Ann Vollum: Finding freedom in stitching
Ann Vollum has been an artist for as long as she can remember. As a child, she loved to paint and make things from felt and fur.
But, although she had a yearning to study textile design, the adults in Ann’s life had different ideas.
Her teachers (at what she describes as a ‘horrendous and very snooty boarding school in England’) did not consider anything other than architecture a worthy pursuit for girls who showed an aptitude for the visual arts. And her mother was terrified that an art degree would lead to a life of poverty.
So, having been taught from an early age to tread the conventional path, Ann conformed and went to study Architecture at Newcastle University. She was ill-suited to the subject and ended up learning to be a graphic designer and art director on the job instead. Alongside this career, Ann continued to create art; painting in oil and acrylic, drawing in ink, combining the ink drawing with painted backgrounds.
Thirty years later, in order to fulfil her ambition of working on a larger scale, Ann returned to textiles. Reviving a passion that had remained latent for so long an experience Ann found ‘enriching and rewarding’: “I started making papercuts from Tyvek. I painted large pieces of tightly woven cotton with acrylic gesso, and then using an X-Acto knife, I cut designs into them to create a type of lace. I used these stencils to print images onto more cloth painted with acrylic gesso. I then added beads and needle felted accents to those pieces.”
And since taking TextileArtist.org’s online course Exploring Texture & Pattern, Ann has started incorporating hand stitch into these pieces too. “I was drawn to Sue’s work because of its painterly quality and the freedom of her stitching. I was drawn to the online course because it had just enough structure but also encouraged great individual artistic expression.”
In this interview, Ann shares with us how her work has developed since the inclusion of textile elements, how she approaches stitching as ‘drawing with thread’ and how she is constantly working to define her own personal style.
A childhood spent making things
TextileArtist.og: Tell us a bit about your history with art and hand stitch.
Ann Vollum: As a child, I lived in Zambia, which was not at all a consumer society. Access to toys was limited and we had no TV, so my childhood was spent creating things.
I was a painter, but I remember having stitch patterns, felt and fur fabric to make stuffed animals, a few of which have surprisingly survived the many travels of my parents and myself and now reside with me in New Jersey, USA. My favourite is a rather peculiar rabbit that I made from my parent’s old bedspread. He is in a shadow box in our hallway and used to scare my daughter’s friends!
More recently I have stitched and beaded Beasties of varying sizes; they are made with repurposed cloth and stuffed with old clothing. These inhabit our living room and insist on taking up most of the chairs!
In 2016, inspired by the sigils in Game of Thrones (inscribed symbols considered to have magical powers) and by Tibetan Tankas (Buddhist paintings on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity), I hand stitched and beaded my own Sigil for The House of Mullov Nna. The Beastie is cut from felt and stitched onto the background panel.
Another piece Serendipity consists of two panels of painted fabric. One is cut with a lace-like design which is then used to stencil images on the second piece. Both these pieces are embellished with beading and hand stitched needle felted balls.
Prior to stitching, I worked in oil paint in a more traditional style, moved to abstracts in acrylic and oil bar, then started drawing Beasties in black ink. Early drawings can be seen at BeastlyBeasties.com.
Drawing on painted backgrounds followed, creating handmade and illustrated books containing Beasties. Then the books became less traditional and I moved to cutting Tyvek and eventually fabric and Sue Stone’s online course!
My aunt was excited to see the pieces I made during my time as a student on Exploring Texture & Pattern and thought my grandmother, who was always knitting and encouraged me to make things, would have loved them.
Tell us a bit about your personal journey and why you decided to take the Exploring Texture & Pattern course.
One of my daughters was into embroidery for a while – I could not imagine having the patience for it but here I am! I was inspired me to do an embroidered piece on a heavy piece of canvas I had lying around… very hard on the fingers! After doing this piece, I was entranced with the possibilities of introducing hand stitching into my work, more so as I found it to be therapeutic and contemplative.
I like that I can take my stitching with me, that I can work in short spurts if needed and that I can combine all of my expertise into a stitched piece.
I was interested in textiles from an early age and had wanted to study textile design, but was steered in to architecture and graphic design.
I had the misfortune of attending a very snooty girls public (private) school in England, where if you were artistic, unless you were a C or D student, you were not allowed to go to art college, but were forced to study to be an architect as that was considered to be much more respectable.
Unfortunately, at the time I was not rebel enough to disobey as those in charge were pretty fearsome and we had had it drilled into us that one must conform.
My parents were also terrified that with an art degree I would never be able to support myself and besides my mother always called art “a sloppy op”!
I was unsuited to architecture, so after getting my BA, I did a year at The London College of Printing – textile courses took too many years and were too expensive. I ended up learning to be a graphic designer on the job.
Whilst doing research into embroidery techniques for my piece Motherlode I came across Sue’s work and TextileArtist.org, watched the free introductory video series and was very impressed.
I liked that Sue combines paint with stitching and that her stitching is wonky and expressive!
When the Exploring Texture & Pattern with Sue Stone online course became available, I knew that I wanted to register. I felt that is was finally time, especially as there was a year to complete it and the structure allowed for a lot of flexibility. I have not regretted it for a minute; it has been the most wonderful and enriching investment!
Finding freedom in stitching
What were your key takeaways from Exploring Texture & Pattern in terms of process?
Valuable lessons I learnt were:
- How to use back stitch drawing and tissue paper to transfer images. Prior to this, I had been drawing straight onto the cloth. I still do this for my Beasties and landscapes, but use the tissue transfer technique for doing people.
- The concept of small samples for experimentation. It is wonderful to have absolute freedom to experiment without being afraid of ruining a larger piece and to experiment with themes that are not in my usual artistic vocabulary.
- For some reason, I had never thought to use different numbers of strands of floss for effects or to mix threads in the needle.
- Techniques explored in the course including couching, needle weaving and applying appliqué to a back stitch drawings have opened up huge possibilities for me. I was reluctant to do the appliqué part of the course and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
- From looking at everyone’s samples, I am stunned by the talent and am always getting ideas from their posts.
But the number one lesson I learnt from the course is that using a few simple concepts creatively creates enormous artistic freedom.
What elements of making textile art were you struggling with in terms of the creative process and how has your approach changed (if it has) as a result of Exploring Texture & Pattern?
I used to look at Pinterest for ideas, but doing the course has opened up so many more possibilities for me. I am constantly looking at the work of the other students in the Private Exploring Texture & Pattern Facebook Community to inspire me. I absorb it and then often do not look at it again. I find it best to absorb ideas through osmosis; in this way there is no temptation to copy!
After the first few classes in the course, I began to experience a free flow of ideas when creating the experimental samples. However, when it came to working on my own personal piece I felt more intimidated, wondering which of the techniques to use and when.
But since completing the course, I have found freedom in stitching with fewer threads and in a more varied way, and am doing more mental planning of my pieces.
And I definitely have a much broader scope of possibilities for my work. I am excited to see where it takes me.
Elevating my art through stitch
And how has your work developed?
Since taking the course, I believe my work has matured and become more sophisticated. I added hand stitching to my cut cloth pieces (which had been lying around in my studio for sometime in an unfinished state, but with me undecided as to how to complete them) and was pleased with the result. The stitch adds another dimension to the pieces, which in my view really elevates them.
I am now working with fabric that has a much lighter weave which is much more conducive to stitching than the heavy canvas I had been working with. I am stitching with a more limited number of threads but being more inventive with them, mixing threads in the needle, and using spacing and the direction of stitches more creatively.
A big difference too is the addition of children into my work, made possible by the tracing paper and back stitch method I learned on the course.
All the techniques I learnt on the course and the exposure to all the different samples and work by other students have been very inspirational. I love that I now have a great resource book (which I made on the course) to look through when I need inspiration.
What did you most enjoy about the course and what were the greatest challenges?
That’s a difficult question! I think what I most enjoyed was the community aspect, the fact that I never felt like I was doing the course in a vacuum. Sue and the other students were out there to give their support.
I liked that all sections of the course encouraged us to to follow our individual artistic bent, that it was ok to stray a bit from the task at hand, and that in no way was this a course in which you had to do set tasks in a ridgid way.
As a graphic designer, I loved that the course is so beautifully and clearly presented visually.
My greatest challenge was doing the class on turned-in appliqué. It can be fiddly getting the fabric to fit, I would cut it out and it would end up not fitting right. I was happy that I persevered and will be using the technique in future pieces!
Connection and inspiration
How were you supported on the course by Sue and the other students and did the interaction play an important role in your development?
The support and inspiration I got from Sue, Joe, Sam and other students on the course was and is a huge part of what makes this course so great.
The webinars that Sue gives are always very interesting and informative, and it is so useful to have them in the library and to go back and rewatch them. Through these webinars one gets to feel a connection with Sue that would be absent without them. They are a great opportunity to have questions answered, to learn more about Sue’s work, and to listen to her comments on the student pieces.
I am also a big fan of the Private Facebook group attached to the course; it is so inspiring to see what everyone else is up to. I have learnt so much by looking at all the amazing samples that are posted and am in awe of the talent in the group.
The comments left by fellow students are so useful, and encouraging, it has been really amazing to watch the development of individual students in their work and to see the progression of individual pieces. This is a wonderful upbeat community from all over the world.
What has been your experience of making textile art since completing the course and which elements of the teaching do you revisit when creating your work if any?
Since completing the course, I have been working on a “sister” piece to They Come Out By Night, which I worked on whilst doing the course. This piece is a bit trippier, I used the back stitch and tissue paper drawing method for the boy. I will also be adding couching and will use appliqué for the main beast and the boy.
I am now working with a variety of strands in the needle and mixing colours in the needle, something I hadn’t explored before taking the course.
It is the residual experience of doing the course that I am constantly drawing on, and I also look back through my printouts and samples to get inspiration, and am of course still posting my progress in the Facebook group!
A culmination of skills and vision developed over many years
Tell us about a piece of work you’ve made that you’re particularly proud of and why.
I’m really proud of my piece They Come Out by Night, (18” x 17.5”) as it is a great transformation piece for me. I had never done a piece like this before, I see it as a culmination of skills and of a vision developed over many years.
Finally, I am working in a textile medium, the medium that I wanted to explore over 30 years ago but was sidestepped from. This piece which has been very well received has proved to myself that I have the patience, the ability and the temperament to work using hand stitching to express my artistic vision. I am excited by future possibilities.
Can you talk us through the creation of this piece from conception to creation.
My work always flows from the subconscious mind, so I do not do much planning in advance. I just commit to whatever I come up with in the moment.
I knew I wanted to do a large piece with a substantial composition so, as I was about to travel to Europe, I drew out my main beast in pencil on the fabric and chose my image for the little girl before I left. I then threw an assortment of embroidery floss and yarn into my bag, along with special fold up scissors for the airplane.
The piece is created using many of the techniques I explored in the online course with Sue.
The tongue is heavily stitched. This caused the cloth to wrinkle, though, I have to say this does not bother me. I kind of like it not being flat.
Spiders were added as a remembrance of all the spiders I encountered at my parent’s house in rural France; they have a pretty active bat population there too! Bats, snakes, long tongues and sharp teeth seem to be in all my pieces.
I decided to do the girl’s dress all in white with a running stitch but with barely any strands in between stitches. The spiders and tall green plants are couched wool, and once home, I needle felted the Beastie, (I hadn’t yet covered the appliqué part of the course at the time and indeed was putting it off as I was a bit intimidated by it!).
The Beast has couching around it to add definition. I was not happy with the plain needle felting and so stitched into it for detail to add character.
As I was stitching away from my studio, the coloured backgrounds were painted in after the stitching was done; it seemed that the stitching was too busy and needed to be quietened down. It was a little nerve wracking painting over and between stitches, however I am very pleased with the outcome.
Once finished I had to figure out how I was going to display the piece in a show I had coming up. I did not allow extra cloth around the edges of my piece for framing. Not wanting to put the piece behind glass, I stitched a cloth panel to display it. The piece is attached in multiple places to the background so that the weight of the piece is spread out. I left the bottom third of the piece loose so that it can be lifted up to view the back, which I always find intriguing.
Building a body of textile work
Have you shown any of the work you’ve made and what has the response been?
I have been showing my work consistently in galleries for many years now, however, In 2016, I showed my first textile piece Sigil of Mullov Nna at Booked 13 at The Pierro Gallery in South Orange, NJ.
In 2017 I showed Serendipity in Booked 14, a large piece with a lace-like design cut out of it, with some hand stitching included and in March of this year I showed my first heavily embroidered piece, the piece which inspired me to take Sue’s course — Motherlode.
All these pieces have been extremely well received which has encouraged me to continue on my textile journey.
Most recently in November 2018 I had a solo show at The Watchung Arts Center, NJ, USA where I showcased my textile work, which included cut Tyvek, cut fabric/stenciled works with hand stitching, and my hand embroidered pieces along with some of the abstract pieces I did for samples for the course. It was wonderful to see the body of work displayed together for the first time, and I was very encouraged by the reception of the work.
How do you see your work developing in the future?
I plan to do a series of trippy pieces in the vein of the one that I am presently working on, all the time working to more define my style.
As a counter to these pieces I plan to do more cut lace/stenciled pieces embellished with stitching. I’m thinking that these images might reflect the ones in the more colorful trippy images. The pieces take a long time to do though so this might end up being a long term plan.
For a break, I will do some quick little abstracts as I really enjoyed doing those on the course. The back stitch drawing method has opened up possibilities to me for adding children to my pieces, so future pieces will most likely have children in them.
For more information visit Ann’s website.
How do you use stitch as a means of creative expression? Have you found your artistic voice using textiles? Tell us your stitch story in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.