Maggie Scott: photographs, felt and politics
UK textile artist and designer, Maggie Scott was known for her sumptuously crafted pieces of woven, knitted, felted and stitched wearable art. But, after 20 years in the industry, she received an Arts Council bursary that enabled her to put on her one-woman autobiographical exhibition ‘Negotiations – black in a white majority culture’, and she noticed its impact – on people of all races. She realised that she could use her decades of well-honed textile techniques to exhibit and communicate the ideas, issues and stories she discovered, some of which rocked her world.
A new trajectory began – and Maggie vowed never to make textiles for the body again.
Today, she makes large-scale works that express who she is: a black woman, a feminist, a daughter, a mother, an activist and a British Textile Artist.
She specialises in hand-felting and hand-stitching, and incorporates photographs – often self-portraiture – printed onto silk chiffon and layered into the felt. Her pieces explore the politics that she uncovers with regard to the disadvantages still experienced by people of colour. Issues of landfill and fast fashion also feature in her work.
With ambitions to make video and moving images, an integral part of her textiles, the future for Maggie’s work looks exciting.
Expressed through the tactility of merino wool, the finesse of silk chiffon and with strikingly large scale photographic portraits, you can’t fail to become engaged with the passion in Maggie’s work.
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Maggie Scott: As a teenager, I loved to sew make my clothes. At that time mini-skirts were in fashion, so it didn’t take much material to make a new skirt every week! I was about 14 years old.
A neighbour mentioned to my mother that there was a sewing course every Saturday morning at an art school not too far away. So off I went every Saturday morning to Farnham School of Art – not knowing that Farnham was actually one of the top centres for textiles and weaving at the time. I had a great time learning so much more than just sewing; we experimented and had fun with many different forms of textiles.
After that, it was easy to continue to work with textiles, particularly after I transferred to Farnham for my foundation course. I focused on textiles as my degree option and, on Farnham’s advice, I applied to (what was then called) St Martin’s School of Art and successfully completed my BA degree in Fashion Textiles in 1976.
It was an exciting time, and I can now appreciate how lucky I was – not only to have access to a free education but also to be at a school that actively encourages its students to experiment, take risks and try things out.
For example, I was able to spend a whole term in the sculpture department, taking a break from fibre and fabric and exploring other three-dimensional options. I was also able to spend a considerable time working with plastic transparent tubes and fibre optics at Central School of Art, which at that time had a great weaving department – it was another environment where you were encouraged to play and experiment. And you were also encouraged to see yourself as a designer and an artist. You were very much schooled to assume that you would be taking the lead, and, indeed, out of the seven of us who received first class honours that year, at least five went on to leading couture houses. I think someone went to Dior another one to St Laurent.
I think at that time I was very interested in machine knitting and there was a very helpful and instructive tutor who did a lot of laying-in of fibres – a sort of intarsia before intarsia was really known and automated. This was a time when people like Kaffe Fassett and Missoni and John Ashpool were revolutionising the industry with jacquard knits. Indeed, when I left St Martin’s I was invited to join John Ashpool’s team in Italy as a knitwear designer working on ski wear and had a chance to try out some of my previous plastic weaving experiments!
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
The earliest influence might be my art teacher at secondary school – I think his name was Mr Minter. When I bought some ‘counter culture’ magazines into class like OZ he encouraged me to look more closely at the ways in which even cartoons were carefully crafted, and I think that made me understand how powerful art could be to change your perspective – art as activism.
But the biggest influence on my work and how I approach it was John Ashpool.
John, I believe, was a painter before he took over his father’s knitwear company, and his approach to the work remained very much that of a painter. We drew and played, we experimented – and in those days had an entire factory, ready to play and experiment with us. I remember my first assignment was to produce the cuffs on a set of sweaters he had designed; I was assigned six or seven knitters, just waiting for me to instruct them as to what size, what shape. We experimented and at the end of the week, I would present perhaps 50 different versions of ribs for the cuff. John would then look at them discuss them play around with them, cut them up, change the colours. It was a fabulous, and very privileged, way to work. I think what captured my imagination then, and what has stayed with me, is the idea that you keep on going until it’s right, you don’t settle. I had the privilege of not having to settle.
Sometimes we’d make 100 and put them on the notice board, and John would look at each one, and perhaps choose a small section of one – it could be a few inches in one of the samples – and we would develop that, go back and develop the shapes and colours he had found in those few inches. Other times, using what was then a revolutionary double-bedded jacquard machine, John would just play – changing colours in the middle, putting in another colour at random, just to see what it would do.
That was such a great lesson about how to approach the work: that you will know when it’s ‘done’ and when a piece is finished. I’m talking now about working with colour, which has always been a key component in all my work. Of course, now there is less time and certainly, I’m not paid to spend so much time searching for the ultimate colour combination, but that’s still how I approached the work.
In terms of artists who have influenced and affected my work, I would have to put Agam at the top of my list! Yaacov Agam, is an Israeli artist who has created some extraordinary kinetic and optical installations, often using lenticular designs. I love his use of colour, geometric shapes and the movement. The way in which the colours move is something that I found hugely stimulating and important, and even now I still refer back, if not to his work, then to some of mine that I made in the 80s.
My upbringing has influenced my work in a direct way in as much as the textiles I’ve produced in the last 10 years focus on narratives and concerns that directly relate to the African Caribbean experience. Being black and female informs a lot of work ……
As for my background, I was born in London to a working class family of recent immigrants, where nobody had any connection to art and craft, or college or university education. I was unique in going to art school and getting a bachelor’s degree.
Growing up in 50s and 60s Britain, the assumptions about what was possible were very prescribed by the times: I could be a nurse; I could be an athlete or a singer! But an artist or a designer ….. well, that never entered the conversation – at home or at school. So in a sense, my upbringing, the way in which I was raised in the UK, and the consequence of living in a white majority culture (and all the institutionalised racism that came along with that) did have an influence on my work in that it probably delayed my claiming the title of artist, as I struggled for many years to believe that I was good enough and capable enough of being a professional artist.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Well in a sense, the route in for me was due to the kindness of strangers, the kindness of a neighbour, who told my mother that I should go to a Saturday morning class at Farnham Art School!
But I think the route to becoming an artist, as opposed to a textile designer which I had been for about 20 years, was through an Arts Council bursary project call ‘The Shape of Things’.
I and seven other artists of colour and the global majority were selected and offered a bursary of £5,000 to create new work that would be showcased in one of four major venues: in my case, that was the New Walk Gallery in Leicester Museum and I had a large one-woman show in 2012.
I chose to produce some autobiographical work in order to talk about growing up in the UK in a white majority culture. The title of the exhibition was ‘Negotiations – black in a white majority culture’. The show was well received and a huge turning point for me; I realised that I had things that I wanted to say and I could adapt the textile techniques that I had used successfully when making textiles to wear. But, crucially, it also showed me that the things I was interested in talking about resonated with other people – black and white. That was a huge learning curve. And it sort of ties in with the way I used to work with John as a textile knitwear designer, ie, you keep going until it works, until it’s right, and trust that if it’s right and it works for you, it’s probably going to work for other people. And you don’t settle.
The freedom to produce what I wanted was a huge privilege. I had an enormous space in the museum, a crew and a team to help me put on a large exhibition. It included large felted textiles like ‘Her hair grows’ which references the popular ‘Tressy’ doll of the 1960s and the many ways my community transforms our hair – in particular the joy and pain of hair straightening. ‘Early messages’ was a series on exploring identity and representation like ‘Enid’, which refers to Enid Blyton’s infamous children’s book “The 3 Gollywogs”. It speaks of the images of black people that were fed to me and most children of my generation by British popular culture.
The central piece of the show was a very large lenticular piece called “Wedding day”. Using a photograph of my mother and stepfather’s wedding day, printed onto silk, I chose to felt and stitch only things I could remember. I am intrigued by the gaze of the young me looking out, seemingly oblivious to the adults deep in conversation. But fifty years later, when I discovered that their wedding day coincided with a ‘KEEP BRITAIN WHITE’ rally just a few miles away in Trafalgar Square, I wondered more keenly what that conversation was about.
The exhibition also included “Out of the shadows’, a critique of the beautification industry and the seduction of skin lightening. As you enter the mock beauty salon, the shelves are full of real, currently available skin lightening products, as well as a fictitious new range called AM-NU. It was very exciting to do, very successful and also quite confronting.
‘Negotiations’ was a game changer and a big turning point, because after that, I stopped completely making textiles for the body and have concentrated solely on making pieces for exhibition ever since.
Painting with fibre
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
Well, that’s an interesting question because, although most of my work takes the form of felted textiles and my palette is necessarily the same, the way in which the work is conceived, and the decision to make a piece or a series, is quite different. However, the way in which I decide on a subject seems increasingly to be the same.
I found a lovely quote on Instagram a few months ago by Petra Melville that I’ve used several times in talks and lectures. Its title is “Are you an activist?” and says: “An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is usually not motivated by a need for power, or money, or fame, but in fact driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness – so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.”
I will come across an issue, a story, an incident, and like everyone else will read about it. But somehow it will stay with me, and it will often gnaw at me until I’m driven slightly mad by it, to the extent that I feel compelled to say something about it or do something about it. That’s been an interesting way of working over the last few years; I found a way to link my activism and my art so they are interchangeable. Whether it’s joining the campaign to stop Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands or publicising the Polish Women’s Coat hanger protest, I no longer have to divide my time. It’s not stopping art and then doing activism: they are now both one and the same.
So for example, the series that I’ve been working on for the last couple of years called ‘Five times more’ began from something I heard a few years ago on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. They said that black women were five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. I was completely astounded and, in fact, I remember finding Woman’s Hour on iPlayer, and listening again to make sure I’d heard it right! I started to look into it, and discovered there was a petition circulating demanding to know, why is this the case? I signed along with many other people. You may know that, once you have 100,000 signatures the government has to respond. So I got a reply from the government which to my astonishment confirmed those figures, along with several other bewildering statistics like: black mothers are 121% more likely to have a stillbirth than their white counterparts. It was just extraordinary! And, yes, I did feel the need to talk about this.
I tend to work from photographs – for example, the pieces in “Negotiations” were based on family photographs – but more lately I have been buying licenses on stock images and using them as a base to develop a montage.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
Most of the time I use a nuno-felting technique because, of late, I’ve been working with photographic images and collages.
Once I’m satisfied with the image it’s printed on silk chiffon, and then wet felted. I enjoy the process, which sometimes feels like ‘painting with fibre’.
Recently I’ve been working on a series that has the Union Jack flag as a background and, working in this way, I can decide how much of, for example, the red section of the Union Jack is put in the foreground or the background, and control that by the amount of fibre and the colour of the fibre I use before I start rolling.
After it’s been felted, quite a lot of time will be spent hand stitching, cleaning up fuzzy edges or adding an additional line, idea, or enhancing a colour. So it gives me, if you like, a third chance to alter the image. The first is on my computer playing with the photographic image. The second is felting it. And the third is stitching.
What currently inspires you?
That’s difficult to answer because all sorts of things will take my attention, but not necessarily as an inspiration. Some aspect of some work, or some imagery, will interest me, and I will make a note of it, or save it on my computer.
I am inspired by an idea or subject. Something will take my attention that I’ll feel it’s important to talk about and explore. And then the inspiration comes in as I face the challenge of finding a way to express that idea. That comes from experimenting – from trying out different collages and from playing with different images.
At the moment, I’m interested in a lot of the African American artists, particularly textile artists like Bisa Butler, whose work has been shown at the Art Institute of Chicago. Whilst it’s not at all the technique that I use, I’m inspired by the boldness and her juxtaposition of colours and textures. And I think, more and more, that I want to start incorporating other fabrics into the felt.
Inspiring the viewer
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
That’s another difficult question to answer because, like a lot of artists whose pieces take a long time, I become very connected to the work and they feel like your children, particularly when they are sold and leave the nest!
But a piece of work that comes to mind is ‘Towards the End’ – a series that was part of the “Negotiations – black in a white majority culture” exhibition of 2012. It consisted of a series of four large portraits, which were actually portraits of my mother, taken about a month before she died. I used an overlay of a jigsaw puzzle, with each successive portrait having more displaced jigsaw pieces, so that by portrait number four, you can still see the image but it’s very disrupted and distorted by the missing jigsaw pieces.
I wanted to talk about the disproportionate amount of black people in the mental health system and chose to use a portrait of my mother, taken about a month before she died. It turned out to be quite a powerful image that seemed to speak to many people.
For anybody that makes felt, you know that, once you’ve decided on the image and you’re in the middle of the process, your focus switches to the technique – the felting, the stitching, the mounting etc. In this case, I was preoccupied with the details in the portraits – spending time making sure the eyes were felted correctly and the mouth was the right shape and hadn’t become distorted in the rolling, picking out areas of the jigsaw that needed to be sharper, etc. So it wasn’t until the four full portraits were up in the large exhibition space, and I could look at them from a distance, that I really got to see the power of the images. Because, of course, this was my mother, and it was depicting the very difficult period in her life before she died. I remember very clearly, being in the empty room the night before the exhibition opened and just standing and looking at it, and really being able to look with fresh eyes at this young woman – just 49 when her life ended.
But although it was a difficult image for me, I have very fond memories of people’s responses to it. One woman’s comment always makes me smile. I met a woman who had also come to the UK in the 1950s. She spoke about how moved she was by my mother’s portraits, and I was so surprised to hear how joyful she thought they were. While I had put them up in an order from 1-4, with No 1 being a complete portrait of a sad woman and No 4 where the face couldn’t really be seen clearly, this particular woman had read the imagery from 4-1! She saw No 4 as the confusion and distress of a woman arriving in 1950’s Britain from the Caribbean, then, as time went on, gradually understanding how things worked, settling in and making a life here. So, for her, No 1 represented things improving and getting better.
It taught me how important it is to leave a space for the viewers to make their own interpretations.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has developed in leaps and bounds rather than a smooth trajectory! In particular, my decision to stop making wearable textiles was a massive leap and an enormous change.
With each series that I complete, I am learning more, developing more and adding more to my technique.
The nuno felts are quite methodical and necessarily prescribed, while the abstracts – like the Omulolo series – have a life of their own! They continue to develop in a slightly different way which I enjoy; the abstracts take me back to design, where you’re preoccupied with shapes and colours and not worrying about, for example, how accurate is the nose or is the hair in the right position – the kinds of things that are terribly important when you’re creating a narrative, a picture that has to tell a particular story.
Currently, I’m exploring the possibilities of incorporating film and video and in a sense making the moving image an integral part of the textile.
After making the “STOP” video for Hastings Museum following George Floyd’s death, I began collecting short video clips where black people stated three things they wanted from their white allies. I have some rather interesting footage so that now I want to find a way that texturizes the portraits. At the moment the ‘talking heads’ have a static textured overlay (taken from a very early photograph of a piece I made in the 90s), but I’d like to find a way to make them start talking!
For the future … I want to develop some more installation work. I’ve been working for some time on the climate emergency and the impact that fast fashion in the global north has on the global south – in particular landfill sites. I’ve made some two-dimensional pieces that illustrate the issue, but I’d like to develop a three-dimensional aspect to the work. I’m looking at how I can engage the viewer in such a way that they’re inspired to make a change or to take action. I’m hoping the work will evolve so that the textiles are even more accessible or experiential. That’s what really interests me…..!
- Believe in yourself: see yourself as already what you want to be.
- Play and experiment: it’s how you learn and develop.
- Make samples as you learn new techniques and work with new materials and colours – see what works best.
About the artist:
Maggie Scott graduated with a BA in Fashion Textiles from St Martin’s School of Art in 1976 and was immediately invited to join John Ashpool’s team in Perugia, Italy designing knitwear for exclusive boutiques around the world.
Moving between Italy and France, she set up her first studio in London in 1980.
Following a turning point after her 2012 show ‘Negotiations’, Maggie was invited to show pieces from the exhibition in group shows across the USA, and further exhibition pieces in Canada and Belgium.
Today, she produces pieces for installations and exhibitions from her studio in Hastings, England.
Which part of Maggie’s work or story did you find most interesting? Let us know in the comments below