Ailish Henderson: From conception to creation
Sorting through old photographs and collections of memorabilia helps Ailish Henderson to recall memories of her travels and life experiences. And the personal connections she uncovers start to inspire ideas for new work.
Ailish’s ideas grow from a collection of playful sketchbook drawings inspired by her photographs.
Balancing textile art and fine art techniques, she draws, paints, builds collages and stitches. First, she develops her drawings into completed compositions on paper. Then she uses these designs as the basis for her series of mixed media portraits, a favourite being Pistachio Smiles.
Ailish extends the depth and meaning of her work by stitching pieces of clothing, tickets and other treasured items into her pieces.
When the work is finished, she takes the time to scan her finished collage portraits into the computer, to create a digital catalogue of her work. As an added benefit, this process gives Ailish the opportunity to further develop a finished work into digital print designs, so she can share her work with a wider audience.
Creating stitched portraits is part of Ailish’s ongoing research into the connection between emotional repair and making. Through her work, Ailish is able to investigate the effect of past life experiences on her current state. Strong memories formed during childhood, perhaps only coming to light decades later, can take on new meaning and finally be understood.
Memories of the lone traveller
TextileArtist.org: How did the idea for the piece come about? What was your inspiration?
Ailish Henderson: Pistachio Smiles, is one of my favourite pieces from my body of work, Stitched Portrait Collages. These works are all mixed media textile pieces, and I continue to develop this series today.
The portraits grew from recalled memories of my travels and various life events, as well as looking through photographs and collected memorabilia. These were not always happy times, but by using these experiences as inspiration for my work, I began to make sense of the emotions they triggered.
This series of work has become very important to me, as it has led to many opportunities for further development projects, lectures and workshops.
What research did you do before you started to make the work?
I started by looking through my photograph albums. As a lone traveller, I had taken many selfie photographs even before it became a big trend. Mostly, they were images taken at landmarks and in cities like Paris.
In these photographs, I viewed myself as a character within a story. Simply a figure in a landscape, rather than ‘me’, the person.
I began to isolate parts of the images, taking them out to study and draw. Along with the visual imagery documenting my travels, I drew on memories, as well as sorting through my assembled collections of travel memorabilia.
Playful drawing and painting
Was there any other preparatory work?
While preparing for this piece, I gravitated towards my fine art skills and my love of watercolours and the drawn line.
Much of my preparatory work begins by making playful drawings in the pages of my sketchbook and enhancing them with watercolour paints.
From these ideas, I began to create finished compositions on paper. Then I used these completed drawings as visual aids for my mixed media and fabric stitched portraits.
How do you use materials to give your work personal meaning?
I control the art I make, rather than categorising my art as Fine Art or Textiles. I see my work simply as a representation of ‘me’.
As part of this philosophy, I love to incorporate fragments of items with personal meaning.
I do not keep and re-use all of my old clothing, only the items I have a particularly deep connection with. I am a sentimental person and if I have an emotional memory associated with an item, then I will keep it. I rifle through my collections and choose items relating to the piece I am making.
I often include paper items, such as receipts and tickets from my travels. These works also feature Irish linen, which refer back to my birthplace.
Adding personal elements
Take us through the creation of the piece, stage by stage.
To create depth of meaning, as well as surface depth, I choose to work with items connected to myself. The mixed media elements of this work include fragments of my own clothing, with paper-based items from my travels and experiences woven through. I connected these together using hand stitch.
The clothing fragments I used in Pistachio Smiles are from old garments that I’ve kept boxed up for many years. These include pieces from my baby dresses. The eye area holds a piece of a top that I wore on the trip that inspired the piece. Other fragments were placed throughout, wherever the colour and pattern worked best. The paper items I used include tickets from the Paris Métro system, museum passes, even chocolate wrappers and the odd croissant/coffee packet, too! They are ripped up and used throughout, again placed according to their colour.
In some areas I drew and painted directly onto the cloth, to build depth in the portrait layers.
I used my needle and thread to ‘draw’, in an intuitive way. Most of Pistachio Smiles is hand embroidered. Sometimes I use a sewing machine briefly, to add specific details. But I much prefer to stitch by hand, and have a direct connection between hand and cloth. This allows me to connect with the piece, and control the stitches better.
I think this comes down to the perfectionist in me. I like to be in control of everything. I feel that hand embroidery gives a true reflection of the maker. Each stitch is fed with emotion.
I backed the finished piece with white Irish linen, to acknowledge my birthplace, and stretched it over a linen box canvas, so that it could be wall-mounted.
At the time it was finished, I did not rate this piece as having any more worth than the other stitched portraits that I had created. But since then, it has become a real favourite, not only for myself, but for others who observe my work.
How have you developed this work further?
I truly treasure the original piece. It has gathered much acclaim at solo exhibitions and other events. But I wanted to find a method of cataloguing my work for posterity. I found that, by using digital formats, my work can be recorded and shared with a larger audience.
In order to develop designs and make repeat patterns for printing onto any surface, I scanned my work into the computer. And I taught myself how to use graphic design software to manipulate the image.
Using these designs, I have developed my own line of interiors and fashion items. This includes a digitally printed scarf which features my original Pistachio Smiles portrait.
In addition, my family treated me to a photoshoot to cover this series of work. This made sure that I had high quality images of the work, to take to clients and galleries.
A professional photoshoot is an investment I would highly recommend. I found that the shoot itself became a form of art, another way of communicating the narrative of my work. Now I have a high quality digital catalogue of my work, should anything happen to the originals.
What journey has the piece been on since its creation?
This piece has been featured in Daphnes’ Diary, Embroidery magazine and Embellish magazine, amongst others.
This work was exhibited by the Society for Embroidered Work, at the Palazzo Velli Expo exhibition space, during Rome Art Week 2021. I was fortunate to be able to visit this exhibition myself. A joyful event, this trip also proved to be a form of emotional repair, as it put to bed memories related to the underlying meaning behind the piece.
Pistachio Smiles and my stitched portrait collages have become the backbone of my career. I hope to continue to guide others how to use their own memories, whether negative or positive, within their art, enabling them to repair and enhance themselves at the same time.
- Have a look through your collections of photographs and memorabilia. These are a great source of inspiration for your work.
- Creating work inspired by memories can help you make sense of emotional moments in your life.
- Relax and enjoy some time painting and drawing. Make playful drawings and doodles in a sketchbook. These creations can be developed later, into more detailed ideas for your compositions.
- Stitch fragments of treasured items into your work, such as concert tickets, travel documents, or pieces of clothing. These will help to give added depth and meaning to the piece.
- For a fresh approach, try scanning a finished piece and manipulating the resulting images on the computer.
About the artist:
Ailish Henderson’s solo exhibition, Maker: Mended, was shown at the Spring Knitting and Stitching Show, 2019. She is the editor for Mr X Stitch website, and her work has been featured in numerous magazines, including Selvedge, Embroidery, and Embellishment. Ailish is a member of the Society for Embroidered Work.
Do you like to stitch keepsakes into your work? Let us know by leaving a comment below.