Debbie Smyth: From conception to creation

Debbie Smyth: From conception to creation

Debbie Smyth is known for her spectacular stretched thread drawings. Using a hammer, lots of pins and many metres of thread, Debbie weaves a network of threads between accurately plotted pins, bringing her characters to life as three-dimensional creations.

Whether working on small-scale domestic pieces or life-sized figures and large installations set in hotels and commercial premises, Debbie pushes the boundaries of what you can do with sewing thread. She has worked with companies both nationally and internationally including Adidas, Mercedes Benz, Hermes, Ellesse, The New York Times, The Canadian Red Cross, Sony, and The Dorchester Hotel Group.

In this interview you’ll gain an insight into working within an artist residency programme. You’ll learn how Debbie, assisted by her partner and collaborator Zac Mead, designed and created three new on-site installations, now permanently installed at Folio Daan Hotel, Taipei.

Debbie’s practice has been mostly brief-driven in recent years, with a focus on commissioned work. She’s made work for companies including Ellesse, Adidas, Mercedes Benz, and Liberty of London. On the downside, this meant she’s not had much time to develop her own artistic work. A welcome break from the fast-paced design world came in November 2017 when Debbie and Zac were invited by the Fubon Art Foundation to take part in an artist residency at Folio Daan, Taipei. They travelled to Taiwan and were able to spend time becoming completely immersed in the local culture, documenting their journey through the people they met. Over the course of three months, they enjoyed a rare chance to work at a much slower pace.

Each character in the FOLIO X FUBON series represents a significant aspect of their impression of Taipei, from the barrier of language to the everyday customs, and the weather they experienced during the residency. Debbie and Zac used these works to express how they adapted to a new culture and absorbed the environment.

In this interview, Debbie shares the joys of taking part in a residency and working at a slower pace. You’ll discover how she developed these site-specific pieces and how her everyday experiences of the Taiwanese culture influenced her work, bringing her subjects to life, almost as if they are stepping off the wall, into the room with you.

Name of piece: FUBON X FOLIO X DEBBIE SMYTH
Year of piece: 2017
Techniques and materials used: Pin and thread drawing

A visual diary

TextileArtist.org: How did the idea for the piece come about? What was your inspiration?

Debbie Smyth: For me, inspiration often lies in memories and a need to document events. I enjoy bringing a memory back to life in a piece of art: I try to capture the feeling a memory evokes, giving a new lease of life to fleeting forgotten moments.

Our residency in Taipei revolved around documenting our everyday life there; capturing valuable moments so our memories wouldn’t dwindle.

Debbie Smyth: Market stalls in Taipei
Debbie Smyth: Market stalls in Taipei
Debbie Smyth: Preparatory work
Debbie Smyth: Preparatory work

What research did you do before you started to make?

Taiwan was a complete culture shock for us; the foreign language, people, food and architecture were a totally new experience. It was a transcendental experience; a haven for our senses! We drew inspiration from being so completely immersed in an atmosphere that felt so alien to us.

We spent a lot time studying our surroundings, meeting people and learning, continually recording our journey through sketching. It was the people that really surprised us; even though there was a language barrier, we found were able to communicate.

We spent the majority of the residency researching, sketching and designing. We wanted the exhibition to become enlarged versions or extensions of our sketches and photographs.

Debbie Smyth: Installation of the artworks
Debbie Smyth: Installation of the artworks

A collaborative process

Our proposal was to produce a new body of work to exhibit at the Folio Daan Hotel, Taipei at the end of our residency. We liaised with the hotel and Fubon Art Foundation, discussing our ideas with them. It was decided that the works we produced would be permanently displayed in the hotel, one on each floor. We presented various options and mock ups for consideration before collectively deciding on a final direction.

Towards the end of our residency, we presented our ideas and gave ourselves two weeks to install three artworks in the Folio Gallery.

Debbie Smyth: Detail of installation. Thread and pins on painted board.
Debbie Smyth: Detail of installation. Thread and pins on painted board.

What materials were used in the creation of the piece? How did you select them? Where did you source them?

It was always the intention complete the works in our signature pin and thread style. These are made using a regular sewing thread in various shades of grey to achieve graphic line quality and complex shading. Pops of colour add important points of focus. We use regular haberdashery pins hammered into painted boards as the basis for our wrapped thread portraits.

Debbie Smyth: Detail of bow and arrow. Thread and pins on painted board.
Debbie Smyth: Detail of bow and arrow. Thread and pins on painted board.

Cross-hatch shading

Take us through the creation of the piece stage by stage

We started with sketches and photographs which were developed into detailed plans.

We installed three backboards in the gallery and drew out the designs directly on the boards. It is very important have some guidelines drawn on the boards before we start plotting the pins. The pins were then hammered in place and acted as anchor points for the thread to guide it around the surface of the board.

Debbie Smyth: Installation of the works
Debbie Smyth: Installation of the works

The pins generally followed the constraints of the plan, but often things became a lot more freestyle when wrapping thread in this way! The artworks were completed in sections, pinning and threading as we went along. We built up a complex tableau of shaded cross-hatching that slowly evolved, emerging as a full-grown version of our original sketches.

Debbie Smyth: Detail of pins, thread and colour shading
Debbie Smyth: Detail of pins, thread and colour shading

What journey has the piece been on since its creation?

The project as a whole has travelled a journey, from the initial encounter, photographs and sketches, through to fully-developed plans and then the final install.

Our close contact with the site combined with the project’s evolution helped us to achieve our aim of making sure the viewer feels immersed in our pieces. The final designs overspill the backboards, spreading out onto the walls. This grounds each of the characters in their environment, almost as if they are there with you, present in the gallery. Intentionally, we made the figures life-sized; when you walk into the gallery space you feel like you are meeting these folk, just like we met them.

These three pieces are now installed permanently at Folio Daan Hotel, Taipei and we recorded a video of the installation process for posterity.

Debbie Smyth: 開卷有益 'Any book will benefit the mind' (represents learning and the language barrier); 生活日常 'An everyday occurrence' (represents Taipei life through our eyes; weather, umbrellas, eating out and the night market culture); 光陰似箭 'Time flies like an arrow' (represents movement, youth, fun and happiness, and how time flies when you are having fun!). Artworks in their final locations within the hotel. Pins, thread on painted board.
Debbie Smyth: 開卷有益 ‘Any book will benefit the mind’ (represents learning and the language barrier); 生活日常 ‘An everyday occurrence’ (represents Taipei life through our eyes; weather, umbrellas, eating out and the night market culture); 光陰似箭 ‘Time flies like an arrow’ (represents movement, youth, fun and happiness, and how time flies when you are having fun!). Artworks in their final locations within the hotel. Pins, thread on painted board.
Debbie Smyth
Debbie Smyth

For more information visit debbie-smyth.com

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Friday 15th, October 2021 / 21:06

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