Anne Kelly: Everyday layers, bound with stitch
Anne Kelly is known for her multi-layered mixed media textile works. Her collages have a substantial and highly textured look, reminiscent of tapestry work. And it’s the complexity of the layers that draws the viewer in.
Each work is based around one of Anne’s favourite themes; folk art, the natural world, memory and travel.
Originally from Canada, Anne received two Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation awards, which allowed her to travel and work in the UK. She settled in Kent but travel has always played an important part in her career as an artist and teacher.
Anne’s heavily embroidered fabric collages begin with the collection of paper ephemera, fabric pieces and embroidered panels. She combines these into collages, her ‘inspiration boards’, which are pinned up in her workspace. Often these collages inspire a series of interconnected mixed media works.
Gradually building up her collages using a mixture of materials, Anne locks together the layers with stitch. She is known for her signature overstitching technique, which makes a network of threads that spread across the surface. For this she relies on her trusty old Bernina sewing machine. When this stage is complete, she embellishes her collages further with mixed media, print and hand stitch.
Anne Kelly: I’m interested in everyday things. We all have so much fabric and paper ephemera surrounding us. I take lots of photographs and collect things like tickets and leaflets when I travel. But when sorting out items to use in my collages, I like to choose carefully.
I am a great believer in using everyday materials and techniques.
I use hand and machine stitching, collage, and simple printmaking techniques to merge together my selected materials. Printmaking techniques are useful for creating imagery and adding texture and depth to my work. Stitching acts as a web to bind the components together.
I’ve always been a maker, even from an early age, when I was influenced by my Canadian grandmother who was a wonderful needleworker.
I trained as a fine artist in Canada, but it was visiting my British grandmother in London that first drew me to the UK. I moved here in the early 80s to continue my training in London, at Goldsmiths, and start a career in teaching, fitting work around family life.
Mixed media work was part of my training. I became interested in finding ways to combine stitch with photographic and printmaking processes. I turned to my garden for inspiration and this is when the symbiotic relationship between image and stitch first began.
For me, stitching is a form of drawing. I entrap elements of the world in my textiles, then draw over them, making a new piece of tapestry-like fabric.
The work I make fits into both the traditional and contemporary genres. While appearing traditional, I use a variety of techniques in a contemporary way. The naïve references and influence of the natural world make it relevant and topical.
From a small fragment of fabric
I use sketchbooks and photography to research my theme. Often, a whole composition can be inspired by a small fragment of vintage fabric or found ephemera.
Inspiration boards are an invaluable resource. I have been using them for many years to reference themes when creating new work.
Like the mood boards used for interior design, inspiration boards are such a useful and reflective way of gathering ideas. Seemingly disparate elements are combined, going on to inspire a new series of work.
Drawing and keeping sketchbooks are also a very important part of my practice, and I refer to them frequently when working on a new project.
Collecting and reflecting
I often start with my photograph collection, adding motifs, found paper materials, and drawings inspired by vintage natural history books. I bring them together as inspiration boards, using stitch and embellishment.
After a teaching and travelling visit to the Isle of Skye, in the north of Scotland, I created an inspiration board. It allowed me to spend time reflecting on my travels and combine collected papers and ephemera together in one place.
Starting with the idea of landscape, I used the board to connect disparate elements and combine them to make new work.
I had everything from maps to Tunnock’s chocolate bar wrappers. I also looked through my collections of paper and textile scraps for colours and fragments that would work well with the project. I selected a variety of weights, textures and thicknesses of paper and textiles, from tissue paper and organza to handmade paper and wool.
This inspiration board led to a range of works and will continue to inspire further explorations referencing this theme.
Layers of detail
When creating my textile collages, I like to start with a strong fabric such as calico or canvas, which I use as a background. I layer this with fabrics that match the subject matter. These panels vary according to the size and shape of the piece I’m working on.
Then I consider the elements that will make up the surface.
I use sketchbooks, drawings, templates and photographs to determine the final look of the piece. I join everything together using a variety of stitches and appliquéd fabric.
Generally, I finish with free motion embroidery, using my trusty Bernina, and some hand stitching. I back my work using vintage fabric if it’s being hung without a frame.
Over time, my work has become larger in scale and ambition. For example, I like to experiment with applying stitched surfaces to objects.
In 2021, I made the work Zoom Family Casket which was based on Elizabethan embroidered caskets. For this work, I used an inspiration board as well as sketchbooks to develop the portraits on the piece. The embroidery sections were attached to canvas and then glued onto the wooden framed casket, which I found in a charity shop.
The piece came together well, with a richness that perfectly references the traditional Elizabethan caskets. I’m really pleased with the outcome and feel that it is a successful contemporary take on this traditional textile format.
Travel memories in lockdown
Another work created during the pandemic was Quarantine Quilt. During the first UK lockdown, I used it as a way of celebrating fragments of embroidery and recent trips. This complex piece was made in an organic way. The wonderful Gees Bend quilts influenced the homely look of this work.
For this piece I used an inspiration board to develop ideas for the central tree-of-life motif.
The quilt was constructed using an old quilt from my grandmother for the background. I added individually stitched panels and placed the tree in the centre. I used both hand and machine stitch to create the work, which ended up being larger than I anticipated. Its homely organic feel is particularly pleasing.
If you’re interested in creating your own collages to explore journeys, connections or memories, take a look at The versatility of textile collage. And for creating useful collaged objects, read Julie B Booth: Purposeful fabric collage.
- Try creating an inspiration board to inspire a series of work. Use it to gather together your source materials, colour schemes, motif ideas and sketches. Pin it up on your wall to inspire you.
- If you like maximalism, be bold and try a little of everything. Anne’s work shows how to expertly integrate a mixture of processes and use lots of different materials together.
- Why not include everyday ephemera, like photos, book pages, leaflets, tickets, maps, and found treasures in your own work? Mixed media and stitching can help you to blend everything together into a coherent composition.
Anne Kelly is an artist, author and tutor based in Kent, UK. She is a member of the Society for Embroidered Work. She has written four books, including Textile Travels, published in 2020. Anne’s work was exhibited in her solo show, Well Travelled, which was held at the Ruthin Craft Centre, Wales, in 2021.
Do inspiration boards or merging materials with stitch inspire you? Tell us how, by leaving a comment below.