Nigel Cheney interview: Manipulate, construct, embellish

Nigel Cheney interview: Manipulate, construct, embellish

Nigel Cheney has a BA in Textiles, with Commendation in Art History and an MA in Textiles. He is a lecturer in Embroidered Textiles at NCAD and has been the Republic of Ireland Selector for the Lódz Tapestry Triennale, Poland, since 2000.

He has produced unusual textile art for a wide array of mediums including fashion, interiors, commissions and gallery work. Nigel strives to combine historical techniques such as blackwork, voiding, appliqué, and hand stitches with the more contemporary digital media, transfer prints and hand painted cloth. The result is often a juxtaposition of harmony and discord.

Nigel Cheney is a textile artist of great experience, flare and creativity. We’re delighted that he has chosen to contribute to TextileArtist.org with this fascinating, personal and in-depth look at his history, working practices and influences.

2016 Update: We were thrilled to meet Nigel in person at the Spring 2016 Knitting and Stitching show. Watch our video interview with him below:

 

When it’s right you just know

TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?

Nigel Cheney: To be honest it was in primary school. I really wanted to be in the group who made monkey masks for the school production of the Wizard of Oz because you got to keep the paper masks. They were deadly. I didn’t get in and was put in the group who had to do embroidery. We were all given the task of having to embroider a copy of the Barbara Siedlecka’s 1970’s jaeger adverts with the girl with the blond ponytail in a big jumper out walking a Dulux dog. I have it on my wall now in the hall. It keeps me humble…. My hideous day glow sunset in acrylic yarn with dog in mangy French knots won a painting competition.

Our family worked in a factory so there was always a sewing machine in the house (Mum was an out worker) and we made cuddly toys for sale in school fêtes. I didn’t really think anything about it till secondary school when I saw a screen print of sunflower on hessian with big wool French knots. I suppose it was truly hideous but at the time it was the most deadly thing I had ever seen and I just wanted to do that.

In school, I fell in love with drawing. Stitch soon followed. When it’s right you just know.

What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work ?

My art teacher, Vanessa Edison Giles was just awe inspiring. She trained under Constance Howard and Diana Springall. The industrial/computerised side of embroidery has always been a fascination. Probably due to my parents background as both factory manager (Dad) and machinist (Mum). I learnt a lot of hand techniques when I was young and used my first machine in domestic science at about 13. I realised the machine could be a drawing tool when I was 14 and loved the speed and energy. During my undergrad I loved the Schiffli and its ability to produce yardage and quantity with control and repetition.In the MA I loved the possibilities of CAD/CAM. In that time we were still on black and green monochrome monitors and with no stitch editing facility. My work in Industry allowed me proper training on designing for production and the importance of every single stitch. Moving from prototypes or artworks where multiprocessing was encouraged to have to consider the efficiency of machine embroidery to have the most impact at the lowest price was a steep learning curve. The tricks in how to build and render surfaces on a variety of base cloths really helped me as an embroiderer. When you see a mistake duplicated several thousand times you get more aware of each element of a design.

In the MA I loved the possibilities of CAD/CAM. In that time we were still on black and green monochrome monitors and with no stitch editing facility. My work in Industry allowed me proper training on designing for production and the importance of every single stitch. Moving from prototypes or artworks where multiprocessing was encouraged to have to consider the efficiency of machine embroidery to have the most impact at the lowest price was a steep learning curve. The tricks in how to build and render surfaces on a variety of base cloths really helped me as an embroiderer. When you see a mistake duplicated several thousand times you get more aware of each element of a design.

I love its grace and control and the intricate ‘jacquard’ type qualities of fills but then want to disrupt and change them.

What was your route to becoming an artist?

Couldn’t be more formal if I tried! At school (A-level embroidery and Fine Print), then foundation in Cambridge under the amazing Rose Rands, then Manchester Poly (BA and MA) under Judy Barry, Anne Morrell and Jane McKeating.

Worked in industry for 2 years for peanuts and then moved to Ireland at the ripe old age of 25 for a full time lecturing post.

A passion for stitch

What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques ?

I’m fussy but I am lazy. I don’t like to dye threads, particularly machine threads. I prefer to gather a mountain of varieties and balance them against each other. The weight of 30’s or 40’s machine viscose rayon can make or break a piece for me. I love unusual machine threads and will try and have a good and extensive range to hand. Its not always possible and I enjoy the challenge of rebalancing colour relationships if you can’t get exactly the colour you want in a machine thread.

It’s a big difference between the weavers and printers who go on and on about colour boards and exact matching. I prefer to be more spontaneous. I’m more of a magpie. The relationship of matt/shiny, fluffy/smooth an unusual texture a hint of neon… all will allow the work to be fluid and breathe.

I always have a vision of the final work before I begin and it never ends up like that. If it did I think I would give up, there would be no personal challenge. It’s the surprise of listening to the work and being open to change that stimulates me. It’s always about asking a question and being prepared to engage in a conversation with the work (what does it need/want/feel/demand) to satisfy it.

It’s a big difference between the weavers and printers who go on and on about colour boards and exact matching. I prefer to be more spontaneous. I’m more of a magpie. The relationship of matt/shiny, fluffy/smooth an unusual texture a hint of neon… all will allow the work to be fluid and breathe.I always have a vision of the final work before I begin and it never ends up like that. If it did I think I would give up, there would be no personal challenge. It’s the surprise of listening to the work and being open to change that stimulates me. It’s always about asking a question and being prepared to engage in a conversation with the work (what does it need/want/feel/demand) to satisfy it.

I always have a vision of the final work before I begin and it never ends up like that. If it did I think I would give up, there would be no personal challenge. It’s the surprise of listening to the work and being open to change that stimulates me. It’s always about asking a question and being prepared to engage in a conversation with the work (what does it need/want/feel/demand) to satisfy it.

When I moved to Ireland and began teaching full time I had to grit my teeth and embrace hand stitch again for the first time in years. Drawing has always been the most important element in my work and it was easy to get lost in that and never feel the need to realise it in colour or materials. We simply didn’t have access to that technology and I was teaching students who had never held a needle before.I must have matured somewhere along the way as I rekindled a passion for stitch. Since the Department acquired the Brother PR600 I have had to find the time to really explore what it can do. It’s a very basic form of punching and the processes I would be used to in industry were not readily apparent.

I must have matured somewhere along the way as I rekindled a passion for stitch. Since the Department acquired the Brother PR600 I have had to find the time to really explore what it can do. It’s a very basic form of punching and the processes I would be used to in industry were not readily apparent.

I must have matured somewhere along the way as I rekindled a passion for stitch. Since the Department acquired the Brother PR600 I have had to find the time to really explore what it can do. It’s a very basic form of punching and the processes I would be used to in industry were not readily apparent.

I have used CAD embroidery where I feel the control and exactness often needs a more human touch. The contrast of weight of a hand stitch is vital.

I love multi-processing. I love hybrids, I love composite processes. I truly think there is nothing new. We have 3 types of stitch, 3 approaches to manipulation, construction, embellishment… everything ‘new’ is some permutation of those.

How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?

After gaining a first class BA Textiles, with Commendation in Art History, in 1990, I graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University in 1991 with an MA Textiles. I have held the position of Lecturer in Embroidered Textiles at NCAD since 1993.

I have exhibited widely in both Ireland and Internationally and my work is in many private collections. In 2008 my work was purchased by the Crafts Council of Ireland for their collection and my work is also in the permanent collection at Gawthorpe Hall. I’ve been the Republic of Ireland Selector for the Lódz Tapestry Triennale, Poland, since 2000. I’m an expert in Industrial Multi head embroidery and have worked with several companies in Ireland and the UK.

My studio practice has revolved around the act of drawing, painting and the production of stitched textiles for fashion, interiors, commission and gallery work. My training in Textiles has led me to a fascination with colour, surface and mark making. Textile works range form large to small scale, but all share a love of imagery, surface and colour.Natural objects such as birds, flowers and animals are studied in great depth, while my paintings explore the contrast between loose gestural grounds and detailed imagery. Enjoying a full pallete of textile processes including digital printing, hand and machine embroidery my work often explores ambiguous terrortories where childlike phrases are often reinterpreted and juxtaposed to create new images.

Natural objects such as birds, flowers and animals are studied in great depth, while my paintings explore the contrast between loose gestural grounds and detailed imagery. Enjoying a full pallete of textile processes including digital printing, hand and machine embroidery my work often explores ambiguous terrortories where childlike phrases are often reinterpreted and juxtaposed to create new images.

Natural objects such as birds, flowers and animals are studied in great depth, while my paintings explore the contrast between loose gestural grounds and detailed imagery. Enjoying a full palette of textile processes including digital printing, hand and machine embroidery my work often explores ambiguous territories where childlike phrases are often reinterpreted and juxtaposed to create new images.

Natural objects such as birds, flowers and animals are studied in great depth, while my paintings explore the contrast between loose gestural grounds and detailed imagery. Enjoying a full palette of textile processes including digital printing, hand and machine embroidery my work often explores ambiguous territories where childlike phrases are often reinterpreted and juxtaposed to create new images.

Cloth and thread

Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?

I always draw. It may be a doodle on a post-it to communicate to someone else. It may be a detailed graphite rendering, it may be computer manipulation but somewhere in the process, there is a response before I ever get as far as cloth and thread.

In the case of the Rabbit Moon I worked directly from my photographs of Aztec carvings and museum artefacts. I have about 3000 photos from Mexico and only 6 of them were central to these 2 panels.

I differed from more conventional drawing as I needed both imagery/texture for the digital prints and silhouette shapes for the single head. I ended up looking at photos on screen and drawing the shapes on the computer in Adobe Photoshop

What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?

I have a pile of photos I took of the baby blackbirds that my Mum ‘managed’ (she really is Dr Doolittle in a dress) to help nest on a ladder under our carport. I really want to work with those images.

Tell us about a piece of unusual textile art you have fond memories of and why?

Concerning ‘Rabbit Moon’

Two gods are chosen

In the summer of 2006 I was fortunate enough to spend 6 weeks on a research trip to Mexico. One of the most fascinating aspects of this trip was the visit to the Teotihuacan site and the pyramids of the sun and the moon. As I understand Aztec mythology, there is a belief that the universe is not permanent or everlasting, but subject to death like any living creature. However, even as it died, the universe would be reborn again into a new age, or “Sun”.

In this particular legend, there were four creations, in each one, one god undertook the toil of being the sun: Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, Tlaloc, and Ehecatl. Each age inevitably ended because the gods were not satisfied with the men they had created. Finally, Quetzalcoatl, retrieves the sacred bones of their ancestors and mixed with corn and his own blood, manages to make acceptable human beings.

No other god wants the task of being the sun so the gods decided that the future and possibly last sun, has to offer his life. Finally, two gods are chosen: Tecciztecatl and Nanauatl, the former because he is wealthy and the latter because he is humble. Tecciztecatl is proud and sees an opportunity to gain immortality. Nanauatl accepts because he sees becoming the sun as his duty. In accordance with tradition they are purified, and whilst Tecciztecatl offers rich presents, and coral, Nanauatl offers his own blood and makes penitence.

The gods make a vast pyre on the hard ground of Teotihuacan, which burns for four days. When Tecciztecatl tries to jump into the fire, he is afraid because the heat is so strong and fails four times. The gods ask for Nanauatl, who closes his eyes to control his fear and jumps. When Tecciztecatl sees that Nanauatl has jumped, he feels wounded in his pride and jumps after him. Nothing happens at first. But eventually, two suns appear in the sky. Tecciztecatl was still following Nanauatl, and glowing at exactly the same brightness; so in anger one of the gods takes a rabbit and throws it in the face of Tecciztecatl. He loses his brilliance, and the rabbit is marked on his face. So he became the moon, and as the Mesoamericans believed the moon grew to bear the mark of a rabbit.

I became captivated by this story, the duality of the two protagonists and their sacrifice, their similarities and their contrasts. I knew that I wanted to explore the possibility of working on two pieces simultaneously on the Schiffli machine and to pursue the idea of how stitch can transform cloth. By covering identical digital prints with either white or black machine threads I knew that there would be a dramatic disruption to the imagery on the cloth, but the excitement of the project was in how an overall stitch pattern could pull and distort a fabric in a very subtle way, providing a rich surface to integrate with imagery.

My initial concepts using Lunar Images for digital print proved to be both difficult to source to a high enough resolution and appeared to be too literal and I attempted to create my own symbol of the moon. Ultimately this was created through a very simple layering of imagery from satellite photos of Mexico City and the globe form of a shaped bay tree from the gardens of Chapultepec Castle. Mexico surprised me in being so vast, green and decorated with colonial gardens with their immaculately trimmed topiary.The ‘Universum’ science museum within the campus of Mexico’s City University has a room where the entire floor is constructed from illuminated transparent satellite images of Mexico City. The sheer scale of this map and the eerie lighting gave me the feeling of walking on the surface of another world, of being a giant towering over a fantastical landscape. The surface is scarred by red dots that show where buildings were destroyed in the earthquake of 1985.

The ‘Universum’ science museum within the campus of Mexico’s City University has a room where the entire floor is constructed from illuminated transparent satellite images of Mexico City. The sheer scale of this map and the eerie lighting gave me the feeling of walking on the surface of another world, of being a giant towering over a fantastical landscape. The surface is scarred by red dots that show where buildings were destroyed in the earthquake of 1985.

Of course, however simple the pieces ended up in resolution I felt there had to be the inclusion of the rabbit imagery. After sampling, it became apparent that the best solution for me was the multi-head and another layer of mechanical drawing.

Colour and vitality

I am also really happy with the 6 quilts I made for the ‘Gone to the Dogs’ exhibition. The Chihuaha in ‘Trinidad and Tobago’ I spent an entire Christmas sewing them and every stitch is full of memories. The piece was about so many people, places and things, but above all the B52’s ‘Wild planet’ (play it loud, on repeat). This body of work comprised of 6 large, wall-hung quilts. Approx 1.5metre sq each. The bold, colourful, playful images form part of the complex surfaces. They were digitally printed on Panama Cotton fabric, before being hand and machine embroidered. The textile is then sandwiched in a layer of polyester wadding and a woven, woolen tweed lining before being free machine quilted.

This body of work reflected upon the associations of currency value, pedigree and speculation. In our current economic climate, we see currency as something ‘not worth the paper it’s printed on’. Our futures are gambled upon with seemingly no more care than a bet on a dog race. Whatever our position at least we can attempt to look upon our lives with colour and vitality!

The intricate and complex nature of the decoration of a banknote deters forgery but how relevant is it in today’s society where substantial money is often an invisible, abstract asset that can disappear or be lent in its billions.

I have always had a fascination with old banknotes. Family and friends would give me spare change form trips abroad and I have collected random notes from a defunct currency where a note that was once worth a life’s wages is now a novelty item in a street market for a few cent.

Each of the banknotes has a particular association with an individual, from the childhood neighbour from Trinidad to the gift of a tattered old note from a friend returning from their travels. The illustrations of dogs are intended as a humorous interpretation of the tandem worlds of both pedigree dog-shows and dog racing.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Nigel Cheney: Bombarded with distractions.

For more information please visit: www.nigelcheney.com

Let us know if you’ve enjoyed this interview by leaving a comment below.

FREE E-BOOK: How my journey into textile art began, a fascinating insight into the work of textile artist Sue Stone
Sunday 26th, March 2017 / 03:29
Sam

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Sam is the co-founder of TextileArtist.org and son of textile artist Sue Stone. Connect with Sam on Google+c/a>

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