Debbie Smyth: Inspired by memories
Textile artist Debbie Smyth is best known for her incredible large-scale thread drawings which beautifully blur 2D and 3D work. Since establishing her practice in 2009 Debbie has worked with many high profile clients both nationally and internationally including Adidas, the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Sony and Hermes.
In our interview with Debbie she describes her methods when working with big name clients and tells us more about her material led process.
This way of creating art
TextileArtist.org: What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Debbie Smyth: I don’t ever remember not being able to sew, it was something I learnt at a very young age. My mother always mended our clothes so I learnt the basics early and I was constantly altering my clothes as a teenager. It wasn’t until I did my foundation course that I really discovered what was achievable through textiles, sewing didn’t just have to be functional, and I fell in love with this way of creating art. Then I moved to West Wales to study textiles and never looked back…
What was your route to becoming an artist? (Formal training or another pathway?)
I studied for my Foundation at Colaiste Stiofain Naofa in Cork, Ireland. I then moved to Wales to undertake my BA Hons Degree in Contemporary Textiles.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I am identifiable by my statement thread drawings; these playful contemporary artworks are created by stretching a network of threads between accurately plotted pins. My work blurs the boundaries between fine art drawings and textile art, flat and 3D work, illustration and embroidery, literally lifting the drawn line off the page in a series of “pin and thread” drawings.
“On first glance, it can look like a mass of threads but as you get closer sharp lines come into focus, creating a spectacular image. The images are first plotted out before being filled out with the thread, the sharp angles contrasting with the floating ends of the thread. And despite the complexity of the lengthy process I try to capture a great feeling of energy and spontaneity, and, in some cases, humour.”
I play with scale well; creating both gallery installations and works for domestic interiors. My unique style lends itself to suit corporate environments, public spaces, window display, set design, graphic design and illustration. By collaborating with interior designers, architects and other creative practitioners, I am pushing the expected scope of this technique even further.
I like to blur the boundaries between fine art drawings and textile art, flat and 3D work, illustration and embroidery, as I feel exiting things happens when one pushes the limits of a discipline or material. If I can keep exciting myself by what I do, I hope I can continue to excite others.
Bringing memories back to life
Do you use a sketchbook?
I wouldn’t say I use a sketchbook regularly as a lot of the projects I work on are in the fast paced design work so there no time to put together a sketchbook for every project. I have a notebook where I work things out, I create lots of sketches and I have a big filing cabinet which I fill with these drawings before I move onto the next project. I use a filing cabinet so I can have a bank of drawing which I can easily refer back to if needed. I also scan most drawings, as I work a lot digitally too.
Whilst studying I always kept a sketchbook, but for me it was something I piece back together at the end. I work fast and gather a lot of imagery, sketches, notes etc.
I completed a residency recently, ZTwist, mostly based at Somerset Art College, and for that project I kept a sketchbook. I was trying out a lot of new techniques and I needed to record everything as I went.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I like the approach of these artists and I find their work very inspiring; Michael Raedecker, Thomas Raschke, Anne Wilson, Laura Thomas, Chiharu Shiota and Hilary Ellis. Perhaps it is their way of using textiles/thread/line in an unorthodox way that draws me to them.
My artworks are often inspired by memories. I love searching out imagery and recording events, be it by drawing or photographing situations, to bring this memory back to life in a piece of art. I like to give a new lease of life to oft-ignored aspects of our lives.
Also as lots of my work is commissioned, the client will give me a starting point which I will thoroughly research and then run with it.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
My favourite inspiration is when a site speaks to you. For example, In Full Swing is a quirky response to the unusual gallery space at Prema;
“When first visiting the gallery, I was struck by how the hexagonal room felt it was rotating due to its shape and the movement of light in the space throughout the day. The nostalgic appeal of whirling, blurring, and twirling for no goal or reason, which most of us can relate to, filled me with excitement.”
Using nearly 500g of steel pins, 2000+ staples and copious amounts of yarn, In Full Swing, is an attempt to recreate the tangible rush of a swing carousel. A static pattern stuck to the wall perhaps, yet this playful intervention is full of life; capturing joyous movement by the unusual use of material.
Another project I have fond memories of if the piece I created for Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra; mainly because it is the largest single piece I have completed to date.
Another epic project was when I designed and produced the nationwide windows for Hermes in 2011. It was my first and only time I have needed to employ a production team. I needed to design and create artworks for 30 windows in 30 days and the timeframe was too tight for me to create all 30 by myself; I made the originals and then I taught a small team to recreate these to fill the Hermes shop windows across the UK and Ireland.
Transforming 2D into 3D
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
The initial theory behind my thread drawing work was to transform 2D into 3D. I wanted to lift the drawn line off the page. Using thread allowed me to draw in space. I can transform 2D lines and planes into 3D shapes and spaces, giving me the ability to create floating linear structures. Also I wanted to use the familiar materials of the textiles practice but in an unorthodox way. In doing so, I believe I have created a new and exciting way of working with basic materials.
Having worked with these materials for some time now, I tend to see them as an alternate drawing medium. My process is very material led; how the thread falls or knots, often dictates my next step.
This technique is quite niche however I feel as if I have got a lot of mileage out of it so far. My next step would be to introduce something new into the way I work. I recently completed the ZTwist residency as I saw it as a means to do just that. During the residency I experimented with digital embroidery and ceramics and I loved the adventure of experimenting with technique and materials unknown to me. I am still processing everything I learnt in this time, but I envisage this feeding into my professional practice in due course.
I would also love to collaborate with someone; it would have to be with a creative who works in very different discipline to me and who works with large scale work. I want to work really big someday. Draw all over the side of a building with massive cables and nails. Somehow incorporate my style with the architecture of the building… maybe I need to find an architect to collaborate with.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Follow your dream and enjoy everyday! Stick at it, it’s hard work, but doing what you love everyday is an amazing feeling. Be diverse, think outside the box… there’s lots of ways to be creative and make a living.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?Drawing Projects: An Exploration of the Language of Drawing by Mick Maslen and Jack Southern Merge: Art + Craft + Design by Euphemia Toong, Basheer The New Artisans: Handmade Designs for Contemporary Living
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
Here’s a list of job opportunity websites with a visit regularly.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
A hammer and my set of Rotring pens.
Talks, workshops and exhibitions
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I often give talks and run workshops. Most of the teaching/lecturing I am doing at the moment is in schools and universities.
I sometimes do talks/workshops in line with exhibitions. The gallery hosting usually advertises and I will also advertise through Facebook.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
A lot is not my decision, it depends who approaches me. Then this can often lead on to more work… like a domino effect. I rarely turn down work which has allowed me to work in various different fields.
Where can readers see your work this year?
My ZTwist residency work will be on display at Somerset College from 11th-18th of July. There is also a symposium, Make, Create Cultivate on over the weekend of the 12th& 13th July, where I as well as many other very talented creative will be speaking and giving workshops.
Visit sawztwist.wordpress.com for more information.
For more information about Debbie please visit: www.debbie-smyth.com
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