Early in January I had a lovely long chat with Isabella Rosner for the joyous podcast Sew What? It was so much fun to chat to someone else obsessed with historic textiles about all the things I love. She’s done a great job of turning a lot of excited rambling into a great podcast where I talk about how historic textiles inspire my work. She has chosen the title ‘Making Historic Needlework Now’ which I think is a wonderful description of what I do. You can listen to the podcast here on the website or through your podcast player. There are images of the works I talk about on Sew What? website and I’ve put some below too.
Get more of this kind of insight, exploration and discovery about my work by joining my membership on Patreon. This is where I share my current work in progress, behind the scenes in the studio and what’s on my creative mind. Members also get discounts on workshops and products, and it costs just £4.50 a month.
Success! You're on the list.
Whoops! There was an error and we couldn't process your subscription. Please reload the page and try again.
What I have learned from a wholistic creative practice review
Late last year I started playing around in my journal with reviewing my year to date. I have read so much about reviewing and explored plenty of thoughtful analysis monthly, quarterly and annually, but never had it seemed so important as in 2020, the year that was nothing like what we expected.
I’ve been supporting artists and makers since June 2020 through WebinArt and had so many conversations about what was working, how to plan in chaotic times, how to find motivation and above all, how to be gentle on ourselves. Living in a pandemic is hard. Running a creative business is hard at the best of times. We are often too hard on ourselves and focus too much on the perceived failures or negative feedback when actually the successes and positive things massively outweigh the less good stuff. Over the time I’ve been working closely with a cohort of makers in WebinArt, I’ve also been doing 1:1 sessions with other creative people and businesses, as well as exploring my own professional development with Kayte Ferris’ programmes The Playbook and The Trail. I’ve also had some great conversations with other creatives including Melody Vaughan, Emma King, Helen Hallows and Martha Moger. All of this has added up to me being much more reflective and thoughtful about my short-term plans, added to pandemic life where long-term plans are almost impossible.
I love planning. I love knowing what I’m going to be doing in the next few months and usually have work (teaching or exhibitions) booked a year or two in advance. I often work on long-term projects which can be planned into my diary months ahead. And suddenly that was gone. Last spring my long-term plans suddenly became pencil marks on an empty diary rather than fixed points to plan around. I had to learn to be more in the now, less in the future. It’s been quite an adjustment for me to let go of certainty and fixed points and go with the flow a bit more. For the 15 and a half years I have been self-employed, I have always worried that I’ve not got enough paid work scheduled in for the months ahead. And always for those 15 and a half years I have survived. Some years have been pretty lean and some have been disastrous but I have always been ok. Having things booked in advance helped keep me grounded, but looking back, those commitments also made me feel a bit trapped. When I booked a talk 20 months ahead, I often thought – “what if I’ve left the country or got another job by then?”. I was always very conflicted about these far away things. And now they are pretty much gone. Bookings are usually a few months ahead at most, exhibition dates have been moved into 2022 and long funded projects are a thing of the past now. I don’t have many fixed points in 2021. And actually that’s ok.
Back in November when I started thinking about my process for creating some semi-fixed points for myself, coming up with some clear activities which were flexible enough for the 2021 but important and meaningful to me. I knew that the rigid goal-setting concept of scheduling in activities for months ahead with deadlines and milestones wasn’t going to work. I work for myself because I like the freedom to choose. I resent arbitrary fixed points. I also learned in 2020 that you can plan all you like and the world has other ideas. So I came up with the idea of Gentle Goals. Things that I could control, stuff I could be getting on with which didn’t rely on the outside world getting back to normal. I am not focussed on exhibition dates, teaching commitments, conferences, community projects or funding deadlines, for the first time in my professional life! It’s half liberating and half scary. I wanted to make sure that the gentle goals I set myself would work throughout the year, not just for a few weeks after the January reset (which wasn’t much of one) so I began by creating a review of the year, focussing on what worked and what didn’t, and crucially what I learned about myself and my needs.
As soon as I started this, I realised I wanted to share this process. I actually love working with other people and felt that this process might help other people too. I created a workbook and developed a workshop for creative businesses to join me for sessions in December and January and to work through the ideas and explorations in the workbook with support and sharing. It has worked incredibly well and I’ve had lovely feedback and a couple of participants have also opted to do some additional work with me to work out their needs and plans. The workbook is now available for self-study – 20 pages of things to think about and to help you plan your way forward with self compassion and gentleness.
What did I learn about myself from reviewing last year?
I definitely need human interaction to spark creativity. I am a sociable introvert, which means I like being around people when I choose to do so but I find it very tiring and need time by myself to replenish. I have all the time by myself now and not so much of the human interaction. I absolutely love talking to artists and creative people about their work and this is a big part of my professional purpose. I love mentoring and teaching and supporting others but I also realised that I need some input and talking myself! It’s kind of obvious but I have totally forgotten it over the last year or so.
I have learned so much. While pandemic-life feels static, I have actually discovered new things, tried new approaches, uncovered confidence and leadership in a way I would never have imagined. We have all had to pivot, readjust and change our way of working and I have done so much new stuff that it surprises me when I look back.
Volunteering and co-running a foodbank and community support has been invaluable to my wellbeing, sense of place and connection. I have loved being part of this project and hated the hours spent on the phone to the bank to sort out something so simple as our own account! This work has really clarified to me how I want my professional life to progress during and post-pandemic too. It is valuable in so many ways.
I wanted to be doing more of my own projects and less following someone else’s brief. I wanted a break from exhibiting. I got both of these, more by accident than design. I did do some paid projects for other people and I am able to analyse which bits I loved (talking to creative people) and which bits are not playing to my strengths (marketing).
I invested in help for my business, with courses and programmes and with an assistant who is now so vital to my work that I can’t imagine having to figure out all these technical and administrative problems myself.
The key points I picked out from working through my own workbook as that connection and creativity are key, and this is what I am working on as my main goals for the year, in all kinds of different ways.
In my next post I’ll share how I created some gentle goals for myself and how they relate to what matters most to me in my life and work.
Join Ruth Singer to hear more about the textiles in lockdown project with Gawthorpe Textiles Collection, Monday 18th January.
Textiles in Lockdown was a commission from Gawthorpe Textiles Collection to gather stories about textile making during the first UK lockdown in March-June 2020. I worked with them over the late summer to collect stories from over 300 professional and hobby makers about their textile practice during this time and how impactful it had been for their wellbeing, mental health and creative businesses. From these stories I created an ebook and a podcast, both of which are now freely available to enjoy.
Gawthorpe Textiles Collection have invited me back this month to present a live Zoom talk about the project, about my work and creating the ebook and podcast. On Monday 18th January at 7pm I will be sharing my thoughts and answering your questions about the project and about how important textile making is for our wellbeing in this new 2021 lockdown. Tickets are just £5. Please book here, directly with Gawthorpe.
Ruth Singer interviewed on the Great British Quilter Podcast
I was recently interviewed by Sarah Ashford for Great British Quilter Podcast and the interview is out today! Initially we planned to talk about my Textiles in Lockdown project and the quilting aspects of that but Sarah actually came up with a great set of questions about my work so we ranged much wider.
Reviewing the year and soulful planning for creative businesses in 2021
It’s hard to see the wood for the trees at the moment. Hard to see the path through towards running a business in 2021. This year has been really rough for small businesses as well as so many others. I’ve been working on ways to review my year and make plans for next year which take self-compassion and energy into account, not just focus on finances and big leaps. Tiny steps are enough. I wanted to share this approach with others so I’ve created Gentle Goal Setting – a new workshop for artists / makers / writers / creative businesses / freelancers (and anyone aspiring to be one of those in 2021) to take a reflective look back over what you have learned from everything 2020 has thrown at us and learn how to use your values, what you love and what works for you to create realistic and meaningful goals for the new year. A two-part workshop with a workbook to contemplate over the holidays. This workshop, with two live sessions and a workbook as well as a private Facebook group is just £45.
It’s been such a strange and difficult year to be running a creative business / artist practice. Do you need to have a bit of time out to review the good and bad of the year? Would you like to look back and then look forward to set some achievable and meaningful goals for next year? My way of ending one year and starting the next is to look back over the whole year with a holistic and realistic review and then take a slow and mindful approach to thinking about what I want to do next year.
I will guide you through my review process in a live online workshop, then give you a workbook for quiet, slow reflection on your own business journey for a month over the holidays. This will take you from reviewing the year to working out some goals about how you want to feel about your business / practice. You can share with a like-minded group of other creatives in a private Facebook group and then get back together with me and others in a follow up live session in January (optional). Live session will be via Zoom at 4pm GMT Friday 11th December. Then you have a month to explore the workbook and share with other students in the Facebook group. On January 11th at 4pm GMT we will come back together live on Zoom to talk through goal setting, ask questions and share your thoughts (optional). Both live events will be recorded so you can catch up if unable to attend live. The Facebook group will remain open until 31st January 2021 for you to keep in touch with others.
If you need more help, you can also book 1:1 video call sessions or email feedback with me in January at 10% off my usual rate.
Ruth Singer creates an archive of stories, a podcast and an ebook for Gawthorpe Textiles Collection about textile making during lockdown.
I’ve been busy sharing my finished Textiles in Lockdown commission all over the internet and I have forgotten to share it on my own blog! The podcast and ebook are now available for free online, all the links are here. It has been a really amazing project to create and develop. I have got to talk to textile makers about their work, which is probably one my favourite things to do. I loved making the podcast – interviewing people by Zoom was great! But then choosing just a couple of minutes from an hour long conversation was hard. I’m really inspired to think about making a podcast of my own one of these days, if I can work out how to find the time.
The ebook came out much larger than I intended – It was supposed to be about 30-40 pages to support the podcast but so much amazing material was shared by over 300 contributors that I needed to expand it to fit as much as possible. I know I had to leave some people’s words and images out and I feel bad about that but otherwise it would have been too big. All the contributions form a digital archive in the museum at Gawthorpe Textiles Collection to be used by future researchers.
It has been a real honour to hear and share such personal and powerful stories of how textiles have helped so many people through such a difficult year. I’ve had such warm feedback too from both contributors and textile organisations, I’m really proud of this project. If you catch this in time, I will be talking live on the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection Facebook page today (28th October) at 7pm. Please join me then if you can.
I’m so looking forward to this as I contributed in a small way to Ruth’s research that is so important to document.
Two years ago I created Criminal Quilts exhibition and self-published the accompanying book, alongside each other. Looking back, I am not sure how I managed to do both in a few short months as well as my other work. But somehow I did. It’s has taken a couple of years for the first print run of the book to sell out so I have revised and reprinted this year. The new version has a couple of extra pages and some new images as well as (hopefully) no more page reference errors!
The first print run was only ever sold directly by me online, at events and alongside the exhibition in gallery shops. The new version has an ISBN number and is already listed on Amazon and I will be selling wholesale to bookshops too. Self-publishing allows me total control of the book production and sales. Both editions are printed on recycled paper with no plastic coating of the cover, for maximum sustainability. This has cost me more but fits with my values. It is also printed by a small (female-owned) local company, a few minutes from my house so I can walk to the printers to check things. My brilliant graphic designer Sophie has done a great job as always. The downsides of self-publishing are that all the copies have to be stored in my (small, already crowded) house! Please help me make space to move by purchasing a copy (or 10) of this book.
It’s been an amazing couple of years with this book. The best part of being both author and publisher is that I know exactly where this book has been sent. It has travelled all over the world which amazes and delights me. It has been devoured by textile enthusiasts, criminologists, historians, Stafford residents, prison, probation and community work professionals, schools, photographers, universities and academics. It’s been reviewed in an academic publication too as well as in textile press.
The back cover blurb reads:
Criminal Quilts is an art & heritage project created by artist Ruth Singer which explores the stories of women photographed in Stafford Prison 1877-1916. This book covers the research which Ruth and a team of volunteers undertook in the development of the project, including many of the personal stories of women in the archives of Stafford Prison. It also covers additional research around clothing in the photographs as well as daily life in a Victorian prison.
This book is also a catalogue of the textiles pieces which Ruth has created alongside her research, giving the full background from the initial commission in 2012 to the work created in 2018 for the touring exhibition. This is a revised edition for 2020.
Ruth Singer is an established British textile artist with a background working in the museum sector. Her training and first career continue to influence her artistic practice through her interest in heritage, narrative, material culture and society. Ruth’s work is focussed on research and personal exploration of stories, resulting in subtle, emotive and sensitive work. She creates exhibitions, commissions, community projects and undertakes artist residencies to explore subjects and places in detail. She has presented a number of solo exhibitions as well as Criminal Quilts and was awarded the Fine Art Quilt Masters Prize in 2016, and written several books. She also works as a consultant, artist mentor and tutor.
This summer I marked (but not really celebrated) 15 years of running my own creative business. I was hoping to bring out a new book this year covering what I’ve done in those years but this year has of course not gone remotely according to plan! I should have it ready next year. In the meantime, every month, I share a 10 page PDF letter / mini magazine with my Patreon supporters which covers a lot of the same behind-the-scenes studio insider stories as the book eventually will. The September issue is a focus on those 15 years of working as an artist /maker. I love writing my Patreon letters and twice-monthly blog posts as I selfishly get to focus on my own practice and share behind the scenes in my studio (and often my office) life. If you would like to delve more into my life and practice, Patreon is the place to do it. Over the last 6 months I’ve written about creative collaborations, fabric manipulation, my 2019 solo exhibition work, self-publishing, work in progress, behind the scenes at a photo shoot and much more. Every subscriber gets a discount for my online shop too and over the summer I gave away tickets to my online Criminal Quilts talk. All the previous content is free for new subscribers too, so there’s masses to explore which should keep you going until my new book is finally ready!
Working on your own as a creative maker or artist is hard enough in normal times and it’s even more challenging this year, both financially and personally. Isolation and struggling alone is very real. It can be hard to connect with friends and make new ones when you aren’t doing exhibitions, shows, teaching or other events where we normally get together.
WebinArt Establish programme has been created to help established artists and makers to connect, share, learn and grow. We are here to support you.
WebinArt is an online creative community of established artists and makers learning, sharing and supporting. We come together through online forums, Zoom networking and peer mentoring groups to share experiences, knowledge and support each other. I am the co-ordinator for the Establish group, creating a community of peers to learn and grow. This is the best way to work with me on a mentoring basis if you are an established (3 years or so) creative business. And it’s only £8 per month!
Establish Membership gives you access to:
An online forum where members share and learn from each other, facilitated by Ruth Singer with monthly focus challenges and topics
2 special events a year delving deep into topics that are important to our members
Monthly Zoom networking sessions led by artist and mentor Ruth Singer
Quarterly peer mentoring sessions with a small group of like-minded artists/makers where you can talk about the issue you want to delve into for your own business
An online school of recorded webinars and artist / organisation interviews
Live webinars once a month
Networking with midlands-based arts organisations
Optional add-ons (pay as you go) 1:1 mentoring with specialists
Does this sound like something you need? It’s only £8 per month which is heavily subsidised. If you want to apply, register your interest here. If you aren’t quite sure, find out more here or drop me a line and we can chat.
Very inspiring and motivating. Great to work with others in my group too!
So far it’s been completely transformative. I don’t think I would have got so far with my new business without it.
WebinArt 2020/21 is generously subsidised by our funding partners – Leicestershire County Council, Arts Council England, Derbyshire County Council, Hinckley + Bosworth Borough Council, North West Leicestershire District Council, Blaby District Council + Rutland County Council.
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.
Ruth Singer and Gillian McFarland-Boyle artwork
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.
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 myCriminal 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.