Christine Chester: Portraits of memory
Christine Chester is a textile artist working in mixed media, creating work to exhibit as well as developing fabrics and quilts as couture interior design textiles.
Since graduating with Distinction in her Masters degree in 2015 Christine has become an active member of both Quilt Art and unFOLD art groups.
In this interview, Christine gives us an in-depth look at the processes and techniques she uses to create her art and she tells us how her Dad’s dementia has inspired a body of work focussing on memory.
TextileArtist.org: How was your imagination captured by stitch?
Christine Chester: Initially I returned to stitch, from having learnt it as a child, as a way of keeping myself occupied in the evenings when I gave up smoking! I could watch TV and do some hand stitching.
I was unemployed at the time and so hadn’t enough money to buy wool for knitting, but I could cadge threads and fabric from my mum and so I started with several of those blue transfers from womens magazines that were my grandmother’s.
The therapeutic element of working with stitch asserted itself along with the joy of creating something colourful and pretty and I never really stopped after that.
My mother also gave me my first sewing machine when I decided to do the City & Guilds in both patchwork and embroidery, I couldn’t make up my mind which I preferred so I did both!
Eventually I could afford my own machine and I bought a second hand Bernina. I completely fell in love with free motion embroidery and quilting and would spend hours after my ‘proper job’ at college, drawing and doodling with the machine. I still have that machine which has seen me working with increasingly tough materials and media.
Ironically I am now returning to hand stitch as a way of making a different and more deliberate set of marks on fabrics.
What or who were your early influences and how has your upbringing influenced your work?
I was brought up in a household where my grandmother and mother both worked on embroideries, knitting, crochet and tatting. They were generous in sharing all these skills with me, sadly, though, I never mastered slipping the knot in tatting.
My mum was a member of the Embroiderer’s Guild and would take me up to Wimpole Street for a young embroiderer workshop during the Christmas holidays, and then we would go to the Pantomime afterwards. I remember learning about canvas work in the last one I attended at the age of 12 and still have the sampler I made.
My grandmother also filled in the Pools Coupons every Saturday and occasionally they would send her spare copies which, from a very young age, she gave to me and I would colour in the little squares and make patterns with noughts and crosses.
This may be where my love of pattern and stitch started as I admire the geometry of canvas work and blackwork even though I don’t use these processes in my own work. It certainly explains my fascination with patchwork and I still enjoy drawing things out on squared paper.
My father played a role too, in a roundabout way. He was an inshore fisherman and fishmonger and I spent many happy hours down on the beach in Eastbourne amongst the smells and textures of a working beach. I still gravitate towards these types of beaches and harbours wherever I go on holiday.
Fishermen are known for their tall tales and this isn’t confined to just anglers. My dad told us lots of stories about his fishing experiences and we were constantly laughing with him throughout my life. So when he developed vascular dementia in his old age and his memory started to be affected, this hit us very hard.
My siblings, my mother and myself all had different versions of many of those stories and we didn’t all have the same ones. We realized how shaky our memories of those stories were without the linchpin of my dad, the narrator.
I became fascinated by the link between memory and identity, not just for the person with dementia but also for all those who share memories with that person and I have been working with that theme for many years now and continue to find new things to express.
Knowledge and confidence
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Several things combined from my early life to give me the experience to get a job managing an adult education programme and teaching in an art college in Eastbourne.
Working and teaching in this environment encouraged me to make work which was not just to be used for teaching purposes. My colleagues all had first degrees in art, 3D or illustration and I always felt the poor relation with a degree in an academic subject. Whilst this did not drive me to make work, I do think it made me go to more workshops and classes in order to try to catch up with what I felt might be a skills gap.
After several years of stitching for a couple of hours every evening after work, and full days at weekends, I realized that I was quite driven in what I was doing and I started to enter competitions to give myself something to work towards.
Winning prizes is a great boost to the self esteem but at the same time can be creatively difficult as you worry that you will never make anything as good ever again.
I was lucky enough to meet Claire Benn at one of those moments and as I already also knew Leslie Morgan I joined the Committed to Cloth community. This gave me more knowledge and confidence as well as a peer support group who I still work with today in various ways.
Eventually, when the opportunity to take redundancy from college was offered to me, I jumped ship and set up my own textile teaching studio as well as taking on a Masters Degree which has broadened my outlook, my knowledge, my contextual understanding of my ‘craft’ and my confidence.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
I taught City & Guilds for many years which gives a huge portfolio of processes both with print and stitch. I learned early on that I preferred to make the process relevant to the piece rather than make work fit the process.
So whilst I started the dementia series using paper lamination, this was because I could use photos of my dad which I felt were personal and relevant to what I was trying to say.
I pick up and use processes which give me something interesting to say about my theme.
For example, I have been working recently with handkerchiefs as these are so personal and intimate items which are often the only small personal item that many people with dementia have in their pockets or handbags.
I have been asking people to donate their old handkerchiefs and I had a set which looked like a 9 patch pattern from patchwork.
So I used the ‘disappearing 9 patch’ idea to create a piece of work that suggests the confusion and partial glimpses of a previous existence that go with dementia.
How do you use these techniques in conjunction with quilting?
Some of my processes involve a lot of acrylic media and then quilting becomes rather tricky.
Layers of Silence has a huge amount of media on it and I have stitched and stitched and painted and stitched again in order to get the piece working visually for me.
In the end I had so much paint on the surface that I had to give up using my machine and resorted to hand stitch using a leather needle and pliers in order to get control.
Recently I have been making work that is not quilted at all but is still on a fairly large scale. I enjoy working on a large scale and often wadding and quilting is an excellent way of stabilising a large piece of work to enable it to hang straight, but it is not the only answer!
I use a lot of transparents in my work and these do not work particularly well with wadding, layering has to be approached in a different way.
Exploring the possibilities
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I do draw in a sketchbook and make notes but these are merely to record information from exhibitions or as an exercise in observation.
I use my camera a lot to photograph textures, to train my compositional eye and record exciting colour combinations. With the new smart phones I have a camera always present in my back pocket so there is no excuse not to photograph interesting things! I have a particular fascination with photographing rust.
I am a member of a group of artists called unFOLD, and we do a sketchbook swap as an exercise where we each start a small book and then randomly pass it on to another member of the group who has to respond to whatever has been worked before it returns to the originator. This means I am required to work with imagery and marks that I would not normally choose to work with, something I consider a challenge but very good for me!
Preparation for pieces of work, as opposed to experiments, is centred around making fabric, using different processes which reflect the ideas and concepts that I am working with at the time. I make lots of fabric, either as a demonstration in classes when I am teaching or experimenting with processes and seeing how far I can push them within the boundaries of my ideas. I don’t necessarily have a use for them as I make them.
I do a lot of thinking and writing around my ideas trying to make links between thoughts and processes generating ideas for pieces of work as a result. I did this a lot during my MA and enjoyed the process which I found quite liberating and so continue to work in this way. It means that I don’t always work on the first idea for a piece of work as soon as it hits me; thinking around the idea for a while whilst I explore the possibilities means the work tends to change and develop whilst still in the ideas stage.
I do like to make samples though, this may be a throwback to City & Guilds days but I find that this helps me problem solve on a small scale. It doesn’t always work as we all know that scaling up a process can present new issues to have to manage. Samples also give me more work to share with my students.
What environment do you like to work in?
I really enjoy working in my teaching studio where I have lots of space and light, but I don’t often get that opportunity as the studio has to pay its way and either I am teaching in it, or a friend is teaching classes doing drawing & painting.
So I have to have a studio at home which is also very light but a lot colder!
In both studios I can see people wandering around going about their business and this keeps me from feeling too isolated as I spend hours stitching either at my machine or doing hand work.
Women in stitch
What currently inspires you?
My most recent idea, which I am trying to get off the ground is really exciting me. I have been thinking about the women stitchers, both known and unknown, that have influenced me and others who are working currently.
The transparency of women in history is beginning to be widely recognized now and so I thought I would try to get an old quilt X-rayed and incorporate this imagery with a transparent quilt top worked in paper lamination process.
It is proving difficult to source the X radiography though without spending lots and lots of money so I am about to venture into the world of grant application in order to fund the project.
Alongside this work, I am currently working on ideas that stem from a fabulous book called The Button Box: The story of women in the 20th century, told through the clothes they wore by Lynn Knight.
I have a history degree and the combination of history, buttons and fashion is a compelling one for me. unFOLD have a group exhibition at Festival of Quilts 2018 where all the work is inspired by this book.
The work I have chosen to do for one of my pieces picks up on a process that I used for some work in 2014 and then again in 2016: journaling or recording time through stitch.
This latest work records a timed one hour of stitching with all the interruptions, breakages, bobbin changes recorded as absences of stitch.
There will be 48 separate panels, all reflecting an hour of mind-numbing work that a female fustian worker, a general term for fabrics such as velveteen and corduroy, in the 1930’s would complete in a working week whilst walking something like 91 miles up and down a long table cutting the fabric pile.
I had never considered that journaling or working a piece with a limited set of criteria would become part of my work. The repetition and timing involved with this type of work had never appealed to me. The MA gave me more of an understanding of the narrative contained within works of art that are made to record the passage of time.
This element of working practice has become more interesting to me the more that I work with dementia as a theme and has now entered into the other work that I conceive.
Dementia still continues to interest me and as I work through various aspects of this, language, layers, glimpses, identity, shared memories and currently repetitive actions.
I am constantly reinvigorated by the sharing gifts that people give me when they see my work, and then chat with me about their own experiences.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
Layers of Memory, which was accepted into Quilt National 2013, remains one of my favourite pieces.
It expresses the idea that despite all the little detailed memories that my father lost, there were 2 things that remained constant. His life as a fisherman and the love of my mother.
Both are expressed in some way in this piece as the photos I used in the paper laminations that are collaged throughout this work, were taken by my mother and they show my father at his prime.
It incorporates the very first paper lamination I ever did in a workshop with Claire Benn, based on netting and photos of fishing paraphernalia, alongside the personal photos. A collaged piece with about 3 layers of slippy fabrics, it was awful to stitch as it kept moving despite the heavy tacking and extra pins that were trying to hold it all together; and yet I love the result and the marks I made.
After this piece I moved away from using so many images of my father as it seemed to say what I needed to about how dementia affected him, and allowed me to move forward to look at other aspects, including the way that dementia affects the carers and families.
Floating like a butterfly
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
At first I made work a little like a butterfly, settling on one idea then another and another, with no work being the same as previous pieces. I felt this gave me no style and so I concentrated on one process (paper lamination) and one idea (dementia) for several years and that gave my work a certain cohesion.
The MA allowed me to explore this same idea but with the more abstract concept of absence at the heart of the work and a way of moving away from the original process and find others that helped express these ideas.
The other result of doing the degree has been to give me the confidence to work with other ideas and try to see how those relate to the work that I already make rather than starting all over again with something new.
Work and ideas constantly link together, it seems obvious that things that interest us will be related in some way because we are at the centre, but it takes work to recognize that and to be able to exploit those links to bring them into new pieces of work without just making the same thing over and over again.
I was asked to make a piece of work for a gallery at Festival of Quilts which was about Alice in Wonderland. To be honest, if I had known that it was themed I might not have accepted! But once committed…
So I managed to make work which reflected the layering of the conscious and sub-conscious mind and how that might have affected the writing of parts of Alice.
The link came when I listened to a Radio 4 podcast about people with Alice in Wonderland syndrome describing their experiences of their migraines and the language was very similar to that in Alice.
I have been expressing ideas about language with many of my early work in the dementia series and one of my favourite mark making exercises is to work with words and phrases and with the growing understanding of the layers of memory in the brain this enables me to make a piece of work which did not contain any of the traditional references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland!
Perhaps the irony of this now is that it may look as though I am returning to being a butterfly, even though I can recognize the links I feel I have no actual textile ‘style’ or visual language which is recognizable, unlike many of my contemporaries.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Take risks and give yourself time and space to play , I use workshops for that as I find it difficult to give myself permission to do that at home when I am supposed to be ‘working’.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
My bible for machine work is the Machine Embroidery book by Pam Watts and Val Campbell Harding. It is a brilliant book full of exciting ideas but also very practical information about how to set your machine up for different stitches.
I am constantly inspired by the work of Denise Lach who is a calligraphy artist but has a very particular way of looking at textures and using letterform to express those ideas. Any book by her is a great resource but I particularly like Calligraphy: A book of Contemporary Inspiration
I would also recommend any of the Committed to Cloth books on surface design processes as they are practical and inspiring at the same time.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My craft light with its bright bright LED lights which enables me to see the hand work that I am doing.
I might be able to live without my sewing machine if I can hand stitch. But I would also need my thimble.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I run full day Once-A-Month classes in my studio in Eastbourne which generally start in September and run through to the following July.
I cater for a range of levels of experience, and because I am as happy teaching stitch as I am teaching wet processes, I have different classes.
This year I will be starting a machine embroidery class, as well as running my ‘Wild About Colour’ weekends alongside a number of opportunities to work on personal development.
Full details are on the Studio 11 website.
Where can readers see your work this year?
I am exhibiting with the textile group unFOLD at Festival of Quilts this year at NEC in Birmingham in August. The Button Box Gallery is TG17.
I have work in the Quilt Art exhibition ‘Dialogues’ which will show in Kirkudbright 12 January – 24 February 2019.
For more information visit: www.christinechester.com
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