Fiona Rainford: Playing the long game
Fiona Rainford is a mixed media textile artist using a variety of techniques, the choice of which depends on the concept and the context in which she is working. Her work is often inspired by the natural world and natural processes related to the passage of time and her most recent work has been examining personal collections. In making her art she likes to re-use, repurpose and recycle where possible.
Fiona has exhibited with Prism Textiles since the group was started by the late Julia Caprara in 1999. She recently graduated with a BA hons in Creative Practice from Manchester Metropolitan University.
In this interview Fiona tells us about her journey from being a community pharmacist into the world of textile art.
I was not allowed anywhere near an art room
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
Fiona Rainford: I grew up at a time when we learned how to knit and how to do basic embroidery stitches in primary school, so it was a medium with which I was familiar. My grandmother always had some sort of embroidery or crochet on the go and I suppose that also influenced me. A few years ago, I used some of granny’s embroidery to inspire a body of work related to my ‘family inheritance collection’. I even recycled a very unattractive chair back cover, depicting the coronation coach, by dyeing it with logwood and gathering the fabric, so that only a glimpse of the embroidery could be seen.
Alas, when I went to senior school I was in an academic stream and not allowed anywhere near an art room, although I always enviously looking in when I passed the door.
And, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by embroidery?
Not long after I graduated with a science degree, I visited an evening school exhibition at Glasgow School of Art and discovered embroidery as art rather than granny’s tray cloths and chair back covers. I knew then that I wanted to work with textiles. Kathleen Whyte’s book ‘Design in Embroidery‘ was a great inspiration to me at that time.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
My route to becoming an artist has been a very long one. On the other hand, how do you define at which point in your development you become an artist? I spent my working life as a community pharmacist and embroidery and art were leisure time pursuits, but fairly obsessive ones. I completed a City and Guilds course in the mid 1980’s and the course, at that time, gave me a good grounding in techniques and in the history of embroidery. I went on to attend occasional weekend and evening workshops, while exhibiting my work more widely.
My next step forward was enrolling on a distance learning course with Julia Caprara at Opus School of Textile Arts and that led me on to becoming one of the first members of the group Prism Textiles, with whom I have exhibited ever since. Another step forward came by attending a year-long course at Bankfield in Halifax with Hilary Bower as the tutor. Hilary selected a group of ten from the applicants and it was an inspired choice. Six of us have become firm friends and meet several times a year to share and support each other’s work. As artists we work in isolation, so a group of like-minded people to discuss things with is a great benefit.
My final step forward has been a part time degree at Manchester Metropolitan University which made me re-evaluate my work and develop a more personal approach.
Reuse, recycle and repurpose
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
The techniques I use vary with the theme I’m working on. My first love was hand stitch and I still love the control of making marks with hand stitch. It always annoys me that, in some circles, a mark made by a piece of thread is valued much less than one made by paint or pen. I started making felt when I wanted to make larger work and escape from presenting my work in frames. I started making needle felt when I wanted to explore form.
Recently I’ve also explored basket making techniques and weaving, using unconventional materials.
Currently I’m trying to find creative ways to use computer directed stitch but I still have a long way to go with that.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I like my work to appeal to the viewer on two different levels. It must have an initial visual impact, but also there must be something more meaningful when the viewer investigates it more deeply. Most of the work I do is around three themes – natural processes related to the passage of time, collections, both personal and public, and the recycling of inherited items and items unloved and discarded by others. I like giving old rejected objects a new life. The words ‘reuse, recycle, repurpose’ can be applied to much of my work.
Tell us how your use of recycled materials developed.
I read in a newspaper about the amount of textile waste which ends up in landfill and this started me thinking about ways I could highlight this. I looked at my large collection of inherited household linen and my own old clothes and decided to try to contain this collection by cutting up the old clothes, making cords and using the cords to make containers.
Intuitive use of colour
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I keep a sketchbook/notebook for each project I’m working on. This contains small sketches, photos and small stitch samples. I keep a lot of photos from my research on my laptop. My camera is an essential tool for gathering information. I also keep a loose leaf file containing some prints of work I’ve done in Adobe Photoshop.
This consists of imagery I have developed from photos and also drawings, that I have simplified or altered. I also keep records of digital files I’ve created for computerized stitch, along with notes on what works and what experiments I could try with the stitching process in future.
I do larger drawings for some projects, in order to get the composition correct before moving in to fabric. These drawings are almost always monochrome. I always work out my colours from my materials. I work quite intuitively with colour.
Tell us about your process from conception to conclusion.
‘Thank God We Made It’ was a piece of work made for the Prism Textiles exhibition Coded:Decoded and depicted a Morse code version of a line from a wartime diary.
Most of my work is for themed exhibitions or connected to museums or archives. I always start with quite a lot of thinking and asking myself questions:
- How could the exhibition theme or the place connect with my ongoing work and the general themes running throughout my work?
- What aspect of the theme do I want to concentrate on?
- What materials and techniques will suit the concept?
I may at this stage have started to collect images of things related to the theme. Once I have some sort of concept, I can start asking the more practical questions:
- Where will the work be presented and therefore what size will it be.
- Could it be three-dimensional?
If I am working with recycled materials, I will then start experimenting with the materials. My three-dimensional work is often very process led. I will perhaps look at Richard Serra’s list of verbs (you can find these online) and choose a couple that relate to my subject matter, for example to bind, to wrap or to join. As I experiment more ideas form, until I have worked my way to a final piece.
When I’m working on two-dimensional pieces, I will do more on planning at the outset, but sampling and playing with materials are still an important part of the process. Sometimes the sampling will lead me back to do more drawing, before I start on the final construction.
What environment do you like to work in?
I work at home in a bright south-facing room. Unless I am doing something very repetitive, which requires little thought, I work best in silence. I find that in silence and with total concentration on the materials and the subject matter, you are more likely to tap into your creative brain and your subconscious visual memory.
The passage of time
What currently inspires you?
Too many things inspire. The problem is to keep your focus on one or two things at a time. At the moment I’m an Artist in Residence at Lancashire Archives and I’m concentrating on the old pattern books from the Lancashire textile mills. Some of these old ledgers are showing the marks of time. The spines of the ledgers have worn, showing the binding inside. Some fabric samples have left ghost imprints on opposite pages. In other places glue has left marks on pages or the fabrics have developed folds and dislocated the patterns in an interesting way. All of this relates to surfaces which show the passage of time.
The books are records of sales and only contain small fabric scraps, rather than large fabric samples. When you take two or three scraps, combine them and play with the results to develop interesting abstract images in Adobe Photoshop.
I’m recording my progress at the archives on a blog.
Who have been your major influences and why?
I have recently been influenced by a quote I read somewhere from Jasper Johns: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” This has led me to drawing the three-dimensional objects I have constructed and then transforming the image into a two-dimensional piece of work.
Starting out with inherited knitting and tapestry wool, along with old reels of sewing thread, I made cords and drew them using an overhead projector. This then became the starting point for three pieces of work.
‘Coiling #3’ involved transforming a flat surface into an undulating one.
I later went on to use my stitched cords to create three-dimensional tapestry constructions.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
This piece of work, which was developed for a WWI project at Lancashire Archives, is really a memorial for my grandfather who died of pneumonia in Genoa, a few days before the armistice in 1918. I chose grenades because my grandfather drove trucks, possibly containing all sorts of military equipment. The wording comes from a letter written by the commanding officer to my grandmother. The repetition of the phrase alludes to the vast number of similar letters written during WWI.
Can you recommend three or four books for textile artists?
I like the ‘Art Textiles of the World‘ series of books which sadly are no longer easily available other than in some college libraries. I dip in to all sorts of books about textiles and art. An art school library is a wonderful place to go for a browse.
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
I do visit blogs and websites to keep me informed about exhibitions and events, but there is a danger in spending too much time online and not enough time doing. I’ve subscribed to Embroidery magazine since the days of my City and Guilds course. I like the Surface Design Journal and Fiber Art Now.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
That’s difficult. I would have to choose between paper and pen, needle and thread or my camera plus laptop.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I don’t do any workshops, classes or talks.
Where can readers see your work this year?
In 2016 I hope to be exhibiting with Prism Textiles at Hoxton Arches
For more information please visit Fiona’s website www.fionarainford.com
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