Jennifer Collier: Finding your artistic voice
Jennifer’s work has led the way in the upcycling revolution in art and craft; a veteran maker of vintage material, investigating the re-used and recycled since 1999. “Giving new life to things that would otherwise go unloved or be thrown away,” is central to her practice.
Her work has been featured in over 60 periodicals (including Vogue, Elle Decoration, Living etc, Times, Red, Eve, Marie Claire, Crafts, Embroidery, Country Living, Telegraph and Selvedge) and 14 books to date.
She works from a studio in Stafford, and continues her self-employed career through the sale of her work, exhibitions and commissions. Recently she has made work for two national trust properties, as well as notable commissions in the past for Birmingham Children’s Hospital, for Milan Design Week and the new Library of Birmingham. She also has work in 6 public art collections.
To supplement her practice Jennifer runs art workshops, and has over 16 years’ experience of running art workshops in schools, colleges, and galleries; with a diverse range of community groups. She has run workshops at many galleries, including the V&A, Tate Liverpool, and Manchester Art Gallery.
In 2010 she set up her own gallery, Unit Twelve, which is open to the public Thurs-Sat, 10am- 4pm. The space houses 7 artist’s studios, and has a changing program of themed, high quality contemporary craft exhibitions. The gallery also hosts a program of themed art workshops.
Jennifer Collier: I wanted to use the writing of this article as an opportunity to reflect back on my career and take some time to consider the experiences and catalysts that have helped me change and development my creative practice. In this article, which is part of TextileArtist.org’s Creative development series, I will be looking at my making processes, commissions and the development of my own authentic artistic voice. I hope that you the reader will find these insights useful in helping to recognise, develop and amplify your own authentic artistic voice.
I originally trained in textiles completing a BA (hons) Textiles, at Manchester Metropolitan University, in 1999. This was a traditional textiles course specialising in Print, Knit and Weave. Toward the end of the course I started experimenting with different materials, weaving with orange peel, melting fruit bags; all manner of things my tutors did not approve of. I believe the best way to learn is by not being afraid to make mistakes, this way you allow yourself to have happy accidents. My degree show was a collection of six 8 foot dress made out of fruit and fabric, with a pair of shoes accompanying each dress.
All of the techniques I use in my work now are things I have taught myself since graduating by experimenting with different media and techniques. Probably more than half of my work never sees the light of day, but through the other half I have discovered technique unique to my work.
The transition to paper
It got to the stage where books and papers were my main inspiration, so it just made sense for them to become the media for the work too. My current practice focuses on creating work from paper; I produce unusual paper ‘fabrics’, which are used to explore the ‘remaking’ of household objects.
The papers are treated as if cloth, with the main technique employed being stitch; a contemporary twist on traditional textiles. The papers themselves serve as both the inspiration and the media for my work, with the narrative of the books and papers suggesting the forms, for example a sewing machine made from dress making patterns, or a camera out of vintage photographs.
I tend to find papers, by scouring charity shops and flea markets, then investigate a way in which they can be reused and transformed; giving new life to things that would otherwise go unloved or be thrown away. I enjoy nothing more than finding a recipe book splattered with food stains or a book that a child has loved enough to take the time to colour in the illustrations of – these are things that other may throw away, but I can save from land fill and transform into something beautiful…
My making process
I use both hand and machine stitch in my work, and where possible try to use traditional embroidery techniques. I use resin to embed objects to make my coat hangers. The papers are rarely ‘treated’ in any way, as most people think, it is just the paper itself that I use, but through years of practice you get a feel for how far you can push it, and when it is going to tear, and which papers work best for what job. Some of the shoes are formed over a mould, using a moulding medium.
The Stilettos and Brogues are made from a flat template I have designed, then constructed into a three-dimensional shoe shape and the Ballet Slippers are hand stitched to form the shape. I make all my own patterns, templates and moulds, so all the shapes are my design, and therefore unique to me.
The trickiest part of my practice is devising templates so the piece can be repeated. I make millimetre exact measurements of an existing object, and work out the pattern pieces for each separate component part of the object I am remaking. Once I have made the template I make a test piece, the equivalent of making a toile in dress making, to test that the pattern ‘works’ (which it rarely does first time!), and from this problem solve and refine my pattern till it fits together exactly, and as I am sure you can imagine this can sometime take weeks… Once the pattern is resolved and the template made I can make the ‘real’ piece from my gorgeous recycled papers.
I’m often asked to create pieces of work based on different objects; different cameras or shoes or sometimes even boats, however the research and development time necessary to create the templates can make the finished commission quite expensive. Instead I now offer work to commission using papers of the customer’s choice to make the commissioning process viable.
Many people assume success happens over night; I often get asked at shows if I have just graduated or what I do for a ‘real’ job, they are always surprised when I say I have been doing this for over 16 years, and that it has been my only source of income for the last 13 of those… They are also more surprised when they learn that what I make isn’t what I trained in, but again this comes with time. I think most new graduates are horrified at this, but finding your artistic voice truly takes time.
The painful process of finding my own true artistic voice
I am always asked how I do things, but what I feel is most important is to learn a new skill and then to push it forward and make it your own. There is no point making work like someone else’s, you should strive to make work that is your own – innovate don’t imitate. Don’t be afraid to have happy accidents and spend time playing with materials, as this is when you discover something truly unique…
It is copying that I probably should be thankful for, as this is the one of the main things that has spurred me on to develop my own true artistic voice. Several years ago I had a massive problem with plagiarism, and it felt that suddenly everyone was starting to make little dresses and shoes. I felt very frustrated that I had had to blaze a very unconventional trail, yet people were jumping into my wake and getting the glory – I had made unwearable art items the norm, and now many others were making work like mine. One day I realised I would just have to push my practice in a new direction, and start making work that was so intricate and complex people wouldn’t be able to copy it.
This is what has pushed my practice to the stage it is now – making stitched 3D paper sculptures that are exact replicas of the original. In hindsight this has been a useful spur, as it has made me strive to make even better work, with an amazing attention to detail, but most importantly with integrity and my own artistic voice….
For more information visit: www.jennifercollier.co.uk
Ever thought about how you can use sketchbooks to tap into your artistic voice? Or embrace the potential of drawing in the design process?