James Fox: From conception to creation
James Fox is a nationally and internationally acclaimed Scottish textile artist, originally from Glasgow and now living in Lancaster in the north-west of England.
His work has been influenced by an early stint working in the field of engineering, by other work roles he has pursued, periods of art practice and in his role of carer for his own children.
Primarily using machine embroidery and reverse applique techniques, James revels in the juxtaposition of pattern with theme to create wall hangings in a variety of sizes.
His choice of fabric and colour are governed by a desire to provide contrasts between what we anticipate and the reality in which we find ourselves. His aim is to depict the sense of having to continually alter and adapt these expectations and to stimulate discussion on these points.
James’s more recent exhibitions have been in Manchester and at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston and he also takes commissions, his most notable being from Kettle Chips. His work is collected both privately and publicly.
James’s work aims to challenge our expectations regarding gender roles, work, culture and other aspects of our social and personal lives. He has been a keen observer of the political and economic shifts over the past thirty years and is driven to investigate and comment on the serious subjects of the class divide, trade union history and the need for disenfranchised groups to have equality.
In this article, you will find out how, when he volunteered within the homeless sector, he felt drawn to depict the humanity he saw and his process in producing drawings and textile art that culminated in an exhibition of his work.
Name of piece: David
Year of piece: 2018
Techniques and materials used: Reverse applique, free embroidery, soldering – cloth and netting
Size of piece: 70cm x 50cm
Building rapport to gain trust
TextileArtist.org: How did the idea for the piece come about? What was your inspiration?
James Fox: I have been volunteering at Lancaster and District Homeless Action Service for the last two years. The Service works with people from many varied backgrounds where circumstance has led them to be sleeping rough or struggling to manage their own accommodation. The Service is committed to helping people find accommodation, learn the life skills essential for independent living and provide help and support to engage with the job market.
To begin with, I helped in the kitchen giving out breakfasts and preparing lunch for the clients who use the centre. Initially, I wanted to use the time working in the kitchen to get a break from making art in the studio. But the staff, knowing I was a working artist, asked if I would deliver a few art/craft workshops for the clients. Tentatively, I stepped out from behind the kitchen counter and hung up my apron to engage with the clients as an artist.
In this era of austerity and new draconian changes to the benefit system, and with the figure of at least 32,000 recorded homeless people in Britain growing at an alarming rate, it seems to me that this under-represented sector of society needs to be seen and acknowledged in whatever ways we can make possible. My recent work showing some of the people at the forefront of this situation has not been produced to pile pity on them, although some do live a pitiful life. I made the work to celebrate them as individuals who, when you get to know them, can display a richness of human values and take the opportunity to laugh far more than a lot of people.
What research did you do before you started to make?
Initially, I hadn’t envisaged doing any artwork at the Service, but after a while, I started thinking of doing some of my own artwork related to my time spent there. Eventually, I broached the idea, with a few of the regular clients, of producing a series of portraits. I actually thought maybe it would be a bit presumptuous to produce portraits of the clients. I felt they could find this process patronising or uncomfortable, and that they may be apprehensive at having their image shown in a public arena. But, to my surprise, most of the clients I spoke to thought this was a great idea and were happy for me to work on some pencil sketches from photographs I had taken. I believe, though, that if we had not built up a relationship through mutual interest and respect first, it would have been quite a different proposition.
As for research into techniques, I wanted the pencil portraits to be realistic at the bequest of the sitters. With the textile portraits I wanted to highlight the complexities of tone, so I experimented with layering netting to create shading and using a soldering iron to melt it.
Netting – layering and bonding to create tone
Was there any other preparatory work?
I began by doing some initial drawings in preparation for the textile work. The fact that someone was spending time and care over the clients’ portraits was found to be a mutually gratifying process for both myself and the clients. They were appreciated by the sitters and, when shown to the group, everyone stepped forward to become an “art critic” – all done in a friendly and humorous way.
The production of the portraits transpired to be a laborious task, with a lot of measuring, correcting and pondering. It was all worth it as I then used the drawings as the basis for producing textile portraits. My aim was to try to retain the individuality of the sitter that I had uncovered in producing the pencil drawings.
What materials were used in the creation of the piece? How did you select them? Where did you source them?
My textile work usually consists of the reverse applique technique (where material is cut away, as opposed to applique where material is added) and freehand machine embroidery. On these portraits, I felt I needed to work more with tonal subtleties and I devised a process of using netting which I cut into various sized circles and shades to build up the complexities in the textile portraits. I settled on a process of bonding the net circles onto the cloth using a soldering iron to build up the required shade.
I am fortunate to have a really great local fabric shop called Fabrix in Lancaster, so I sourced my materials from there.
What equipment did you use in the creation of the piece and how was it used?
As well as using a soldering iron to bond the netting, I use a Bernina 2008 sewing machine which I have recently bought new and am completely in love with. I have used second hand and given machines for the last 30 years which have been so noisy that I’m sure they must have affected my hearing!
Revelation – cutting through the cloth
Take us through the creation of the piece stage by stage
I began the process by taking photographs of as many clients as I could and then proceeded with a series of quick drawings using different techniques, ie, pen and ink, pencil, paint. After that, I moved on to working on the sewing machine. I use the machine as I would any drawing tool and always use a free straight stitch to sketch with. This gave me a feel for the faces that I thought would work best for this project.
Initially, I was going to work straight onto cloth as is my usual method, but after discussion with the sitters, I thought it would be more appealing to them if I produced a large finished drawing that was an accurate representation of them.
The process from drawing to the textile piece is always a mixture of frustration and excitement. When I had the idea of using netting to build up light and dark, I used a soldering iron to cut-out circles and bond them to my usual technique of reverse applique. The original image is simplified to enable transfer to the cloth for reverse applique. This is sewn on top of with up to four layers of cloth which are then cut through and taken out to reveal the cloth underneath. This builds up the body and tone of the image (portrait in this case). I find the nature of this process exciting because no matter how you plan you really don’t know how it will look until you reveal what’s underneath when you cut away the cloth.
What journey has the piece been on since its creation?
The journey is still happening and interest has been high. My work has been exhibited at Storeys Institute and Gallery, Lancaster and I have also taken it to schools and colleges to promote action to support the homeless. Showing a section of society which has a very negative image in a positive light has been the main object in my approach to this project.
BBC Radio Lancashire ran a piece on my collaboration with Lancaster and District Homeless Action Service and some of the clients who use their service. (The service survives totally on voluntary contributions) The short film and interview had 50,000 views on Facebook. This has sparked a conversation into the plight of some of our most vulnerable community.
For more information visit jamesfoxtextileartist.co.uk
If you found inspiration for your own projects from James’s story, let us know in the comments below