drawn on her family's war history to create pieces for her final degree show

Terri Harper with her wartime display
Terri Harper with her wartime display

Student Terri Harper has marked the First World War and D-Day anniversaries with a glass artwork based on her family’s wartime history.

Terri, a final year student in glass and ceramics at the University of Sunderland, used the story of her great aunt, Ethel Lees Bowker, to create panels of screen-printed glass.

Her work is part of the university’s glass and ceramics degree show.

Terri said: “I only met her once as a child, and I wish I had known then what I know now. She was a bit of a folk hero in the family, but she never talked about it and I don’t even think if pressed she would have wanted to.

“As a mature student I can look back on my last 35 years and see the progression of my life. It’s been fairly cosy, fairly relaxed.

“I looked at my great aunt Ethel and her 33 years of that life, when the world changed forever.”

In 1913, at the age of 27, Ethel emigrated from Britain to Australia, where she settled down to work in Adelaide.

At the time the city had a large German population, with whom Ethel became close, but this changed at the outbreak of war in 1914.

“She had three brothers fighting at the front. Suddenly it was very uncomfortable for the Brits in Australia to be friendly with the Germans.

“She wanted to distance herself from them so she took herself into the Outback, for how long we don’t really know.”

En route her train derailed in the Simpson Desert, where Ethel remained stranded for three days.

Terri recalls reading about this in her Great-Aunt’s journal.

“She says that one of the worst things was that she didn’t even have a hat! It was very much the tale of an Edwardian lady abroad.”

After spending several more years in Australia, Ethel returned to Britain in 1918 where she married and had five children. The family then moved to Jersey but her husband died, leaving her to raise her children alone, which she managed until 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Terri said: “The Germans invaded the Channel Islands and a lot of people left and came back to the mainland, but she stayed.

“Probably in hindsight it wasn’t a good idea, because she had three daughters, all of whom got in trouble quite quickly with the Gestapo for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“One of the daughters was quite keen on art and had been drawing at the local airfield, and was hauled in accused of being a spy.”

All three of Ethel’s daughters were imprisoned for six months. Upon their release the entire family, including her two sons, were deported for being aliens as they were born on the mainland.

They travelled by sea and then by train to a concentration camp in northern Germany, where they spent the next two-and-a-half years.

“At this point her son Eric wrote a journal. We know exactly what happened, how long they were there, the conditions, all of which were very harrowing,” said Terri.

In 1945, shortly before the end of the war, the Allies discovered the camp and saved the family, repatriating them back to Britain. Ethel eventually settled back in Jersey where she died in 1966.

Terri said: “It was an amazing tale, and to me a tale of bravery as well as stoicism. She did her best for her family and you can’t say fairer than that.”

The artwork was created for the degree show at National Glass Centre, part of the University of Sunderland, and is accompanied by both Ethel and Eric’s journals, both recreated by Terri.

“I have worked all my life, largely in sales and marketing, PR roles, event management. But after I left school I did an A-level in art and was offered a place at Art School. I turned it down in favour of getting a job,” said Terri.

“I got to a point where I was working in tourism in a business capacity, and they were making massive cutbacks as the recession was beginning to bite. I started investigating going back into full-time education, and came to the University of Sunderland at an Open Day and looked at the courses. I saw the glass and ceramics course and thought ‘that’s the one, that’s me’.

“It has been life-changing because it opened my eyes to a new view of what I’m doing. Before it was a hobby, now it is definitely an opportunity for me to make a career out of it.”

The piece took three months to create, using a mix of software to create the screen-printed glass. This included using Photoshop to manipulate the old family photographs she worked with.

“As I was researching this and thinking about it I thought ‘2014/1914 - that’s quite timely’. But what I hadn’t realised was that it was also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

“That struck a lot of chords with me. I felt like somehow all the planets had aligned and the piece was right for this year and for this summer. I feel like it’s been a wonderful testament to Ethel, and I feel I have done her proud.”

Terri is planning to open a studio in Northumberland next year, where she will make and sell pieces, as well as pitch for commissions. More of her work can be seen on her website www.scorchedearthart.com.

The degree show at National Glass Centre runs until Sunday and is free to visit.

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