Hannah Lamb interview: A kind of gentle presence
West Yorkshire based artist, maker and lecturer Hannah Lamb works across a broad range of techniques encompassing textiles, photography and installation in her work. She shares her time between her own studio practice and lecturing and has taught degree level embroidery at Bradford School of Arts & Media for the past 8 years.
In our interview with Hannah we discuss the inspiration she finds in nature and why art helps her to understand her place in the world.
All aspects of textile
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Hannah Lamb: I don’t really remember one key moment when I became aware of textile art, just a gradual awakening to this world of textile that spans design, art, history, domestic craft and culture. ‘Textile Art’ is perhaps a part of that but I prefer to see connections between all aspects of textile.
While I was still at school I probably became aware of textile art, but not directly through the curriculum. Seeing various exhibitions and magazine articles raised my awareness of textile as an artform and I think I found something that was both familiar and challenging for me.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Perhaps I was unaware of the influences at the time but as someone recently pointed out I would not be the person I am without growing up in a household where paint brushes and pots of PVA glue lived permanently next to the kitchen sink and yoghurt pots were religiously hoarded because ‘they might come in handy’. In our house the pincushion belonged on the coffee table not hidden away in a work basket and everyone knew which scissors were for paper and which ones were reserved for fabric.
My mother made many of my clothes when I was little and I realise now that our family was unusual for making, repairing and recycling so many things at home. My Grandfather was fabulous at making things from wood and metal and I now regret not learning more from him when I had the chance. He was also a fantastic hoarder and scoured car boot sales long before it was trendy, never paying more than a few pence for anything. My brother and I were encouraged to have collections as hobbies and when my Grandparents saw a magazine article about antique buttons it started a lifelong collecting habit for me.
Growing up my family didn’t have much money so we didn’t go on foreign holidays. Instead we went to different parts of the UK visiting stately homes and obscure museums, having soggy picnics in parks and getting windswept visiting cliff top ruins. I still miss the smell you used to get in National Trust gift shops… I think it might have been the floral soaps they used to sell, but merchandise has moved on since then! Growing up in a 1970s semi on a housing estate, these grand old houses and historical treasures seemed so exotic, like they were from another world.
Craft and material
Visiting museums and collecting buttons gave me a wonderful awareness of craft and material. We visited so many museums and mills where you could see how craftsmen and manufacturers used to make things; cotton and woollen mills, tanneries, coal mines, basket makers, blacksmiths, coopers, rope makers, dye gardens, silk ribbon weavers… I was fascinated by it all. Once you start to look at objects and consider how they were made? Why was that particular material used? Where did it come from? etc, it becomes fascinating and tells a much bigger picture.
Another key influence on my practice was an awareness of the natural world. Despite not really being an outdoorsy type as a young child, I always loved wild flowers, trees and birds. My mother and grandmother taught me the names of garden plants, wildflowers and birds and I had books and started to learn more. When we went for a walk I would always pick up feathers, colourful leaves and interesting stones to take back home and I used a flower press to keep petals and leaves. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I became bolder and started exploring the countryside around my home. I used to walk through the fields and beech woods; looking, exploring and gathering. It was a way for me to find out where I was from.
What was your route to becoming an artist? (Formal training or another pathway?)
No one in my family was an artist or considered themselves to be ‘arty’. I was never very academic at school. I failed my 12 plus exam but this was a great advantage as I went to a secondary school with a great art department, where I virtually lived by the time I studied A-levels. My art teacher Mrs Taylor was a great influence on me at secondary school through her teaching of drawing and textile related projects, but I had always gravitated towards art and this was my strongest subject.
After school I chose to study for a Foundation in Art & Design at what is now Buckinghamshire University. I knew I wanted to study art textiles by this point and was determined to work in the fine art department rather than with the fashion and textile design students.
I gained a place to study BA (Hons.) Embroidery at Manchester Metropolitan University in 1998 and found myself on the perfect course. Looking back now I can see how much I developed during that time, and yet there are always themes that reoccur and a certain something that runs through my work.
After leaving MMU I gained a place on the Crafts Council‘s Next Move scheme and spent two years setting up a studio based at Coventry University. I started exhibiting and selling my work. In 2004 I got a part-time job lecturing in textiles at Bradford College and for the past ten years I have continued to share my time between lecturing and my own studio practice.
Between 2008 and 2010 I returned to MMU to study for an MA in Textiles. I used this time to refresh my practice and return to the ideas that really matter to me.
A tactile connection
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
Although I studied embroidery at degree level and currently teach embroidery, I don’t see myself as purely being an embroiderer. Perhaps because the nature of the discipline seems to encompass a broad range of techniques. In my current practice I use whatever media or process seems appropriate to the work; silk, paper, wool, hand stitch, wax, photography, found objects…
Although I have a love of making and process, I think that Textile Art suffers from an preoccupation with how the artwork was made. You seldom see someone walk up and touch a painting or ask a painter just how they got that colour with pigment? At the same time it can be a strength of textile art that people feel they have a tactile connection with artworks.
Textile art is a victim of it’s own success. In trying to bring textile art to the fore and get it recognised seriously it has become a niche genre, an exclusive club separated from fine art by our obsession with media. I feel quite conflicted on this issue but somehow know it is important in how textile art is viewed differently from inside and outside the genre.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
It is hard for me to sum up my work and describe how it fits into the wider realm of contemporary art as I feel I am still working out what I am doing and why? For me this is what art is about; working things out. Working out who you are, where you are, what our relationships are with people, environments, things…
I feel that my work probably doesn’t challenge any great debates in contemporary art. It isn’t making any big statements and sometimes I worry that my work is pretty insignificant and self-indulgent. But really the work that I make is for me. I make artwork as part of discovering about me, how I feel and very intimate moments with places or even just with materials. I made a big change to the way I work when I did my my MA. I was determined to get back to something that was really me, rather than making work that I thought people would want to buy. This shift in thinking has been wonderful but a big challenge. Oddly I find it much harder being myself but it is ultimately more satisfying emotionally.
In my work I use walking a great deal as a means of observing, collecting and experiencing – this is my ‘visual research’. My work endeavours to capture my experiences of places in a highly personal manner; through touch, making and material. My artwork becomes something about place and my place in the world, a kind of gentle presence. The work can take all kinds of forms, small 2D works, installations, and assemblages.
The evolution of ideas
Do you use a sketchbook?
I mainly use a small journal. I don’t do much primary drawing but I sketch to work out how to do things. I also write lots of notes; ideas that come to mind, notes from journals, books and lectures, observations and reminders. Sometimes my journal becomes a place to document the evolution of ideas, in case I need to turn back and retrace my steps. My blog is an extension of my journal, which I view as a place to talk to myself and occasionally to other people.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I am inspired by almost everything! The textures and patterns of the pavement, the light as it hits the roof, a conversation I have with my student, a piece of old fabric, a science programme on TV… I take things on board consciously and subconsciously and at some point some aspect of these things may find it’s way through and become useful.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My practice has changed a great deal but always seems to find its way back to things that matter. It is often hard to define those things but they seem to centre on a highly personal experience of the ‘natural’ world and an awareness of surface and detail. With hindsight when I graduated from university I found myself drifting from my sense of self and distracted by the directions and demands of others. I was also exploring lots of new ideas and what I could do. I started working more as a ‘designer maker’ although I was unfamiliar with that term at the time. I made one-off pieces of textile jewellery, collages and bags using vintage materials, that have been copied a lot since. I also experimented with designing screen printed domestic textiles, which was fun but I realise now, not really ‘me’.
I now know that there are lots of different things that I ‘could do’ but that doesn’t mean that I need to. Fortunately having a steady income from teaching allows me the flexibility to make work that does not need to sell. I want to continue to allow my practice to unfold gradually so we will see what happens next, but the installation work I made for the Bowery last year has encouraged me to make work that can be installed on a larger scale.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
Modern Design in Embroidery by Rebecca Crompton, pub. 1936
Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles by India Flint, pub Interweave 2010
The Creative Habit: learn it and use it for life by Twyla Tharp, pub Mark Reiter, 2006
Boro – Rags And Tatters From The Far North Of Japan by Various, pub. Aspect, 2009
Handbook of Stitches by Grete Petersen and Elsie Svennas, pub Batsford, 1970
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I teach intimate workshops at my little studio in Saltaire, West Yorkshire. I run a variety of workshops using embroidery, cyanotype and mixed media, which are normally one-day sessions. You can find details of these on my website: hannahlamb.co.uk. Occasionally I also teach workshops and give talks for other organisations. If readers are interested they can contact me via my website.
Where can readers see your work this year?
I will be showing work in a group exhibition called ‘Spectrum’ at Unit Twelve near Stafford from 4th September to 29th November 2014. I also have a few things that are possibilities, in the pipeline. Up to date information can usually be found on my blog or website.
For more information please visit: hannahlamb.co.uk
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