Arlee Barr interview: Refusal to be ‘technique driven’

Arlee Barr interview: Refusal to be ‘technique driven’

In part one of our interview with textile artist Arlee Barr she told us about how fabrics had always been part of her life and using them to create was second-nature. Here she gives some insight into two of her most important pieces and tells us why she draws inspiration from the human body and the natural world in microcosm.

Read part one of the interview here

arlee barr - Strange Soul Take Flight, 2013

arlee barr – Strange Soul Take Flight, 2013

Fascinated by the human body

Do you use a sketchbook?

Yes and no. I have sketchbooks, but the thumbnails are very very rudimentary. Because words are what focus and compel me to work, i tend more to write phrases down, bits of conversation, odd observations and original poetry. I’d rather have the actual art made than make art of the notes themselves. My opinion only, and i *have* seen wonderful desirable sketchbooks from other artists, is that for me personally they are a waste of time, a waste of resources, and leave me no energy or inclination for the actual art! I’d rather be making it than planning it. I do lightly audition certain bits in a loose way on some paper, but that’s not always the case or a comfortable way for me to develop what i want to say.

I do however at a certain stage take photographs of a work in progress, print them out in a fast draft, and then with pencil, add in certain areas to develop the idea more.  I use this method to augment the design, or to add more texture–working myopically in small areas by hand for long periods of time sometimes mean i can lose sight of the whole. I have on occasion done this on the cloth but that can mean ripping out things if it’s wrong–and when you use rusted cloth in particular this can leave holes, sometimes desirable, and sometimes not! I keep all of these print outs in a workbook divided into either dates worked on or thematically. I can then look back for ideas for future work, or see how things are evolving, and building a library of personal iconography.

arlee barr - Padded Cell Boro'd Time, 2011

arlee barr – Padded Cell Boro’d Time, 2011

What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?

I’m fascinated by the human body, having had a long romantic relationship with scientific imagery. The natural world too in microcosm is very engaging. I’m working more with combining both, with the added frisson of my own writing, but with an asemic twist to it. I don’t like mainstream technique or method. I had years of following the pack, despite my mother’s will for me to be different, and am willingly and wilfully following my own path now.

Though i tend to earthier colours, realistic but highly interpretive/interpreted subject matter and style myself, i greatly admire Deb Lacativa for her colour sense and organic shapes, Eveline Kolijn‘s work in *any* medium, Anna Torma‘s loose and expansive stitching, Judy Martin‘s dedication to simplicity and texture of intent, Patricia Chauncey‘s visceral approach to synthetics and burn art, and the clarity of Alice Fox‘s paper and cloth work.

arlee barr - Beautiful Bones, 2009

arlee barr – Beautiful Bones, 2009

My children

Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?

It’s hard to choose only one of your children as the favourite! The piece i consider the most important however in my journey is “Beautiful Bones”. It was the first “serious” work i made; work that satisfied me visually and emotionally, and the piece that made me realize i am an artist with textile and tactile leanings, and that i do have something to express in an individualistic way.  Shown in a major magazine in 2009, the publication of it cemented my desire to continue, just at a time when i was ready to give up on all of my art, much to the horror of my Greyman, who thought he and i would go crazy if i did!

I was just beginning to get interested in the effects and affect of hand embroidery, though there was a large component of machine work and beading to the piece also. I had an epiphany about the way words shape my artistic expression and decided that the phrase “she has beautiful bones” was an incredible jump off point for both body imagery and deeper meaning. We all have beautiful bones under our skin, but to have it realized only when the body is gone is very sad. Less about figurative realism and more about emotion and the sense of what’s hidden from ordinary senses, i wanted to create a portrait of sorts: a woman, an artist maybe, found in an open grave, gleaming and fleshless, but still treasured by whomever had lost her. Finding these beautiful bones would prove she existed even if only as a memory of what had been.

My favourite piece though as an emotional choice is “Mother’s Heart”, a 12×12″ ecoprintedcotton with hand appliqued and hand embroidered heart.

arlee barr - Mother's Heart, 2013

arlee barr – Mother’s Heart, 2013

How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?

I’ve pared down my colour use, and refuse to use “technique driven” response as art. It’s not important to show the kitchen sink in everything you create. As i get older, and ironically, my eyesight poorer, i focus literally and figuratively more on the details. Different weights of thread, added dimension implied in stitch size or motif, softer colouration but harder subjects: i’m not interested in angsty “make the world better” work, or pretty, or mainstream.

I plan, (though “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”as we know), to keep exploring body imagery and using more text, perhaps incorporating some burn or metal work methods, and to work a little larger, a bit more gesturally.

arlee barr - The Difference Between A Plum, 2013

arlee barr – The Difference Between A Plum, 2013

Less is the more – the rest is pyrotechnics!

What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?

Pick three techniques and make them your own. You can burn yourself out trying to keep up with all the “new” techniques, but unless you work at developing your own style and heart with a few definite “personalities” that fit with your own, it’s just pyrotechnics. Less is more. And do it every day, whether it’s on paper, with the fabric or in your head. Join a group, ask for critiques, expose yourself, and expose yourself to other art.

Which book would you recommend?

There’s no ONE or even three or four books that will answer all your questions. What’s your passion, your interest, your favoured approach, sensibility or technique? Read books that are more reference than project oriented: technique can be explored, while projects are all the same.

That being said, some books are jump off points for more exploration: Kay Greenlees’ “[easyazon_link asin=”071348957X” locale=”UK” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”wwwtextileart-21″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Sketchbooks for Embroiderers and Textile Artists[/easyazon_link]” will give you ideas for presentation, form and intent as well as using/making the sketchbook itself, and “[easyazon_link asin=”0961454733″ locale=”UK” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”wwwtextileart-21″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking[/easyazon_link]” by David Bayles and Ted Orland will answer a lot of questions about what and why we do and feel the things we do and paradoxically what and why we shouldn’t/don’t have to do and feel them! As you find your voice, there will be books by favourite artists, art history, design and technique that will intrigue you. Use the library – there is nothing worse than spending a fortune on books you will outgrow all too soon if you are serious about developing your own style and niche.

arlee barr - Nightmare Interrupted, 2013

arlee barr – Nightmare Interrupted, 2013

Big ass needles and little leather finger pads

What other resources do you use? 

I subscribe to several blogs (artists who live quietly but make ferocious art), am a member of the SDA (Surface Design Association, and am the Alberta Canada Ambassador), and a member also of FAN (Fibre Arts Network), use FaceBook to promote my business, network through TAFA (the Textile and Fiber Artists list), use Flickr to “show and tell, and talk” with other artists or organizations, buy Arabella (a Canadian art magazine), subscribe to the UK’s Embroidery magazine, read Fiber Art Now, the Surface Design Journal, haunt the local library for new books and artists, and take my camera with me everywhere i go to catch those elusive moments that are art in themselves.

What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?

Big ass needles and those little leather finger pads! Because i use a lot of different weights of thread on a built up strata, i am constantly searching for the perfect large eyed needle that will go through so many layers without fraying or snapping the thread, and without driving either end of the needle into my fingers. And pliers too, to pull the needle through.(I know from experience that BOTH ends can make big holes!). Okay, that’s three tools, but they all go together.

Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?

I occasionally give on line classes in stitching, and have done a workshop in person on ecoprinting and natural dyeing, but because i am a hermit by nature, these happen sporadically.

arlee barr - Sad Self Portrait, 2011

arlee barr – Sad Self Portrait, 2011

How do you go about choosing where to show your work?

I’m fortunate in that being in several groups opens up the possibilities of shows. I also look around the web, or in magazines for Calls for Entry. Oft-times my work doesn’t “fit” within the parameters though – some of us will never fit in the conventional arenas. I am lucky enough to have enough of a web presence and a good voice that i am now being offered to show “by invitation”.

Where can readers see your work this year?

This year, there were sadly no shows. Though i had planned to be in two and was invited to participate in another two, the major floods we had in Calgary and Alberta made it impossible to finish work, due to flooded home circumstances and the loss of much of my studio supplies. Next year, there are two shows at least, but i can’t reveal details yet.

I’m currently working on a very large piece entirely by hand, and while i initially anticipated spending at least a year on it, “Anno Suturae” may take up to two years. I hope to include it in a solo show planned for 2015.

You can find out more about Arlee in the following places online:

Please don’t pin any images found in this interview. They are the property of the artist.

If you’ve enjoyed part two of our interview with Arlee, let us know by leaving a comment below or check out part one.

Tuesday 18th, June 2024 / 12:10

About the author

Joseph Pitcher is the son of textile artist Sue Stone. He is an actor and voice-over artist and has worked at the RSC, the National Theatre, West End theatres and several other leading regional venues across the UK. Find Joe on Google

View all articles by Joe Pitcher



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8 comments on “Arlee Barr interview: Refusal to be ‘technique driven’”

  1. Rachel Biel says:

    Nice, Arlee! I hadn’t seen that self-portrait before and it’s beautiful.

    I also really liked the tip about drawing on prints of works in progress to plan it out. Like you, when I have a chance to work on projects, they mostly evolve as they go, but I hadn’t thought about that way of stepping back to re-think something.

    Thanks for mentioning TAFA, too! 🙂

  2. arlee says:

    The Judy Martin i refer to is this one 🙂 A totally different person.

  3. Wonderful article Arlee! I very much enjoyed learning more about you and seeing some of your work that I had not previously had the joy of seeing!

  4. arlee says:

    not fixed here yet 😉

  5. judy martin says:

    Arlee, congratulations on this lovely interview. The images of the work shown here have a cohesiveness and style that is all your own. Wow.
    Thanks for the nod – and may I send it back to you . In fact, may I send a low bow.

  6. That was a good read. So sorry about the floods. My goodness.
    Love your comments on sketchbooks. I think along similar lines.

    Congrats on interview #2 🙂

    All the best,

  7. Ann Hankins says:

    Very interesting interview. Refreshing attitude to how to develop ones work.
    Life is too short to spend sampling…. get on with it….. let the work lead…. don’t over think… enjoy the process, freely expressing ones creativity is the most important thing.

  8. Dorothy Yuki says:

    Great to see this interview. I know you from a Facebook site. I don’t look up members and had no idea of your wonderful work but only of your great knowledge of botanical printing. A bit late to this interview but really liked hearing about your process.

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