Of Materials and Making
 
CB hands stitching.jpg

January’s blog led me to surmising that most of us wouldn’t hang a piece of art in our homes unless we responded to it in some way, and how that response was likely to be pleasure-based. In contemplating that, I began to think about how materials and the making process really matter to me. Why did I automatically choose the word ‘materials’ rather than media?

I suppose the simple answer is that I predominantly work with textiles; cloth and thread.

And then – of course – I couldn’t help but look up both words in the dictionary;

Material: the matter from which a thing is made: Cloth, fabric: things needed for an activity.

Red threads.jpg

Medium: the means by which something is communicated: the intervening substance through which something is conveyed to the senses: the material or form used by an artist.

Pigment bottles.jpg

As they’re pretty interchangeable I’m going to stick to using the word ‘materials’. So how did I end up choosing my materials?

When I ventured in to the world of textiles, I was inspired by the beautiful combination of form and function in Amish and Mennonite quilts and simply wanted to have a go.

And how did Anni Albers think we choose our materials? She says: “How do we choose our specific material, our means of communication? “Accidentally”. Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks to be formed”.

Textiles caught me. I began by learning some basics but quickly realised I wanted to use cloth that I had coloured and designed - although I didn’t want to weave. Early explorations with dyes and surface design processes were hugely exciting and hugely frustrating. Some I loved; the meditative sweep of a brush lightly loaded with liquid dye paint. The energy and rhythm of screen and thermofax printing. The freedom and speed of a scraper.

Needle nose.jpg

The fluidity of a needle-nose bottle. The flexibility of mono printing. The repetition of using a simple tool over and over and over. I didn’t have the ‘touch’ for some tools - sewing straight lines with a sewing machine proved a challenge and to this day I don’t respond well to machine work.

I re-discovered the meditation of hand stitch, the quietening of the mind that comes with needle in, needle out. The expansion of mind a repetitive action can bring; freedom to wander often brings forth new ideas or solutions to problems.

'Blunt your Sharpness', detail 2.jpg

Earth pigments provided me with a direct connection to my inspiration of place and landscape and I love their materiality, their ‘grittiness’; the way they provide literal texture to the tactile qualities already inherent in cloth and thread.

Pigment sticks.jpg

I learned that before I could get to the ‘creation’ part - the realisation of my ideas and inspirations - I had to master both the materials and the making process. I had to learn the craft. Once I’d achieved that, I’d be free to become creator as well as maker, free to use my material in any way I wanted, free to transform my inspirations into artworks. And finally, with due diligence paid to composition, I’d finally get to the stage of artist.

Again, Albers writes “We are finding our language, and as we go along we learn to obey their [the materials] rules and limits. We have to obey, and adjust to those demands. Ideas flow from it to us and though we feel to be the creator we are involved in a dialogue with our medium. The more subtly we are tuned to our medium, the more inventive our actions will become. Not listening to it ends in failure”.

Lots of failures! Sometimes I didn’t listen, didn’t pay attention, didn’t think, didn’t have the dialogue. I got impatient or plain angry. It took me 10 years of practise to establish a practice. To get to a point where I felt I knew what made a good composition. To settle on what I wanted my work to communicate – what sensibilities I wanted my work to stimulate in the viewer.

I also began to appreciate how the acts of making and creating gave me a great deal more than a piece of art. I began to acknowledge how important it was for me to be in the studio. How engaging with materials and making and manifesting my inspirations began to connect me to who I really was and what I really valued in life.

In my studio I experience…

Solace, peace, rest.

Excitement, curiosity, discovery, joy.

Mistakes, failure, frustration, disappointment, anger, despair.

Hope, determination, enquiry, resourcefulness, discipline.

Stimulation, engagement, contemplation.

Solitude, community, companionship.

Quiet mind, wild mind.

Action, physicality.

Anni Albers says “What I am trying to get across is that material is a means of communication. That listening to it, not dominating it makes us truly active, that is: to be active, be passive… The finer tuned we are to it, the closer we come to art. Art is the final aim”.

I am in service to my materials and the making process, and they are in service to me. They bring me home.

All quotes taken from ‘Material as Metaphor’ (‘Anni Albers: Selected Writings on Design’ by Brenda Danilowitz, published by Wesleyan University Press).

With thanks to Sinéad, who gifted this book to me and to Katie Vandyck for her brilliant photography.

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Lost in Translation
 
Berlinda De Bruyckere at Hauser & Wirth, Somerset

Berlinda De Bruyckere at Hauser & Wirth, Somerset

In early December last year I was at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Bruton, Somerset. My mother lives in Frome and H&W is a favourite visiting spot; great exhibitions, a superb Piet Oudolf garden, delicious food and a stimulating bookshop. What’s not to like? As we visit often I never check what’s on, preferring to be surprised. This time, walking in to the gallery space was a real treat as I was confronted with works made from textiles (and in a later gallery space, animal skins). I quickly lost myself in the individual pieces, all made from second-hand blankets left outside to weather, wear and in some areas, decompose.

The wall hung works (as opposed to the sculptural, animal skin derived forms) were composed from layers of these distressed blankets, with tatty and ragged edges dangling and holes and tears exploited. The colours were muted and faded although the artist also used accents of brighter colour, which drew the eye. Strange bulges hinted at something beneath - perhaps a body – so shrouds came to mind and for me, homelessness.

Having spent some considerable time simply looking, I wandered out to the hall in search of information on who the artist was; Berlinda De Bruyckere, a Belgian artist. When visiting exhibitions I rarely read up in advance, preferring to encounter the work and first experience my own responses. In this spirit, I chose not to read the ‘blurb’, but went back inside for another look.

Each gallery at Hauser & Wirth has a steward, and before leaving, I commented how happy I was to see textiles exhibited at Hauser & Wirth, and how I wished the medium of textiles was more readily embraced in the world of fine art. The steward responded with, “well, conceptually these works are very deep and for textiles to make it as fine art, the concept has to be very, very deep indeed”.

‘Bullshit’ (in the style of ‘Taureua’, by Picasso)

‘Bullshit’ (in the style of ‘Taureua’, by Picasso)

Now, I’m the first to admit I can get a bit feisty around this kind of talk and I accept that my reactions are mine alone, but my knee-jerk thought was “the implication here is that when the medium is textiles, the concept has to be deeper than other types of art. Who says?” I left, preferring not to get involved in a heated debate with someone who potentially had no idea what she was talking about. And anyway, Mum was ready to eat and I was ready for a stiff drink.

However, that short interaction stuck with me and led me to thinking about concept. It seems that recently, concept is what art is all about, but what is concept? Surely it’s simply an idea, a jumping off point or to use the words of Agnes Martin, “an inspiration”? And so I looked it up..,

Source: Oxford English Dictionary

Source: Oxford English Dictionary

All straightforward and understandable definitions, and common to all artists. But, it seems to me that sometimes (even often), concept can become the be-all and end-all of an artwork or body of works. This is the moment when I wonder if we become lost in the translation of the work and potentially lose touch with the visual experience it offers us. And surely, visual engagement – in whatever form that takes – has to be the (at least initial) driving force behind any artwork? To walk into a gallery and be stimulated at a visceral level - to have the ‘inward feeling rather than conscious reasoning’ - must be hugely important to most of us. Sometimes those inward feelings are positive; that pow!, that surge of spirit, that clenching of the heart, that rising of the small hairs, that yearning, that sense of peace, that getting lost in the work. Sometimes the inward feelings are negative in that we feel threatened, angry, depressed, helpless, confused, belligerent, saddened. Whatever we feel we must acknowledge we are being stimulated, we are feeling and we are responding.

In ‘ Agnes Martin – Writings’ (a small booklet by Hatje Cantz), Martin says “ The function of art work is the stimulation of sensibilities, the renewal of memories of moments of perfection.” A great viewpoint as perfection varies from person to person, and so each of us has our own individual response to a work of art.

I’m not saying I don’t want to know or try to understand what the artist’s inspiration is. What I want is to experience it personally and in my own way – I want my sensibilities stimulated without needing to think about things - that can come later - as and when I choose. And when I do read about the inspiration behind the work and think about it, I still feel that my own response is more important than the artist’s inspiration. It doesn’t really matter if I don’t ‘get it’ or don’t understand, as long as I have an authentic response. Again, Martin writes; “ People get what they need from a painting… the observer makes the painting.” And, when I do read the catalogue essays or exhibition reviews, I don’t want to be confronted by a load of ‘art-speak’ or pretentious twaddle.

Twaddle: defined as ‘useless, senseless or dull writing’

Twaddle: defined as ‘useless, senseless or dull writing’

Where did this art-speak come from? What are the writers trying to prove? For me, it smacks of élitism or a desire to elevate art into a lofty atmosphere out of reach of ordinary folk. Grayson Perry is an artist I love partly because of the work, but also because of his ability to talk about his work and inspiration in language that makes sense to both an art critic and a twelve year-old. Let’s have more of that from the critics, writers and curators please.

And finally, what about beauty, plain and simple? Isn’t it enough to be in the presence of something beautiful, visually stunning, and revel in it? The natural world will often stop us in our tracks and we stand enraptured. We don’t care about the causes (why is the sky red when the sun goes down? What causes hoar frost?), we just enjoy the result.

Every day I look at a hand-tinted print by Howard Hodgkin called ‘Sundown’, and I’m pretty sure there’s no ‘deep’ concept behind it, simply a memory of the many Mumbai sunsets he liked to observe.

'Sundown' Hodgkin.jpg

A five-year old girl visited recently and declared it her favourite piece of art in the house. We discussed it and when I asked what she thought the painting was about, or of, she immediately replied “a sunset”. And when I asked her why she liked it, she said “the colours make me feel happy”.

And so I urge you to simply enjoy the art that stimulates your sensibilities. Revel in your reactions, feelings and thoughts, abandon yourself to the work and lose yourself in it without feeling the need to understand why. Understand the idea or inspiration later if you want to and if you don’t, I’m sure many artists wouldn’t give a hoot, as long as you’ve been stimulated

Happy New Year. May 2019 bring inspiration, action and results. I have no idea what I’ll be writing about in February, but no doubt it’ll come to me!

P.S. Don’t get me wrong, I found Berlinda De Bryckere’s work to be excellent, and the Hauser & Wirth ‘blurb’ wasn’t twaddle!

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As if to Nothing - into the Arctic
 
‘Blue Snow’ in the Arctic

‘Blue Snow’ in the Arctic

Although the ‘As if to Nothing’ series was completed before the New Mexico works, in December it seemed appropriate to offer a ‘cold climate’ outing. Seeing the Northern Lights is probably on many bucket lists and so a few years ago, we decided to make it happen with a trip to Northern Norway in late January. Getting the right clothing was itself an undertaking as we needed to be able to withstand very low temperatures down to -10°C, possibly lower. Plus, seeing the Aurora is – of course – a night-time activity when it’s even colder.

We’d chosen Trömso for the start and finish of our trip, had pre-booked an Aurora ‘chaser’ as a guide for two night-time excursions, and booked a cabin on the Hurtigruten boat (Trömso to Kirkenes) for the middle section of our stay within the Arctic. Apart from the Northern Lights, my other priority was to spend time in the landscape, travelling with sleds and huskies, and luckily, my husband James was up for that. It had been hard to make a choice before leaving, so on arrival, our priority was to find and book this element of our trip – and find the best places to eat, as seafood is abundant in this part of the world.

White fence, blue light, rusty nails

White fence, blue light, rusty nails

Our first full day was spent exploring Trömso itself. A beautiful little town with a lovely harbour area, super old half-timbered buildings and a glass cathedral that glowed on the top of the hillside. But the best thing was the light – or perhaps I should say - dimness. Trömso is surrounded by hills and ocean, sitting in a ‘bowl’. During our visit there, the sun had only just begun to show itself above the hills for about 2 hours a day, a cause of great joy for the locals involving a fair amount of celebratory drinking. But the absence of the sun didn’t mean it was dark all of the time. Instead, the light had a strange, blue-grey quality, which is accurately reflected in some of the images. After a decent late afternoon nap, we met our Aurora Borealis guide and set off in to the hinterland.

Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice

Aurora landscape

Aurora landscape

Beautiful to be out in that landscape at night, but we quickly learned that what the naked eye can see of the Aurora is very different to what you see in a photograph. The professionals leave the shutter open for 10 to 15 seconds, allowing the lens to suck in and capture more than the naked eye actually sees, plus, our viewings were hampered by a full moon. However, we decided that seeing the landscape under the silvery light of that full moon was even more rewarding than the Aurora.

The next day was spent in the wilderness. Our dogs were Siberian Huskies and therefore different from the Alaskan Malamute; small, wiry (a little like a working Collie), blue-eyed and very affectionate. A good, fit team can run for 150km without stopping – not that we went that far.

Learning how to drive a sled isn’t that hard. Learning to hang on if you fall off is a rather different matter as once running, the dogs don’t want to stop and there’s not much the passenger can do as there are no reins. Instead, the driver (to begin with, James) has to hang on and be dragged until a snow-plough effect on a prone body slows the dogs down enough for a grab-and-dig-in of the snow anchor – the only thing that will actually bring the dogs to a halt. All very hilarious but the dogs do give you backward glances as if to say “sort yourselves out, let’s get going again”. As the driver you quickly learn to find your balance, jumping off and running for the uphill climbs then leaping back on again - which meant you soon got warm whereas as a passenger, all you need to do is sit and enjoy.

Raring to go

Raring to go

The ride is exhilarating; cold, cold air (every part of you is covered, apart from your eyes), the panting of the dogs, the squeak of the snow and the pristine, blue-grey landscape unfurling around you. Sometimes nothing as far as the eye could see apart from a horizon line of distant hills or a lone, wind-blasted tree, skeletal against the snow. All great inspirations for work. We were sad to say goodbye to the dogs but knew we’d have a second opportunity after our boat trip to Kirkenes.

Artic texture

Artic texture

‘Arctic Boundary’. Cotton, acrylic paint & ink, hand stitch. 138cm wide x 61cm tall

‘Arctic Boundary’. Cotton, acrylic paint & ink, hand stitch. 138cm wide x 61cm tall

We boarded our Hurtigruten boat the following morning. Essentially ferries, these boats originally delivered vital supplies and mail to the further-flung towns and outposts along the north-west Norwegian coast and fjords. Now they also carry tourists, but the delivery of supplies is still vital, particularly in winter. Seeing the land from the ocean was superb; great un-occupied, bleak terrain, again all tinged with the strange blue light of the arctic in winter. Arrival in a port after full dark was gorgeous, as all Norwegian homes seem to have no curtains. Instead, many windows have lights (now electric, once candle light) that reflect back into the room and twinkle in a welcoming fashion to those outside.

Another kind of Northern lights

Another kind of Northern lights

In most instances, the stay in port was short and swift; just enough time to off-load supplies and take on other goods, or rubbish that can’t be disposed of locally. Time was allowed for a good walk in Honningsvåg and this gave us the chance to experience a different landscape: the dusky, milky colours of the timber buildings, the collecting and crusting of snow on wooden boards and wire fences, half-buried dilapidated sheds on the edge of the village, snowy railings and snowy roofs. All beautiful in the strange light.

White snow, blue line

White snow, blue line

Snow Lace

Snow Lace

‘Barren Arctic’, detail. Linen, thread, tissue paper, acrylic paint, hand stitch

‘Barren Arctic’, detail. Linen, thread, tissue paper, acrylic paint, hand stitch

‘Barren Arctic’. Framed size 95cm x 50cm

‘Barren Arctic’. Framed size 95cm x 50cm

Passengers can choose to hear an “Aurora!” call from the crew at night and so for both our on-board nights, we got out of our warm beds, bundled up, grabbed a hot drink and went up on deck to watch the Aurora. Somehow more magical at sea, and the sight of the snow-covered landscape under the silvery light of the full moon was again a real added bonus. It also snowed, and watching the ocean through falling snow is a magical thing.

‘Ocean’, detail. Cotton, acrylic paint, India Ink

‘Ocean’, detail. Cotton, acrylic paint, India Ink

Our final Hurtigruten stop was Kirkenes, followed by a short flight back to Trömso. Having seen great Aurora out at sea, we cancelled our second booking of night-driving, preferring to be awake during the day to spend more time with a different team of huskies and enjoy a snowshoe walk followed by a traditional lunch in front of a roaring wood stove. Trömso itself still offered much and our last day was spent pottering around visiting museums and galleries (and eating!). We were surprised by the number of art and craft shops for such a small town. But, the dark winter is long and the locals like to be occupied, so there was plenty of good art and craft to be enjoyed.

It was exhilarating to have been able to spend time inside the Arctic Circle. This cold wilderness offers so much; the silence of the snow, the cleanness and crispness of the air, the monochromatic, pure vistas, the textural details and the light. All of the work I made (five large, 4 medium and 12 small) used acrylic media on under-painted drill cotton (my old drop cloths), or linen. I needed a lot of white and wanted the physical properties of acrylic to get some of the crusty effects, which in some cases, I also achieved through the use of tissue paper, thread and stitch. After sampling a range of greys, I ultimately settled on using less blue in the mix as it seemed too ‘pretty’ and tended to alter the character of the underpainting too much.

‘Arctic Tundra’, cotton, acrylic paint, machine and hand stitch. 142x87cm

‘Arctic Tundra’, cotton, acrylic paint, machine and hand stitch. 142x87cm

Textured shoreline

Textured shoreline

‘Arctic Tundra’, detail

‘Arctic Tundra’, detail

I’m sure we’ll want to re-visit the Arctic again. Perhaps next time we’ll venture to Finland and spend time with the Sami and their reindeer herds.., and I’ve heard Helsinki is a super place to spend some time.

‘Arctic’, cotton, acrylic paint, machine and hand stitch. 175 x 120cm

‘Arctic’, cotton, acrylic paint, machine and hand stitch. 175 x 120cm

‘Arctic’, detail

‘Arctic’, detail

 
Traces of Time - At Acoma Pueblo
 
Traces of Time social media graphic 3.jpg

My travels through New Mexico only scratched the surface of this amazing state, and I’m going to gallop through the majority of the places we spent time in as I want to focus on the Acoma Pueblo, situated in the north-west corner of the State. Acoma was at the end of our journey, which had started in Marfa, Texas, home to ‘Chinati’, the most amazing arts venue created by Donald Judd. From Marfa we drove out of Texas and headed to the Carlsbad Caverns in to the South East corner of New Mexico. Whilst the caverns were fascinating, the dusk feeding flight of who knows how many bats was fantastic; numbers range between 200,000 to 500,000, increasing to a million during migration. An amazing spectacle and a sensory one too, as the beating of wings could be felt by changes in airflow over your face and head. Some bats flew so close collision seemed inevitable but of course, their radars prevented that.

From Carlsbad we headed off to Santa Fe, a glorious town filled with great museums, shops and art galleries, not to mention Georgia O’Keefe’s home at Abiquiu a short drive away, and her previous residence at Ghost Ranch, set in stunning country.  It was Georgia O’Keefe’s words on New Mexico that had made me want to visit; “as soon as I saw it, it fitted me perfectly”.  But it is the landscape (such as we saw around Ghost Ranch) not the towns of New Mexico she was referring to, and the quality of light.

Looking through

Looking through

And so we moved on from Santa Fe to Gallup to attend the Navajo Rug Auction at Crownpoint Elementary school.  All of the rugs are hand made in wool by Navajo weavers, some of whom keep their own sheep to use wool they can call entirely their own.  I bought two small rugs.  Hard not to.

 In Gallup itself we visited the Richardson and Perry Null Trading companies, both great places to see Native American rugs, jewellery and other artefacts.  Didn’t come out of either store empty handed I’m afraid!  Time in this area meant I had more time to simply enjoy the landscape.  The light is extraordinary and although mainly sunny, I had the privilege of watching black thunderheads gather and move across the desert landscape, but no rain fell. 

From Gallup we drove to Acoma (also known as Sky City, but I prefer Acoma), and although I’d done some research about it, the impact of this Pueblo - and the surrounding landscape - bowled me over.  We left the main highway to follow the road to the Pueblo, starting high and dropping down to pause at an outcrop overlooking the valley floor.  Mesa – some small, some large, some close, some far - were everywhere.  These valleys, flat-topped hills and mountains are very typical, with some areas having a ‘desert’ colour spanning beige, dun, sand and brown, others tinged with green.., and a watering hole.

Looking out over Acoma, and the watering hole

Looking out over Acoma, and the watering hole

I wondered how such a parched-looking and arid landscape could support a watering hole.  It didn’t seem to rain here much, although winter was on its way, and perhaps sufficient rain fell to keep this small hole fed.  It became the subject for my first piece of work;

‘Traces of Time: Watering Hole’, 193cm x 181cm (photography Katie Vandyck 2017)

‘Traces of Time: Watering Hole’, 193cm x 181cm (photography Katie Vandyck 2017)

looking over the Acoma Valley, and the watering hole (photography Katie Vandyck 2017)

looking over the Acoma Valley, and the watering hole (photography Katie Vandyck 2017)

The road took us to the Acoma Cultural Centre, a stunning, modern Adobe structure designed by architect Barbara Felix, working closely with the community.  It contains six elements dear to the Acoma culture: stone, wood, mica, mud, corn and pottery.  To find out more about the history, culture and buildings of Acoma, visit www.architectureforeverybody.com.  The site explains things in great detail and far better than I ever could. 

We were anxious to get up to the old Pueblo, located on top of a nearby flat-topped mesa, so decided to explore the Cultural Centre after visiting the Pueblo.  Whilst you can catch a bus to avoid the climb, we walked, preferring to do things old style, slow style.., and sweaty style.  A guide took us around, but I confess to being regularly distracted. Where did the wood came from? Did the cistern ever ran out (it does, so rain is prayed for).  How could anything grow it the arid landscape?  It does however, and corn is sacred to most First Nations cultures. 

I saw many of the elements (stone, wood, mica, mud, corn and pottery) within the old pueblo, and repeated again in the modern Cultural Centre; patterns on the adobe walls, ceremonial ladders, carved or painted patterns on the wooden lintels, ravens playing in the updraft, an oven with a view, locals repairing a roof, the huge rainwater collection cistern, wood piles. I saw many of the elements (stone, wood, mica, mud, corn and pottery) within the old Pueblo, and repeated again in the modern Cultural Centre.  Some of my thoughts and feelings ultimately led to six tall, slender pieces (all approximately 89cm x 210cm, see website).

Ceremonial Ladder

Ceremonial Ladder

Carved Lintel

Carved Lintel

Before the five ‘tall and slenders’ I made ‘Adobe, Lintel & Ladder’, encompassing the mud of the adobe walls, the carved lintels and ceremonial ladders at the Cultural Centre.

‘Adobe, Lintel & Ladder’, 212cm x 198cm (photography J Kevin Fitzsimons)

‘Adobe, Lintel & Ladder’, 212cm x 198cm (photography J Kevin Fitzsimons)

Everything I’ve made (so far) in this body of work uses raw earth pigments bound in acrylic and water, with most having elements of hand stitch to convey the detail.

‘Adobe, Lintel & Ladder’, detail (photography J Kevin Fitzsimons)

‘Adobe, Lintel & Ladder’, detail (photography J Kevin Fitzsimons)

‘Adobe, Lintel & Ladder’, detail (photography J Kevin Fitzsimons)

Next came ‘Rain on the Mesa’ followed by ‘170° West; The Place that always Was’, a diptych showing an aerial view of the roads coming into and through the valley floor, with a depiction of the Pueblo village itself.  A detail is shown below.

'170 Degrees West; The place that always was' for web.jpg

Four other works came out of the Pueblo and/or the Cultural Centre; ‘Fence’, ‘Hide’, ‘Adobe’ and ‘Watering Hole II’, culminating in a total of thirteen pieces.  ‘Watering Hole’ and four of the five slender works are currently touring the USA through the Mid-America Arts Alliance (www.eusa.org) as part of the ‘Material Pulses: Seven Viewpoints’ exhibition, curated by Nancy Crow.  They’ll be back with me in 2023.  I miss them. 

There is no doubt that New Mexico, and specifically the Acoma Pueblo offered me a great deal to work with.  I’m often asked why I called the series ‘Traces of Time’, but time – or evidence of time - was all around me; the flat-topped mesas, eroded rocks, the weathered valley floor, buildings and timbers, sacred ceremony and ritual, ancient culture, worn and well-trodden steps and – of course - the Pueblo itself.  I left it the old way; down through the crevasses of the mesa, treading ancient steps carved from the rock itself, and worn by many feet. 

I honour the Acoma people for maintaining this site, maintaining and living their culture and sharing it with me. 

The muted beautiful colours

The muted beautiful colours

Next, we’ll go somewhere colder - appropriate fro December - and see how an earlier body of work translated the snow-covered landscape on Northern Norway, up inside the Arctic Circle

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Claire Benn
Sensing Space
 
Birds in a row on the Salt Pans

Birds in a row on the Salt Pans

Space.  Isn’t that something we all crave?  The opportunity to move, stretch, expand, breathe, contemplate, sit or be still.  Space offers us the opportunity to be however we want to be.  It doesn’t restrict.  It doesn’t demand.  It doesn’t question.  It just is. 

Growing up, I sensed space often.  Sitting on a bucket in a huge, lofty barn, letting a calf suck my fingers.  Straw rustling.  The shrieking of swallows.  Going to the beach, the ocean beyond and the big sky above.  Space to run, fly kites, build sandcastles, play games, eat sandy sandwiches and get buffeted by weather.

Alaskan Beach for web.jpg

Standing on top of Helvellyn with what seemed like all of Britain spread out below. Visiting Westminster Abbey; feeling small and humble beneath its soaring roof. Entering the eternal green of the Canadian woodlands or silently paddling a canoe across a lake.  Seeing a young moose grazing the shallows, hearing the strange, ululating cry of the loons. Crossing the Channel in a sailboat, losing sight of land; scary and exhilarating.  Whilst the spaces contained within good buildings are lovely, it’s the space without - the landscape - that captivates me.  To be lost in landscape is an active choice and ‘holiday’ time is usually spent in nature, the wilder the better:

The majesty of the Scottish Highlands and Islands

The majesty of the Scottish Highlands and Islands

The deserts of Southern Morocco

The deserts of Southern Morocco

The magic of an Alaska Dawn

The magic of an Alaska Dawn

The white des

The white des

The High Mesa of New Mexico

The High Mesa of New Mexico

The raw earth of the Atacama Desert

The raw earth of the Atacama Desert

The ‘pancake’ rocks at Punakaiki, South Island, New Zealand

The ‘pancake’ rocks at Punakaiki, South Island, New Zealand

The layered coast of South East Harris

The layered coast of South East Harris

It’s holiday time, but it’s also work time as being lost in landscape feeds my practice.  But it never feels like work.  Wild is the key element.  Places of raw nature inhabited only by those who can survive there, which might include some humans but generally not many, and they’re not hard to leave behind.  The ‘leaving behind’ allows silence and stillness to enter, along with permission to do nothing except look.  With looking comes seeing.  What is, at first sight, apparently empty is far from it.

The texture of flowing grasslands. Mosses hanging from trees (Doubtful Sound, N.Z.)

The texture of flowing grasslands. Mosses hanging from trees (Doubtful Sound, N.Z.)

The carved edges of the glacier.. A skeletal tree. Birds in a row. Pebbles on the shore.

The carved edges of the glacier.. A skeletal tree. Birds in a row. Pebbles on the shore.

Shadows, rock formations, mountains and hills, ripples and pleats, foam. Colour, often uniform or monochromatic; sand, rock, grass, trees, sky, snow, ice, water, mud.

Alaskan Storm

Alaskan Storm

The relief of leaving behind the noise and intrusions of ‘modern’ living.  No phone.  No newspaper. No computer. No demands.  Only the command that compels you to look, see, sense and absorb.  I also like to write – not in the sense of a journal – more of a simple record of my thoughts and feelings.  No sketchbooks as such, just a few roughly drawn references to shape, line and texture. A few photographs.  Enough to serve as a reminder of colour and ‘assist’ any rough drawings I might have done.  Trusting that memory will serve when it comes to making the work.

 Beginning the work is always hard.  How to communicate a sense of space, the experience of stillness, silence and deep peace?  I can be intimidated by looking at (even only a few) photographs – the choices seem overwhelming.  Where to begin, where to start? 

And so my preference is to print (a very few) images and then chop them up, leaving only slivers of colour, texture, line or form.  Having done so, I’ll generally pin them up next to my drawings – often in the wrong orientation - as I don’t want to create a reproduction of what I’ve seen.  As such, they don’t hang for very long before being taken down and put in a pile, only to be referred to occasionally.

Two ‘Slivers’

Using raw earth pigments (and sometimes dirt from the places I’ve visited) is enabling me to have a direct connection to the land.  Choosing processes that are hard to completely control also offer scope for the imperfect and accidental, and provide a sensation of discovery.  Reducing and simplifying, trying to offer a sense of place and a sense of space – space for the viewer to expand, breathe, contemplate and be still. 

Over the next few months I’ll explore some of these different landscapes in more detail, and the work I’ve made as a result of being in them.  You can decide if I’ve been successful.

Download a PDF of this article

 
Claire Benn
Material Girls - Quilts as Art
 
Diana Harrison: “Lost in Lace”

Diana Harrison: “Lost in Lace”

Patchwork & quilting represent age-old techniques, usually born from thrift and poverty. The earliest quilts were usually made from old clothing; cut up, sewn back together, backed with a (probably old) blanket for warmth and densely hand stitched together. These days, functional quilts are still made as practical items, often as gifts to celebrate a marriage or the arrival of a child. The cloth used is often commercial but more and more makers are turning to dyeing their own fabric. Modern inventions include ‘wadding’ or ‘batting’ made from cotton, wool, silk or a synthetic fibre which forms a warm mid-layer, and a backing fabric creates the triple sandwich.

Whilst some quilts are still hand stitched together, many makers now opt for the speed and convenience of the sewing machine and this has seen the growth of ‘long arm’ quilting machines. I re-ignited my textile journey with quilt making, so quilts will always hold a special place for me, even though I now only make ‘funky functionals’ for grandchildren and friends. For art that uses quilts as the medium, I’ve chosen three artists whom I admire and who are all very different.

NANCY CROW ( www.nancycrow.com )

Crow is an inspiration to many people, being completely dedicated to making art whilst still managing to find time to bring up a family, teach, build a world-class facility, curate exhibitions and travel to places with a strong textile heritage. She is fierce about what she wants to say about making art so I‘ve chosen to use her own words.

“The purpose of my quilts is to make something beautiful for me. They are a means of expression. They represent my deepest feelings as a response to my life. My quilts are how I see colour; how I see shapes; how I see line. They are about complexity, sadness, hope and always beauty.”

Nancy Crow: Drawings, Riff 5’ (Photograph, J. Kevin Fitzsimons)

Nancy Crow: Drawings, Riff 5’ (Photograph, J. Kevin Fitzsimons)

The premise for the ‘Drawings’ shown here is just that; “drawing, my type of drawing, drawing in fabric. I also wanted to highlight patterning that feels very close to my soul. And who can explain why the soul responds to what type of patterning? In Drawing: Riff 5, my drawing began tightly, too tightly, almost classical in sensibility. But as I continued, my cutting (drawing) slowly loosened up”.

Nancy Crow: ‘Drawing, Riff #7’ (Photograph J. Kevin Fitzsimons)

Nancy Crow: ‘Drawing, Riff #7’ (Photograph J. Kevin Fitzsimons)

Nancy Crow: ‘Drawing Riff 8’ (Photograph J. Kevin Fitzsimons)

Nancy Crow: ‘Drawing Riff 8’ (Photograph J. Kevin Fitzsimons)

Of ‘Riff 7 and 8, Nancy says “I began to examine colour relationships while the drawing itself became looser naturally”. Apart from a body of work made using a mono printing process (which she plans to continue exploring), all of Crow’s quilts are machine-pieced from fabric structures she creates, which she calls her ‘vocabulary’. She cuts and sews three to four times more than finally used in any composition as she needs a large vocabulary to work from in order to proceed freely.

“When I work on a quilt, I put away all thoughts that are not helpful and channel my energies towards relaxing and becoming one with my fabrics. Never, ever do I think about what others expect or want or what will sell, but rather I look at my time in my studio as a process of discovery. I love being inside my brain and pushing myself to think in ever more complex ways because I know the ideas are there for the taking. It’s all about being focused and disciplined and making use of one’s abilities. And about being alone, in solitude, so one can think and feel deeply without interruption. I have definitely grown far closer to myself rather than to others because I see my quilt-making as my experience which has nothing to do with other people”.

Nancy Crow: ‘Drawing, Riff #6,’detail (Photograph J. Kevin Fitzsimons)

Nancy Crow: ‘Drawing, Riff #6,’detail (Photograph J. Kevin Fitzsimons)

I identify who I am with my artwork ... in other words, I love the work, the experience of making each quilt. It’s my life, my life’s work! I feel lost not doing art, unsatisfied, anxious, bored”.

I think we can all identify how frustrating it can be if we can’t get to work.

PAULINE BURBIDGE ( www.paulineburbidge-quilts.com )

Pauline Burbidge has long been an inspiration to British textile artists. Her inspirations are “a love of the rural landscape, the natural world and the spirituality of a special place” . Pauline describes how – at the age of 25 - she was moved when viewing an exhibition of antique quilts. Coupling this passion for cloth, stitching and making with her art school practice of drawing, colour, line, and abstraction has meant that she remains one of the foremost artists working with textiles today.

Pauline Burbidge at work

Pauline Burbidge at work

In the early days, Burbidge focused on piecing together plain, dyed fabric to create her imagery. This came from the tradition of patchwork, but with the images or designs being wholly Pauline’s, often based on abstracted photographic images. Burbidge herself describes the early works as being “controlled, hard edged, geometric” , and in the mid 1980’s, she decided to “loosen up a bit“ and made paper collage studies to help her, which then led onto fabric collage, which she pursues today.

Pauline Burbidge: ‘Honesty Skyline’

Pauline Burbidge: ‘Honesty Skyline’

She usually begins with a place of inspiration where she observes and absorbs; making drawings, taking photographs and collecting items such as leaves, grass etc. from the landscape. Being in the landscape will also often make her think about cloth; ripples in the sand could remind her of the texture of pleated cloth or the reflections in a river may look like shredded cloth. Like Dorothy Caldwell, on her return to the studio Burbidge surrounds herself with sketches, images and collected items and begins to make fabric samples that relate to the ‘collection’, using a variety of approaches.

Pauline Burbidge: ‘Lindisfarne Revisited’, detail

Pauline Burbidge: ‘Lindisfarne Revisited’, detail

Burbidge continues to work in a free-form way with collage, stitch and quilting, sometimes ‘drawing’ with machine stitching, sometimes hand stitching. In addition to her Quiltscapes (quilts or textile hangings made as art), drawing with the machine led her to developing a range of functional quilts called Quiltlines , which are faster to make and therefore more affordable, which helps to broaden the audience and which has finally enabled her to make a living through her art.

DIANA HARRISON

Harrison’s practice explores the tradition of quilting but goes beyond the functional or decorative, resulting in art textiles than can be exhibited and displayed individually or as part of a series. 

Diana Harrison: ‘Transparent Boundaries, Clear Boundaries’

Diana Harrison: ‘Transparent Boundaries, Clear Boundaries’

Each piece is focused on the tactile and visual qualities that result from dyeing, layering, stitching and bleached overprinting of cloth. Depending on the type of cloth used, these processes often result in shrinking, stretching and distortion with traces of stitching revealed through the discharging of the dyed ground. Harrison says of this “the cloth and thread become one”.

Whilst the development of the cloth and continued engagement with textile practice is of obvious importance to the work, the content can be traced back to different sources. One source is travelling, specifically the repetition of a regular commute. This has given Harrison the time for thought and provided visual stimulation though the surface markings, curves and ‘distances’ of the road.  Another series has been based on bone density as seen in x-rays of fine and fragile structures, where the thinning and wearing away is represented by stitching and bleaching resulting in lines criss-crossing, meshing and supporting. Piles of boxes put out for recycling have also provided thoughts about surface and structure, containment and emptiness. 

In Harrison’s most recent exhibition at the Festival of Quilts in 2017, ‘Traces in Cloth’ she uses and manipulates found items by unstitching previously sealed pillowcases or over-dyeing and bleaching into handkerchiefs. She works with the original measurements and cloth qualities, so boundaries are given and this defines the outcome. The format and history is still evident but transformed. 

Creating new surface ‘qualities’ on the cloth is of huge interest to Harrison and as a result, ideas develop through and from the material itself. In addition to dyeing and subsequent bleaching, she is also exploring using chemicals and heat to burn and destroy in order to achieve new surface qualities. Of her work, Harrison says “over time, my work has explored textiles from embroidery to quilting and to larger installation works, constantly questioning and discovering different ideas and processes. It is through a real understanding of craftsmanship and enquiry that my work continues to develop”.

Click here for a downloadable PDF of this article.

The next article will be a departure - just for a moment - from textiles.  Instead, it’ll have a ‘travel’ feel as being lost in landscape feeds my practice.  After this I’ll return to textiles, and begin to explore some specific regions, and the work I’ve made as a result of being in them.

 
In, On and Under the Surface
 
Claire Benn - Lamination Details

Claire Benn - Lamination Details

‘Surface Design’ is an umbrella term used to describe the creation of pattern, texture or imagery on cloth. It encompasses arguably every technique but in this instance, I want to focus on artists who create their work using predominantly wet processes. These include painting, screen printing, mono printing, scraping and a huge array of mark-making techniques often using ‘found’ or everyday tools. A wide range of media is also employed from dyes (for example fibre-reactive, acid and natural dyes), fabric and acrylic paints, expandable paints, etching or devoré medium and discharge (colour removal) media. Some of this media involves a chemical reaction inside the fibre of the cloth (In). Some sit on the surface (On) and some eat or etch away (Under). Cloth in any form is flexible and giving and own experience of surface design has informed me that you can do almost anything to it and it will respond. Colour, discharge, tear, burn, etch, stiffen, glue, laminate, embed – the list is endless.

Let’s take an initial look at contemporary artists who use surface design to create cloth that is unquestionably art.

Norma Starszakowna (sadly no website, but an image search will yield good results)

I heard about Starszakowna in 2004 after her installation – ‘Hinterland’ - was hung in the Scottish Parliament Buildings. Exquisite and fascinating, Hinterland consists of eighteen silk organza panels that combine digital printing, hand painting and embossed detailing. It reflects the landscape, industries, cultural history and tradition of innovation in Scotland, and simply glows. The methods used to create them are very much in, on and under the surface. In 2010 I made a flying visit to the Stroud International Textile Festival to specifically see Starszakowna’s work in the flesh. I was not disappointed and spent a good couple of hours just looking and becoming lost in the stories that are embedded in her work.

Norma Starszakowna ‘Hinterland’

Norma Starszakowna ‘Hinterland’

The success of Starszakowna’s experimental and innovative methods were recognised as early as 1977, when she received a Scottish Arts Council Award for research in to new processes. Most of her practice (and teaching) has been focused on the three dimensional surface qualities that can be achieved during the printing and dyeing process.

Her textiles deal with the complex relationships which link the past with the present, and The Contemporary Textile Collection at the V&A has a significant acquisition in ‘Diasporas’. The V&A describe it as “made of white silk organza, screen-printed pigments and heat reactive media, it is the latest in a series of textile hangings which relate directly to the history and memories embedded in walls and buildings. Each piece is inscribed with fragments of graffiti and messages that are highly evocative and include subtle references to both universal truths and highly personal experiences” .

Norma Starszakowna “Raising Walls’

Norma Starszakowna “Raising Walls’

CAROLE WALLER (www.carolewaller.co.uk)

Carole Waller describes one aspect of her practice as “making paintings” , often on un-stretched cloth that hangs in space or against a wall, and paintings that are laminated between glass. I saw these exhibited outdoors at Westonburt Arboretum by chance. Whilst visiting a friend up in that neck of the woods, she casually mentioned that “some kind of textile art in glass is being exhibited outdoors at Westonburt – do you want to have a look?”. Of course I did, so we spent a happy half-day enjoying Westonburt itself whilst being captivated by Waller’s luminous textile ‘sculptures’. The toughened glass panels are laminated with UV resistant resin, creating a durable glass structure that can be used indoors or out as it withstands extremes of temperature, light and weather. Waller’s panels can also be used as free-standing artworks, set into walls as an architectural feature that utilises light, or as screens or room dividers that double as artworks. A brilliant development of how textiles can be used.

Carole Waller, interior sliding doors

Carole Waller, interior sliding doors

Carole Waller ‘Stitch by Stitch’

Carole Waller ‘Stitch by Stitch’

The other side of Waller’s practice focuses on clothing or what is known as ‘Art to Wear’ or in the U.S.A., ‘Wearable Art’. Using (mainly) silk, she paints fibre-reactive dyes directly on to the cloth, making a wearable and washable ‘painting’ with incredible richness of mark, colour and depth. Fittingly, Waller calls her collection ‘I’m no Walking Canvas’ .

In the USA, Jane Dunnewold was responsible for coining the term ‘art cloth’ and encouraging makers to use a variety of tools and combine different media on a single piece of cloth. Her book ‘Complex Cloth’ both educated and inspired. Leslie Morgan and I brought the principle of ‘layered’ cloth in to the U.K. when we formed Committed to Cloth, but preferred to use the term ‘compositional cloth’ to further aid the fact that cloth in itself could be an artwork.

Some students did just this, mounting the cloth on stretchers or letting it simply hang free, whilst others took the surface design techniques and created cloth for use in whole cloth quilts, or for cutting and restructuring. Here are a few examples, starting with a wholecloth quilt by Leslie Morgan where the thickened dye paints were applied with a single tool; an old credit card. A perfect example of how little is needed to execute an idea.

Leslie Morgan ‘Empty’

Leslie Morgan ‘Empty’

Next we see an early work by Christina Ellcock (Paper Fruit) that I still consider to be an excellent example of great surface design, where the original idea came from various still life studies of a bowl of fruit. The media used included thickened dye paint and discharge media through the use of resists, scraping, painting, spattering and dribbling. You can see more of her work at www.unfoldtextiles.christinechester.com, where you’ll also see the work of Christine Chester, Vanessa Marr, Sara Heatherly, Carly Ralph and Sarah Welsby.

Christina Ellcock ‘Paper Fruit’

Christina Ellcock ‘Paper Fruit’

Claudia Helmer  www.claudiahelmer.com has made the process of paper lamination her own, using it to create a body of work called ‘Die Gedanken sind Frei’ and latterly, for a body of work based on trip to Alaska, all of which used paper lamination on top of hand dyed cloth with machine stitching.

Claudia Helmer 'Zeitungs Vogel', detail.jpg

Charlotte Yde from Denmark also uses a wide range of surface design techniques in her quilts, as we can see from the next image of an early work (an old favourite of mine) called ‘Bloody Garden’. In addition to quilts, Charlotte has also been engaged with drawing through stitch, so do visit her website to see the full range of what she engages with www.yde.dk .

Charlotte Yde ‘Bloody Garden’

Charlotte Yde ‘Bloody Garden’

Lastly, I’ll mention Susie Koren who I’ve worked with for many years. In the past Susie explored wax resist and discharge processes on black cloth as a basis for her hand stitching but in the last four to five years, she’s been focused on working with raw earth pigments to create surface texture on her cloth, which she then (of course!) hand stitches. Fabulous work. To see more visit www.susiekoren.com and www.viewseven.com.

Susie Koren ‘Harbour Wall’

Susie Koren ‘Harbour Wall’

I could go on as there are many, many talented artists creating great art using surface design techniques and processes. I hope you’ve enjoyed this short introduction.

Click here for a downloadable PDF of the above article, "In, On and Under the Surface"

 
Woven Stories - Four Contemporary Weavers
 
Chris Ofili 'The Caged Bird's Song'

Chris Ofili 'The Caged Bird's Song'

Weaving (including tapestry weaving) is one of the earliest textile techniques. The fibre used would historically include silk, cotton, wool, linen, hemp or rags although today’s weavers also use and recycle materials such as plastic and wire. Whatever the yarn being used, they’re laced together on a loom to form cloth. This is commonly seen in garments, but weavings can also be art. As mentioned, Anni Albers was an early pioneer and Sheila Hicks made fantastically explorative pieces. Although the weaving work was done for them, Grayson Perry and Chris Ofili have both used tapestry as a medium. For ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ , Perry chose the digitised loom. For ‘The Caged Bird’s Song’ (shown at the National Gallery in 2017) Ofili opted for hand weaving in partnership with Dovecote Studios in Edinburgh.

And there are artists out there who like to unravel woven cloth to create their art. Akio Ezuka is a fine example of this, as seen in the Entangled exhibition at the Turner Contemporary in 2017.

I probably last had a go at weaving whilst still at school and it’s not a process I can see myself
engaging with in the future. Whilst I have the patience to hand stitch for hours or rub pigment in to
cloth, for some reason, I don’t seem to have the kind of patience required to be a weaver! But, I do
love what’s possible and have chosen four artists whose work appeals to me in different ways.

Akio Azuka 'Loosening Fabric'

Akio Azuka 'Loosening Fabric'


MARCEL MAROIS (www.marcelmarois.com)

I first discovered the work of Marcel Marois in an ‘Art Textiles of the World’ book, featuring the work of Canadian artists. I love it on every level; the texture, the abstract forms and particularly, the play of light and dark. In exploring different approaches to creating relief with the woven surface, Marois realised that the optical qualities of the grain of weaving had similarities to photographic grain. Weaving also offered him the ability of choosing the colour component of each woven stitch, leading him to reconstruct photographic blur and abstraction. For me, the results are abstract, simple, monumental and beautiful, even though their source is “rooted in the environmental and social impact of abusive commercial exploitation of the natural environment” .

Marcel Marois 'Mirrors'

Marcel Marois 'Mirrors'

A photograph is often the starting point for Marois, which he alters “through a succession of manual and reprographic interventions... just a trace of the disaster remains, a metaphor of the forgetfulness and the erasing of historical facts from our collective imagination” . These transformations mean that blacks get denser, the greys are broken down and the actual image obliterated to the point of near disappearance. More and more, his work is losing its connection to the original image.

He says “creating tapestry today based on the environmental dramas that feed media frenzy seem to me a way of evoking the instability of an existence in perpetual transformation and paradoxically, of recording the ephemeral through the permanence of weaving” .

Marcel Marois 'Averse Chromatique'

Marcel Marois 'Averse Chromatique'

JO BARKER (www.jobarkertapestry.co.uk)

I saw Jo Barker’s work on a visit to ‘Collect’ and discovered her to be a master of colour, combining combinations that are both exhilarating and challenging. Her work is underpinned by drawing, painting and collage and although I’m no expert on tapestry weaving, I could grasp her brilliant technical ability from the flowing, painterly marks to the tiny details and blending of colour. Her website is word-light but image full, so do take a look.

Jo Barker 'Flow' and 'Resonance'

FIONA RUTHERFORD (www.rutherfordtextileart.com)

Fiona Rutherford uses the historical Gobelins technique of tapestry weaving using mainly cotton and linen yarns at an upright frame loom. She loves the emotional impact of colour and creates energy through a vivid but limited colour palate. Weaving and storytelling fascinate her as they bring together the past and the present to create something new and still unfolding. Rutherford’s work is highly narrative and references people, music words and events in her life. These are woven into the fabric of her tapestries. The imagery is a careful balance of patterns, symbols and mark making.

Fiona Rutherford 'Scarborough Fair'

Fiona Rutherford 'Scarborough Fair'

Japanese art and textiles have been a major influence on her work over the past decade and in
particular the visual aesthetics of space. Woven strips, based on the obi or kimono sash, became a vehicle for randomly connected imagery suggesting the border of a larger unseen design. These strips could be hung vertically or horizontally in different locations to create a completely different visual effect. I love the combination of simplicity and complexity in Rutherford’s work and the graphic quality that makes them leap out to you.

PTOLEMY MANN (www.ptolemymann.com)

Mann has been creating colourful and innovative work since 1997. Her methods of hand dyeing
and hand weaving produce architectural and geometric art along with commercial items including furnishing fabrics, rugs, bed linen, cushions and throws. I find a great deal in common with the Bauhaus movement in her use of colour and design, but brought into the here and now. Mann has a deep appreciation of colour and an interest in architecture, and these are effectively combined in her aspiration “to achieve minimalism in colour” . I would say she’s achieved it.

Ptolemy Mann, Detail of woven cloth

Ptolemy Mann, Detail of woven cloth

 
Hung, Drawn but not Tortured
 
Pont Neuf Wrapped by Christo

Pont Neuf Wrapped by Christo

Binding, wrapping and hanging thread, cloth or fibre is a common practice in the world of art textiles, and I’ve examined that to a certain extent through the work of Sheila Hicks. But it took the visionary artists Christo & Jeanne Claude to take it to a truly monumental level. You need to visit their website to get a true grasp of their achievements, but I’ve chosen two of their projects as a tempter. (www.christojeanneclaude.net)

Christo & Jeanne Claude

Little Bay (south east of Sydney, Australia) underwent a transformation from late October 1969, courtesy of ‘Wrapped Coast’ by Christo and Jeanne Claude. For a distance of 2.4km (1.5 miles), the cliff-lined ocean shore was covered with almost 93,000 square metres of ‘erosion control fabric’ made from synthetic fibre usually made for agricultural purposes. Fasteners, threaded studs and clips were fired into the rock and earth to secure the 56 kilometres of rope to fasten the fabric securely.  After ten weeks, all the materials used were removed and recycled, restoring the shoreline to its original condition.

Christo and Jeanne Claude's "Wrapped Coast"

Christo and Jeanne Claude's "Wrapped Coast"

In September 1985 and somewhat closer to home, ‘The Pont Neuf, Wrapped’ was completed. With the help of 300 professionals workers, Christo and Jeanne Claude deployed nearly 42,000 square metres of a silky, woven polyamide fabric of a golden sandstone in colour. The entire bridge was bound or covered, including all of the street lamps on both sides of the bridge, which I somehow find endearing.

It took 13 km of rope to do it, secured by 12 tons of steel chain encircling the base of each tower, which are 1 metre below the surface of the water. Astonishing.  What’s also astonishing is Christo and Jeanne Claude do not accept sponsorship of any kind. All expenses for these monumental projects were covered through the sale of preparatory drawings, collages and earlier works.

This summer is billed as 'The Summer of Christo' in London with the UK's first major public installation 'The Mastaba' (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) accompanied by a retrospective of their work in the Serpentine Galleries from 20th June to 9th September 2018. The description says “the temporary nature of these works has, over the years, formed an extensive visual archive of preparatory drawings, collages and photographic works, which detail the organisation and vision of these projects and those never realised”.  In addition Stern Pissarro Gallery in St James's is showing 'Christo and Jean Claude: A Life of Projects' an exhibition 20th June to 21st July with major works spanning 50 years for sale and on loan.

 www.pissarro.art

www.serpentinegalleries.org

Richard Tuttle

Tuttle in Turbine Hall

Tuttle in Turbine Hall

Moving on, let’s take a look at Richard Tuttle.  In 2014, a major exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery surveyed five decades of his career along with his largest ever sculpture in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern (which hung there from October 2014 to April 2015).  Entitled 'I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language’, the project was devised by Tuttle and focused on the importance of textiles in his work.  This is what The Whitechapel had to say:

“Tuttle came to prominence in the 1960s, combining sculpture, painting, poetry and drawing. He has become revered for his delicate and playful approach, often using such humble, everyday materials as cloth, paper, rope and plywood. For this project, Tuttle has taken as his starting point one of the unsung heroes of everyday life: textiles.

Textiles are commonly associated with craft and fashion, yet woven canvas lies behind many of the world’s most acclaimed works of art and textiles are of increasing interest to artists today.  I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language investigates the importance of this material throughout history, across Tuttle’s remarkable body of work and into the latest developments in his practice..,  he is also renowned for being one of the first artists to make the radical gesture of taking the canvas off the stretcher and hanging it directly on the wall”.

Tuttle in Turbine Hall

Tuttle in Turbine Hall

Well, Olga de Amaral was also working off canvas  and it’s something that many working with art textiles do as a general principle. I didn’t get to see the exhibition at The Whitechapel but did get to see the Turbine Hall installation at Tate, which floated and hung as a giant entity, a testament to what can be done with cloth.

Judith Scott

Judith Scott Shopping Cart.jpg

Finally, let’s look at the work of Judith Scott.  I’m not going to say too much about her but all I will say is that she could not hear, could not speak and had Downs Syndrome.  She was institutionalised from the age of seven for 35 years but in 1987 her sister, Joyce, became her guardian. Joyce took Judith to the Creative Growth Art Centre in Oakland, where after two years she found her medium; wrapping and binding. Her approach used yarn, string and knotted fabric to bind or wrap ordinary and found objects such as crutches, bicycle wheels, shopping carts, sticks or bits of tubing to the point they become (sometimes) unrecognisable.

Judith Scott, various works.jpg

She made around 200 pieces, each one ‘Untitled’, and all of them profoundly moving at a visceral level – it’s impossible not to respond.  A video – ‘Outsider’ – is available from Icarus Films (www.homevideo.icarusfilms.com), and I encourage you to visit www.judithandjoycescott.com - you’ll be humbled and inspired.  And the words ‘… but not tortured’ in my title really refer to Judith Scott as it was through the medium of textiles that she found freedom, happiness and herself.

Download a pdf of Hung, Drawn but Not Tortured

 
A Stitch in Time
 
Red Thread.jpg

Hand stitching or embroidery is a skill in which artists use needle and thread to stitch into cloth. Often done within a hoop or a frame in the past, contemporary embroidery has now escaped this boundary and it’s now common to see the deliberate use of loose threads and ‘imperfect’ stitching, along with traditional techniques such as darning and mending being incorporated in to the work. 

Some artists like to work by hand (slow stitch) and some prefer to work by machine, using thread as a painting medium. Ana Teresa Barboza and Sarah Benning use a stitching practise that incorporates the standard embroidery hoop, while others like Danielle Clough and Severija Incirauskaite-Kriaunviciene use unconventional canvases. Clough stitches bright and colourful florals on to tennis rackets, and Incirauskaite-Kriauneviciene cross-stitches designs into metal objects such as plates, shovels and even the bonnets/hoods of cars.

I hand stitched a lot during my late teens but work life took over and I let it go.  When I returned to working with textiles in 1996, stitch was (mainly) absent from my work whilst I concentrated on mastering the wet processes of surface design, but found its way back in my life during a detox retreat in India in 2013. Since then, hand stitch is once again a key process for me as evidenced through the body of work ‘In the Fullness of Time’. Everything about hand stitch resonates with me. The way thread makes marks on the cloth in much as a pen or a brush might, but with the addition of literal texture. The choices involved as to what kind of mark is sought and in what weight. The consideration of thread colour, type and weight and of course, the physical act of stitching - ‘needle in, needle out’.

But, I don’t consider myself to be an ‘embroiderer’ as although hand stitch is a vital element in the work, I don’t use it in an ‘embroiderly’ way. As such, I’m presenting five artists who hand stitch, but aren’t embroiderers.


Dorothy Caldwell

Caldwell is one of my favourite artists and I am lucky enough to own a substantial work by her: Map of Tenderness. When we down-sized from a large house to Potter’s Farm, James and I knew we’d need to let go of many pieces of art as the wall-space available would be much reduced. One of the pieces we were completely resolved to keep was Map of Tenderness, and its place in the barn was mapped out at an early stage.

Dorothy Caldwell 'Between Tree & Lake'.jpg

Caldwell’s work is a map of land and memory. She has always been interested in the landmarks that give a sense of place, and how humans mark and visualise the land. Living in Canada, Caldwell found that the early surveyors measured and structured the land mathematically, in the squares of the grid. As they mapped, they made notations on things such as rare plant growth and unusual geological formations, along with other points they were personally drawn to. Much of Caldwell’s practice is dedicated to being ‘in place’ whether that be the Canadian Arctic, the Australian Outback or closer to home. She says “Stop. Walk. Gather.  Know where you are”. Her skill lies in gathering the essence of the landscape by observing, identifying her own personal landmarks, touching, collecting and recording. It’s a physical, sensual process that enables her to create a sense of place. Spending time with Caldwell in almost any environment reminds you to re-open your eyes, really see things as they are and how they fit in to the overall.

Marks and mark-making matter to Caldwell and are very evident in her work, as is shape. The drawn mark, the rubbed mark, the painted mark, the thread mark.  Rhythm and repetition are also important, as evidenced in her handbooks that serve as rich source material for developing the textile surface, and her stitch. This ‘vocabulary’ is also drawn from studying textile traditions and ordinary stitching practices such as darning, mending and patching. As I am, she is drawn to cloth that has history, is worn in places and is sometimes repaired and re-constructed. 

On one of her visits to the UK we went to visit Polly Lyster from whom I buy my large pieces of antique hemp. Dorothy and I fell in love with a very tatty French grain sack, full of darns, patches and holes. Dorothy insisted I have it as she knew I’d stitch it ‘whole’, whereas she prefers to use small, beautiful scrap pieces to add accents to her pieces. Once Polly understood the desire for fragments, she dragged out two scrap bags and told Dorothy to “help herself”. Thus a happy couple of hours of delving, chatting and drinking coffee took place, part of “an ongoing process that encodes time and the richness of lives lived”.


Matthew Harris

Matthew Harris has “never been interested in perfect textiles”. He says “it’s the interruption of the patterned surface that excites me. Cloth made imperfect as a result of patches, tears, darns and frayed edges held together with purely necessary stitches; these are the qualities that motivate me to make my work”

Generally using simple, basic cloth such as cotton twill dust sheets, his process employs dyeing, assembly, cutting, folding, piecing, patching, and hand stitching.  Harris is “primarily concerned with abstract imagery and the translation of drawn marks on to the cloth and aims to create pieces that explore repetition, pattern and the disrupted or dissonant journey of line and image across and through the surface of cloth”. Working initially with paper and drawing allows Harris to use this output as an agent for change a means by which an initial image can be altered, adjusted and then responded to. It allows for “unwanted imagery to be buried, for shapes to be altered and for lines to be broken and disrupted in their journey across a surface of the paper. By folding a drawn or painted image I am able to interact with it as an object and examine it from all sides in the hope of discovering something new and unexpected about the information it contains”.

Matthew Harris, Field Notes Fragment, detail I.jpg
Matthew Harris 'Lantern Cloth'.jpg

When working with cloth, folding gives Harris cloth that has strength and weight as it becomes transformed into a multi-layered, compressed stack.  More importantly, folding provides the means for visual information to become embedded, creating a strata of trapped colour, mark and line exactly similar to a rock face.  This strata can then be dug into and excavated in order for their contents to be revealed.  He says “this process of digging and sifting allows me to move the visual material back and forth; to turn it over and examine it in close proximity, to expose what is hidden and to cover over what is no longer needed until each piece finds its place and an image emerges”.

I own two small pieces of work by Harris, one in paper and one in cloth, neither of which I’ve framed as I like to handle them, particularly the cloth piece. Handling enables me to really appreciate what he achieves; feeling the bulk and thickness of the layers, running my fingers across the stitched marks and pondering the secrets embedded within. Secrets that will never be revealed to me but which are integral to the look and feel of the work, and that ignite my imagination.

www.matthewharriscloth.co.uk


Hilary Bower

I first experienced Bower’s work back in 2000 and I wish I’d invested in her work back then, as I’m sure it would be on my wall now, regardless of restricted hanging space. For me, her work has an ‘industrial’ feel that would be perfect for Potter’s Farm. But, it’s never too late as she’s a dedicated practising artist. Bower’s father was an art teacher and her mother knitted, made clothes and home furnishings; a great combination of curiosity, knowledge and skills to have in ones parents! She remembers enjoying the feel of fabrics, their textures and the smell of new fabric waiting to be made in to a garment. Texture was a key element in attracting her to art textiles; “the interplay of differing surface qualities and materials which could be embraced and manipulated, and the richness of colour and pattern within many ethnic textiles”. Texture was a key element in attracting her to art textiles; “the interplay of differing surface qualities and materials which could be embraced and manipulated, and the richness of colour and pattern within many ethnic textiles”.

After working mainly with fabric and thread for many years, Bower is now perhaps best known for her ability to incorporate paper, wire, metal, wood and found objects into her work. I have included her in my (hand) stitch selection as stitch, whether as a means of construction or as a drawing tool is still critical to her work and making. Bower feels that her work “straddles fine art, textiles and drawing and isn’t easily categorised”. She focuses on the ordinary and seemingly insignificant elements of life, being inspired by the small things observed around her. The notions of silence, stillness, waiting, matter and marking, materiality, shadow, and light, and exploring ways to make these intangible things tangible are her current focus.

www.hilarybower.com

Hilary Bower 'Spaces Held'.jpg

Caroline Bartlett

I remember being with Leslie Morgan at a lecture given by Caroline Bartlett in the formative years of Committed to Cloth. After the talk, Caroline shared some of her work with the audience and Leslie and I spent some of our virtually non-existent profit on a piece, which Leslie still has hanging in her home today.

I will forever mourn not being able to make it up to see the Cloth & Memory exhibition, curated by Lesley Millar at Salts Mill, Bradford. But, a friend went so at least I got to see images of the work and Stilled, where Bartlett uses stitch in conjunction with imprinted porcelain and embroidery hoops, really captured me.  The images show how the specific location was critical to the work, as Bartlett describes: …”the huge now silent spinning hall, a place suffused with atmosphere, still smelling of its former life with oil stained floors and bits of yarn caught in cracks and crevices; an unreconstituted space”. On the plus side, I did get to see Backwards, Forwards at the Stroud International Textile Festival and was intrigued by how Bartlett ran stitches under the ‘skin’ of the cloth (in this case, fine wool) rather than on the surface.

Caroline Bartlett 'Backwards Forwards', detail.jpg

Bartlett took a Post Graduate Textile Diploma course at Goldsmiths, where she started to explore print in combination with methods of manipulation. She went on to develop a vocabulary of marking, printing and imprinting, erasing and reworking, pleating and manipulating. Bartlett found that the cloth retained the workings as ‘traces; an alchemy of materials and processes. In 1992 she saw a smocked piece by Poly Binns (Untitled) and smocking has stayed with her as it sparked the realisation of how she could move on from the flat surface. 

Bartlett has become increasingly interested in what textiles can do through their behavioural properties, and what they can say through their materiality, tactility, associations with the body and the domestic, and with the colonial and industrial past. As we’ve already discovered, all of us have a strong connection to textiles and know they are a powerful trigger in stimulating memories. 

www.carolinebartlett.com


Debbie Smyth

Although Debbie Smyth doesn’t work on cloth, I’ve included her here as I consider her to be a hand-stitcher.  She is an artist who makes ‘thread drawings’ on the wall created by stretching a network of threads between accurately plotted pins. Her work beautifully blurs the boundaries between fine art drawings, art textiles, flat and 3D work, illustration and embroidery. It literally lifts the drawn line off the page in a series of ‘pin and thread’ drawings. She says:

On first glance, it can look like a mass of threads but as you get closer sharp lines come into focus, creating a spectacular image. The images are first plotted out before being filled out with the thread, the sharp angles contrasting with the floating ends of the thread. And despite the complexity of the lengthy process I try to capture a great feeling of energy and spontaneity, and, in some cases, humour”.

 

Debbie Smyth, detail.jpg

Smyth enjoys  playing with scale, creating both gallery installations and works for domestic interiors. Her unique style lends itself to many environments from corporate and public spaces, window displays, set design, graphic design and illustration; “ I feel as if I am taking thread out of its comfort zone, presenting it on monumental scale and creating an eye-catching, and in some case jaw dropping effect”. I’ll say!

 www.debbie-smyth.com

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Material Momentum - Keeping Art Textiles Alive
 
Olga de Amaral, 'Alquima XIII'

Olga de Amaral, 'Alquima XIII'

It’s good to see that textiles in art have continued to flourish since the early pioneers liberated the use of  cloth and fibre. I’ve been looking at several artists who’ve been working since the fifties and who continue to work today. Here are four of them who are keeping the momentum going, beginning with Olga de Amaral.

OLGA DE AMARAL

www.olgadeamaral.com

Born in Bogota, Colombia in 1932, Olga de Amaral studied textile art and developed work that transformed two-dimensional textiles into sculptural works. Her techniques brilliantly integrate art, craft and design and incorporate the use of fibre, gesso and precious metals.

Olga de Amaral, '30 Anos'

Olga de Amaral, '30 Anos'

Her commitment to ‘off stretcher’ works has great resonance with me as I generally choose not to stretch or ‘mount’ much of my work, wanting to keep a strong connection to the fact that it’s a textile. Amaral’s work is almost exclusively driven by her exploration of Colombian culture and her own identity,  which she weaves together through the use of fibre. A large part of her production has been understandably concerned with gold, inspired by the inter-woven histories of pre-Hispanic and Colonial art. Gold gives her work a sensual, rich and ancient quality, radiating a shimmering light and illuminating the viewer; I love it and having had to be satisfied with photographic images, I then had the privilege to see some pieces when  visiting Colombia a few years ago.

JUDY CHICAGO 

www.judychicago.com

Born 1939, Judy Chicago is widely regarded as the founder of ‘feminist art’ on a wider scale. Her art installation The Dinner Party, was one of the first acclaimed art pieces to include needlework and fabric, representing a symbolic history of women in Western civilization.

Judy Chicago, 'Dinner Party'

Judy Chicago, 'Dinner Party'

From 1980 to 1985, having observed an absence of iconography about the subject of birth in Western art, Chicago worked on the Birth Project. She designed a series of birth and creation images for needlework that were executed under her supervision by 150 skilled needleworkers around the country.

Judy Chicago, 'Birth Project'

Judy Chicago, 'Birth Project'

Her more recent projects – all large-scale and collaborative - include PowerPlay, about gender politics and Holocaust Project: From Darkness Into Light, a tapestry designed by Chicago and executed by skilled artisans as part of a body of work that included painting, photography and stained glass. It explores her Jewish roots and involved eight years of enquiry, travel, study, and creation.

Judy Chicago, 'Holocaust Project'

Judy Chicago, 'Holocaust Project'

In 2015/2016 in Bilbao and Bordeaux, the feminist curator Xabier Arakistain mounted the exhibition Why Not Judy Chicago?, an overview of Chicago’s career and an enquiry into ongoing institutional resistance to Chicago’s work. For over five decades, Chicago has remained steadfast in her commitment to the power of art as a vehicle for intellectual transformation, social change and women’s rights; an influential figure indeed.

SHEILA HICKS

www.sheilahicks.com

When I first encountered the work of Sheila Hicks, I was blown away. Playful, explorative and seemingly without limits, Hicks is an artist whose woven and textile works blur the boundary between painting and sculpture. Hicks’s artistic awareness began with her mother, who introduced her to sewing; her grandmother who showed her how to embroider and knit; and her great Aunt, who taught her how to paint. As a result, Hicks claims she was always ‘thread conscious’.

Sheila Hicks, 'Quarry Spider'

Sheila Hicks, 'Quarry Spider'

Hicks is recognised as a weaver and her works are abstractions constructed of colour, usually but not always beginning with a single line, which is typically a strand of yarn or fibre. They can be two or three dimensional, small and intimate or large at a grand architectural scale. In fact, if you were to be exposed to certain pieces without seeing others, it would be initially hard to think ‘weaver’.

Her sculptural work is often based on the idea of a ‘bundle’, which she often called ‘ponytails’, stacking or hanging them as in The Evolving Tapestry: He/She and the many versions of Banisteriopsis, which spanned a period from 1965-66 to 1994. Hicks also masses “variegated fibrous lengths”, inspired by the strands or bundles of plaited and knotted warp ends; she has twisted long skeins of linen and flax; focused on the constructed grid of textiles and deconstructed them in works such as Labyrinth by magnifying a weave to a colossal size in which the negative forms of the square were emphasised.

Sheila Hicks, 'Persimmon Tree'

Sheila Hicks, 'Persimmon Tree'

Her practice exists in museums and galleries, showrooms and design showcases as her explorations have encompassed art, design, craft and manufactured textiles. A truly inspiring individual who “became determined to make art and to live in an atmosphere in which art can be produced”.  Bravo.

LUCIENNE DAY

(www.robinandluciennedayfoundation.org

Lucienne Day, who died at the splendid age of 93, was the foremost British textile designer of her period. Her furnishing fabrics hung in every contemporary living room in Britain. Day drew on the English tradition of patterns based on plant forms, taking motifs drawn from nature – flowers, grasses, shoots, twigs - transforming them into something fresh, simple and most importantly, ‘modern’. Her work formed part of  what she later described as a "tremendous surge of vitality" after the war and it was the design Calyx, that brought her real fame. Exhibited at the Festival of Britain in 1951, a large expanse of it hung in the contemporary dining room designed by her husband, Robin, at the Homes and Gardens pavilion.

Lucienne Day, 'Three Daughters of Mexico'

Lucienne Day, 'Three Daughters of Mexico'

Many of Day's printed fabrics were made in long production runs, which kept the price affordable and it pleased her to think that people who couldn’t afford to buy a painting for their living room could at least own a pair of abstract patterned curtains.

But, it’s not really her printed textiles that caused me to include Day in this lineup. In the 1970s, Day chose to make a transition from industrial design to craft – a risky decision even now. John Lewis had  commissioned her to design a set of five shutter doors for their store in Newcastle and on seeing the designs, an architect friend assumed they were for an embroidery. Day's "silk mosaic tapestries” evolved from there. They were made in a technique developed from traditional patchwork – and it’s interesting that she referred to them as ‘mosaics’ rather than patchwork – perhaps the stigma of ‘patchwork’ existed even then! Formed of abstract patterns built up with tiny pieces of shot silk - often as small as one centimetre  square – these mosaics glow and shimmer with light. Long live mosaics, long live patchwork!

Lucienne Day 'Soil Mosaics'

Lucienne Day 'Soil Mosaics'

 
The Fibregettes: Liberators of Textiles In Art
 
Gunta-Stolzl-wall-hanging-slit-tapestry-red-green-1927-28.jpg

Having followed a thread to the past and seen how textiles have served as items of form and function (with function gradually taking over), I want to take a look at some female artists I’m calling ‘The Fibregettes’; five pioneers who I feel liberated textiles in art.

SONIA DELAUNAY

To artists working in textiles, Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) is an early star who played an important role in bringing textiles into the avant-garde movement. Sonia and her husband, French artist Robert Delaunay, championed ‘orphism’, an adaptation of cubism that emphasized form, colour, and rhythm. She’s quoted as saying “About 1911 I had the idea of making for my son, who had just been born, a  blanket composed of bits of fabric like those I had seen in the houses of Russian peasants. When it  was finished, the arrangement of the pieces of material seemed to me to evoke cubist conceptions and we then tried to apply the same process to other objects and paintings”.

Delaunay was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in 1964. She has also had her work shown at Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Musée National d’Art Moderne and Tate Modern.

 

Sonia Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay 

Sonia Delaunay 


Gunta Stölzl

Born in 1897, Stolzl is a highly influential figure in the development of the Bauhaus style. She joined as a student in 1920, when the textile department of the Bauhaus was somewhat neglected. She quickly became a mentor to other students, was responsible for reopening the dye studios in 1921, became a junior master in 1927 and a full master the following year. 

On becoming Weaving Director in 1925, Stölzl developed a curriculum which emphasised the use of handlooms, gave training in the mechanics of weaving and weave techniques and dyeing skills, and arranged for classes to be taught in mathematics and geometry (glad I didn’t have to take that!). She considered the workshop a place for experimentation and encouraged improvisation,  including exploiting the properties of fabric, particularly the newly available synthetic fibres.

 

Under her direction the Bauhaus weaving workshop became one of its most successful facilities, but in 1931 Stolzl had to move in order to avoid the situation in emerging Nazi Germany. In Switzerland, she formed several textile companies but eventually left her hand weaving business inorder to devote herself to tapestry and the weaving of her own designs. I love their pure, graphic  simplicity, all still relevant today.


ANNI ALBERS

Anni Albers - In Orbit, 1957.jpg
Anni Albers Tikal.png

Often in the shadow cast by her husband, Josef Albers, Anni Albers remains one of the most influential artists and makers working with textiles.

She studied at the Bauhaus during its most impoverished years and after finishing the foundation began working in the weaving workshop, going on to revolutionise the medium with her experimentation and modern design. She also understood that the Bauhaus needed to create designs that could be industrially manufactured and whilst always committed to the handloom, she also considered how the output  could work in production runs.
 
Mounting pressure from the Nazi party threatened the Bauhaus in 1931 and both Anni and Josef Albers were hired at Black Mountain College. Josef taught a range of art classes and Anni led the weaving and textile design program until 1949 (Sheila Hicks was a student, but more of her later). She continued to design cloth for mass-production whilst producing artworks on the handloom.

I feel that part of her distinctive style is the textural quality of her weavings, both in a literal and visual sense. In 1949, the Museum of Modern Art, New York exhibited Albers' work, making her the first designer to have a solo exhibition there.

A retrospective of Anni Alber’s work will be shown at the Tate Modern from 11th October 2018 to 27 January  2019.

 


LOUISE BOURGEOIS

Louise Bourgeois is well-known, particularly after Maman, the giant spider, became a favourite place to meet outside the Tate Modern. In her early career she focused on painting and printmaking, turning to sculpture in the 1940s. Her themes were of loneliness, jealousy, anger, and fear and were realised in different forms, materials and scale; sometimes figurative, sometimes  abstract.

Bourgeois grew up with parents who ran a tapestry restoration business, helping out in the workshop by drawing missing elements in the scenes depicted on the tapestries. As such, it’s not surprising that in her later years she returned to textiles, including a range of textile works made from old clothes and several ‘fabric books’ constructed from her huge collection of fabrics. The pages of these books incorporate a range of techniques including appliqué, embroidery, tufting, rolling quilting, weaving and layering. During this period she constantly made drawings on  paper and also returned to printmaking. Borgeois said that “art is a guarantee of sanity”. It was her way of coping with and living in the world.

HANNAH RYGGEN

Hannah Ryggen was born in 1894, in Malmö, Sweden and was one of Scandinavia’s most outstanding artists of the 20th century. She spent six years as a painter’s apprentice before deliberately turning to weaving. With no running water or electricity, Ryggen worked from concept to materials production to completion of her tapestries: she spun wool from her own sheep, and dyed it with local plants.  Her loom was homemade and she wove without cartoons or drawings –  straight from images she saw in her head.
Her output was far from traditional and usually a narrative or comment on social or political happenings of the time. ‘Woven Histories’, an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford showed a line-up of those involved in political skulduggery; Hitler, Göring and Goebbels to name but a few. She tackled the rise of fascism within Ethiopia and the Nazi occupation of Norway. Lyndon B Johnson’s beagle  – something Ryggen considered to be a media distraction from the Vietnam war – was also included. For me, the results are owerful and moving, a testament to someone who was engaged  with the world, had something to say, who was committed to her message and committed to her art.

 

Having departed from this world, none of these artists have websites! An online search will yield  more information and images if you want to dig deeper.
 
Claire Benn is an artist who works with mixed media and textiles.  She is also an author, curator and teacher in Art Textiles.

 

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Following a Thread | A Brief Journey through Time & Textiles
 
Paracas mantle 100BC to 200AD_preview.jpeg

In 2016 the first sewing needle was discovered in Siberia’s Denisova Cave. Measuring around 7cm (3”) long, made of bird bone and with an eye for stringing thread, it’s thought to be at least 50,000 years old. You could argue that apart from the material they’re made from, needles haven’t changed much! 

We have the needle, so what about thread and cloth? Dyed flaxfibres have been found in a prehistoric cave in the Republic of Georgia that are some 36,000 years old. Used for wrapping the dead, the oldest known woven textiles were found in at a Neolithic site at Çatalhöyük, Anatolia. The ancient Egyptians developed different spinning techniques such as the drop spindle, hand-to-hand spinning, and ‘rolling on the thigh’, producing linen cloth for mummification purposes, clothing andother functional uses. Anyone who has traveled in a hot climate appreciates the breathability of linen and its cooling properties. The earliest proof of silk production dates from between 5,000 to 3,000BC and weaving in Japan started in the Jomon period, lasting from 12,000 BC to 300 BC.

Ancient Egyptians weaving and spinning

Ancient Egyptians weaving and spinning

Coptic textile

Coptic textile

So, we can appreciate that textiles have been around since time itself. From the moment we’re born, there’s barely a moment when we’re not in contact with cloth. We’re wrapped in swaddling, dried off with towels, tucked in to linen, clothed with garments, snuggled under blankets and eventually, clothed or shrouded in our coffins. Fine linen drapes a table, curtains keep out draughts and ‘dress’ a room, carpets make hard floors warm and comfortable, napkins protect our laps, cushions offer comfort. However they come, textiles radiate a tactile quality and I believe we unconsciously respond to our connection to fibre and cloth; they are deeply rooted within us whether we appreciate it or not.

So we know that we wouldn’t get far on a day-today basis without textiles, but I’m interested their use or incorporation in fine art and it’s important to begin in the past ...

Early Days

The use of textiles as an art form has been around for a long, long time. Most cultures have all used textiles to show wealth and power through their clothing and the decoration of homes, palaces, castles and fortresses. In Europe, textiles such as tapestries and embroideries played a vital role within living spaces.  Colourful, warm and large, they could cover stone walls, provide a ‘dressing’ for the room, indicate (through their size, content or complexity) the status of the owner and literally warm up what were generally cold, damp, draughty environments – in other words they both decorated and served as insulation.

Lady and Unicorn Tapestry

Lady and Unicorn Tapestry

Let’s take tapestry, a large-scale weaving done by hand on an upright loom, with the imagery usually being narrative (a hunting scene, a battle scene), decorative (flowers, trees, elements of nature) or religious (Christ, angels); or sometimes a combination of all three. A classic example of an early tapestry would be ‘The Lady & The Unicorn’, a series of six images woven in Flanders around 1511. The story goes that this is an allegorical work about chastity, with five of the pieces exploring the different senses (taste, smell, hearing, touch and sight) and the sixth is called ‘À Mon Seul Desir’, a title that’s somewhat open to interpretation!   I find the imagery in these tapestries delightful and somehow full of innocence although I know the world – even at that time – was far from innocent.

Flanders (in northern Belgium) was the weaving centre in medieval times and the skilled weavers were often father and son teams, with one generation passing on the skill to the next. However, tapestry wasn’t just restricted to men. Smaller-scale weaving and embroidery was usually done by women and seen as a suitable ‘occupation’ for a well-born woman, with many wives also making garments such as cloaks and shirts. The wealthier the husband, the finer the materials and the ‘richer’ the look of the item.

when is a tapestry not a tapestry?

Bayeux Tapestry.jpg

In my world, the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidery, not a tapestry. Made (roughly between) 1077 and 1092, it’s named for Bayeux in France where it was discovered hanging in a cathedral. No one knows for sure who made it although based on the style and the way the images are drawn into the embroidery, some scholars see evidence that the makers were Anglo-Saxon. Whenever or whomever, this embroidery used eight colours of wool and showed elaborate and dramatic images of horses, knights, soldiers and combat – all created from verbal descriptions of the battle. I had the pleasure to see it many years ago and although only 20” high, at 231 feet long it’s a show-stopper. Let's hope that France does loan it out to be seen in the U.U.

With the opening up of the Silk Road, precious fibres such as silk became available in Europe and the cloth, weavings, embroideries and clothing of the rich became status symbols of their connections, wealth and power. I find it amazing that ancient textiles are still around to be seen today and although a little faded, the colours, patterns and images still sing to us.

What Changed?

 In nineteenth century Europe, the Industrial Revolution transformed the production of textiles. With the invention of the cotton gin, spinning jenny and power loom, textiles could be produced quickly and cheaply which in turn made them available to a larger portion of society. Cloth no longer had to be woven by hand (unless you lived in remote, poor places) and this skill declined or in some cases (if you were well-off) became more of a pastime or hobby activity for women. Sewing and embroidery were very much women’s work, with seamstresses working long hours in appalling conditions to create or embellish clothes for the wealthy.  In addition to working with textiles as a job, most women had to sew at home, making or mending the family garments or soft furnishings - I feel that early quilts were born mainly out of necessity, not necessarily a love of making.

Every Tear has a Mend of its Own

Every Tear has a Mend of its Own

In addition to quilt-making, other textile-related activities such as knitting and crochet entered the average household as tasks reserved for women. Generally an activity done at home, these crafts became identified with domesticity and ‘women’s work’, and were devalued. If done as a hobby, they were usually seen as non-productive and again, de-valued. As such, work related to textiles was down-graded from a high art form practised by both men and women to the ‘feminine craft’ of a thrifty wife, as demonstrated by the book ‘Practical Home Mending Made Easy’, a copy of which I own. Written by Mary Brooks Picken and published in 1946, it has delightful hand-drawn illustrations and brilliant chapter headings such as ‘Every Tear Has A Mend Of Its Own’ (10 specific mending techniques), ‘Darning as Fine Art’ (a statement that certainly resonates with me!), ‘Count Stitches not Sheep’, ‘A Turn for the Better’ (reversing collars, repairing shirt cuffs etc.), ‘Young and Gay’ (tassels, fringing and pompons) to name but a few.  Find a copy if stitching is in any way of interest you.

So, we come to a point where history shows that textiles were an art form that was both decorative and useful, with usefulness or functionality gradually taking over.  But, the wheel turns and I’ll be turning my attention to the artists of the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century who chose textiles as their medium.  They brought the art – rather than the functionality - back in to play. But before that happens, it’s important to establish what I mean by ‘art textiles’.

Textile Art or Art Textiles?

Textile art is broad term that can encompass many types of approaches, materials, methods and forms.  But I find it interesting that the qualifier of ‘textile’ is needed.  In the fine art world, there are simply artists.  Some may say they are oil painters, or sculptors but very few include the medium they work in as part of their title.  Nancy Crow refuses to categorise herself as an ‘art quilter’ on the basis that no other artist needs to categorise themselves.  Does Grayson Perry make ‘art pots’ or ‘art tapestries?  No, he makes art.  Does Gerhard Richter make ‘art paintings’?  No, he is an artist who uses paint as his medium.  As such, Nancy describes herself as “an artist whose medium is quilts”.

As such, if there has to be a categorisation for textile art, I prefer to put the art before the textile and use the term ‘art textiles’.  For me, this is one way to encourage people to see that artwork made from, or incorporating textiles and fibre is art, and art that has additional benefits to the visual. art textiles.

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