Discover the elegance of Folk Art
Anne Kelly is a Kent based artist, author and tutor. She trained in Canada and at Goldsmiths College in London. She creates multilayered textile collages using vintage and reclaimed fabrics combined with machine and hand-stitching. She was an artist in residence at the Sussex Prairie Garden in West Sussex in 2014 and FIAF Abruzzo in 2018, an invited artist at the Prague Patchwork Meeting, World of Threads Festival in Canada for the past three events, Quilt en Beaujolais and Les Aiguilles en Luberon. She was a featured artist gallery at the Knitting and Stitching Shows in London Olympia and Alexandra Palace, Harrogate and Dublin.
Anne writes for ‘Workshop on the Web’, textileartist.org blog, and has had articles published in ‘Embroidery’, ‘Stitch’, ‘the Quilter’, ‘Pretty Patches’ and many other journals in the UK, Europe and the USA, including ‘Cloth, Paper, Scissors’ and ‘Fiber Art Now’.
Her books for Batsford press have been reprinted, the co-written ‘Connected Cloth’ and solo ‘Textile Nature’. ‘Textile Folk Art‘ was published in August 2018. Anne teaches and tutors throughout the UK and abroad for guilds and groups and private workshops. Her work was included on the GCSE Textile paper in 2016.
Anne believes in repurposing vintage and discarded textiles and uses techniques to collage and enhance these pieces of work in her practice and teaching. She produces commissions for private and public display. She is on the Crafts Council directory and member of the Society for Embroidered Work (S.E.W.) an international textile group.
TextileArtist.org: Tell us a bit about the history of textile folk art and what it was about this legacy that inspired you to dedicate your book to the form?
Anne Kelly: I feel it’s important as an artist-author to write about subjects that are meaningful and relevant to your work. I was heavily influenced by folk art when growing up in Canada, and Amish quilts inspired me to learn to quilt.
All countries and cultures across the globe have their own versions of ‘folk’ art, which can often be confused with ‘naïve’ or ‘outsider art.’ What struck me in my research was how closely linked all those cultures were and how the motifs they used were so similar. Especially the use of hearts, houses, and trees of life.
Folk Art brings together current issues, connecting women’s work, travel, migration and identity. All of these elements are topical and can be seen in both traditional and contemporary work.
I was recently a guest artist at the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate, and I discussed these issues with many visitors who viewed my ’12 Dresses’ work that was dedicated to the unknown women in my father’s family. Viewers were visibly moved by the fact the pieces were dedicated to forgotten women affected by those issues.
The simplicity and universal elements of folk art make great subject matter for today’s textile artists. For example, we can learn from vintage ‘samplers.’ In the book, I showcase the wonderful collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The book then explores how contemporary textile artists were influenced by traditional samplers in their own stitched works.
I also showcase everyday simple objects which I hope are inspirational and uplifting. For example, I looked at pincushions and how they are small representatives of Folk Art. I then explored artist Ruth Singer’s contemporary interpretation of that theme.
How has your own work been influenced by the tradition of textile folk art?
I like to use found and reclaimed vintage textiles in my work. They are often beautifully and simply embellished. I try to honour them in a sensitive way, celebrating their flaws which add depth and meaning with collage and stitch.
Folk Art is a wonderful vehicle for this process of repurposing fabrics, as it combines my love of nature with a simple but effective narrative. For example, I like to use the ‘tree of life’ motif based on real trees. But I interpret their shape and structure in a personal way adding birds, hearts, flowers and other Folk Art symbols.
I also like to use traditional block printing and stencil techniques which are easy, quick and effective to use in collage work. You can see how I built a background palette using this technique in ‘Maud’s House’ I used a combination of vintage blocks sourced in India. The colour and shape of the blocks define the textures on the house.
I’m also a ‘chunky’ stitcher—I like texture, colour and larger, looser stitches which are characteristic of Folk Art textiles. This is also evident in the Maud Lewis piece. I started with a loosely stitched tablecloth as a background, so I adapted my stitching to blend in with the background.
Because hand stitching is as personal and varied as handwriting, the rougher end of the spectrum especially interests me as it shows character and imperfection.
I’ve recently been obsessed with ‘houses’ after visiting the wonderful Maud Lewis House at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, Canada. Maud was a self-taught folk artist who decorated her house with amazing pattern and colour. I have been searching out imagery related to houses and making work inspired by hers.
I chose a rough outline to make a structure for my piece. It is a tribute to Maud, so I adapted the shape to fit the vintage tablecloth on which it was drawn.
I also chose primary colours which are prevalent in her work. And I interpreted some of her imagery, such as birds and flowers, to make them my own.
The piece is being shown in a two-person show appropriately called ‘Homecoming’ in Canada from January to April 2019.
From your research are there differences in how textile folk art is created/interpreted by different cultures and countries? Which of these cultures has most inspired your own process?
As mentioned previously, there is much that unites work cultures through Folk Art. Any differences lie mainly in the use of materials and techniques.
When I was visiting India last year, I was struck by the huge variety of textile techniques and traditions. All of them, including block printing, dyeing, weaving and embroidery, are supported by government initiatives to encourage production and fair trade. As a result, much of the work is still created with a distinctive Folk Art quality.
I learnt two types of their traditional Kantha stitch and have been using it in my new work. You can see a detail of this stitching in my ’12 Dresses’ piece.
I have been influenced by many cultures in my work, but I’ve also taken much from my research and travels recently whilst writing ‘Textile Folk Art.’
For example, I loved visiting the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm and their wonderful opening drawers full of embroidered treasures. The work of Scandinavian artists and designers continues to be a vital force in contemporary textiles.
I have also been inspired by Folk Art embroidery across the globe. For example, China has an amazing embroidery heritage and range of work throughout the country. And I used family embroideries from Romania in my commissioned piece ‘Romanian Commission.’
Tell us about a piece of work you created using textile folk art techniques and the processes you used to make it.
I made ‘Folk Bird Tree’ based on studies of old gnarled trees in Cornwall. I used a British schools nature study book from the 1960’s as a background. It has wonderful illustrations, and I found a series of them in a charity shop.
I cut four simple motif stencils and screen printed them onto thin vintage sheeting, some with embroidery on it.
Once dry, I laminated them onto the paper book pages which were then overstitched using my ‘signature’ (according to my viewers) edging stitch. I use an overlocking stitch on an older-model Bernina to create a ‘netting’ that holds all of the elements together across an entire piece.
I then drew, cut, and stitched the tree branches out of black organza. Birds were then inserted on the branches, and each bird was handstitched around to add depth and outline.
Finally, I had to sew all the elements of the piece together to create a 2-meter square piece. That was a feat, as I do not have a long arm machine! Fortunately, the piece was lightweight and could be rolled.
This piece was first exhibited at the Knitting and Stitching show in Harrogate in November, 2018.
What do you enjoy about Folk Art textiles? Might they be an inspiration for your own work? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.