Jess de Wahls – Recycled textile sculpture
Jess de Wahls was born in 1983 in Berlin, but relocated to London in 2004. She works mostly in portraiture and has experimented widely with acrylic and oil painting, drawing, pyrography, tattoo design, and sewing, but eventually found her niche in Retex sculpting. Her artwork is concerned with gender equality, as well as recycling; it is important to Jess to use future exhibitions as a means of raising awareness of these issues.
Here Jess tells us about how her God daughter was instrumental in her journey as an artist, how her work has developed and how she has refined her particular techniques.
Materials, textures and colors
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Jess de Wahls: Since I work with a number of different types of fabrics, I guess what initially drew me to textile art is the incredible variety of materials, textures and colors available. Additionally, the ability to manipulate fabrics in a way that a flat surface becomes a 3D sculpture is something of great appeal to me.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work? What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
The person who first and foremost inspired me to pick up needle and thread after years of pen and paintbrush, is my little god daughter Clara.
I used to make little Textile Monsters for her using recycled clothes, at that point mainly my own.
Sewing then rapidly became my favorite artistic medium and those little creatures took on a life of their own, growing into a full blown exhibition at the Resistance Gallery, London in 2011. Having left there empty handed after selling every last Monster, I continued to sew custom orders until Monsters moved onto miniature caricatures of the commissioning clients, and from that I gradually moved on to what I now call Retex Sculpture – recycled textile sculpture.
What was your route to becoming an artist? (Formal training or another pathway?)
Trained as a stylist, yet untrained as an artist, I decided at 27 to dedicate more time and space to my artistic endeavours which began with storyboard commissions for short films, tattoo designs, ink drawings and acrylic paintings which ultimately lead me to working with textiles. Rather than landscapes or still lifes, portraiture has always remained my main field of interest.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques? How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
The re-use of material has always been something I’ve been interested in as the waste culture of our consumerist countries is something I increasingly have difficulties with. Thus it came very naturally for me to utilise recycled clothing rather than newly bought fabrics.
Additionally the unpredictable nature of working with recycled garments only means that my work is not only unpredictable but also pretty much impossible to recreate, even for me. As a self-imposed rule, I have to make do with what I have in my studio when working on a piece and thanks to a great amount of supporters of my practice, I am never short in supply of second hand clothing.
The technique I utilise is something I have created and call Retex sculpting, a process in which I anatomically layer and sculpt fabric ‘pockets’ stuffed with cushion filler onto a plywood backing in order to create a relief portrait. How much of the portrait will be raised is something I usually decide while working on a piece rather than in the beginning stages.
Recently I have started to integrate embroidered parts into the portraits as the combination of techniques makes for a very unique and interesting finish.
Textile art as a whole is beginning to gain greater recognition in the contemporary art scene of recent years, and with Retex sculpting I believe to have created a niche which combines age old craft techniques with a very modern twist on portraiture as well as the concept of traditional sculpture.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I mostly work in my studio since it allows me to be inspired by all the colours and textures I am surrounded by.
For the embroidery parts that I don’t stitch straight onto the portrait, I often carry smaller embroidery hoops around with me, allowing me to work away from my studio and adding the parts later on to the piece
Do you use a sketchbook?
Not really. I do have a notebook in which I mainly write ideas, but I never really draw a piece before I start it, as the concept usually grows and expands as i am working on.
Focus and inspiration
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
Feminism has become a great focus and inspiration of my work, which allows me to have a voice and add meaning to each portrait. Strong inspirational women of all ages, shapes and ethnicities are usually the subjects I depict, trying to raise awareness to gender inequality all the while celebrating great minds and artists of the past and present.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
From the moment I picked up needle and thread, my work has constantly evolved and grown into ever changing forms as I have picked up a lot of new techniques and ideas along the way. Each portrait becomes more refined in its execution, and will continue to do so in the future.
I don’t believe that Artists ever achieve or perhaps shouldn’t strive for a point of perfection, as Salvador Dali said “You will never reach it anyway”.
The joy for me is in growing all the time.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
The same advice I would give to anybody that has ever had a passion for something: go for it and give it your all – don’t listen to doubters. Doing something that truly satisfies you even if it’s a lot of work is worth it in the end.
Being an artist involves perseverance, tenacity and self-confidence. Having talent alone will sadly often not get you very far, so administration and marketing has to be a big part of your practice if you want to be successful. Oh, and – DON’T LISTEN TO DOUBTERS, EVER!!!
Resources, tools and exhibitions
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
I love Pinterest and Instagram as I can follow my interests tailor-made on those sites, but I also always love actually going to exhibitions and museums as there is a wealth of inspiration on offer at all times.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Well that would have to be needle and thread really.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I think it’s important to show your art as much as you can, so I usually search the internet long and wide for artist opportunities. Depending on the theme of group shows I choose which work best applies to the brief.
I tend to participate in group shows a lot as it’s a great way to get broader exposure to a wide range of visitors.
Where can readers see your work this year?
Some of my art can currently be seen at a friend’s Tailor studio in Covent Garden, 71 Endell Street, but for group shows, solo shows or general press coverage, my website will be the best way to keep up to date with my latest developments.
For more information please visit: jessdewahls.com
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