Jane Arthur – Textile artist

Can you tell us about yourself and your background as an artist/maker?

I've always been interested in textiles, particularly texture and pattern. My great-grandmother, Jane Bane, was an accomplished needlewoman making beautifully stitched white-work tray cloths, duchess sets and towards the end of her life when she couldn't see so well, brightly embroidered table cloths. For me, embroidery was an unfortunate victim of school needlework lessons so it wasn't until my 30's that I picked up a needle and started stitching. I took an evening class in quilting and was hooked. It wasn't the piecing but wholecloth quilting that fascinated me; the way a line of stitches creates shadow and animates the surface of the cloth. Amish quilt designs were a particular influence at that time.

My background is in museums and heritage. I studied History of Art (Romanesque & Gothic) at university and then took a postgraduate diploma in Museum Studies. My career has taken me from the north Cambridgeshire fens to Stoke on Trent, to Worcestershire with a 10 year spell in Birmingham at the Museum & Art Gallery where I was Head of Collections. In 2007 I became a freelance consultant in the sector working for Arts Council, National Heritage Lottery Fund, Museums Association and for individual museums and heritage organisations. This gave me the space I needed to develop my creative practice - so for the last 12 years I've been gradually expanding my textile and creative horizons with some inspirational teachers and through City & Guild's qualifications for Design For Craft, stitched textiles. I've been exploring different techniques, mixed media work, printing and dyeing. I'm a fabric hoarder, I like to reuse and recycle fabrics that have a personal meaning in my pieces - these could be inherited, like Great-grandmother Jane Bane's tray cloths or my mum's linen sheets, donated by friends or snapped up from a discard pile.

Antarctica is a bit of an obsession for me. I went to the peninsula for the first time in 2002 and was lucky to get back there in 2020 with a trip to the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula in February/March, returning to the UK just as the Covid19 lockdown was announced. I'm fascinated by what makes an explorer tick, what draws people to remote regions, to climb mountains, sail stormy seas, to survive in hostile conditions. Initially it was the expeditions of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen that interested me but I was quickly captivated by the continent itself - the ice, the wildlife, the science.

Pages from my Lockdown Journal – collage of jugs from home

Tell us a bit about your creative process.

I think best when I have fabric in my hand! When I start a piece I spend quite a bit of time visualising what I want it to look like and working out the techniques to use but it's only when I start laying out fabrics and moving them around looking for connections and dissonances that it starts to come to life. I'll often photograph different arrangements and document progress as I work out ideas. Visualising is an iterative process coming at each stage of making. Often I’ll sleep on it and will wake up with an idea of how I want to progress.

My current work uses a process of layering, building up from a base fabric using fabrics (and papers) of different textures and colours, painting or printing over these then stitching with a limited number of simple stitches. Hand-stitching is my favourite way of working. I find it meditative and can become completely absorbed not noticing the time until my fingers start to hurt!

Most work progresses quite quickly and I can complete a piece in a couple of weeks. However some just refuse to work and I find if I've laid a piece aside the surest way to reactivate it is to cut it up! This happened with a piece I started after my first trip to Antarctica and was left partially finished for a couple of years. After cutting it up I made 5 new works using the pieces.

Where you do usually work from?

I moved to Worcester at the end of 2018 partly because I needed more space! I now have a house big enough to have a dedicated studio space where I can set up work in progress, store all my fabrics and equipment together and house all my textile and Antarctica books. It faces south with a view of trees from the window. I have a work table and a couple of folding tables which I can use if I'm working on something big. I still crave more space, particularly for dyeing (which has to be done in the kitchen) and for printing and painting which is fine for small pieces but larger works are a little tricky. On my "to do" list is to add a work surface under the windows and fix panels on the walls that I can pin up pieces and inspirational images. Like life, it's a work in progress.

I have all my fabrics stored in boxes and a couple of laundry baskets which are great for rummaging in but do get increasingly disorganised as time goes on. I've tried to sort fabrics by colour but these get displaced frequently - and sometimes that's a good thing as I can find a piece of fabric that works better than the one that I was hunting for!

Have you developed any unique or unusual techniques in your work?

I always save the fabric scraps left over from making, however small, and the discarded threads. I reuse these to create textured surfaces by bonding them to fabric or trapping them under organza. The threads and scraps are a memory of the pieces I've made and I like to incorporate them into new works so that there's a continuation of making.

I've experimented with painting the bonded fabric with gesso and acrylic paint. This creates a stiff fabric I can use to create 3D items. I've also used this textured surface to take a monoprint from - another way of ensuring these threads and scraps feed back into the creative process.

Tell us about a favourite piece of work and what it means to you.

My current favourite is Antarctica Journey. It is the piece I took with me on the recent trip to Antarctica and stitched while I was travelling. It is a record of my journey and a memory of the places visited and the friends I made. I prepared the background and appliqued pieces before I left the UK so I had a 108ins x 10ins length with a predominant colour palette of blues, greys, white, and black on which I'd painted intersecting lines in blues/blacks . I took a variety of threads - sewing cotton, embroidery thread, linen thread - and some blue/clear beads and stitched something each day. On my return I added in some colour - rust browns to reflect the derelict whaling machinery at Grytviken in South Georgia and at Whalers' Bay on Deception Island and yellow/orange for the King Penguins. I created a cover using the bonded fabric described above which was a stiffened Vilene lined with indigo dyed linen which the piece rolls into like a scroll. I found a large black button from my aunt's button box and created a braid to wrap around and close it.

This piece is a memory of a time and place and a record of the experiences I had on my journey. I came back home to a changed world as Covid19 took hold in the UK. It was as if I had stepped out into a parallel universe (as we'd had very little access to news while away) and would gladly have gone back south if that had been possible.

What is your biggest source of inspiration?

Pattern and shape are what inspires me. This could be anything from the bark of a tree, ripples in water, distorted reflections of a building, a vaulted ceiling, shadows on the ground. Favourite artists include Matisse, Picasso, Andy Wahol, Cornelia Parker but I love discovering new artists and new work. I find visiting art galleries, particularly modern and contemporary art galleries, really stimulating. I like art that makes me look at the world with fresh eyes, even if I've not liked or felt I'd understood it, but it has still had an impact on how I see.

I keep up with the websites and exhibitions of the 62 Group of Textile Artists and Prism and try to get to exhibitions of historic and contemporary textiles such as the recent Alice Kettle exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester.

What advice would you have for artists who are just starting out?

Find a way to feed your creative side, and don't give up if things are taking longer than anticipated.

One of the best techniques I found was to think long-term - what did I want to achieve in the next 10 years; what did I want that future to look like? I created a simple a collage from images that resonated with my vision torn from magazines and newspapers and kept this where I could see it regularly. It helped me to focus on my goals and to gradually re-balance my life so that my creative work could flow.

If you sell your work, can you tell us more about how you do this?

I hadn't sold a lot of work until the Worcestershire Open Studios 2019! I've exhibited work in group exhibitions at galleries and at quilt/textile shows such as NEC Sewing for Pleasure. I have been slowly growing an online presence (though not yet a website) and putting out feelers locally for sales of small scale work, much of which has vanished due to Covid19.

Wildflowers in Lockdown – current work in progress

How has lockdown changed your creative process?

I made myself a lockdown journal in March and I've been writing each day and including in it the various samplers I've made in response to online groups I'm involved in. This has given me the opportunity to experiment with different techniques, learn new things, and be part of an online community - all of which has fed the creative process. I've therefore found the lockdown very productive and it has given me a regular studio practice that I've found very beneficial.

Tell us about any future projects you have planned.

Since lockdown has kept me indoors I've been exploring my inner/domestic landscape. I want to work on a piece that will reflect the spirit of place, the ambience of how and where I live. My lockdown journal is part of the research for this, but I'm also looking in particular at the craft ceramics I've collected over the years which I display and/or use every day.

See more of Jane’s work on her Worcestershire Artists page.

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