Cherilyn Martin: The art of juxtaposition
We perceive life in layers. Backgrounds, middle areas and foregrounds juxtapose in shifting ways when we look at the world around us. And we create meaning from those juxtapositions that suggest ideas like distance, time, space and more.
While this phenomenon may seem ordinary, for an artist, it can pose a real challenge. Trying to capture both layers and meanings in a 2-dimensional format calls for careful observation and experimentation. And such is the creative world and delight for textile artist Cherilyn Martin.
British-born Cherilyn is a master working with fabric and paper layering that is enhanced with hand and machine stitch. Seen from a distance, the layers blend and merge exquisitely. But upon closer examination, viewers are amazed to discover the complexity of the layers and stitching. Text is also sometimes included.
While designs may seem abstract, there is careful researched intent behind Cherilyn’s work. And she shares that process, along with key tips and techniques she uses to create her layered art. You’ll also discover some interesting techniques for stitching on paper, as well as her love for encaustic layering.
Cherilyn’s passion for creating surface design through layering and stitch is remarkable. Be sure to zoom in on the images in this article to see the intricacy and textures of her work.
Cherilyn studied Embroidery at Manchester Metropolitan University and later taught Drawing and Embroidery in the Fashion Department in Leeds. She has continued her international teaching practice at important venues across the globe. Her work has been selected for many international exhibitions, most recently the Chinese Textile Biennial in Beijing. She is a member of the international group Quilt Art, SDA, IAPMA & Windkracht 10 (textile group making work for outdoor spaces).
Surrounded with creativity
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Cherilyn Martin: I was privileged to grow up in a creative environment. My mother was extremely creative, and my older brother, always painting and drawing, later became a graphic designer and talented painter.
My earliest memories are of being encouraged to create. Things were made instead of bought: clothes, presents and home furnishings. Days were long and filled with practical activities, whether working on my own veggie plot, reading or making. I think these early experiences helped form a deep-rooted artistic and aesthetic sensibility in me.
I was fascinated by all the possibilities textiles have to offer. Fashion, embroidery, weaving, surface design and the possibility of working in both 2- and 3-dimension. During the textile course at Manchester, students were given the opportunity to work in different textile departments, so one gained firsthand knowledge of all those various disciplines.
It is reassuring to know I have an arsenal of techniques and experiences I can call on at the right moment to express my ideas.
For the past 15 years, I have closely collaborated with a well-known surface design studio and importer of specialist textile materials in the Netherlands. Their close association with the Dutch Textile Museum in Tilburg gave me the opportunity to lead workshops at several big events within the Museum, as well as giving workshops and Master classes in the studio.
This collaboration also offered me the chance to work with many ‘new’ products and materials to develop and explore the possibilities of applying them to my own work and engage in different areas of textiles.
My work also hasn’t been limited to creating exclusively with cloth. Paper, just as seductive as fabric, offers endless opportunities for surface design and structural manipulation.
Working with encaustic creates new challenges, and working on hard, non-flexible surfaces demands a different approach. But once mastered, it is a joy to work with the warm encaustic medium and the translucency it creates.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
My mother was the greatest creative influence in my early life. She was a prolific maker of home furnishings, sewed almost all of our clothes and always had an embroidery project on the go. Consequently, we, as children, were taught a wide range of techniques.
She was a perfectionist, so any project we embarked upon had to be made with care!
Visiting art galleries and museums was also a favourite pastime from a very early age. Images which have remained with me are of the abstract paintings of the St. Ives School of Painters, Bernard Leach’s pottery, and Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture.
Throughout my education, I was lucky to have art teachers who had an affinity with textiles and who encouraged me to consider embroidery as an art form.
As a teenager, I discovered Anne Butler’s book Simple Stitches which was a pivotal moment. It demonstrated what was possible to achieve with stitch.
Having learnt to embroider before learning to write, it seems almost inevitable that I chose embroidery as a means of artistic expression.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I took the classical route to becoming a professional artist. Upon completion of a foundation course at Art School in Birmingham, I was accepted into the degree course in the Textile department at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). At that time, the Embroidery department was led by Anne Butler-Morrell and Judy Barry, both inspirational artists and teachers.
Further studies in Art Education at Bristol University completed my formal education.
In 2007, I was accepted into the international group Quilt Art. It has been a privilege to work closely with internationally renowned and respected textile artists. We regularly organize travelling exhibitions of our work which are supported by self-published books and catalogues.
Fascination with layers
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
Until recently, I created bodies of work based on selected themes. That involved researching the subject matter thoroughly, gathering visual ideas in a sketchbook and experimenting with materials and techniques.
My sketchbooks are really personal and are not made for display. They are more documentation of what I am researching and always useful to revisit as I am working on an idea.
For example, the antique lace collars I have used in my work have led me to research the history of fashion. I’ve visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to study portraits of the 17th century Dutch Masters. It was amazing to see how lace collars, cuffs and bonnets were portrayed in those paintings.
I also joined the Dutch Costume Association which provides a rich source of information about specialized subjects within the field of textile history.
I use the Internet to gain easy access to information, as well as specialized books about the history of fashion. However, nothing beats researching actual pieces of old textiles—studying their technical details first-hand and being aware of the tactile quality and effects that time has had on those pieces.
Chosen themes blended and evolved with time and were based on a love of ancient architecture, surfaces ravaged by time, and the elements and marks left by Man.
The book Interpreting Themes in Textile Art, which I co-authored with Els van Baarle, demonstrates this approach. It guides the reader through the creative process and aims to help amateur textile enthusiasts create autonomous work and develop an individual visual language.
Layering has played an important role over the years in all aspects of my work. For example, whilst sketching and photographing in situ whilst working on the Pompeii theme, I became aware of the juxtaposition of ruins in landscape. Broken walls and columns were superimposed on each other, creating depth in the landscape.
I was concerned with pushing the boundaries of quilt making, not to be confined to the square or rectangular forms usually associated with quilts. So, I translated this into my quilt making by layering panels which had been quilted and embroidered, so that they created depth of composition.
Layering was also present in my heavily stitched surfaces. I was fascinated by creating depth with stitch—using thicker threads as a first layer and working stitches on top of each other with different weights of thread, to create maximum texture. I usually finished the last layer with a thin machine thread.
Using layers of colour to create depth on the surface is also fascinating, layering with stitch and working from darker to lighter tones.
My encaustic work also consists of layering paper, medium and colour. The magic of encaustic medium is that the individual layers become more translucent over time.
More recently, I enjoy building up layers of thin papers in the warm encaustic medium to create collages which become translucent with time. Slowly the layers become more visible.
My work has shifted in intent and also in use of materials. I now often incorporate old/antique pieces of textiles into my work, because concepts are more about memory, bereavement and commemoration. They lead me to consider clothing and accessories as representations of lives passed.
In terms of materials, I choose the materials which best convey the message. You could say that my work is now lead by the materials I have to hand.
I do often switch from working with cloth to paper, as I think it keeps my work fresh. It is very easy to become repetitive when working long stretches on one piece or series.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
Stitching has always been a passion. The versatility of stitch to explore both textural qualities and add graphic elements to a piece of work still fascinates me. I started my career as a fervent machine embroiderer and quilter, but turned to hand embroidery to add an extra dimension to my pieces.
My favourite stitches have always been line stitches, such as fly stitch and blanket stitch. Apart from their lineal quality, they are also ‘open’ stitches which can be used to fill the surface. They are easy to distort and to work in several layers.
My favourite texture stitches are French knot and bullion stitch.
I enjoy using hand-dyed cotton threads, although I usually add a bit of metallic thread—usually gold machine thread—to add a highlight to the surface.
Working on paper—a less flexible substrate—has also influenced my use of stitch.
Because paper is less flexible, it is more difficult to hand stitch. So, I always reinforce my paper with an iron-on cotton or Vilene. This ensures the paper doesn’t split whilst stitching, especially when machine stitching.
I also usually end up stab stitching, as it is much more difficult to create a rhythm whilst hand stitching on paper.
On larger pieces of work and/or using thicker paper, it is physically impossible to hold the paper in my hands. So, I use a screw punch to make holes across the surface, and then stitch into them.
On smaller pieces, I often do threadless machine stitching and then embroider in the holes.
Of course, machine stitch onto paper is a different story. The sewing machine can be used to draw onto the surface and create more fluid marks. This approach has forced me to reconsider my use of stitching and to become more sparing in my use of stitch.
I am now more interested in limiting the use of stitch, ensuring the selected stitches have the maximum impact on the surface. Less IS more.
I use different techniques to influence the surfaces I work on. I often use both natural and controlled rusting to add an aged effect to fabric. A full description of the controlled rusting technique can be found in Interpreting Themes in Textile Art.
Natural rusting is great for organic effects, whilst controlled rusting can be used to add detail.
I make my own stencils from freezer paper for lettering and use my own images in Thermofax screens for printing.
I often use text not only as a graphic element, but to add content to the work.
I incorporate texts which I have come across whilst researching the theme on which I am working. These are usually centuries old poems, prayers or hymns.
I let words tumble into each other, as I don’t particularly want the viewer to become fixated on just reading the text, instead of looking at the piece as a whole. I also write my own texts or borrow texts written by family members.
What currently inspires you?
I am interested in Japanese aesthetics, especially Wabi Sabi, Yugen and Ma.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
‘Seven Souls’ (2018) is particularly meaningful to me. It embodies many of the issues I am currently concerned with, such as memory, bereavement, and commemoration.
This piece evolved from a pile of oily industrial cotton bags once used to store machinery. Upon washing and drying them, I began to see forms in them which reminded me of some sort of garment or even shroud.
Each piece slowly took on a character of its own and seemed to have its own story to tell. Adding poignant texts and pieces from my personal collection of antique textiles has transformed these forms into haunting suggestions of faded lives.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has evolved progressively over the years from more design-based compositions, in which techniques played an important role, to more concept-driven work.
I currently work with ‘found’ pieces of textiles—fabric which has its own story to tell. I try to preserve its history whilst adding my own story and breathe life into what was once discarded by others. I am in search of simplicity and aim to create subtle surfaces which invite the observer to look closer at the work.
For more information visit www.cherilynmartin.com
Let us know how you’ve been inspired by Cherilyn’s layering techniques below.