Cate Hursthouse interview: Being pigeon-holed
Cate Hursthouse has a fascinating approach to textile art. Whilst the use of cloth is central to her practice as an artist, her work seeks to challenge the general view that cloth is mundane, soft or homely, and explore the darker, more unsettling side of the materials she chooses.
To achieve this, she uses recycled domestic textiles, stitch and ever-increasingly more abstract forms to experiment with how something ‘ordinary’ may take on a new life as something original and perhaps uneasy in a poetic sense.
Cate is a member of the Society of Designer Craftsmen and has an MA in Contemporary Textiles from the University of Hertfordshire.
Combatting the negative experiences of the art room
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Cate Hursthouse: I have been sewing in one form or another for longer than I care to remember. I grew up surrounded by domestic crafts – knitting and dressmaking – and my initial encounters with stitch were probably attempts to imitate what my mother was doing. A number of our neighbours were outworkers for textile factories, so textiles and sewing were part of the social environment in which I grew up. That I took to working with textiles was somehow a natural progression. ‘Sewing’ was also something I could do and was a way to combat the more negative experiences of the art room at school and the perceived notions I carried of paintings needing to be photographic reproductions. Although working with textiles is sometimes difficult, as they remain marginalised in mainstream art, I like the dangers and challenges that this border position offers. Textiles are also about people.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
As I have said, textiles were always around when I was growing up and I was always encouraged to make things. At school I learned needlework and dressmaking, but ultimately ended up going down a more academic path. Textiles and embroidery were relegated to the role of hobby. It was really the increased popularity of cross-stitch in the 1990s that was the main impetus for what I do now. Cross-stitch led me to teach myself a number of other traditional embroidery techniques which reawakened my earlier interest in hand embroidery.
Challenging the idea of textiles as ‘nice’
What was your route to becoming an artist? (Formal training or another pathway?)
A mixture of the two. I really got into cross-stitch and a bit of patchwork, but I wanted to both develop my technical skills and be able to design my own work so I decided to study for City and Guilds Embroidery and completed both certificate and diploma courses. I was incredibly lucky to be surrounded by a group of women who were ambitious and passionate about embroidery and to have a great teacher. I was asked to do some teaching, which made me realise how much I still had to learn about embroidery and more importantly, how much I wanted to return to more formal study. I completed the HE Diploma in Stitch Textiles at Windsor under Jan Beaney, Jean Littlejohn and Louise Baldwin and a whole host of other inspiring fellow students, textile tutors and artists. City and Guilds had introduced the idea of creative textile art, but now I was also looking at art and art history. I became more and more interested in the use of textiles as an art medium. Above all, I became interested in challenging the idea that textiles were simply ‘nice’. After Windsor I completed an MA in Contemporary Textiles under Sally Freshwater. I still could not put these ideas down and am currently a research student at the University of Hertfordshire and continue to question perceptions and meanings of textiles.
Explore and articulate
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
My starting point is textiles and generally some aspect of our relationship with them. Beyond that nothing is set. I draw, I photograph, collect images and information, to basically try and bring a whole load of ideas together and distill them down. It is about using the textiles and their associated processes to explore and articulate what I am interested in. A whole range of other media may also come into play depending on what I feel is appropriate. Sometimes the other media ends up taking over, like the photographs in my MA work, but it all starts with textiles and making.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
This is a tricky one. Do I consider myself a textile artist, an artist or a researcher who uses/researches with and into textiles? I think I am probably all of these. I have a real aversion to being pigeon-holed, and think it is important to retain a certain amount of flexibility in approach and labeling.
Listening to what the material demands
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
My processes aren’t particularly set. I usually begin by collecting and drawing, although sometimes just making and stitching is also a way in – especially if things have got a bit stuck or I don’t feel that the work is going particularly as I want. There is a lot of trying to listen to what the material demands and quite a lot of conflict between trying to impose ideas and forms on the medium that it just can’t do. On the other hand there are often happy accidents when things are brought together and just work. Most of my current practice and processes, however, are dictated by the requirements of my research. I also tend to work in series producing a number of individual but connected pieces.
I mainly work at home in a dedicated, but small, workspace which is sometimes difficult as I am not very tidy and the work is sometimes quite big. I also have some studio space at the university. A large studio would be lovely, and remains a dream for the future.
What currently inspires you?
My current practice continues to engage with ideas that textiles are not just ‘nice’ and that they might be able to convey other messages and evoke other sentiments. These ideas are also explored by other textile theorists and my research aims to contribute to this debate.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
The piece of work ‘A Family Workbox’ (2001) is quite special. It was the first truly independent piece of work I produced after finishing City and Guilds. It is very traditional in many ways, but it was the first piece that began to engage with ideas and research. It was also runner-up in the Embroiderer’s Guild President’s cup competition and was a sign that someone else appreciated what I was doing. It was also part of a submission that got me a solo exhibition and made me think about my practice in a new way, so it was a bit of a turning point really.
Unfortunately the only image I have of this work is a bit old and not the best quality.
Engagement with the world
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My practice has evolved from making ‘things’ to using the same processes to explore and think with and through textiles. It is the thought processes and my engagement with the world, brought about by textiles, that I think are more important. I have no idea what will happen with future work, that is what makes the whole thing so exciting and why I continue to push and work.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I have taught textiles for a long time and enjoy running workshops and giving talks. I don’t have a particular set list of talks and workshops as I think it is far more interesting to tailor workshops to the interests of participants and try and help students to develop their own individual ideas. Tastes in embroidery change and I think it is important to be flexible and respond to this rather than have set packages which you take off the shelf and just deliver. Obviously, though there has to be a core element and I have taught both hand and machine techniques. As I do not focus particularly on one technique and often uses specialist equipment teaching from my own practice is impractical.
My contact details are on my website here.
Keeping traditional embroidery techniques alive
What are your aspirations for the future and how do you see yourself moving forward?
My main aim is to continue working and researching and hopefully contribute to the debates taking place in textiles. I also want to help keep traditional embroidery techniques alive at a time when so many of the opportunities to learn them have disappeared.
In my own work I would like to move towards installations rather than exhibitions for work, but this is dependent on finding suitable locations for the type of work I might be doing at the time and funding.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
Currently, it is about trying to find locations and spaces that are sympathetic to the work. This calls for a more creative response to space and to consider alternative venues beyond the traditional gallery ‘white cube’ but this has to be balanced with practical considerations. As a relative newcomer and without an art school background this is often tricky, but I think this is the case for everybody in this position, but you just have to keep trying. There is often an element of luck involved and disappointment when work submitted for selection for a curated show is rejected.
Where can readers see your work in the near future?
I am hoping to have a small solo show in the summer/autumn but there are no firm details yet. When they are available they will be posted on my website.
For more information please visit: www.catehursthouse.com
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