Neil Musson: OCA textiles tutor
A broad range of artistic disciplines are offered through textile courses at the Open College of the Arts.
These courses build a strong foundation for students to develop their artistic capabilities. By taking a deep and innovative approach to learning textile art, each student is encouraged to explore imagery and tactile awareness. It is the job of talented textile tutors like Neil Musson to help students achieve their full potential.
In this new series, OCA tutors discuss a variety of concepts relating to textiles, including both theoretical and practical applications of the skills taught in their courses.
Rebecca Fairley began this series by exploring her flair for the unconventional.
Collette Paterson continued this series by discussing the impact world cultures have had on both her teaching and her art.
In this third edition, Neil Musson reveals how the exploration of new mediums and techniques influences the art he creates.
Woven structures, textile principles and architectural artwork
I make sculptural interventions. These may be large or small scale and exist in a range of materials; they are interventions into architectural space and landscape as well as interventions into human experience. The end of this story is my current project, producing a monumental sculpture for the world’s largest airport departure lounge, but the beginning of the story is woven textiles.
At the Royal College of Art, I developed textile structures which were hand-woven, using the properties of the yarns to bind the weave together.
This image is a layered fabric using milled Merino wool to bind a delicate structure of Tussah silk. It plays on the distortion caused during the finishing of the wool and how this changes that strict linear structure imposed by the loom. This is where I first learned the importance of allowing materials to tell me what they wanted to become – of allowing a process to dictate an outcome. The idea of being out of control or surprised by the outcome was, perhaps, unnerving at first but is now an essential ingredient in my making and my thinking.
To speak of ‘playing’ with materials suggests an imposed naivety which allows spontaneity and ultimately some sort of discovery. One way in which I explore this is by using unfamiliar materials and, as such, I am not loyal to any one particular medium or technique. For example, while looking for a development from natural yarns I began investigating wire and methods of binding structures together with heat. The image above used phosphorescent yarn to create an intriguing glow within a woven surface while the wire allows it to be sculpted into organic shapes.
The use of wire led to the rather obvious development that electricity could be passed through the weave to create pinpricks of light. In the early days of LEDs I laced a woven wire structure with light and collaborated with Philip Treacy to provide a magical finale to his fashion shows in London and New York. The woven structure was identical to the wool and silk design but the materials transformed it into a very different surface with a space-age ambience.
Another route to breaking through the barrier of predictability is to increase (or decrease) the scale of something being made; how large or how small can a process become? Exactly the same illuminated woven structure which adorned Helena Christensen at Philip Treacy’s show was then applied as a 28-storey high chandelier. Weaving this amount of wire was a challenge that most people turned down until I found a very determined Yorkshireman who was prepared to heat each section of the wire warp with a blow torch to bind the structure during the weaving process. Thousands of LEDs were then painstakingly soldered into place to create a sculptural installation which became a local landmark.
My interest in the engineering of the loom and the grid-like patterns which emerged led me to explore contrasting, but complementary, irregular patters. I wanted to generate lines and shapes which were not within my control or within the confines of a mechanical process. At the time I did not realise that the drawing, which I called ‘Paths of Dog Walkers and their Dogs’, would be so significant and foundational to my future artwork. The lines were made by sitting at the edge of Horsenden Heath and plotting the movements of dog walkers and their dogs over a 12-hour period. Patterns and compositions were created by dogs collecting sticks which were thrown, dogs following scents, dogs being drawn to bushes and trees, and owners diverting their course to greet each other. These lines and shapes are still the basis of my compositions today.
‘Now You See Me’ is a light installation built into the architecture of a health-care building and does not involve textiles in any form…..or does it? This non-woven, non-fabric artwork is a constantly scrolling screen of gentle colour. It is, in effect, a warp and weft reenactment. The themes of the artwork reference the earliest conveyer belt production lines (first used in Coventry, where the work is sited) and the relationship between pattern, colour and mood in relation to health. Underlying all of that is the woven textile mentality with the dog walker shapes making their appearance once again.
Here, those same compositional components become three dimensional in a collaborative installation called ‘Collider’. Again the textile history of the piece is subtle yet significant and not only present in the shapes and their origins, but also through the nature of the collaboration. Eighteen years after leaving college I reconnected with Jono Retallick, a friend who had also been studying textiles. Years later we were both independently making light installations to redefine public space. Jono and I now work together as musson+retallick.
The artwork which Jono was working on when we reconnected was called ‘Supernature’ and was a collaboration also involving his wife Debi and artist Mary Branson. Columns of suspended matter hang mysteriously in a woodland accompanied by a theatrical sound track choreographed with lighting and improvised dance. Large-scale stitch is used to thread and hang clusters of chalk, resin bugs and ceramic leaves which transform their environment.
And finally, work in progress: the progression from woven textile to suspended airport sculpture. Jono made this drawing on his kitchen door and it describes a new version of ‘Collider’, pictured earlier, on a vast vertical scale. We are currently making four of these structures to hang next to each other, with imagery of graceful drifting clouds projected as if blowing through the passenger lounge. The artwork references the freedom of travel and the flight of birds but equally it is about the interaction of people with each other in a space which collects all nationalities.
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