We are asked to consider how the work of the textile artist differs from that of the designer, the designer-maker or the craftsperson and if there is any crossover in terms of approach or the way in which each uses ideas or textile processes.
A textile artist may be working in their chosen medium for a variety of reasons and with different backgrounds of art education and experience. They may have developed their particular way of working having a begun their career in fashion, fine art or having trained and worked as a textile craftsperson. I do think that there are many points of crossover with describing someone as a “textile artist” rather than a craftsperson or designer-maker and unfortunately actively giving a label to this type of creativity is sometimes an unnecessary barrier to the wider appreciation of a body of work. Also, many classically trained fine artists, such as Tracey Emin who describes herself as a “visual artist” use textile as part of a variety of media to convey their thoughts, desires and messages. (Tracey Emin on her exhibition She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea at Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate in 2012.) Emin famously crafted a tent, exhibited in 1995, appliqued with the names of all the people she had ever slept with, lovers, family and friends. This piece belonging to art collector Charles Saatchi was famously destroyed in the Momart London warehouse fire of 2004. The artist could equally have produced a work such as this in paint, paper, or stone but she chose to convey her feelings about this very personal, intimate part of her life in fabric, the material that we use to clothe ourselves, to make our homes more comfortable, to sleep under and wrap our newborn babies in.
In her article, Textile Art or Textile Craft? published on Bodkinz, a website dedicated to a community of fibre and textile artists in New Zealand, Shirley Dixon provides a detailed investigation on the definition of textile art and textile craft. She proposes that a work must possess certain properties in order to be textile art, including positive aesthetic properties, a subject, originality and creativity, and communicate complex meanings: ideas, emotions or points of view. She expands on these properties to show how there is also a contextual element; just because a quilt is displayed on the wall of a gallery does not necessarily mean it is a work of art. Similarly, textile crafts can be shown to have properties that differ from textile art so, although requiring a particular skill to execute, this skill has a basis in tradition, as opposed to the originality and often subversive or critical quality of textile art. Textile crafts can be practical or useful and can be an antidote to mass-production, as well as exhibiting originality and creativity but textile arts carry a message, communicating the human condition to the wider audience.
There is also the element of value put on textile art or craft, with a basis in how crafts have been regarded through history. I was lucky to visit on the last day of the recent exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, Petal Power, featuring graphic work by women designers of the Silver Studio of Design. This was a prominent London studio that produced dress and furnishing fabric, wallpaper and homeware designs for Liberty, Sanderson, Selfridges and others at all levels of the market. The exhibition highlighted how women designers were treated differently to their male counterparts, working from home rather than at the studio itself and paid less than the male designers. Of course, this was the convention at this time. Winifred Mold, although employed by the studio from 1912 to 1935 only visited the premises and commented “I never saw the room where the men worked”.
The Sixty Two Group, established over 50 years ago, was formed to give textile artists, particularly embroiderers, a voice in a predominantly male-dominated and traditionally fine art world. Alice Kettle, an honorary member of the Sixty Two Group is a textile artist who uses machine-stitched threads on a backing fabric to draw as others might use a pencil on paper or paint on canvas to produce figurative images. Alice studied fine art and then textiles as a postgraduate student at Goldsmith’s College. Some of her pieces are very big, such as the colourful banners and sail produced for the Margate Hosts the Boat project in 2012. These flags incorporated artwork from local schools and community projects and were flown on Margate Harbour Arm to help celebrate the arrival of the Margate Sail, again a collaborative project between Alice and residents and school children of Margate, produced as a gift for the vessel the Collective Spirit. This was a boat made using modern yacht building techniques but formed out of wooden artifacts donated by local people, each with a story to tell.
In this video of the 2010-11 exhibition The Narrative Line from the National Craft Gallery of Ireland Alice Kettle explains how her exposure to the craft of sewing as she grew up was a large part of her choosing stitch as her medium of working. It is interesting how she also comments on how her work crosses between art and craft and that she is comfortable in the world of craft. Kettle also talks about how she researches and develops ideas, sometimes from books she has read or a story but that quite often, through sketching, sampling and the responses to that, the process itself is a journey to an unexpected outcome. Kettle likens her work to illustrative story-telling using thread. In one particular large wallhung “tapestry” of this exhibition Kettle has used ephemera, including items from around her studio, and stitched these on to the fabric of the piece that depicts Alice Kyteler (another Alice Kettle) so that the finished work is very highly textured in certain areas. The artist also uses the empathy that she feels with her namesake to fuel the story-telling. It must be hard not to become deeply involved in a subject when you have done a lot of research but even more so when there are strong links, as in the name and the possibility of a family link.
Sue Hotchkis describes herself as “an artist with a passion for texture, surface and space” and she uses photography to help her with inspiration. She uses multiple textile techniques and layering to depict her environment in colourful abstract cloth artworks, which can range in size from large mural-style wall hung canvases like blue check shirt to her entries in the Button Project at Macclesfield Silk Museum She seeks to show that there is beauty in ageing and decay that is occuring constantly and hand dyed or painted fabric is overprinted and then embellished with machine or hand embroidery. As the artwork itself will change over time the artist often enhances this characteristic by distressing with a heat gun or soldering iron and is not concerned that the piece be preserved but will use whatever techniques necessary and take as long as necessary to achieve the required result. Once is a really detailed piece (40 x 108 cm) that when you look closely, incorporates an incredible amount of intricate hand stitchery and you see layers as the top surface is cut away to look like rusted through metal. The colours are bright and the artist has used layers of many threads of different colours to build the overall effect.
The concept of textile art as an art form in it’s own right is an idea I have discussed with some of my creative friends and I usually come back to the conclusion, for myself, that there are so many ways for an artist to express himself that I find it hard to justify designating a work by medium. I prefer to appreciate that artists will strive to put forward their ideas, emotions, messages in any way that feels appropriate to them at the time, whether that be in music, sculpture, tapestry weaving or dance.
My feeling is that the fine art establishment is going to need to be more flexible in how it promotes and critiques textile art if they want to enjoy the continued support of collectors who will always vote with their feet and if the fashion of the moment in art buying circles is for textile pieces then that is where the money will flow. Also there is a blurring of distinction between media in education these days, with students producing amazing work in many different forms while they are finding their artistic voice at college and university. This will help to make textile art as acceptable a form of art as oil painting and water colours but it will be a slow process.
Tracey Emin – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHj7mp6JLKA
Shirley Dixon – http://www.bodkinz.co.nz/textile-art-or-textile-craft