Jane Neal interview: The meaning of marks
Jane Neal is best known for her use of textiles to explore ideas related to human relationships, including communication, new beginnings, loss, and the sense of touch.
She is one of four talented individual artists in the group Material Space, each member sharing a passion for stitched textiles.
Jane enjoys creating large scale work, often featuring a variety of media designed to push the conventional boundaries of dimensional work. She is also passionate about raising awareness for contemporary textile art.
Continual learning is important to her craft. Most recently, Jane acquired her degree in applied arts from the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, Hertfordshire.
As a full-time teacher, we are thrilled that Jane Neal took time from her busy to schedule to give us an interview. She shares with us in this interview the importance of individual perception to art, as well as her fascination with early civilizations.
The myriad possibilities
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Jane Neal: I have been drawn to the textures of textiles from an early age and have always had an emotional response to their tactile qualities, although as a child I was never very good at sewing. Later on, as a student of psychology, I experimented with stitch and design in my spare time, having developed an interest in textiles from around the world. But with little technical skill or knowledge, my attempts repeatedly resulted in disappointment.
As an adult with a young family a chance visit to a City & Guilds embroidery exhibition at my local college opened my eyes to the myriad possibilities of working with textiles in a creative way. I signed up for the next year’s course immediately.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Although no one in the family sewed, my mother always knitted us wonderful, comforting jumpers throughout our youth. I also have fond memories of sitting, fascinated, watching my uncle paint intricate designs at his dining room table to be printed onto textiles destined for African fabrics.
The physical comfort of cloth and the beauty of designs from all around the world have continued to preoccupy my thoughts and work.
An excellent grounding
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I spent a very happy few years completing the City & Guilds creative embroidery course at Richmond Adult College. Under the supervision of experienced and thought-provoking tutors, Sandra Hurll and Kate Davis, I received an excellent grounding in all aspects of embroidery, textiles and design.
Once I had started along this path I didn’t want to stop and was accepted into the stitched textiles diploma program at East Berkshire College. I was taught by inspiring and encouraging tutors Jan Beaney, Jean Littlejohn, and Louise Baldwin. In this stimulating and nurturing environment, I began to develop my ideas and my own identity as an artist. I also met and worked alongside a great group of like-minded women.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
I don’t work with any particular materials – I use whatever conveys my ideas for the piece of work I am creating. In the past, I have used sheer fabrics when thinking about boundaries and soft wool cloth to convey tactility.
I have recently worked with paper, tree bark and metal linking with ideas about marks and writing. I love to use linen thread, preferably old threads I have collected. I also enjoy the way paper threads sit on different materials.
Much of my work is based on marks. The quality of a certain mark or series of marks is very important, as is the meaning behind them.
Separations, losses and developing new relationships
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I would say that my work has been about using textiles and mark-making to communicate ideas about relationships between people – separations, losses and developing new relationships throughout the course of life.
Whilst continuing with these themes, I have also investigated the links between textiles and skin, focusing on the sense of touch. I have tried to explore the ways in which textiles can be used to convey the feelings of safety and containment, as well as fragility and disintegration, associated with touch in our relationships throughout our lives.
Linking in with inquiries into marks on skin, my most recent research has focused on ancient patterns – often tattooed onto the skin – and texts. Many have yet to be deciphered, written on cloth and birch bark, amongst other materials. I am interested in the ways humankind has tried, from the earliest of times, to communicate ideas of continuity and the important events in people’s lives, through marks and patterns on a variety of surfaces ranging from bark to skin.
My work originates in the field of textile art, using many of the techniques I learned from my studies in this area. However, these days the links with textiles are often more tenuous, but the repetitive, tactile elements still dominate my work.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.
I spend a long time, sometimes years, researching and developing an area of interest by using books, images and visiting exhibitions to feed my ideas. I keep a sketchbook, often like a journal, in which I record all my thoughts and ideas, notes from books I have read, and preliminary trials and experiments. In this, I also draw ideas I have for a piece of work, and stick in images that link to my thinking or inspire me.
Since I work full time as a teacher, my creative work is intermittent.
I start by making small experiments with different materials to see what best conveys my ideas, usually over quite a long period of time – coming back to re-work ideas again and again, until I find exactly the right medium, materials and process. After making this decision, I think about the form the finished piece will take – size, 3D or not, etc. Once all this has been decided, creating the finished piece is often the easiest part of the task. This may sound relatively straightforward, but there is a great deal of agonizing and many false directions along the way!
One of the things I frequently struggle with is that I never know what my end result will be until I am about to create it. I usually know the ideas I want to get across, but how I do that unfolds as I go along. This means that I spend a great deal of time in a state of uncertainty and have to hang onto a belief that things will work out in the end, which is not always easy.
I work from home, either at my desk, my kitchen table, or in the garden – depending on the nature of the work I am doing at any given time. The plan is that one day, when the children leave home, I will have a work room of my own! However, until then, I manage wherever I can.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I have always been, and continue to be, inspired by ancient practices, archaeological finds, and the meaning of marks made long ago. The origins of writing and communication between human beings fascinate me; I like that fact that we often do not know for certain what was intended and this leaves a space open for us to imagine.
Like many other people, and to the despair of my husband, I am an avid collector of natural objects – stones, wood, bark, shells, plants, feathers – from everywhere I travel. Their forms, colors and patterns never cease to enthrall me. They frequently contribute to the bank of ideas and inspirations for my work.
The specific qualities of all manner of materials, including cloth, paper, barks, threads, and metals, their transformations and the marks they make or take, provide me with endless possibilities for experimentation.
From a young age, I have loved the visual arts, initially being captivated by the experimentation and colors of the Impressionists. As time has passed I have been increasingly drawn to abstract art, especially sculpture and installations. I am intrigued by the way the viewer is invited to interact with the art work and the space around it, becoming a part of the work. Abstract art allows the viewer to interpret the work from his or her own perspective. This ultimately brings his or her own experience to it, giving each person a different understanding of the work.
Some of the artists who inspire me include:
- Rachel Whiteread for her ideas about space and memory
- Anselm Keifer for his use of texture, physical layers and layers of ideas
- Doris Salcedo for the way she finds the most powerful (and often simple) way to convey her frequently painful and shocking messages
- Cornelia Parker for her beautiful and intriguing installations
- Antony Gormley for his ability to find ways of representing ‘everyman’ in all its shapes, forms and conditions
- Richard Long for his honesty and clarity of vision and the space to wander (and wonder) his work creates in the mind
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
For my final piece for my degree, I had been linking ideas about skin, touch, tactility, and relationships throughout life. After much deliberation, I had decided to create an installation of large blankets representing different times of life and our relationships through touch at those times. My thoughts had included ideas about the skin enveloping us and being the recipient of contact from others, and also as a surface of communication between ourselves and others.
I created an installation which consisted of a spiral of blankets which invited the viewer to walk into the center, thus being ‘enveloped’ by the surrounding cloths, which themselves represented the different levels of physical contact throughout the course of a life.
I was pleased with the result as it allowed the viewer to directly engage with my ideas on a physical and emotional level. From the comments I received, it was evident that people brought their own experiences to the piece, which then added more depth to the original idea.
Artists who support each other
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
From technique to ideas.
Increasingly, my work is more about getting across ideas than about using techniques or specific materials. I like to try to represent my ideas in the simplest possible form, aiming to make pieces that are pared down to the bare minimum, allowing people to project their own ideas and leave room for imagination.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
As I work full-time as a primary school teacher, I barely have enough time to produce work of my own, so no, unfortunately not.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I am a member of Material Space, a group of four artists who support each other and exhibit together. As much of our work is 3D, and some of it is large in scale, we like to find interesting spaces to exhibit in. It is important that people can move around the work, seeing it from different perspectives, getting close up and being able to view it from a distance. Many pieces need to be suspended in space, so we look for venues where this is possible.
Where can readers see your work this year?
Material Space tries to exhibit every two years or so. After a successful exhibition at Farfield Mill in Cumbria last summer, we are at present in the process of finding another suitable venue. Our website is the best way to keep informed on our activities.
Find out more about Jane Neal and Material Space: www.materialspace.com
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