Bethan Ash interview: I want to stitch
Renowned quilt artist Bethan Ash lives and works in Cardiff, South Wales and has been producing her unique style of abstract and geometric textile art quilts since the 1980s.
Colours, layers, and the texture of the stitches
TextileArtist.org: Why are you an artist?
Bethan Ash: Making art quilts has become something of a way of life for me as I love pattern, shape, colour and texture. I have been asked numerous times why I don’t paint instead of making quilts, since my work seems far from its traditional roots. My answer is that the work would not be the same; there are qualities inherent in art made of fabric and thread: the particular depth of the colours, the layers, and the texture of the stitches, that can’t be duplicated in any other medium. Handling and placing the fabric to create a composition is a totally different process than working with brush and canvas. I don’t wish to emulate or compete with painting, but rather to make good quilts, which reflect these special characteristics.
In my early teens I was a fan of Leonard Cohen and dreamed of becoming a ‘beatnik’ or eventually having some sort of career in the art world, although not necessarily as a fine artist.
When I went to Art College I hoped that in time I might work in fashion or textile design or perhaps in some other field of the decorative arts. I was fortunate to attend Art College during the 1960’s when it was an exciting, stimulating, period for British design – when art and fashion were at a peak. I’m excited by today’s advances in new textile technology and would love to have the opportunity to move on and try laser cut new ideas.
Did your family nurture your creativity?
I was born in the Welsh market town of Neath, West Glamorgan. My parents were both artistic and as a child I was surrounded by music, stories and song.
My mother was a talented pianist who played the piano by ear, she could hear a tune a few times and then play it off note perfect. She was also interested in writing, embroidery and crochet.
Being the youngest of five girls my granny wouldn’t allow her to go out to work like her sisters, so she spent her time during the war years by making shell jewellery for the Clementine Churchill war fund. Mum had a good eye for fashion and spent many hours designing dresses for my granny’s seamstress to make for her to wear on the Sunday evening, ‘monkey walk’.
My dad loved doing DIY and would be forever adding or making alterations to our house and garden – his forte was building intricate, Gaudi-like constructions, which were amazing.
I was an only child and therefore very close to my parents – our family had a closeness that you seldom see today. From a very early age I was encouraged to make things and would spend hours drawing, painting and designing outfits for my cardboard cut-out dolls: it seemed a natural thing to do in our house.
My parents were loving and remarkable people who were an inspiration to me. I count myself lucky to have grown up in a close, loving, happy and creative household.
The process of discovery
What inspires you?
The inspiration for my work comes from a number of different sources. Including music, poetry, contrast, movement, structure, texture, humour, circumstances, everyday occurrences and especially love of colour.
I also love titles – many of my pieces begin because of a title – not always, but often. To me a title is an integral part of a piece of art – it’s a sort of explanation of what the work is about. Sometimes a piece carries a strong message and doesn’t need an explanation – a title then just adds something like, the topping on the cake. Finding the right title can be as challenging, or as much delight, as designing the rest of the piece. Perhaps titles are the same as ideas for me?
I also find Graffiti invigorating – I love the energy, movement and message this art form conveys.
Do you ever suffer from Artists’ block?
No, not really but there are a few things that I like to do when I am feeling uninspired. One of them is to shop – I love searching for old textiles in charity and junk shops. Just rummaging through the old fabrics and bric-a-brac and seeing the various pieces of beautiful craftwork immediately gives me a thrill. It’s like touching heirlooms or viewing old photos, observance and tradition echoing meaning – which reminds me that there were so many others who have come before and paved this way for us.
Finally, starting a new art piece unconnected with quilting or just getting outside and walking the dog or just sitting the garden, listening to the birds sing. Something or someone is bound to get me going.
Do you use a sketchbook?
No, but I keep a portfolio and I take lots of photographs. I use my portfolio to store ideas, titles and snippets of conversation I’ve overheard – all of these things help me in the creative process when starting new work. Since I work intuitively and use no patterns or predetermined drawings, keeping a portfolio is important as it helps me remember my ideas and expand on their potential. I begin to see shapes in my head and think about how to cut them out of my huge palette of colours that I have in my work room/studio cum shed. Never, ever, do I think about what others expect or want or what will sell, but rather I look at my working time as a process of discovery. I love being inside my brain and pushing myself to think in ever more complex ways because I know the ideas are there for the taking. It’s all about being focused and disciplined and making use of one’s abilities.
Do you work in silence or with music?
It would be rare for an artist to not also love music. I believe that Dali suggested that artists should not work while listening to music. Personally, I don’t agree with this viewpoint as listening to music is an important part of my life. Making art quilts is a solitary pursuit so I find it good to have something playing in the background.
I listen to many styles from 1960’s pop to modern day rap and lately I’ve enjoyed working to groups such as, Elbow and Coldplay, I love their lyrics – they provide great atmosphere in their songs, it’s something like a soothing sort of “backdrop”.
Pop art influences
What are your other interests besides art?
I really enjoy working in the garden and using old junk shop finds, to smash up and make mosaics to cover old plant pots and make wall panels. I also enjoy making Millefiori style beads out of Fimo clay. I find that by using another form of art or craft media for recreation gives me a break from stitching and helps in my thinking process for new textile projects.
I also love working with pastels and making colour wash drawings – mixing complete opposites of colour together and enjoying the hit or miss end results that this achieves.
Reading is another pastime of mine, at the moment I’m hooked on Scandinavian detective thrillers; writers such as Jo Nesbo and Camilla Läckberg are my particular favourites
Walking the dog gives me much pleasure – we are fortunate to be living in a beautiful part of Wales, our house is situated just inside the boundary of the Neath, Country Park, so it is the perfect spot for walking our black lab, Luka.
Who would you love to collaborate with (living or dead)?
I would have been honoured to collaborate with any of the following artists;
I greatly admire modern day artists’ such as; Cy Twombly for his large-scale, freely scribbled, calligraphic-style graffiti paintings. Painter, draughtsman and printmaker Gary Hume and the work of Welsh painter Neil Howells – I have been a fan of his for years – his work is big, in all sense of the word. Last but not least the abstract expressionist work of Joan Mitchell, I love her observations of form, space and colour.
In the past I’ve used poetry and been inspired by poets such as Dylan Thomas, Adrian Henri and Christina Rossetti and have used snippets of their poems to make quilts such as; ‘I Want to Stitch’, ‘Rhosyn Coch – Red Rose’ and ‘Rhosyn Du – Black Rose’.
What is the best decision you have ever made?
I’ve made a lot of decisions over the years – some seem to have worked out really well, and others seem to have turned out disastrously. But I can’t conceive of anything turning out any better than marrying my husband, Alan and raising our son, Dan, together – I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.
Dan’s birth also led me down the quilting route that would eventually become my passion, for it was when I was expecting our son, Dan and in hospital for three months bed rest, that my love of quilt-making developed and took hold. I was slowly going mad with boredom and so started to make a cot quilt for our baby. But by the time I was discharged, not only had I made Dan a quilt but also lined a Moses basket to match and made him a quilted patchwork layette.
It was in 1980, when he was three years old, that I started to make quilts professionally and carried on simply because I loved doing it – art quilts gave me the opportunity to expand my outlet for creativity and at the same time be a full time wife and mother.
The beauty and power of the Mother Nature
What is your favourite place to get away from it all?
Our garden, I love the smell of new cut grass, the colour, form and structure of plants, shrubs and trees and the colours of the ever changing seasons – there are no two days the same in the garden.
Our garden makes me feel humble when I recognise the beauty and power of the Mother Nature.
However, I’m not a very good gardener – planting and pruning the garden was always, my husband’s pride and joy but now, sadly, he has become too ill to care for it. So I’ve taken over and slowly learning how to tell the plants from the the weeds. Looking after the garden gives me much pleasure – especially when I see the plants I’ve cared for blossom and grow, our garden has come to be my haven, where I can be me, where, together I grow with my plants, trees, flowers, and even pests and insects – it is the place where I can relax and enjoy the fruits of my labours.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Maintaining one’s motivation and confidence as well as ensuring that your work is fresh and forward-looking, is never easy – even for a professional artist.
The best piece of advice I can offer someone new to textile art, is that you need to be committed, unwavering and precise and don’t be afraid of failure, set your goals and do your best to reach them.
Keep your CV up-to-date and invest in good photography – you’ll find that well presented work is an asset when applying for shows, awards, etc. Another asset you must have is your own website, as it makes life so much easier to e-mail your site address to new clients and prospective venues.
Lastly, try to avoid negativity, I find that it breeds dissatisfaction and clutters the mind. And when the mind is cluttered, ideas are much harder to come by – spend your time with like minded positive people. I do my very best to keep positive and believe me it’s not been easy but I do it because at the end of the day I’m thankful to be able to keep doing the work that I love – working as a quilt artist.
See Bethan’s new solo exhibition at:
Cynon Valley Museum & Gallery, Aberdare, Mid Glamorgan
14th September – 16th November 2013
It’s All in the Making, exhibition with the British Quilt Study Group, Quilt Museum and Gallery, York
6th September to 30th November 2013
She will also be exhibiting in Russia with the International group, Quilt Art at:
Museum-reserve, ‘Tsaritsyno’, Moscow
20th November – 9th February 2014.
Bethan also has a book out called ‘Vibrant Quilt Collage’ – it is an American copy of her original book, ‘Instinctive Quilt Art’ – both are available from Amazon.
For more information please visit: www.bethanash.co.uk
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