Catherine Gray

I discovered weaving at the beginning of my second year at university. I was inspired by the artist Sheila Hicks and I was fascinated by the range of textures and effects that could be created with the medium. At an early age I was taught to knit and sew both by hand and on the machine and I enjoyed the notion of creating something from nothing, improving my skills and learning new techniques. Before university I was always interested in textiles and using my creative skills both during my studies and in my free time.  Tapestry was something I had never tried before and I was inspired by the challenge to learn a new technique, as well as research the history and connotations of the method, and allow this to influence my work.

Allotted Time 4  2016 40 x 40cm Cotton warp, wool weft

Allotted Time 4, 40 x 40cm Cotton warp, wool weft  2016

My work experience placement at West Dean Tapestry studio in West Sussex during my second year proved to be hugely beneficial to the development of my practice. During my time there I was able to learn different techniques and methods that are used on commissions in the studio as well as create and get advice on my own work. I continued my placement throughout the summer, assisting at Art in Action in Oxford and developing my work in preparation for my final year.

I was initially drawn to the method of tapestry because of the versatile and unique nature of the medium. Within a tapestry the image and the object are one entity, they are created as a whole and cannot be separated. This means that the end result can be vastly different depending on what methods and materials are employed by the maker. There is also something pleasing and inviting about their surface texture and touch is almost as important as sight in order to appreciate them fully.

I use tapestry weaving to portray ideas of passing time and this ties in beautifully with the slow method of creation. The time consuming nature of the process has at times frustrated me, especially during university when I was unable to create as much explorative or developmental work as other students using different methods. Despite this I believe quality is more important than quantity and the slow gradual creation of my work allowed me to reflect and develop my ideas throughout the making of only a few pieces.

Allotted Time 1-10 2016 2016 40 x 40cm each

Allotted Time 1-10, 2016 40 x 40cm each 2016

The process of weaving is very important to me and this is what I would like to portray to the viewer through my work. I think it is important to recognise the abilities and limitations of the medium and allow this to influence the work. I am fascinated by the rhythmic, methodical process of weaving and how this can represent gradual change or movement from one state to another, I also like to accentuate the structure of the method with vertical warps and horizontal wefts as this is inherent to the medium and makes it unlike any other. Evidence of the handmade is also vital to my work and the concentration of labour and energy is visible within each piece.

I use drawing, painting and photography to plan and develop my ideas before making a tapestry and this creates an interesting contrast between the instantaneous nature of digital technology and the slow, laborious nature of the method. Anne Jackson has questioned whether tapestry is even relevant in today’s fast paced society, ‘which seems to privilege the instant and seemingly effortless’. However, these are the things that make it unique. Although technology has evolved around us, ‘humans are much the same as they have always been, our hearts still beat at the same pace’ and artwork that reminds us of this should be valued.

Allotted Time 8, 9 and 10 2016 40 x 40cm Cotton warp, wool weft

Allotted Time 8, 9 and 10, 40 x 40cm Cotton warp, wool weft 2016

The history of tapestry has always been a source of inspiration for my work and research into it allowed me to develop my ideas further. For centuries tapestries were used to depict scenes of historic moments, and tell stories of momentous battles or biblical events before the written word was widely understood. This is similar to how I am using the process as a way of documenting change and time, aiming to celebrate the beauty of our landscape through its repetitive and dependable timescale.

Throughout my studies I struggled with the apparent gap between art and craft and as a textile artist I felt a certain pressure to justify my practice as I was often challenged by comments about my work being ‘just craft’. I think this is a relatively old fashioned way of thinking and believe that if something is made with the intention of being art and seeks to represent ideas bigger than the object itself then that is the way it should be received. My personal definition of fine art is something that makes the viewer feel something, it can communicate ideas or emotions from the artist to the audience and a piece of textiles or tapestry can do this in just the same way as a painting or a sculpture. I have also discovered that craftsmanship is somewhat undervalued in contemporary fine art practice with skill coming second place to ideas and concepts. However, if artists do not keep these skills alive then who will? I myself enjoy and appreciate a work of art much more when the level of skill is visible. When it is clear that the artist cares enough to spend time and effort on their work it carries so much more weight and demands attention and contemplation from the viewer.

Allotted Time 1-10 2016 2016 40 x 40cm each

Allotted Time 1-10, 2016 40 x 40cm each 2016

Throughout my time at university I experimented with lots of different materials from natural found objects such as leaves and twigs to manmade carrier bags. With my subject matter being landscape I was interested in including objects that I found in these environments in the actual weaving. This is another element that makes tapestry unique in that once the warps are set up many different things can be used as the weft. I also experimented with natural dying techniques using onion skins, nettles, paprika and red cabbage to dye my yarn. Again this connected the pieces much more closely with their subject matter of landscape and also linked my work back to historic tapestries as this is how they would have coloured their yarn.

In my opinion tapestry is sometimes overlooked and undervalued, maybe because it has been made in the same way for centuries with little development or influence from the modern world, maybe because it is seen as ‘women’s work’ and often associated with the older generation and works of craft rather than art. Or maybe it is simply the time consuming, laborious nature meaning commitment and perseverance is needed to create something that is worth the wait. Despite this I strongly believe it has a great deal of potential and has a place and a future in today’s society, it has also undoubtedly stood the test of time and practicing tapestry artists are still coming up with new and innovative ways to create and display this versatile medium.

  Biography

Catherine Gray

I studied Fine Art at The University of Chichester. After graduating this year, I am now working for a flooring company making rugs. I am continuing to develop my artistic practice in my free time and am looking to pursue a career in interior design.

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