At the end of May 2020 I was offered the chance to share my images and words via the Instagram account of Contemporary Visual Art Networks – East Midlands. I created a week’s worth of posts exploring my experience of being an artist in 2020, both before and during the time of Covid. I have brought all these posts together here, along with the text of the interview questions I wrote for CVAN’s website. You can also join me for a live conversation with the Director of CVAN-EM on Thursday 18th June 2020 at 11.30am. This is a free event, via Zoom. Book tickets here.
Ruth Singer is an artist-maker with 15 years professional experience and a previous career in museums. Her work comprises exhibitions, projects and residencies as well as collaborations and commissions, mainly working in textile with print, mixed media and installation work. She often work with heritage and draw heavily on a previous career in museums, using the skills learned and concepts studied. She is also a writer, tutor, consultant and mentor.
Meet the Artist: Ruth Singer
The words ‘I am an artist’ are not always the easiest to say out loud. It took me a few years to feel confident saying those words. I started my working life in quite another sphere, but 15 years ago I left my job and started a studio practice alongside freelance teaching. Through that time I have been through radical changes in my practice from designer-maker producing handbags and cushions to comfortably calling myself an artist. The difference to me is that I now make what I want to make, in the materials and techniques that are appropriate to the story I want to tell or the research I want to explain. I work to exhibition deadlines not to fashion trends. I make what speaks to me and not what sells best in a craft fair. This change has given me the scope to explore personal stories of love and loss, to collective stories of genetics and human identity and historical stories of women incarcerated for stealing shoes. My practice explores and illuminates the hidden corners of our lives and our histories, all very much influenced by my previous career working in museums.
Garment Ghosts are created from badly damaged and irreparable antique clothing. The fragmentary cloth is brought back to life through trapping the disintegrating garment between transparent layers, keeping the outline but also opening up seams to take the fabric back to its original form. Garment Ghosts aim to make you think about how we preserve and present textiles, and what a garment might tell us about its past and the people who made, wore, kept and passed it down. Bodice, 2015. Hand stitched antique silk and lace between modern netting.
I don’t spend a lot of time in my studio. Even during lockdown I have hardly produced a thing. I create new work when there are deadlines, exhibitions to install, commissions to complete and book content to be photographed. My work is thoughtful and slow, contemplative and very extensively researched and explored before making. The actual making can be the fastest part, despite often taking weeks of intense hand stitch. The thinking process is what takes the most time and while I don’t have an exhibition deadline, my studio practice has taken a back seat to other work. COVID-time has made it harder for me to think of new work, to envisage the future exhibitions where this will be seen and to find a new research path which sits comfortably with me while so much is chaotic. Sitting with the stillness of my work space and slowly sorting, arranging, compiling and cataloging things is enough for now.
This piece: The Beauty of Stains, 2018. These embroideries are old tablecloths which I have placed in cafes and at gallery events to gather the marks of wear and use. I then embellish them by stitching the stains, preserving them like memories or tales being handed down through generations. Visitors and participants have a real impact on the work: it does not exist without their input. Llantarnam Grange Art Centre exhibition preview 2018. Hand embroidery and appliqué.
Until lockdown, I would have said that public-facing practice is a huge part of my work. Some artists and makers talk about teaching as a way of supporting their practice financially, and although that is often the case, I like to see public projects as supporting and growing my practice, as much as providing the necessary funds to enable it. I have chosen over the last few years to focus on funded community workshops, projects, residencies and socially-engaged practice and reduce the number of one-off adult workshops I run. Working in collaboration with communities and meeting their needs has enabled me to stretch my own practice in ways I would never have done if I hadn’t worked with them. Contributions from communities can range from work made by others (more of this next) or to shared stories like this memorial sampler of lost loved ones. This piece is now in Gawthorpe Textiles Collection Museum. Hand embroidered, 2018-2019, part of my Emotional Repair solo exhibition.
Current projects / Criminal Quilts
I chose to take 2020 as a quiet year, after producing 5 solo exhibitions in five years. This has turned out to be a collective action, as exhibitions, events and projects I might have been taking part in have of course all ground to a halt. My Criminal Quilts project is, however, ongoing, albeit in much changed form. The exhibition, which should have been touring all of this year, was first launched in 2018 following 18 months research residency at Staffordshire Record Office where I developed my previous work around Victorian Women Criminals. I created, developed and funded this project including a multi-venue tour which will continue to 2021 and a book of the project which I self published and will be printing a second edition soon. I have a second round of funding from Arts Council England which has included workshops with women in prison and on probation. The prison sessions are currently on hold but the probation workshops are now running through posted workshop kits and online chats via the supporting charity I have partnered with. The work these women create will be included in a zine I will produce over the summer.
This piece was created by my Criminal Quilts project research volunteers in 2018.
My own studio practice is very quiet and contemplative. Working with others gives me the chance to work in completely different ways, to expand my horizons and to try new things. I love working with other artists and makers, to see how they approach a challenge or issue and understand their way of thinking which in turn informs my own. I have a long-term collaboration with Gillian McFarland @gillianadairMcf and we worked together in 2017 on a residency at Leicester University Department of Genetics which was illuminating and exciting. I also work a lot with jeweller Alys Power @alyspowerdesign and we are currently completing a collaboration related to my Criminal Quilts project which I hope will be exhibited later this year. Working with makers like Alys and fine artists like Gillian gives me the chance to explore new materials and techniques too. Having started my career as a textile designer maker it is very easy to get stuck in a rut of thinking that there is a rule that I only use textiles. Collaborations have helped me see that my practice can be much more expansive and cross-disciplinary than just working with one media and idea.
Petri Dish project, created during the genetics residency combining work made by the two artists, scientific and admin staff and contributions from the wider public and other artists, 2017.
One of the real joys of my portfolio career has been the work I do in supporting other artists and creatives to be the best version of themselves. Over the last 10 years so so I have run training courses, business skills workshops, professional development events and mentoring. I have created exhibiting groups and paired artists with mentors, I have collaborated with organisations and universities to bring artists together to create exhibitions and networks. I really look forward to being able to bring creative people together in inspiring spaces again, and run the symposium I have planned for artists in socially-engaged practice and group mentoring events.
Luckily I have been able to continue my 1:1 work with artists and creative businesses, mentoring them to develop and flourish by meeting online and working with them to build their creative practice and find solutions to the business problems we are all facing.
I am also working with WebinArt, an online professional development programme formed by Creative Leicestershire. @webinart_uk is now including established artists and makers and I am co-ordinating this element, bringing together 30 artists to learn from each other and from industry specialists. The peer mentoring element which I have created from scratch is really exciting and I hope will create lasting support networks for artists who so urgently need help getting through these tough times.
I’m currently taking a break from leadership of Leicester Society of Artists while I focus on paid work but I hope to be back to this soon. I have been working on marketing and development plans for this historic society and look forward to getting back to future planning, seeking sponsors and partners and growing our partnership with Leicester Museums service.
Surviving as an artist through and beyond lockdown and the changed world will be a huge challenge. My carefully-worked out 5-10 year plans are up in the air as I contemplate the new landscape where group events, community project, residencies and exhibitions all seem unlikely in the near future. Funding looks like being even more hard to come by as many funders have made all their years budgets over to emergency grants and priorities will change radically over the next few years as we try to build our creative economy back up.
I am lucky that I have diverse income streams and don’t rely on just one source. At the start of the year, in a different world, I launched my Patreon membership and have a few loyal supporters already. This model of membership and personal support is likely to became more and more vital to artists who have limited access to their former markets and funding is reduced. In the short term I am sticking with a market I know and am writing a new book, my fifth. I had actually planned to spend Spring and Summer 2020 working on this new publication to launch in celebration of surviving 15 years as an independent professional artists. This book will be retrospective of my work over the last 10 years and a catalogue of my work for solo exhibitions over the last five years. I am also working on funding applications and ideas for very local community-based work looking at community cohesion and recognition of volunteers which has been inspired by my own volunteering locally. I hope that before too long I will be able to go back to exhibition launches, group events and residencies in partnership with organisations and communities in need of creative support.
Forget. Vintage handkerchief with rose embroidery as found, my hand embroidery in silk thread. 2017-18
Meet the Artist: Ruth Singer
Text from CVAN website, interviewed by CVAN-EM Director Elizabeth Hawley-Lingham
Ruth Singer is an artist-maker with 15 years professional experience and a previous career in museums. Her work comprises exhibitions, projects and residencies as well as collaborations and commissions, mainly working in textile with print, mixed media and installation work. She often works within a heritage context and draws heavily on a previous career in museums, using the skills learned and concepts studied. She is also a writer, tutor, consultant and mentor.
Where are you based?
Urban central Leicester although my natural habitat is in the middle of the woods, miles from anywhere.
Describe your practice for us
My personal practice explores human experience expressed through thoughtful and emotionally- engaged making, mainly in textiles. My subtle and delicate work references loss, memory, fragility and damage in both the cloth itself and in our personal lives, and the places in which we gather memories. My background as a textile historian and museum curator is woven throughout my work; I create pieces with a sense of history and a look of antiques but with a powerful contemporary story.
I mainly use slow techniques of hand stitch and traditional textile processes to express ideas including hidden stories, creating visual records of ephemeral experiences, change and decay as well as intensely personal and emotive stories around loss and remembrance. I often work in collaboration with other artists and makers which allows me to be more expansive with my ideas and experiment with new materials and techniques to explore narratives.
My public-facing practice is more collaborative, working with communities to co-create emotionally-engaged artworks or to design projects which allow participants to express their creativity. My writing work is mainly around textiles as well as historical research projects. I am also heavily involved in artist development and support through various consultancy projects, mentoring and running professional development courses.
How long have you been practising and by what route did you come to your practice?
I’ve been fully self-employed for 15 years, after seven years working in the museum sector. I haven’t followed a traditional route into artist practice; my university education was in medieval history followed by an MA in Museum Studies. I worked in museum curatorial and learning roles for several years before setting up my own studio aged 30. For the first half of my time working as an artist-maker, I was more maker than artist, creating products and stock for shops, galleries, interior designers etc. Over the years my work has changed dramatically so that now I create work purely for exhibitions, residencies, commissions and project and creating purely what I want to make.
How has your background in museums and heritage settings influenced or shaped your work?
I am fascinated by material culture, history and the power of objects in human lives, which is very much how museum curatorial / research practice operates. In my work I aim to explore and illuminate narratives about people, places and objects, and how we respond to and interact with things, tools, materials and the traces and stories we leave behind. My way of looking at the world, and particularly the way I research around a subject, seems to be influenced by my museum training. I also choose to work with museums, archives and heritage for projects because I love museums and what they stand for. We can learn so much about ourselves and our times from understanding the past. Art inspired by museum collections gives viewers a new way to engage with and understand history.
You’ve said of your work that you find yourself drawn to creating work with a narrative, often based around objects, history, people and places. Do you identify a narrative and select a technique to suit, or does a narrative come from using techniques such as appliqué, quilting, embroidery?
Usually with my work the research comes first, then I define the area or narrative I want to explore and the materials and technique choices come later. Sometimes the material comes first and sometimes the technique, but usually only when I am deeply absorbed in the subject I’m exploring and connections are made.
You work a lot with old, often damaged and worn, cloth. Do you reveal an intrinsic emotional value to the material, repurposing it in the objects you make, or are you creating a new value through the new work?
It’s more about revealing the hidden stories within the cloth. I don’t think about value or repurposing; it’s not about recycling for the sake of it. The story of the heritage or damage of the cloth is what I love about it and how we as humans feel about old and damaged materials which should be treasured. This links both to my belief in the value of museums to tell stories and allow us to learn from the past and to sustainability expressed through repair and reuse. I want to honour the resources, effort, ingenuity and skill that went into making cloth, rather than see it as a material commodity.
What is important to you in maintaining and motivating your practice?
Well, I am 100% self-supporting, so making a living is my main motivation in keeping going! In terms of creating my own work, I am very goal-focussed, so I am most productive when I have an exhibition or a deadline. It’s the same with writing projects or workshops – I prepare for what needs delivering next. With a more long-term view, I look at developing my practice through exploring stories or issues that intrigue me and playing around with how to make those narratives into a cohesive body of work or engagement project. I am always thinking about the next project even when in the middle of one. Until recently I was very focussed around funding application deadlines and thinking 2-3 years ahead, though now I am concentrating on what I can get done in the next few months and how I might be able to finance projects again in the long term.
What have been your biggest achievements since establishing your practice?
The most personally important thing has been changing my practice from designer-maker to exhibition-led artist practice. I found my right place and voice, and have found a way to make a living from that practice. To have survived 15 years is a huge achievement too. Externally, I have won a significant prize (with big impact in the textile world) which gave me a huge boost to push forward with my Criminal Quilts project. I’m very proud of the way I have grown this project over several years, toured the exhibition to a lot of galleries and museums and sent the project book across the world.
What have been the biggest challenges to your practice?
Funding is of course the biggest challenge in the way I work from project to project. I have been successful with a number of funding applications over the years but for each success there are twice as many (if not more) failures. Rejections are a huge challenge both emotionally and financially and I have had to abandon some brilliant ideas which is really disappointing. Applying for funding takes a huge amount of time as well as mental energy and successes are the tip of the iceberg with the hard work and failures going unnoticed under the surface. It’s impossible to know the future of arts funding now so I have an even bigger challenge going forward.
What is the most interesting or inspiring thing you have seen or been to recently, and why?
At the end of February I had a trip to London to visit both Collect, the Crafts Council fair and Fine Cell Work’s exhibition at Sotheby’s. Both were interesting and inspiring in very different ways. Collect showcases some of the best contemporary craft from across the world. There’s very little textile which I find frustrating (it is often at the bottom of the pecking order in craft) but there was lots of amazing art jewellery which I love. Fine Cell Work commissioned a number of well-known fine artists including Ai Weiwei to design textile pieces which prisoners then stitched. The finished works were to be auctioned by Sotheby’s to fund further work with prisoners. The sales catalogue has interviews with artists, prisoner-stitchers and volunteers which was fascinating.
Which other artists’ work do you admire, and why?
My preference is always for artist-makers whose work tells a story or has a deep-rooted meaning or research behind it. I enjoy purely decorative too, but I am often left wanting more. Edmund de Waal is by far my favourite because of his writing about his work and the importance of objects in his non-fiction writing. Cornelia Parker also explores issues I find intriguing and I have grown to love her work over the years. In the textile world I have huge admiration for my friend Alice Fox who works closely with nature to create intensely thoughtful work.
Where do you see your work in the next 5 years?
I hope to be able to continue creating socially-engaged projects, working with communities and sharing stories. I have had a lot of solo exhibitions in the last 5 years so planned a break from that for a year or two but I will be working on the next body of work for a new show in 2-3 years, all focussed on social justice which will be even more relevant and important post-pandemic.
Who would you most like to have visit your studio?
At the moment, any visitors would be exciting! I would love to be able to have a group of artists to visit and to be able to talk about my work, my planned work and my ideas with other people who understand where I am coming from. Collaboration and peer mentoring are a huge part of what I do, so keeping in touch with other artists is really important to me while I can’t exhibit or work in groups.
Where can we see your work? Have your plans had to change as a result of measures taken in response to coronavirus?
Obviously there is nothing in galleries at the moment. Criminal Quilts was due to be touring this summer but the next pencilled-in date is for September, with more planned dates into next year which I hope will go ahead. I have created an online version of the exhibition which will give people a taste of the work. I am still working in collaboration with three artists to create new work for the eventual exhibitions and I will add images to the website as soon as they are completed. I also have a couple of films about my work on my website, one on Criminal Quilts and one more general about my practice, plus plenty of images of my work. I also have a membership community on Patreon where I share my behind-the-scenes work through blog posts and I also produce a mini digital magazine every month with studio stories, textile history, exhibition reviews and other things that interest me.
I am continuing with engagement work with the project too and am currently putting together resource packs for participants to work at home, and eventually their work will be incorporated into a Criminal Quilts zine which will be available from my website.
Freelance-wise, I am currently working with WebinArt to develop the Establish professional development programme for mid-career and established artists.
Ruth was interviewed in May 2020.