Alison King: The mood of Scotland’s wild places
Textile artist Alison King trained at Edinburgh College of Art, originally as a painter. She discovered a passion for textiles through many years of teaching.
Alison has exhibited extensively and her work has been collected both in the UK and abroad. She has received several large scale public commissions in Scotland. In 2001 The National Museum of Scotland purchased one of her large triptych pieces for their collection of contemporary textiles.
In this interview Alison tells us about her true obsession in interpreting the mood, colour and atmosphere of Scotland’s wild places.
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
Alison King: What first inspired me was a wonderful exhibition of weaving that I saw here in Edinburgh. It was at a time when weaving was on a real crest and the weaving department at Edinburgh College of Art was an exciting place, with artists like Archie Brennan and Maureen Hodge. I saw for the first time how there was an extra element added to the work – a form of surface texture that I have sometimes described as the fourth dimension.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I think I am unusual in that I never learned any embroidery skills from a mother or grandmother and I have to confess that I still can’t knit! However, my mother was very interested in art and she sent me to classes with her friend Lillian Dring. Lillian Dring, I only realized much later, was famous for her embroidery and I do remember watching her working away on her hand turned sewing machine, producing precise and beautiful pieces.
I have always felt more confident with a sewing machine
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I went along quite a classic route, leaving straight from school to study at Edinburgh University/Edinburgh College of Art on the joint Painting and Art History MA, which I loved, the history as much as the painting.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
Machine embroidery is my favorite technique, but these days I also love working with my embellisher. I only came to textiles through teaching Art and my only experience with textiles was through dressmaking. So maybe I have always felt more confident with a sewing machine for that reason. I have also enjoyed making felt and experimenting dying many different fabrics for certain pieces. These techniques I then combine with painted and printed surfaces.
How do you use these techniques in conjunction with stitch?
I overlay stitch on top of painted fabric and paper and fabric collage.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I would describe my work as very painterly and semi abstract – getting more abstract with age! Sometimes I include quite figurative elements, particularly if I am working for a specific commission. I don’t see myself as cutting edge, but I am quite a long way from a ‘traditional’ embroiderer.
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I use a sketchbook all the time and my work evolves from this source almost always. In this respect I have a fairly traditional painterly approach.
Tell us about your process from conception to conclusion.
These days I often start with a large painting – quite rough – a bit like a ‘cartoon’ and I will end up working on top of this. Sometimes I will tear into it and incorporate pieces from it into the final work.
What environment do you like to work in?
I am lucky in having a large studio at home with a lot of flat surfaces to work on and lay things out and no one asking me to clear up!
A fascination with marks and scars left on the land
What currently inspires you?
For many years now, I’ve been inspired by the valley of Glengairn in rural Aberdeenshire, a place of spectacular beauty. I am fascinated by the marks and scars left on the land by generations of crofters and landowners and the striking patterns on the hillsides from the ritual heather burning. In the past I have also focused on the practice of peat cutting, where remnants from past lives have become trapped in its layers and this now relates to my most recent work on the trench warfare in WWI. Information from old maps have also taken my recent work in a different direction. However, interpreting the mood, colour and atmosphere of Scotland’s wild places remains my true obsession.
Who have been your major influences and why?
The work of a very eclectic range of painters have influenced my work over the years, both emotionally and technically. To name but a few: Giotto, Claude Lorrain, Turner, Matisse, Macke and more recently the Canadian Group of Seven and Victoria Crowe.
The embroiderer who has inspired me most and influenced the direction of my work has to be Audrey Walker – such beautiful drawing! It was Audrey who set me off on my path to stitch many years ago.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
I am particularly fond of the very first triptych that I made. It reflects the ever changing weather and landscape of Scotland. I have a small image of my family in this one – on their bicycles, battling their way against the elements.
Back to my original roots
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I think it has become even more painterly in recent years. I can feel myself being pulled back to my original roots and my works can be described more readily now as ‘mixed media’ pieces.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Keep as many options open as you can, as you never know when a simple job will turn into something really exciting.
Can you recommend three or four books for textile artists?
When younger I always found Kath Whyte’s book ‘Design in Embroidery‘ inspiring along with Hannah Frew Patterson’s ‘Three-dimensional Embroidery‘. More recently I have used ‘Creating Sketchbooks for Embroiderers and Textile Artists‘ by Kay Greenlees, which is great for inspiring students to appreciate how useful drawing can be in stitch.
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
I enjoy Embroidery Magazine but am not hugely into looking at websites and blogs. I think they would soon become such fun to read that I wouldn’t produce any work at all!
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My sewing machine and box of paints!
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I give talks and run workshops. I particularly enjoy it when students come to the house and use the studio.
Please get in touch with me through my website if you want to know more.
Where can readers see your work this year?
I have work on show in the Borders Textile Tower House in Hawick till the end of January. Then I will have my large WWI piece hanging in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh from July 1st for five weeks and other work in the EDGE exhibition at the Edinburgh Palette from July 2nd for four weeks.
For more information about Alison please visit the Textile Study Group website.
Let us know what your favourite aspect of Alison’s work is by leaving a comment below.