Bridget Steel-Jessop: Mapping stitched memories
It was only after five years of “hard stitching” that Bridget Steel-Jessop was able to sidestep well-meant advice to make cushions, to surpass her homely gift-making skills, and to finally state: “I am a textile artist”.
After completing her textile design degree, she was unable to find a niche for her favoured medieval tapestry weaving, and so settled for the more ordinary. She took a traineeship in upholstery, taught art in a mental health charity, and then retrained as a counsellor. It was only when her son was older that she was able to embrace her freedom. She finally yielded to the “fear of being ordinary” instilled in her by her frustrated artist mother, bought a stitch dictionary as her guide and made the move from ordinary to extraordinary.
Today, Bridget uses embroidery to stitch a variety of items and specialises in unique maps that capture the essence of a time, place and people. Her maps explore personal journeys and recollections, woven together with stitch and applique. They are created to commission and involve the deep exploration of memories, geographical information and historical research, integrated to craft the richly textured roads and fields.
Bridget has held exhibitions at the Clerkenwell Gallery, London; Gallery at the Guild, Chipping Camden; Weaver’s Gallery, Ledbury; and Artist’s Workhouse, Studley, UK. She has been a regular participant in the Warwickshire Open Studios since 2015.
In this interview, Bridget shares her techniques for dealing with frustration and doubt, describes her constant quest for self-improvement … and her joy at ripping up her husband’s “loathsome” non-iron work shirts for her art – but only once he had retired!
Art as sanctuary
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Bridget Steel-Jessop: My love of fabric and thread comes from childhood. I am seduced by the simplicity of a stitch and how it can evolve into powerful imagery. Every piece of art I create has a connection to the women who have stitched before me: spinners, weavers, dressmakers and menders. It is innate in me: to want to create; to want to stitch; to want to express.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Primarily my mother who dressed Victorian dolls. Sacks of Victorian clothes were brought into our house – silks, lace, buttons etc. These were laundered, unpicked and then given a new life.
Mum was a frustrated artist who had completed an art foundation year at Swansea but then never carried on – for financial reasons. So I think she really wanted me to take it to where she hadn’t been able to, and in that sense, she always fostered a “fear of being ordinary”.
Mum was a curator at Cecil Higgins Gallery in Bedford. I remember visiting with her but only really recall seeing Blake’s work and some shrunken heads. Then later, I went to Giverny to visit Monet’s studio and garden; I remember entering a room with four of Monet’s water lily works, I was in awe of what he had achieved. It will forever stick in my memory as I was able to put my feet in Monet’s lily pond. I instantly loved the impressionist – the way they explored and expressed emotion. I understood why Monet painted this 250 times.
On another trip I visited Paris and remember seeing other inspiring work like Marcel Duchamp’s avant-garde urinal, forcing me to really question what I thought art was, and Edgar Degas’ clay, wax and silk sculpture – the Little Dancer of fourteen years. It was the juxtaposition of the hard sculpture and that delicate silk that so enthralled me.
I also remember seeing Picasso’s work mostly in books – particularly his series of bulls where the image is slowly reduced to a line drawing. That completely changed my perspective; how did he get the essence of a bull in such a few, simple strokes? To this day my favourite work remains Picasso’s Guernica: raw emotion. It is still my ambition to see this in the flesh.
Not having much money, I remember that mum (and dad’s) focus was very much on the functional – and in that respect her ambitions were constrained by practical imperatives and personal challenges. But through her art and writing, she expressed her frustrations; I think it was her who gave me permission to take my work seriously.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
In many ways, at school, I felt a failure and art became a sanctuary – the only place I wanted to go. I remember it as one of the few lessons where I got approval from the teacher. Of course, the art we covered was very basic – mainly focused on drawing and painting – but through the school art trips, it introduced me to the one thing I could succeed in.
From here I completed a two-year art foundation course covering Ceramics, Photography, Printmaking, Fine Art, Life Drawing, Textiles, 3D Design and Graphics. It was an incredible experience. For the first time, I enjoyed and saw the point in, learning.
Then I took a textile focused art degree at Wolverhampton. This course was industry-funded and, on reflection, I struggled with the technical components because, by this time, I was beginning to realise I wanted to be a hand-maker. The course included three placements which typically were focused around the industrial processes of weaving and fabric production. However, I was fortunate in securing a placement in the second year with a hand-weaver – and for the first-time work felt like “playing”. Despite some disillusionment around the industrialization of decorative art my final year was a good experience focused around medieval tapestry. (I think, by this time, I had broken all the course rules and guidelines!)
By the end of my degree, I concluded I wanted to be a tapestry weaver despite my final year business case proving beyond a doubt that this would not be a lucrative endeavour! With hindsight, I should have never attempted to be a designer!
Upon leaving university the demand for medieval tapestry workers proved to be everything I had anticipated, so I ended up on a training scheme learning to be an upholsterer. This was like a 1990’s version of the modern-day Repair Shop made so popular on TV; old decrepit furniture would arrive, and my rather grumpy and unenthusiastic mentor would show me how to bring new life to these unloved items. I loved the fabric manipulation, glueing, stapling, the physical putting back together.
After the training scheme, I then took a job at MacIntyre, a charity that aims to empower people with learning disabilities or autism. Teaching in the art studio provided me with an opportunity to give back to others, creating space for growth and learning. I learnt many new skills of empathy and tolerance.
With my growing interest in using creative expression to communicate and heal, I retrained to become a counsellor. On a personal level, I have always found that externalizing thoughts gives an opportunity to look again and maybe see things differently. Storytelling through mark-making, when the words cannot be found, is a continued interest.
Of course, there was also quite a long spell, when raising my son, during which I took jobs that just fitted the working-mother model. I was always able to steer these jobs towards an artistic outlet in one way or another, and there was always plenty of time to take my son to galleries.
Then about ten years ago I was fortunate to find myself in the enviable situation of not having to work in the traditional sense and my son was no longer solely dependent on me. This gave me the time and space to rediscover…
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
When working on map-based commissions, I firstly start with a conversation to understand the story and my client’s expectations. We focus on why the area is so important and what the personal significance is.
With my personal work, the idea is in my mind long before I start work. Often the idea will have been sparked during long, repetitive stitching on another piece. I don’t make notes but just hold the idea in my mind until it has taken on more form – then I will draw, stitch and experiment with the idea. Often, like a happy accident, something will happen in a piece and I know that I can use it later.
Sometimes I just spontaneously stitch with blank fabric and the ideas flow out, sometimes the ideas swim in my mind evolving very slowly. I used to belong to a local stitching group where we would set each other challenges and I often found myself working way out of my comfort zone. This was brilliant for sparking ideas in a safe, but also critical, space. I miss this and am looking to find another group.
When stitching there is always a point, usually mid-way through, where it “all goes wrong”. I lose heart and cannot picture what is next. I’m beset with frustrations and doubt – but, like a long-distance runner “hitting the wall”, I just keep working, even if it means a lot of unpicking later.
I have great difficulty in knowing when to stop. I develop a strong attachment to my work, and it can be hard to stop as this means letting go. I also find it very exposing as my work is then either shared with a client or put in the public arena.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
I am untrained as far as embroidery goes, so I started out working from a stitch dictionary. Over time I have perfected many of these stitches – but have found I rarely stray from running stitch and French knots. I have recently learnt how to make needle lace and am really enjoying trying to push the limits of this technique. Understanding how to create light and shade, how to mix different counts of thread – I still love learning.
When working on map-based pieces the first job is to get a paper pattern or photocopy of the map which I then use to get the roads in accurately. I always ensure that the orientation of the map is correct (north aligned upwards), as this, along with the road pattern, is what underpins the viewer’s recognition. Then I usually refer to Google Earth or other historic maps to fill in the detail of rivers, buildings and planting. The maps are often a combination of applique and stitch.
Sometimes the client will provide specific fabric to be included – usually where it commemorates a wedding or some other special occasion when the colour palette is of great significance. In this case, I use applique to work in the client’s fabric.
My personal work, which often still has a map theme, uses very different techniques. The start point still relies on getting my ideas down on a paper pattern, but this usually comes from my life or landscape drawing. My recent work, “Sisters”, which is largely completed using needle-lace, used this paper pattern technique. The paper provides support for the lace outline throughout the entire production process and is only removed at the very end.
What currently inspires you?
My inspiration comes largely from landscape and life drawing. Usually, I am trying to figure out how I fit into the world or what I think about the world.
Like many artists, I guess, I can usually see what I want to make in my mind, but the struggle is getting it into my hands – working with maps makes this a little easier to achieve. It sounds cliched but I’m trying to take an idea from a thought to a visualization then to a textile. The initial thought is nearly always sparked by what I see or feel in the real world.
The piece I did when my husband retired was inspired by my loathing of his non-iron corporate business shirts which symbolized both his positive committed work ethic and the negative way in which clothing is now engineered to serve such commercially questionable purposes. Working from a life drawing I used fragments of his shirts to create the piece “hard work, thrift and efficiency”.
My most recent piece, “Sisters”, was inspired by how women fit into the world. The women that I stitched were naked, vulnerable but held by the landscape that surrounded them. At the time I was involved in a collective art project based on Penda, the last King of Mercia.
Honourable memorial art
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
The first map that I created holds very fond memories. This was memorial art and commemorates my youngest sister’s loss of her son, Sam. It was such an honour that she allowed me to make it – an honour that I still feel with every single commissioned map I create.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I attend a weekly life drawing session. My work is large scale, messy and very fluid; I am working on getting some of that freedom of expression into my fabric work.
From that start point of a stitch dictionary, my work has improved immeasurably. Five years of hard stitching has moved me from “gift making” to the serious business of commissions. The subjects that I’m now prepared to take-on are considerably more challenging. It has taken me a long time to see myself as an artist; by investing time, to take it seriously, it has changed from being just an “add on” to “what I do” – I am a textile artist.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
You have to take risks. You must not worry about what people think – no end of people on my journey told me I should be using my work to make cushions! Take it seriously and play loads – if that is not a contradiction!
For more information visit www.steel-jessop.co.uk
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