Harriet Riddell interview: Performance textile artist
Performance textile artist Harriet Riddell uses her sewing machine to draw in stitch often within unusual public settings. Her surprising ad hoc workspaces have included trains, launderettes and bus stops. Originally from Oxfordshire, Harriet studied Contemporary Applied Arts at the University of Hertfordshire before moving to her Clapham studio in London. She can be found regularly at Greenwich market stitching portraits of the public.
In our interview with Harriet she tells us how she came to this unique working practice and talks about the exciting projects it has enabled her to do.
The tactile nature of stitch
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about stitch?
Harriet Riddell: Textiles has always been a word that felt familiar. The tactile nature of stitch, the colours and the prints on fabrics always leave me in awe.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
My first experience on a sewing machine I was five and fascinated. A huge influence is my Grandmother, she is a textile artist in Canada. I don’t get to see her too often, she is very proud I am following in her footsteps.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
One of my earliest memories was trying to cover every last inch of my bedroom walls with my drawings, I did pretty well, but I couldn’t figure out how to reach the ceiling… I guess your born an artist.
Drawing in stitch
You describe yourself as a ‘performance textile artist’ – this is a fairly unique medium. Tell us a bit about it came about.
Performance textile artist is a name which found me. I do all my work in the public eye and I thoroughly enjoy the interaction with an audience, feeding off the atmosphere around me.
Setting up a sewing machine on a busy hot Friday evening train to draw in stitch, I think is a performance – it makes me laugh. On this occasion I found it quite difficult to draw people in stitch because, as you can imagine, it’s fairly intermit on a busy train. The lady sat opposite me seemed less than impressed, informing me “you’re using my foot as your pedal!”
Feeling shy, I turned my attention to a distant bag and started to draw that in stitch. The lady in front of me whipped out a sketch book and began to sketch me. IT’S ON! I forget the bag and started to stitch her… 5 minutes pass with us furiously stitching/sketching each other; the rest of the carriage can feel the tension. Our eyes met when we finished and we laugh, showing each other our drawings. The best stitch/sketch off to date.
It seems to me that you provide an experience as well as a piece of art. Can you talk a bit about what that experience might be like for your subject.
When I begin a portrait I ask my sitter to tell me about themselves. I like this because they ease up and behave naturally. People like to talk about themselves, even when they pretend they don’t.
Where do you think your work fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
My art seems to confuse people; people don’t always know where to place me within the sphere of contemporary art. I see myself as a fine artist, pushing boundaries and creating new expectations.
The boundaries of art and craft
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I am deeply influenced by the artists at the turn of the century, especially the Viennese artists from the Secession, they also played with the boundaries of art and craft. For example Gustav Klimt, he used gold leaf, and largely decorative designs within his paintings.
I also aspire to Grayson Perry – I think we have a similar style and same fascination with people and society.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
One of my favourite works is a piece I created in a noisy Chinese Shoe factory. I was commissioned to make several pieces for an office in Hong Kong. The business houses many shoe brands, so what better than to stitch the shoe factory.
I set my sewing machine up at the end of a long line of sewers, each in colourful pinnys with their heads down hard at work. The first hour I had the managers of the factory sat so close behind me their knees were pressed into my back, talking fast in Mandarin to one another. I thought I’d start with the fan. The hum of the fans was so loud, which I only noticed once I’d left the factory floor for lunch, frogs legs and noodles. I return to stitch highly skilled ladies sewing accurately around a component of new shoe, the men taping and hands making. The factory was immaculate, the employees work long 15 hour days with only fans to push the hot air around. I enjoyed the experience of the factory and seeing how a shoe is crafted.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I started drawing in stitch in March 2012, since then I have developed by growing a fond relationship with my machine – we bicker and swear a lot less which is always good.
I have created a product with my portraits which is enabling me to travel. My next trip is the textile capital of the world: India. In the new year, I will explore the country with my machine, and create a series of pieces documenting my observations and using as many beautiful fabrics I can find.
Free hand machine stitch
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Be kind to your sewing machine and your sewing machine will be kind to you…
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books that might be useful to aspiring textile artists?
I like the really old books, use some thin backing fabric and the free hand stitch all over the pages, looks lovely. Always keep a sketch book, and carry it everywhere with you. It’s a good habit to get into, and lighter than a sewing machine.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Other than the obvious, my mini gold embroidery scissors.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I do give talks and demonstrations, anyone interested can contact me on my email: firstname.lastname@example.org
How do you go about choosing where to perform or show your work?
Follow my feet.
Where can readers see your work this year?
From the 8th-11th December 2013 come visit me and my work at the Hepsibah Gallery, 112 Brackenbury Road, London W6.
To find out more about Harriet Riddell visit her website at www.harrietriddell.wordpress.com