Nicola Henley interview: Weave, embroidery and print
Nicola Henley is known for her work involving movement in natural spaces, often depicted in her art through the movement of birds.
Having completed her degree at Goldsmith’s college in 1984, Nicola has spent the past 30+ years exhibiting her work across the United Kingdom and abroad. Having been born in Bristol, England, Nicola moved to Ireland in 1991 to setup her studio and pursue large scale artwork.
In this interview, Nicola reveals to us the early solace she found in drawing, as well as her path to creating fabrics of her own. She also has valuable advice for aspiring textile artists.
The forces of nature
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Nicola Henley: My early time at art school in Bristol allowed me to experiment freely with a wide range of different media. This suited me perfectly and drew me to the Goldsmith’s Fine Art/Textiles degree. What appealed originally was the diversity of materials, techniques and scale that would be available to me; rather than textiles as an artistic medium as such.
Interestingly, over the three years there, an enjoyment of working with cloth and pushing the boundaries particularly in the area of print and stitch grew to a point where I knew that textiles art would be my future. I continue to enjoy the flexibility and subtlety the medium provides.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
My grandmother was a painter and my grandfather was an architect. They both taught me to really look and draw and showed me how it was possible to try to express what I saw on paper.
I have always loved drawing and at home it was an everyday part of life. My mother used her creativity to make a beautiful home and fantastic garden, sewing all her own curtains, lampshades and upholstering furniture. My father had a great interest in antiques, and I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by old master paintings and carved oak furniture made by his father, a skilled wood sculptor.
Dad had a particular interest in flight and planes. He built many a model radio controlled aircraft only to lose them in treetops! We used to go hot air ballooning across the Gloucestershire and Somerset countryside, he took me gliding and sailing. I loved the freedom of being propelled forward by the forces of nature. His mother kept lots of birds, bantams and hens, cockatoos and parrots – even a toucan. She was quite eccentric and her birds surrounded her and were her friends. All these things were fundamental to me and have had a huge influence on my work.
Drawing was my escape
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I spent a long time in hospital when I was a child. Drawing was my escape and my freedom from being horizontal for many months. I drew to fill the time, and it has always been my solace. When I finished school, I knew life was going to be hard, but one thing I was sure would keep me sane and happy was drawing and painting, so art in some form it had to be.
First a year studying drawing in Italy, working to fund myself, and then a foundation year at Bower Ashton, Bristol, followed by a degree at Goldsmiths College, London. From then onwards I continued to work as an artist as well as bringing up three gorgeous children, so further formal education wasn’t really an option or priority.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
Like all students at Goldsmiths at that time, I was introduced to weave, embroidery and print. Initially the structural and textural qualities of embroidery, both machine and hand, drew me in. Inspiration came from old costumes at the V & A, remnants from skips and junk shops. Then through learning textile print techniques I realized I could create my own fabrics, manifesting something of the quality of the worn, used fabrics that I had been working into with embroidery.
The great freedom of scale was liberating; yet, I missed the detailed texture of the embroidery. By the third year my aim was to combine large scale print with stitched details and collage, and also bring into the work my enjoyment of drawing and work on paper. I still work with these media; screen print on fabric, stitch, and drawing or collaged paper.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I most often describe my work at textile art. The processes and techniques that I use are from textile traditions are more associated with functional fabric, yet the outcome is more painterly and free than is expected from traditional screen printed fabric.
It has been hard to place my work within the sphere of contemporary art. I sometimes show and sell my work alongside fine art paintings, while at other times it has been included as a craft. It doesn’t fit exactly into either of these illusory definitions – it just is what it is.
A sense of movement
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.
My work begins by sketching and absorbing a place and its particular characteristics. Birds are often a focal point but within every environment I’m looking at colour and dynamics in terms of movement within space. I draw to record what I see but also to try to capture the essence of the place and bird character and movement within a location, bringing out what is important to me.
From these records I bring a more objective eye to what I have on paper and see how this can translate into larger textile works. I will sketch a rough plan or cartoon of my idea, then I dye my calico and make up the silk screens. I have my own UV light bed and use photo stencil emulsion. I use opaque paint on acetate and other opaque mark makers to create a range of images on the screens.
On my print table, I print and paint from these repeatedly, building up layers, ironing and washing out the fabric and re-printing until I am happy with what I have. This can take some days. The work is then pinned to the studio wall and I apply whatever feels right to the surface using pins to give greater texture and depth to the field of view.
I often incorporate printed papers, silk fabric, found printed fabric and other bits and pieces that seem appropriate to the theme and feel of the work. This pinning stage can take a long time, with bits going on and being removed until the balance is right.
I stitch all this material onto the surface using my old 50s Jones sewing machine – my good old workhorse. After a couple more days, I get into the hand stitch, embroidering small areas to create tension and a sense of movement in the images where necessary. Some textural embroidery is added to draw the eye into the details of the surface. The machine and hand stitch is gentle and calming after the previous more energetic and anxious print stage.
I like to work outdoors for the initial collection of ideas from nature – the wilder the better. The studio is a haven, somewhere to process and produce work with calm reflection. I like to work alone.
Do you use a sketchbook?
Yes, sketching is key to all my work. It’s a place to record, plan, and digest what I have seen and also a place to return to for more ideas at any point in the future. Drawing is very important to me. It offers great spontaneity and this is something I try hard to capture in my textile pieces, although they take so long to make.
A subtle evolution
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
- William Turner‘s paintings, especially the watercolours from his European travels and his later almost semi-abstract paintings of the sea and sky.
- Joseph Beuys and his use of organic raw materials for mark-making.
- Yves Klein for his use of intense pigments and paint.
- Hughie O’Donoghue for his dramatic scale and powerful use of colour.
- All these artists make me want to be braver in my own work.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
When I first saw ‘Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth‘ by Turner at the Tate many years ago, it moved me deeply. I realized it was possible to visually express the wildest forces of nature. Somewhere inside of me there is a lot of energy waiting to get out, and somehow I want to express that through my work, as well as showing reverence for nature’s quiet perfection.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work is a constant reflection of my life, so as I evolve I hope my work does, too. It may be a subtle evolution, but it is constant. My work has gone through many phases over the 30 or so years of making. I think my technique and mastery of the methods I use is improving. I can control so much more than I used to but I am also trying to continually let go as well. I think the better you know your medium, the freer you can get, and for me my work is ultimately about freedom.
My current focus is the forthcoming solo exhibition at Timeless Textiles, in NSW, Australia. This is a gallery that I have built up a good connection with since 2010. The new body of work ‘Shorelines’ will be shown there in February 2015, and is based on a residency I did on the north of Sydney coast last year. It was an entirely new environment and my work developed in the bolder use of colour and botanical references. The new work can be seen on my website.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Stick at it. Don’t do it for the money.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
- Art Textiles of The World, series by Matthew Koumis.
- Inspired to Stitch: 21 textile artists.
- Art Cloth: A Guide to Surface Design for Fabric
Past exhibitions and reputation
What other resources do you use?
I glance around at other artist websites from time-to-time. I subscribe to VAI Ireland, an e-newsletter of arts in Ireland. I have a website and I plan to have a blog. I recently joined Twitter, but don’t tweet much despite my interest in birds. I also joined LinkedIn. Oh, and TextileArtist.org. But I find the internet too vast and very time consuming.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
A 6B pencil.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so, where can readers find information about these?
Weekend, 3-day and 5-day workshops, and master classes are run from my studio in County Clare Ireland at various times of the year. For further information, please email me at [email protected].
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I mainly show my work where I am invited. This seems to have happened by word of mouth and past exhibitions and reputation. I also work to commission, which generally comes about from people seeing my work in various galleries or public and private locations, such as the Rock Shop, County Clare, Ireland.
Where can readers see your work this year ?
For more information about Nicola Henley, visit her website: www.nicolahenley.com
If you were to attend a workshop run by Nicola Henley, what would you most like to see or learn? Let us know with a comment.