Claire Mort: Pop Goes the Stitch
Using paint and just one or two strands of embroidery thread at a time, pop-art stitcher, Claire Mort, hand-embroiders finely stitched pictures with a feminist slant.
AKA ‘Pop Goes The Stitch’, Claire is an award winning British textile artist who exhibits nationally and has work in collections in Europe, Australia and the USA. She is respected for her witty column ‘Mort’s Thoughts’ in Be Creative with Workbox magazine and is a member of the Society For Embroidered Work and the Embroiderer’s Guild.
But her ‘odd route’ to becoming an artist was not an easy one. After a childhood blessed with artistic opportunities that fuelled in her a burning creativity, Claire suffered a series of setbacks that meant she could not break through her own glass ceiling of self-doubt.
Her creative soul crawled into a corner and hid – for nearly two decades.
It was the constructive criticism – kindly meant – of her local art gallery curator, who told Claire that her hand embroidered work was too simple, that brought Claire to her knees. And yet, the pain and fury that she felt galvanised Claire to create her most truthful and complex works ever.
As she found the courage to commit to become a full-time working artist, Claire’s life changed.
Her most recent awards include the Marshwood Arts Awards 2019, John Hubbarb Prize 2019 and the Applied Arts Award chosen by ceramicist Kate Malone MBE.
Claire draws on what she sees in the world around her and her experiences so far. Though not necessarily intended as a feminist statement, her work is inspired by social media and the changes she has seen in both the world and its people since her childhood – from the #metoo movement, 100 years of suffrage, advertising, typography and everything in between.
Find out in our interview how Claire overcame the hard times to develop an illustrious career in stitch, how she integrates her love of seed stitch with a maverick application of techniques, and how she can easily devote 150 hours of embroidery to bring each of her visions to life.
An odd route to artistry
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Claire Mort: I have always stitched and played about with fabric from as early as I can remember. At junior school, I had the opportunity to take part in a lot of fabric-based projects, including a very complicated cat cross stitch, which my mum and I completed together.
At senior school, we had a lot of fashion shows and we created some very striking outfits for the 80s. I think one of the things that really captured my imagination was the Sensation Exhibition at the Royal Academy, particularly the works of Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. My mind was literally blown, and I understood that anything was possible – if you could think it, you could make it – and, better still, you could make it through cloth and thread. Being around any type of textiles medium, from wool, fabric, thread, buttons – anything really – is hypnotic.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
My early influences were watching my mum create amazing jumpers and cardigans from balls of wool. She could knit so fast! One of my favourite places to go with mum, apart from the library, was the wool shop called Buttons and Bows. I loved the smell and the chaos of rows and rows of fabric, buttons and ribbons everywhere, with balls of wool stacked up like mountains and a sea of creativity all around. I loved the sound the scissors made as they sliced through fabric, and I admired the skills of the owner as she could answer just about any question you might have about textiles – incredible.
It was also the 70s and 80s, and ‘make do and mend’ really was the natural thing, not a fashion statement. Ninety percent of my clothes were hand me downs, so I had a very interesting eclectic wardrobe from a very young age; from my cousins who had returned from living in America to bizarre items which had belonged to my other cousins or sister. I was the youngest. The colour and design in the 70s and 80s was like a riot of rainbows going off in every direction.
My favourite things were the books and cartoons of that era; Mr Ben and Jamie and the Magic Torch influenced me greatly, as the way they are drawn is incredible.
I have been lucky enough to have amazing, strong women in my life who have been creative forces of nature, and their strength in life continues to inspire and influence me, as does their very dry humour. The strongest woman is my mum.
My life and my upbringing have most definitely informed my work, and more so than ever at this current juncture in my journey. It has been a road of ups and downs and strange twists and turns with a huge amount of serendipity. There were, of course, challenging aspects to my childhood and my adult life which I make subtle references to in my work – from loss, fear, anger and outrage, to empowerment and back again. You have to find humour in life’s journey or you would quite simply go mad. I wish this version of myself had been around when I was younger to hold my small self and tell her to hold on, it will be ok.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I had a very odd route to becoming an artist. I loved art at school but my favourite teacher, who was teaching me about pottery, got sick and never came back. I kind of lost interest as she was incredible, and I wasn’t great at people-leaving at that point.
When I left school, I had several attempts at going to college, all of which didn’t really come to anything as my life was heading in all sorts of directions – none of them particularly great. After a traumatic event, I returned to college at 23 to study art more as a therapy for myself and I remembered the fire in my belly. I was addicted I couldn’t get enough, learn enough or do enough and gradually my confidence started to improve.
I was offered an unconditional place at university without an interview and as I was hunting for the courage to go, life side swiped me again, I had just passed my driving test and had all my work in the car from the previous six years, as I had been for an interview at a newspaper. I went out on a date, came back to the car park and – my car was gone with all my work and certificates – everything… everything… I was devastated, and it made me ill; my whole identity was tied up in that work.
I turned down my place at university on the day I was supposed to go. I ended up studying graphic design instead with a tutor who hated me, and my creative soul crawled in a corner and hid. She hid for a really long time, making work I didn’t care about, or that lacked any soul, for nearly two decades. It was like being suffocated whilst being awake. I learned many valuable lessons from this experience; my achievements are not who I am, and the words of others do not define me.
I gradually trudged through life and gave birth to my amazing son. He was poorly and went to hospital a lot so making any work was difficult – it needed to be portable work. For 15 years I tried to make space in my life and head to reignite my heart and my creative soul, but life kept getting in the way with traumas and dramas – usual life stuff.
One day, whilst, once again, feeling beaten down by experiences, I had a lightbulb moment. I decided to commit fully to being a full time working artist! I picked up a sketchbook, needle and thread, an embroidery hoop and I started to speak in stitch. It was portable; I could take it anywhere – the house, the hospital, the school, anywhere. It was like having my heart restarted. The joy and fire reconnected with that creative part of me and from that moment on I am here, trying to speak my truth, to shout it from the rooftops to encourage others to do the same, particularly if they have lost their way or believe they can’t. The truth is they can, you can, we all can and we must.
Seed stitch maverick
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
My brain thinks a lot and if I do not feed it the right things or give it an outlet, it becomes an unpleasant place to be. It’s happiest when it is full of creativity and has an avenue of expression. My mind palace is stacked like a huge art library with ideas and dreams, that in a whole lifetime or two I couldn’t possibly execute, so I try to filter the ideas and percolate them into a current project. Once I have settled on an idea – it could be something that has happened to me or someone else, a colour or a dream or someone who has influenced me – and then I begin.
I roughly know in my head where it is going and then it kind of grows. I transfer my idea to fabric and begin telling its story. I don’t sleep well and a lot of my ideas or developments come in the middle of the night. My pieces emerge organically; they kind of dictate how they want to be as the image grows, and the feeling gets imbued in the work. I never really know what the end result will be until I reach it. I do try to prep more lately, as each work can take 150 hours and beyond, so to mess it up is expensive in time.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
Now I have never been great at following rules, so I tend to be a little maverick with my application of techniques. I like to use paint, fabric and thread – sometimes together and sometimes not.
There are so many stitches you can use for embroidery and I like to see what they can do and how they can shape the work. I love seed stitch – it really is my favourite at the moment. I feel you can really push it to create things I didn’t know were possible. I love the layering and blending of thread and I work only using one or two strands which is why my pieces take so long. I admire people who work in thicker threads as they work a lot faster than me. I have tried it, but as yet I cannot master it, I get so caught up in the joy of the fine detail.
What currently inspires you?
Life and the journey. I am constantly stunned by how much I thought I knew and how little I actually know; humility is a wonderful gift. I am on a journey to return to the me before life got its hands on me and told me things that are utterly untrue. Sadly, this knowledge only comes with age. I am inspired to tell that story and the story of others.
I am constantly inspired by the plethora of talent in the textile world, it is phenomenal how many people there are creating sublime pieces of work. Instagram is an incredible place with an extraordinary community of textile artists. It leaves me speechless on a daily basis.
I am inspired by people, good and bad, and the world we live in and these crazy times. I am also moved by the female journey from child to menopause and beyond.
More truthful, complex works
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
This is really tricky as each piece of work has so much in it and means so much. I guess it would have to be ‘Your body belongs to you’. It was sort of just as the #metoo movement began to rumble and I felt enraged. How many times had I talked with women and men who had been touched, or worse, inappropriately? So many stories of fear, shame and confusion.
How is it possible that almost every woman I have ever met has had some inappropriate contact or verbal abuse? Why are women, in particular, still afraid? This isn’t about feminism – it’s about freedom and safety, a basic human right.
So, I made this piece and invested my soul into it. This ended up being made into three pieces, as I sold the first one. The gift of selling the first one was never about the money – it was about the ‘why’. Why this person bought this piece and what it means to them. How this piece sits by their bed and empowers them every day. I gifted them the second in this series as I was so moved by their ‘why’ and their journey. This is why I make the work I do.
I feel compelled every day to make these works, to touch one person somewhere who has felt the things I have felt and for them to know it’s not just them. To connect the dots between us all, to be real, to be authentic and to speak our truth – a collective truth that can get lost in social media or what we believe about others living their best lives. This piece reminds me that for nearly 20 years I did myself a disservice by not believing in myself and my work, and today I do, and if only one person appreciates that, then I have been a success, as my work has touched them – and that is enough.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I was so scared when I began stitching, I could hear the words of people who laughed at me or said it wasn’t art or that it wasn’t good enough. So, I was super worried and full of self-doubt. I loved doing it, so I continued.
I took a piece to be framed at a local gallery where the woman is amazing, and I timidly showed her my work. She liked it but said it needed work – it was a bit simple, or words to that effect. She was nice and I knew she was trying not to be hurtful. But still, I got back into the car and cried; I was crushed. I mooched about for a week and kicked myself up the bum. She was right – because I was nervous, I was holding back and not giving it my all. It was like I had a plaster ripped off and I began creating more truthful complex works.
My journey from that point has been absolutely amazing – beyond my wildest dreams. I am a very proud member of the Society For Embroidered Work, I am a columnist for Be Creative with Workbox, and I write a monthly article called Mort’s Thoughts, which is my meandering thoughts on being a textile artist and my Miranda-type life.
I was also lucky enough to interview Fiancé Knowles aka Danielle Clough recently – so chuffed!
I have exhibited all over the place including in London, at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery and Bridport Arts Centre. I was a finalist in the National Needlecraft Awards and I recently won the Marshwood Vale Applied Arts Award chosen by Kate Malone MBE – I was so excited I nearly wet myself. My work is in collections all over the world and I continue to pinch myself as I still can’t quite believe it.
I have so many plans for future projects and I continue to learn and be challenged every day. The thing with textile art is there is no end, as the medium itself is constantly evolving in your hands. I want to develop my skills further and stretch myself with more demanding artworks. I want to develop this story into a greater universal story which is more connected. I am so lucky to be able to do the job I love every single day.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Make every day, and tell your inner critic to shut up! Create from your soul and speak your truth in that – don’t just make what you think might sell.
Never let anyone tell you you are not good enough. Anyone can be an artist; it is not some elite club that only special people belong to. Believe in yourself and trust the journey – it’s a long one. There is no right way of making stuff or right way of getting ‘there’, wherever we think ‘there’ is.
You are enough, your creativity is enough. Trust yourself. Be brave, be tenacious and be creative from your heart.
Do you feel inspired by Claire’s story? Let us know in the comments below.