Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Part Four: Project 8 - Understanding the Textile World

Investigating the work of the textile artist.

Textile art emerged into my life when I lived in Winchester in the mid 1990's.
I was aware of craft and textiles as items to be treasured, to be held and to be loved.
Yet I was still unaware that they could be an art form in their own right.

It was while I was creating an embroidery, one that I had started before my daughter was born, I met another lady who was interested in embroidery and textiles - she changed my preconceptions and my interests in art.

I had been invited to bring my embroidery because she would really like to see it, and we would have tea, the children were the same age, they could play - it was a nice afternoon and one that would open my eyes to the possibilities of textiles.

I was so pleased with my work, it was based on a piece of fabric that I owned. I had matched the colours, blended and mixed them and worked for hours.
It was originally intended to be a cushion; I have had it framed and it still hangs on my wall.
My Bargello embroidery
The lovely lady was Alice Kettle.
I felt like hiding my piece once I had seen the work that featured on the walls of her house - her pieces of embroidery - I wasn't allowed to hide my work, she looked at it, appreciated it and gave me so much encouragement.

I think I fell in love with textile art at that point.

Textile art emerged onto the art scene in the 1960's with the help of some of these textile pioneers.

Constance Howard, MBE (1910 - 2000), set up the Department of Embroidery at Goldsmith's College, London in 1948. It is said that she:
'helped to raise embroidery from the status of genteel hobby to that of an art form.'
In 1962, Jennifer Grey, Alison Erridge and Joy Clucas became founder members of the 62 Group. Jennifer Grey stated:
'We wanted to make a difference in people's attitude to embroidery and share our excitement with fabrics, stitching, textiles and colour.'
The question they asked themselves was:
'How do we get contemporary embroidery and textile art exhibited and recognised as a serious art form so it can take its rightful place alongside the fine arts?'
The 62 Group has just celebrated its 50th birthday.
In the past five decades they have held over 85 exhibitions across the UK and abroad.

Also in 1962, The International Biennale of Tapestry in Lausanne was established. This was a:
'showcase for experimentation in textile art'.
The Bienniales would enable tapestry to be seen by the public and to create an awareness of the changes that were going on in contemporary tapestry art.
The exhibitions became major events and the tapestries became known not just as decorative textiles, but as art forms in their own right.

In the 1960's the gap between fine arts and crafts was huge, galleries would not give wall space to contemporary embroidery and innovative textile art.
Today the gap is smaller, galleries and museums are more aware of the demand for high quality, innovative textile exhibitions.

Although the gap is less, I still believe it exists.
There are still people who see anything that is textile as 'craft'.

The difference between textile artists and designers, designer-makers or craftspeople is that there is now:
'a distinct move away from a focus on technique towards the use of stitch and other techniques as a medium for personal expression. Idea and intention take precedence; only once these are established does the practitioner select the medium and technique in which to carry them out.'
Jennifer Harris  - Deputy Director and Curator (Textiles), The Whitworth Art Gallery.
For me this means that a textile artist is primarily an artist who use textiles as their means of expression, rather than the crafts person whose prime concern is the execution of textile pieces.

The two internationally known artists that I am going to feature are Alice Kettle and Michael Brennand-Wood.

Alice Kettle
Born in Winchester, Hampshire, in 1961.
"My work occupies a relaxed middle-ground between fine and applied art. When I made the change from painting to embroidery I was aware that the two activities are closely related, but embroidery was a medium which helped me to express my individuality. We have grown up together."  Alice Kettle "The Eye of the Needle" p.24
Alice Kettle at work on "Looking Forwards to the Past"

Alice Kettle works with machine embroidery, but this description of her work does not do justice to the scale, colour and textures of her pieces and the stories they tell.

Some of her pieces are huge, the one featured in the picture above measured 16.5m x 3m at it's completion.
This work "Looking Forwards to the Past" now hangs in the Winchester Discovery Centre.
It took over a year to make, nine large panels were joined together (with other smaller panels) to create the final work.

For inspiration, Alice looked at different themes from Winchester's history; the past, the present and the future. She explains:
"I am aware that this is a piece that has to have a life into the future. It has got to outlive me and my children, so it can't be rooted stylistically anywhere in particular. I wanted it to have a contemporary feel, but something that would also have a sense of moving forward. That is why I let colour lead me because colour is something that transcends time."  "Alice Kettle at the Winchester Discovery Centre", p.2
This is a powerful and beautiful piece of work.
There is such a variety of threads used, over 21, some are thick, some are thin, there are metallic threads and there are threads with a matt finish; this use of threads and the amount of stitching used on the cloth creates so much texture on the surface of the cloth.
It has been hung in an area where there is a lot of natural light, it 'shimmers with the changing light and gives the piece a sense of rhythm and movement.'

Alice works on cloth, her sewing machine has the foot removed and all dials are set to zero. The fabric is moved under the needle to create the stitching line. Although she will work on top of the fabric, sometimes using 2 or more threads through the needle, once the threads she has chosen are too thick, they will be wound onto the spool and the fabric is worked on from the back.

Working from the back of the cloth, and the sheer scale of the work, means that looking and reviewing the work constantly is impractical.
However, Alice will take out the work to study it, she will, if necessary, cut out certain areas and add in new cloth.
It is a great way of working, you cannot tell in advance how much the cloth and the design will contract once you have stitched the area heavily, by being able to cut out and add in new fabric means that she never has to abandon a work entirely.

I was in Winchester over the summer and had the pleasure of sitting next to this artwork while I was in the Discovery Centre.
It is incredible to see when viewed from outside, and the close-up view lets you see the work, the texture, the colour, the movement in the piece. (Link to the images here)
"Looking Forwards to the Past"

Having completed a degree in Fine Art at Reading University, 1979-1984, Alice went on to complete a Postgraduate Diploma in Textile Art at Goldsmiths' College, 1985-1986.

Machine stitching is Alice's choice of 'painting tool', not only does it allow her to mix colour in a similar way to painting, but by re-stitching and re-working an area it allows her to create three dimensional surfaces, ripples and shadows on the surface.
She has always worked with an intuitive approach, often drawing straight on to the fabric.

Her influences are painters such as Boticelli, for his depictions of graceful, feminine figures; Howard Hodgekin, who uses colour to convey emotion; Matisse whose paper cut-outs continue to resonate:
"I can see parallels between embroidery and the cut-outs. In embroidery you are putting two threads together, you can only place them next to each other. It's exactly what Matisse was doing with the paper cut-outs, using scissors to create gesture. And, as with embroidery, you can read them as purely decorative, but there's so much more to them than that." Alice Kettle, "Eye of the Needle" p.17

Michael Brennand-Wood
Born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1952.

Michael Brennand-Wood works with embroidery, pattern, lace and floral imagery.
His interest in textiles came from his Grandmother, he learned to sew and knit before the age of ten.
His interest in wood came from his Grandfather who was an engineer and keen wood worker.
Both of these people became major influences in Michael's career as a textile artist.

Michael Brennand-Wood's work first came to my attention through glossy adverts that were running in the textile magazines to advertise his new exhibition "Field of Centres"
The work was colourful, pretty, eye-catching, I loved it.
I then saw the work up close when I was on a residential course at Chichester (possibly 2005) and Michael was running one of the summer school courses (I was on one with Gwen Hedley) there.
I realised there was so much more to the work than I had assumed.

The pieces that I saw ranged in size, from 40cm square to a metre square.
Here is Michael Brennand Wood's Crystallized Movements 2004 (link to the photo's is here)
Crystallized Movements
Initially pretty, colourful and flowery, once you get closer you see what is going on in the layers beneath.

'Stars Underfoot' was a series of photographs taken by photographer James Austin in 2001-2, these were images of real flowers that had been arranged, by Michael Brennand-Wood, in geometric patterns.
These photographs were the basis for the exhibition 'Field of Centres'

'Crystallized Movements' (image above) was one of the first pieces to be developed from this work.
The real flowers in the original photographs were replaced by computerised embroidered flower heads.

Drawings of the flower heads were scanned, then using computerised software and specialised sewing machines each flower was constructed using different threads and colour combinations.
Each flower head was unique, the ones with stripes represent his fathers World War II medal ribbons.
Other materials used in this piece are: cloth, fabric, collage, thread, wire, glass, plastic, paint and flower heads on piano wire.

From a distance the flowers sit on a white background - close-up you discover the white background is made up of a thousand toy soldiers trapped in white acrylic paint.
"Between the blossoms are channels, in a chalky white colour, of another more chaotic pattern in which something disturbing is hidden - thousands of toy soldiers trapped, frozen in space and time, glued to the wood, drenched in paint......... Dead or alive these little figures are trapped in a terrifying sarcophagus-like hell"
Pricked by a needle, Joseph McBrinn 2009 article in "Pretty Deadly" - new work by Michael Brennand-Wood
Flowers have always been closely associated with war, Michael Brennand-Wood states that the inspiration for this piece was events such as the Gulf War.
In the First World War the poem "In Flanders Fields" uses the poppy as a powerful image.
The poppy is sold every year for remembrance day - so that 'we will never forget'.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
by John McCrae, May 1915
What could be seen as patterning in the placement of the flowers within Crystallized Movements is also the depiction of a flag. Brennand-Wood makes use of the visual iconography of the flag throughout the pieces that make up Field of Centres.

Brennand-Wood states:
the direct use of pretty elements to seduce the viewer is quite deliberate and in my mind analgous to the use of beautiful flowers to render death, palatable an less offensive.
In the notes next to this quote in the essay "Pricked by a Needle by Joseph McBrinn in Michael Brennand-Woods book - Pretty Deadly, Joseph McBrinn mentions that:
Michael Brennand-Wood would, without question, make an original, intriguing and challenging, choice as an Official War Artist.

I don't think that either Alice Kettle or Michael Brennand-Wood could be described as simply textile artists or embroiderers, the ideas they use are almost 'too big' the work has too many layers all of which convey a deeper meaning.
They both create beautiful pieces of work but the imagery they use is there to tell a bigger story.


Constance Howard

62 Group
62 Red: Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 62 group of Textile Artists


International Biennale of Tapestry

Alice Kettle
Eye of the Needle: The Textile Art of Alice Kettle
Mythscapes: Alice Kettle
Mechanical Drawing: The Schiffli Project
Alice Kettle at the Discovery Centre ISBN: 1900756471

Selvedge Magazine: Issue 23. p58-60. "Mechanical Data: Jump threads and tension in the Schiffli Project" by Beth Smith.
Selvedge Magazine: Issue 44. p46-47. "Strong Influence" by June Hill.


Michael Brennand-Wood
Michael Brennand-Wood: Field of Centres
Michael Brennand-Wood: You Are Here
Pretty Deadly: New Work by Michael Brennand-Wood

Selvedge Magazine: Issue 45. p56-59. "Readymade Redux" by Joseph McBrinn


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