Barbara Shaw: Painterly fabric collages
Integrating a passion for colour and textiles is what drives Barbara Shaw. She specialises in the construction of complex and colourful collages using stitched together fabric scraps, each chosen deliberately and carefully to achieve a specific look.
Barbara uses each fabric piece to add texture and pattern to her images. She brings her artwork alive with textile scraps in vibrant and subtle colours, adding fabrics with sparkle for light, chiffon ribbons for shading, lace for intricate detail and tweed for texture.
Over the years her work has become more impressionistic and she has challenged herself with more complicated subject matter, like her charming animated street scenes and characterful animals.
Her achievements include her selection as Artist in Residence at Chastleton House (National Trust) Oxfordshire (2014) and in Claydon House (National Trust) Buckinghamshire (2015). In 2014 she won a prize for Best Work as a Member of the Oxfordshire Craft Guild and her picture of a 17th Century chair was subsequently bought for the Oxfordshire County Museum Collections. In 2016, her picture ‘The Fabric of Life’ was displayed in an exhibition in the UK Parliament, ‘Tomorrow’s Child’, and her work on an Arctic theme was exhibited in Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History.
Barbara held her first solo exhibition at Claydon Estate, Buckinghamshire in 2017. Her work has been featured in local, regional and national publications including Leisure Painter, Be Creative with Workbox, Cotswold Life and Buckinghamshire Life as well as in magazines published in America, Germany and Australia. In 2018, Barbara was approached to feature in a UK television programme ‘Junk Rescue’ which she filmed summer 2018 and will be aired on CBeebies in 2019.
In this interview, Barbara shares her journey to becoming a professional artist and gives advice on how to find your style, then persist and succeed with your textile art. She describes how she creates her artworks, by looking closely at the detail of her subject matter and then recreating her vision using tiny pieces of fabric scraps. We discover the artists that inspire Barbara and learn about how she has evolved her own personal style over time.
Technicolour textile collage
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Barbara Shaw: I was a creative child and learned to knit at the age of four. I first became attracted to textiles in 1997 when I started making patchwork quilts.
My imagination was captured by the wonderful selection of coloured and patterned material. Then I found Kaffe Fassett’s work published in books and was hooked. It was the first time I’d seen colours and patterns mixed so successfully. His sumptuous style resonated with me and confirmed there were people who experienced the world in full technicolour, as I did!
I subsequently visited Kaffe Fassett’s exhibition in 2013 at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London. The display showed his progress from painting to knitwear design to fabric manipulation. I was able to see at first-hand how his imagination had come up with these wonderful combinations.
He was a huge influence!
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
As a child, I was encouraged to focus on academic studies and art was not a priority. At the time I longed to learn the basics of painting and drawing. However, the lessons encouraged students to experiment with patterns, woodwork and abstract studies. This did not interest me, so I gave up the subject at school when I was thirteen.
Later, as an adult, I tried several ‘beginners’ classes but was extremely disheartened and disillusioned with them.
So I decided to teach myself how to understand and use colour, shading and perspective. I avidly read books, studied illustrations and practised drawing and painting exercises. I taught myself how to see in a different and detailed way.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
In 2002 I won a prize for a fabric collage. I considered it to be very basic, a mixture of paint and fabric glued on to paper. But I was encouraged, so I experimented further with textiles.
My route to becoming an artist was nurtured when a potter friend invited me to exhibit with her in Bucks Art Weeks in 2004. This exhibition was part of a county-wide opening of artists’ studios.
Suddenly I had a different role to play, as a professional artist!
At first I felt an impostor but, as my work has developed, I have grown in confidence. I have taken part in many more exhibitions since and enjoy talking to visitors and demonstrating my technique.
Looking closely at your subject matter
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
Most of my work starts with some sort of visual inspiration; something I have seen, or a piece of fabric which suggests an image to me. The key could be anything; a flower, a building, a creature, a landscape or a portrait.
I research my chosen subject, taking photos and looking closely at what I want to depict. I work hard to understand the essence of the subject matter, so I can interpret it and create my composition.
I never use sketchbooks but store this information in my mind, using photographs as a guide to help me measure proportions accurately. My sketches and subsequent development of a picture are always in fabric as part of the construction process.
I document my progression by posting vlogs on social media and YouTube, where viewers can get a glimpse of my process from the first tentative ideas to completed artwork.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
I begin a piece of work by cutting small scraps of carefully chosen fabric and pinning them onto a fabric background. I continue to cut pieces of fabric, pinning and layering them.
Once I am happy with the composition of layers I hand sew the materials together with little running stitches. I make sure that the edges are free for me to trim to the size and angle that I want. I use a grey thread and the knots and thread become part of the textures of the picture and blend in like shadows.
I find that by hand-stitching I have control over how tightly or loosely I pull the thread so that the many different weights and textures of the fabrics I use are not crushed.
I work standing at a full-size easel, which helps me see the image better as it develops. I also walk backwards and forwards to check coherence from a distance and at a close-up position.
The process of cutting, pinning and stitching are repeated until I am happy with the piece. Once it is finished, the picture is stretched over mount-board and laced across the back using a strong thread to keep it taut. The image is then ready for framing.
What currently inspires you?
Recently I have been inspired to stitch street scenes, adding figures to bring them alive.
These tableaux usually also now include a yellow dog similar to one my daughter owns!
I love working on buildings and enjoy recreating them, no matter whether they are period properties or new builds. Black and white beamed houses feature in my latest work but I am equally happy interpreting bricks, wood and thatch and the ageing of the materials.
Pushing boundaries with textiles to develop as an artist
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
The first Cotswold sheep I stitched in 2007 holds particular meaning for me.
Creating this piece was a steep learning curve. It took six weeks to construct as it was so complex.
Along the way, I worked out how to reproduce facial features and I incorporated wool for the first time. People cross the room to see the sheep as it is such a dramatic image. I won’t ever sell this picture as it represents a watershed in my development as an artist.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
When I began using textiles in pictures I glued the fabrics to paper or card and sometimes incorporated paint.
Now I use fabrics like painterly brush strokes, hand-stitching each carefully selected scrap together to retain texture.
My style has changed dramatically, becoming much more impressionistic with details suggested by a mark or a line. I can spend ages just looking for one snippet for a feature such as an eyebrow.
In the future, I would like to continue to develop my own style and share the process of making. This year I have started filming short videos on the development of the pictures, which are reaching new audiences of people interested in textile art.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
My advice to an aspiring textile artist is to hold on to your own unique view of the world.
Produce and express whatever feels right for you.
Persistence and patience are key to learning. Accept rejection and continue. I send off many applications and have lots of replies saying ‘sorry, the standard was very high and it was so hard to choose…’ but I understand that my work may just not quite be what the curator was looking for.
So keep going and keep sewing!
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