My Creative Retreat

What I learned from taking a week out to just be an artist again

It makes me laugh when I get comments saying how nice it must be just to stitch all day in my lovely studio. I think it would be nice too, but that isn’t quite the reality of making a living from my creative practice. I spend 90% of my working hours online and sometimes it feels like 90% of my entire life in front of the computer! Time spent actually making stuff with my hands is only a small part of what I do. But I’m not saying that to make you feel sorry for me. I chose this working life and on the whole it suits me. I love the work I do on the computer from 1:1 mentoring to writing resources for my Maker Membership to recording the Making Meaning podcast to writing blog posts like this. It’s all creative practice and it’s all stuff I love but I also love the artist studio bit too. It’s all too easy for that to get squeezed out by the challenges of making a living, delivering projects and running a complex multi-stranded business pretty much singlehandedly.

Moving house last year and settling into my new studio has proved to be an excellent decision. The new space is inspiring and I have access to country walks within minutes of my home which really helps me with thinking and reflecting on my creative work. I haven’t however, got into a good routine of using this space for making / studio work on a regular basis. I have only just over the last 6 months or so got back into making new work after lockdowns which sapped pretty much all of my creativity.

I’m winding up a lot of projects at the moment and looking forward to the autumn and winter of getting back to some things of my own that have been on pause for far too long – a book I planned in 2018 for a start – and finishing off several pieces and groups of work that have been waiting for me. To kickstart this I took myself on an artists retreat in early September and I’m going to share a bit more about that and why it worked so well for me.

A few years ago I started taking a few days in autumn or winter to reflect, focus on my practice and basically get away from the computer for few days. It seems like a real indulgence, spending money to go somewhere else to do what I could be doing in my own studio. And yes it is, in some ways, but also it is an acknowledgement that my artist practice doesn’t get the attention it deserves in an average week. Also I tell myself, I have a home studio so I am not paying rent for it every month, so I can save it up and go away for a few days of space to think and work.

Drawing and printing materials, plus cups of tea set out on a table, one pair f hands with sketchbook
Gillian’s printing and drawing set up outside

This time I invited my long-time friend and collaborator Gillian McFarland to join me. We used to share a studio in Leicester but she now lives back in Scotland so we met in the middle, near Barnard Castle. We also co-mentor each other so have really got to explore our practice together in the last few months so this was a perfect time to reflect and get moving with some new things.

Collection of found objects and natural materials including acorns and old broken pottery, feathers and twigs
Our nature table and found items

We walked and talked, gathered and drew. We did some printing and some natural dyeing and lots of reflecting on our own practices and where we were going. There was lots of reading and sharing ideas, and listening and suggesting.

I made a start on some ideas that have been brewing for years, stitched paths on fragments of cloth and printed paths on lino.

Long narrow textile with fine pink stitched line along the length, displayed on a rugged stone wall
Stitched paths in thread
Black and white artist prints laid on a table. Prints are wiggly lines travelling across the print plate.
Experimental prints

I also visited a lot of medieval sites, churches, abbeys, castles – returning to my roots as a medievalist! This has been a powerful reminder of just how much I want to revisit with the eyes of an artist rather than an academic history student.

I did two research visits to museum collections as well, looking at corded quilting which was absolute heaven! And spent some time just browsing for fun at the Bowes Museum. Museum browsing is probably my top choice for inspiration and idea-nurturing.

Broken roman and medieval pottery display from the Bowes Museum
Broken roman and medieval pottery display from the Bowes Museum

So what have I learned from this trip?

  • Creativity needs space to thrive. I can find that space at home in a normal busy week but allowing myself the space to expand into a bigger creative space was really useful
  • Time to think and reflect is fundamental.
  • Talking to someone about your practice helps you figure things out yourself
  • There’s always a lot of unknown with creative practice. You have to learn to be comfortable with not knowing if what you do will be good or useful or what you intended.
  • Experimenting and releasing some of the self-imposed restrictions on what you do can be joyful as well as scary
  • And I learned that the ideas that are bubbling away under the surface need to rise up and get the attention they deserve, whether or not they turn out to be good.

So that’s what I’m doing over the next few months. Allowing my creative practice some space. Pausing and ending some projects to allow the capacity for some others – my podcast is pausing over the autumn and will restart some time in the new year and my community projects are all coming to an end. I’m going to try spending one day a week properly focussing in my studio and not turning the computer on at all. I am going to take drawing and writing out on my walks and do a lot more visiting inspiring places and just see what happens.

Cloth scraps and threads in beige and purple dyed with natural dyes
Cloth scraps and threads dyed with foraged natural dyes during the week

If you would like some support and nurturing of your creative practice, wherever you are in your career, I would love to help. I really do love mentoring, being trusted to travel alongside a creative journey and help you figure things out. I would love to grow this side of my work and help more people so I have created some new mentoring package – 3 or 6 months of 1:1 support via monthly Zoom calls. You can find out more here. If 1:1 isn’t right for you at this time, you might like to look at my Maker Membership which is by far the most affordable way to work with me and get feedback on your creative practice, as well as be part of a supportive community. And finally, my Find Your Focus course runs in January – this is a development from my Gentle Goal Setting workshops / workbook which involves reflection, finding your own criteria for success and creating guiding light principles and activities which will take you forwards. Find out more here.

Stories in Cloth

Commissioned artworks in response to a family textile collection

This project has been one of my slowest ever, but it’s finally coming together. Months ago I was commissioned to make a new piece of work inspired by a family collection of textiles and clothing. It’s been tricky all along because the client wanted the textiles back intact so I couldn’t cut and stitch the cloth into something new so that limited my options. Intriguingly, the client also doesn’t want an artwork back so I suggested creating works which could be scanned / photographed so she can have a digital version. In many ways an open brief is harder to work with than a very tight brief. Too many options can be quite overwhelming so I struggled for a while to work out what to make. But it’s up and running now and nearing completion and I’m very happy with what I’ve done.

I decided to make a series of small pieces presented like museum prints or drawings in an acid-free box. The client has worked in archives for many years so the connection made immediate sense. I’ve used print, drawing and photography techniques to create an archive of the collection without using any of the textiles in an irreversible way. As time has passed, the client is actually happy for me to use the textiles as I wish but I’ve gone down the route of preserving them so although I’ve done a little stitch work with some smaller textile pieces, no scissors have been involved and everything I have done is reversible, like in textile conservation – a regular source of inspiration to me.

Until I decided to stitch a few of the textiles, this project was more like a museum project – creating work inspired by but not using this collection and that’s been enjoyable and challenging for me. I’ve never done anything like this before, using a personal / family collection of treasures and stories which have huge importance as a group. I think find it particularly fascinating as I don’t actually have a family textile collection of my own. The museum / archive / stories aspect of this project has given me a lot to think about and a lot of reflection on my own future work in collaboration with museums, and maybe with other family collections.

This project forms part of my research and development for my new long-term creative work around evidence and absence, looking at histories and objects, movement and loss. I’m hoping to show the finished work in an exhibition next year. All along, I’ve been sharing the development of this work with my Maker Membership group over the last year or so, as an example of how I go from idea to finished work. This project has been particularly relevant to our earlier theme of Objects where I shared my experience of working in museums early in my career and now working with museums (and old things) as my inspiration. These resources are still accessible for all members of the group too. Find out more about membership here.

What family archives / textiles collections do you have? Do they inspire your creative work? Or don’t know where to start? I’m open to similar commissions with other family collections of textiles and clothing, it’s been so much fun to explore new ideas.

Making Meaning Podcast Episode Eleven – Reflections with Ruth Singer

Graphic image with the text: Making Meaning in a swirl logo. Additional text saying A Podcast by Ruth Singer exploring the meaning behind what we make.

I’m an artist & maker exploring personal and collective narratives through textiles. I create for exhibitions, commissions and projects. I also write books, support other creatives through mentoring and consultancy / research work and I love generating my own projects, artist residencies and making things happen. 

All of my work, across all of these different aspects is centred around making with meaning. I am fascinated by the hidden stories in all our lives and in historic objects and places. My work grows from research and contemplation and from collaborating with others.

This end of series episode of Making Meaning is just me. I wanted to reflect on the series, to share my thoughts and feelings about the amazing conversations I’ve had. I also wanted to add a bit more context about my own work and share more about myself and some of the projects I have worked on in the past, present and future. The themes that come up again and again in this series are about connection and collaboration, about the creative impulse and the value of our ideas, about research, about materials and making and about change, movement and belonging. I also introduce some ideas for the new series of Making Meaning, including a live event and longer, even more in-depth conversations.

And of course, there’s more of me asking for you to support the podcast with a contribution towards my crowdfunder to cover the costs of the new series and make it even better.


Play here


Recent work


Support the podcast

My Making Meaning podcast of conversations with creatives is coming to the end of 2021 series. I want to make the new 2022 series of Making Meaning even better. If you have enjoyed these episodes, please consider making a donation to my crowdfunder campaign before it closes on Monday 13th December at midday GMT.

So many of you have loved listening to Making Meaning over the last 6 months. It’s been a wonderful project for me too. I planned and recorded most of it while we were still in lockdown as a way of connecting with others and now being able to share these rich and inspiring conversations is a joy.

The podcast has really resonated with you, enabling you to learn more about your own making or creative work and to understand how artists think and work. It’s made connections across creative work and within and outside of my own textiles discipline. I’ve been able to share stories from museum work and other kinds of creative practice as well as craft and they are all so relevant and inspiring to hear. 

I’ve been doing this out of my own pocket for the last year but really need to make it financially viable for 2022. I have to pay hosting fees, editing and marketing costs and then there’s my own time.. and I would love to be able to pay my guests something too as they have so generously given their time. There are a range of rewards including episode and whole series sponsorship.

Maker Membership

My Maker Membership is now open for all makers wanting to explore their motivations and to build meaning and research into their practice and be part of a supportive creative community. We meet once a month and I share resources, tips and research to help you develop your own work. Find out more here.

Project Books

In my Maker Membership group, sketchbooks come up a lot. Some love them, some are terrified by them and some are just not sure. I thought I would write about my own use of sketchbooks or project books as I prefer to call them. Using books to collect ideas, information, images, notes and samples is something I’ve come to later in my practice but I am so grateful for it now. I love making books about the work I am developing and find them enjoyable and inspiring to make and endlessly useful and fascinating to revisit. 

I don’t like the term sketchbooks as it implies drawing and like many textile makers, drawing is not part of my process. I sometimes do annotated simple drawings but I don’t sketch. I struggled through my A-Level art aged 18 with some additional drawing tuition and have done very little representational drawing since. It’s just not a process I enjoy. I love mark making and creating patterns with pens, pencils and crayons and created a book of patchwork-inspired designs for colouring a few years back. 

My ‘sketchbooks’ are usually created for a specific project. The first one I properly worked on was for a commission called Metamorphosis . The people who commissioned the work were keen to show sketchbooks as well so it was a good exercise for me in creating something I was happy to share. 

I didn’t fill the small sketchbook for this project so it became a more general studio book instead. Studio books are where I keep samples, ideas, notes, fragments and other inspiring things that are otherwise loose in my head or in my studio. I go through phases of keeping these but I never regret it. 

Since that project / studio book, I have created many others. I usually have a very general studio book on the go which has measurements, calculations, lists, sums, designs and working notes for whatever I am working on at the time.

What I have kept up is the project books. For the Leicester University genetics residency in 2017, I used an A3 book which gave me space for lots of drawing, notes, images and mind maps. 

For the first part of Criminal Quilts, I had notes and sketches and ideas in a lot of different notebooks and studio books and really regretting not keeping it all in one place. When I started the 2017-18 Criminal Quilts residency, I knew I needed to keep a project book which I would share as part of the project. It has been to many workshops, talks, events and open days. Although I started making it as a public resource, it is also my working sketchbook or planning book. I have notes of pieces that I have since made or since abandoned, and things that are parked for the future. It has a lot of notes, lists, scribbles, mind-maps and drawings as well as the collected materials of inspiration. It helped me to have all this in one place while I was doing the residency as so little of the project happened in my studio. I was able to carry it all around with me. Having said that, the huge heavy hardback book I chose, whilst being perfect for display, was a pain to carry around on the train / on foot! I used a wheelie suitcase a lot for that project as my sketchbook was too big for a rucksack. 

For the Libraries Live commission in 2019 I made a quilted book and a series of activity kits for library visitors. Throughout the residency I kept a decorative sketchbook intended as a record of my workshops and to inspire workshop participants. I decided to include the sketchbook as part of my commission as I felt it belonged with the other elements. As this was a commission, it was very different to my own work and has quite an unique identity. These photos are professional shots taken for the project and a nice record of the work for me to look back on. 

My current studio books and project books are quite experimental including collage and print work and some gathering of inspirational materials. Before I packed away my studio to move over the summer I started working on a book of things that were lying around but worked well together. Postcards, samples, fragments, old paper and cloth, images and notes. This is not about a specific project but a process for me of making use and sense of the inspirational things I have around which might otherwise be on the walls or getting in the way in my studio. I refer back to this a lot – I simply enjoy looking at it and letting my ideas flow.

I have also got one which is purely for experimental collage and print work which I have just re-found after moving. 

For my textile projects I have two ongoing project books, one about quilts which I started when I did my Fragments exhibition in 2017 and another which I don’t have a name for which is about my long-term research about damage and decay. 

Writing this has made me think more about sharing some of my sketchbooks in a digital form which may or may not happen, but either way it has made me excited about getting back to my project books and adding more to them. Do you use sketchbooks or research books to gather your thoughts and inspiration? I’d love to hear about them.

There’s more about creating and using project books within my Maker Membership site. Membership is open now for anyone who makes and wants to build more depth and meaning to their craft practice, connect with a like-minded community and work with me. It costs £25 a month and you can join for as long as you need to. Find out more here or use the button below to join.

Refocussing towards social justice

Last autumn, on one of my many long work-related drives, I was pondering what kind of themes I wanted to explore in my work in 2020 and beyond. Two major projects had been filling my brain for months; Criminal Quilts and my personal work exhibitions Emotional Repair and Textile Traces. All of these had powerful, emotive stories at their core, either exploring society and criminal justice (Criminal Quilts) or my own personal experiences in the other exhibitions. There is still more for me to say on all of these topics, but I was feeling very much that I wanted to take my work a step further on than illuminating difficult histories to encompass change and development. Some of my work has been closely engaged with other people, particularly around sharing and collectivism (such as with my Memorial Sampler, a collective memorial of lost loved ones) and exploring stories which touched many people deeply and personally. In my community practice work, the aims are always around improving lives, in one way or another. I love this aspect of my work although it is a lot more hidden and separate from my exhibition output. I have been working towards bringing these two disparate aspects of my practice together, but it is harder than I would have liked to do this.

On my long drive I decided that I had to make a fundamental change to the way I work, to concentrate on making my entire practice, not just my community work, fully engaged with making lives better for those that have their opportunities limited for so many different reasons. I was fired up and excited. And then there was a traffic jam and a roundabout and another hour of tiring driving and probably a distracting bank of wildflowers on the edge of the A50. And I forgot all about this plan. I was just too busy with what needs doing now to think about what I wanted to do in the future. I remembered having had a great idea on the A50, but somehow it had evaporated. I spent most of last winter in hibernation, having worked myself ill, and had 3 months off sick. By the spring I was back up and running but just running to keep up and there was no time for contemplation and imaginative thinking. Then in August this year I went to a talk by Giles Duley which was part of the brilliant Journeys Festival in Leicester. Suddenly, it all came back to me. I had to bring my values, my desire to improve social justice and my politics into my work.

 

My first action was to build more of this social justice work into my next phase of funding for Criminal Quilts in 2020-21. This will be a test project, a move towards where I want to be and hopefully will achieve some of the aims I have set myself. I will be working directly with women in the criminal justice system and with campaigners, activists and others engaged with trying to improve the lives of women caught up in the criminal justice system today. I want to illuminate their stories to create understanding and to make a small difference to their lives through my work as an artist.

This autumn I have also submitted several funding / residency applications around developing this new strand of work and for me to work out how to have the impact I want to have and to create a sustainable business model for my long term creative future. As well as illuminating stories, I want to find ways to have an impact on improving lives, still create powerful, meaningful artwork, and a financial income for me to live on. It’s a challenge but one which I am very excited about. Last week, the day before the General Election, I shared some of these thoughts on my social media, both making a statement about my left-leaning politics and saying out loud that I am going to change the way I work and speak out more. Despite the gloom the result has caused to many in my creative circle, I have been bowled over by the response from other artists and creatives who felt inspired by my words and expressed a desire to shift their work or their life towards activism, social change or just improving things for others, or to be honest about how their political beliefs and values are part of who they are as an artist.

Being political or activist when you run a business which has not previously engaged with these topics feels risky. Should one be neutral? Will one lose customers or supporters? Will people be angry, complain or insult me for my opinions or values? No one wants to enrage social media trolls. But I want people to engage with my work, regardless of how they vote or any other aspect of their lives. I may lose the attention of some followers or fans, but I hope that everyone will stay with me to learn, to understand and to explore alongside me as I navigate this new path. It is not my intention to alienate anyone who does not have the same values or politics as me, I don’t want them to go away but instead I would love it we could all learn something new, see a different side to a story or issue and have our minds opened to new things through the wonderful medium of creative self-expression. Because that’s what art is to me, a way of seeing into different worlds and opening minds.

I don’t yet know what the new work and new business models will look like. I have a lot to learn still and a lot to work out. This will be an ongoing, long term journey. I will be sharing my thoughts on this from time to time on this blog so please join my mailing list for monthly reminders of what I am doing and what I am thinking about.

 

Ruth

Memorial Pincushions

My memorial pincushions are part of my new solo exhibition, Textile Traces, opening at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre 25th May -7th July 2019. I am running a workshop alongside the exhibition to make your own precious pincushion using antique fabrics, hand stitch and decorated with pins. The workshop is £45 including lunch.

image of 46 decorative pincushions arranged for exhibition

These pincushions are made in remembrance of my aunt, Ann Goodstein, who died in 1992. 46 pincushions represent the 46 years of her short life and celebrate the joy she brought to so many. They celebrate her vibrancy, her love of history. Some include antique textiles, pieces of her own cloth and details which I think she would have appreciated like medieval pins from the River Thames. Her son, Ben, also made one of the pincushions. Pincushions are personal and every day items and were once given as gifts or in remembrance. Many are inspired by pincushions in Gawthorpe Textile Collection. 2015-2018.

Emotional Repair Exhibition

I am currently working on a new exhibition at Gawthorpe Hall Textile Collection which is in an amazing National Trust building in Lancashire. The textiles there are a private collection assembled by Rachel Kay Shuttleworth (1886- 1967) who lived in the house and opened it up to share her collections and her knowledge.

 

I first visited the Gawthorpe in 2015 to look at their pincushion collection  as inspiration for Memorial Pincushions,  which celebrate the life of my beloved aunt. The first half of collection were included in my Narrative Threads exhibition in 2015  and some in Salisbury Textiles Open in 2016. Emotional Repair will be the first time all 46 (each one representing a year of her life) will be displayed together and alongside the original inspiration pieces from Miss Rachel’s own collection.

 

Late in 2016 I began talking to Jenny Waterson, curator of contemporary exhibitions and learning at Gawthorpe Textile Collection about showing this piece and others in a solo exhibition which is now confirmed for 28 March – 24 June 2018. Over the last year I have been developing new pieces of work and groups which will form this exhibition. I also returned to Gawthorpe in the autumn to look at more textiles, this time selecting pieces about mourning and remembrance, as well as unfinished pieces which I consider very poignant and full of potential stories of loss.

Emotional Repair covers a wide range of personal and emotive subjects focused around loss and remembering and includes work made over the last two years as well as brand new pieces currently in development.  Much of this work is deeply personal and touches on subjects which are hard to talk about so it may seem strange that I want to share them in this very public way, but we all know just how healing and cathartic it can be to make things when having a tough time. Textiles have such strong associations with domesticity, personal lives and family memory that they are the perfect means to express emotional stories. For me this works so well with the Gawthorpe Textile Collection, although Miss Rachel didn’t collect with this emotional response in mind, it is still one woman’s personal selection and it is displayed and preserved in her family home which brings an intimacy and personality beyond most museum collections.

The exhibition opens 28th March and continues until 24th June 2018.

Criminal Quilts : Sketchbooks

In between archive visits I have begun working on a sketchbook to gather my thoughts and ideas for the new work I intended to make for the Criminal Quilts exhibitions starting in summer 2018 – which is suddenly really quite soon!
I’ve created a sketchbook for sharing with people when I do talks about the project and during archive workshops starting in January. It is very much a working sketchbook; a gathering of ideas, inspiration, notes, thoughts, colours, textures and details but it is also intended to be shared, used and probably included in exhibitions so I have taken care to make it look really nice!

I’m working in a large format spiral bound sketchbook with brown kraft paper pages which is robust, easy to display, has capacity for expansion and the colour fits with the project. As I discussed in a previous post, I am finding the photo albums themselves very inspiring – the layers of papers, the damaged leather bindings and the marbled endpapers which feel like a little incongruous in their luxurious feel.

I’m also working on colour palettes to bring through the work, much of it inspired by sepia photos, cyanotype prints and my early pieces taking colours from the Shire Hall court buildings themselves and most recently I have been working on ways of creatively interpreting the data which the research is uncovering.  My next post will explore the growing data collection in more detail.

You can keep up to date with the project on Twitter @criminalquilts or on my personal Instagram feed (which also includes a lot more besides!)

Criminal Quilts: Cataloguing the photo albums

During November I went through all eight photograph albums from Stafford Prison to record all the women featured in the photographs. The photographs begin in 1877 and continue until early 1916. The style of photography changes dramatically during this period as does the clothing worn by the women. The first set of images 1877-81 are all pasted alongside a written record giving details of each individual and a little information on their crime, trial and other convictions. The women are shown sitting down with their hands in their laps or enveloped in a large shawl.  Many of the women in this album are photographed wearing a medallion with their prison number. Apart from the prison number medallion, these images look more like informal portraits than any of the later images.  There about 100 records of women in this album. All the later albums just have photographs with a name, prison number and date of photography with no further details.

The album covering 1883-1887 contains the images which I used as inspiration for my previous Criminal Quilts, focussing on the hands, which in these photos are placed on the chest. It seems that hands were included prominently in prison photographs for a few years as hands, particularly damaged or missing fingers, could act as identifying features. This album has 12 photos per page including  about 130 women in total.

The 1893-1896 album shows a change in the way prisoners were photographed. The early photos are taken face on but with a side mirror intended to capture the woman’s profile, though this is fairly unclear in most of the images. Their hands are still shown but by the end of the period this album covers a new style of photography has taken over with a profile image alongside the facing front photo, without hands. These photos, although less intriguing and personal than the ones with hands, still show clothing, and particularly hats with great clarity. These are black and white rather than sepia so also show a change in photographic technology. In most of the later (side on) images, women are shown without their hats and many are wearing prison uniform as shown below (arrow showing on her shoulder in the profile image).

Two albums cover 1897-99 and only contain 21 photographs of women. Why there are so few remains to be discovered as I do more research. These images are similar in style to the previous album although most of them are wearing hats.

Moving into the early 20th century the style of profile and face on images continues and the wearing of hats varies. In the last album 1911-1916, the hats are so impressive and stylish it is easy to be distracted by them and forget these are prison photos. A number of women are wearing similar outfits of gingham apron and mid-colour shirt with white collar and checked neckerchief which is surely prison uniform. A few older women are still wearing a Victorian bonnet rather than the modern large brimmed hat.

 

In all there are around 500 photographs of women in this collection of albums. I had initially intended just to focus on the earlier, Victorian-period albums where the hands are shown but I have decided to extend the research to all the women in these albums right up to 1916 as they are so intriguing and fascinating. A handful of women also appear across a number of albums and add depth to the stories I am aiming to tell with this project.

In the next post I will be showing the other side of the project – my own creative work developing alongside the research. You can follow the project research on  Twitter @criminalquilts where new blog posts and snippets about the project will be shared.

 

Criminal Quilts research blog : photo albums. 

The photographs which have formed the source material for Criminal Quilts are held in bound albums in Staffordshire Record Office. The albums are part of a large collection of archives from Stafford Prison and I’ve been working my way through each one in the last couple of weeks. The images I am working with date from 1878-1915.

As well as the intriguing photographs of women, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the albums themselves. They are large bound books with hundreds of pages. Some have damaged spines showing the binding. Some covers are badly damaged too, showing layers of leather and board.

The albums have marbled endpapers and indexed pages, buckled pages and damaged corners. The materiality and weight of these albums adds another dimension to the stories of the women whose images are contained within. 

I am hoping to bring in the physicality of the albums into the new work in make as the project develops, in the form of artist-made books with hand printed and stitched pages.

 

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