Polly Pollock interview: Unconventional basketry
Polly Pollock may not think of herself as a basket maker, although her unconventional approach to basketry has earned her plenty of attention in the world of textile art.
Formally educated at both Goldsmiths and City & Guild, Polly is now a teacher herself, offering classes and workshops primarily at City Lit in Covent Garden, London.
Polly reveals in this interview how a succession of poor choices led her to basket making, her dynamic approach to creating new work, as well as some of her favourite publications.
Lots to grapple with
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Polly Pollock: There are many things, but essentially I’m just drawn to basketry which can be very closely related to textiles, especially 3D/constructed textiles. But mostly because I simply enjoy the process of making my own work. I also enjoy other people’s basketry and textile work, and find the cultural relevance of basketry and textiles within everyday lives of people around the world, past and present, extremely interesting.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I’ve enjoyed making things since I was a child, and spent a lot of time with my grandparents who were both very practical and had a lot of time to spend teaching me very basic practical skills: knitting, sewing, cooking, basic woodwork. So whether it was scarves for toys or simply wrapping up presents very elaborately, I’ve always found doing something practical absorbing and gave me a lot of pleasure. I was the most practical person at home, so from quite a young age was the one asked to change a plug, decorate a cake, or whatever!
I’ve always been quite a perfectionist, so finding a craft like basketry suited me very well as it can be really quite technical, lots to grapple with and get as good as I could at it. I was probably quite average at school, and spent most of my time in the art room, even when I was meant to be elsewhere! One of the art teachers took me under her wing so because her main interest was printed textiles I did a lot of this at school, which probably contributed a lot to an interest in textiles. Ironically, this teacher used to joke with me about becoming a basket weaver! After leaving school I continued making things, by myself and at adult education classes, and this was mostly textile related, but often felt left wondering what to do with what I’d made.
A good decision
What was your route to becoming an artist?
After making rather a mess of school, I made a succession of bad decisions, starting with where to do an Art Foundation year – I had places at Goldsmiths and Bradford. I should’ve gone to Bradford but I chose Goldsmiths, which at the time was far too fine art based for me. There was no textile or other craft content when I did the foundation, which was odd as they had such strong textile and ceramics departments.
So I ended up working in jobs I really wasn’t suited to for far too long, until I stumbled across basketry. I’d gone with a friend to look at the City & Guilds textile course at what was then the London College of Furniture. She wanted to look at the C & G basketry course and I reluctantly went along to look, too.
It was nothing like I’d expected. I’d never given basketry a second thought before, but instantly knew this was what I wanted to do. The teacher that day was Lois Walpole, and I went on to be taught by her, and other highly skilled basketry tutors. Finally I’d made a good decision, which took me off into a fascinating and very specialised world.
Lois was inspirational, as her approach to making baskets was totally new in the UK, her use of colour and non-traditional materials, together with bold and exciting variations on traditional designs. It was all so different and terribly exciting.
Another tutor who had a big impact on me was Mary Butcher. Through her the vast subject area of basketry as an area to explore on many different levels was opened up, from making, right through to the important part basketry has played in human life and development for thousands of years. At the time, and still today, I’m amazed that basketry is still so marginalised as a subject, as it is so fascinating on so many different levels, and offers such enormous potential for working creatively.
Basketry (my early work was far more functional baskets) solved my difficulty of what to do with the textiles I’d been making – the basket was the resolved piece of work.
Delicate yet robust
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques ?
The techniques I use are firmly rooted in basketry traditions from around the world, mainly coiling, twining and plaiting. Variations within these techniques offer a multitude of possibilities to explore and develop.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I think of my work as basketry, but don’t necessarily consider myself a basket maker. I’ve been making work using basketry techniques for around 25 years. The basketry I make isn’t really functional in a conventional sense, and function isn’t something I consider while I’m working, although my work does usually have form and space which makes it ‘a container’. I trained in basketry, so these things, combined with the techniques I use, define my work as basketry.
Apart from scissors, and basic tools for threading and stitching, essentially there is just my hands and the materials. This immediacy is an aspect of basketry I love.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I used to work with dyed cane and reclaimed materials including paper. The material which became my favourite, although not traditionally associated with basketry, was paper.
I like that paper is an everyday and familiar material, which is simultaneously delicate yet robust when processed differently, e.g. into strips, yarns, and cords, which can then be transformed yet again into different basketry forms. I find it exciting that one material provides so many possibilities.
A feature of my work was strong colour and pattern, now it is altogether calmer and more responsive to the materials I work with; more resolved. The characteristics of the type of paper suggest the technique I choose to use, which in turn influences the form.
I feel like I’ve a lot to be going on with in the way I’m working right now. I’ve also set myself a project which I’m working on over this year which is a kind of personal challenge. I’m doing this alongside other work I’m making. Together with teaching, I think that’s plenty to occupy me for the time being.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.
I don’t think I have a fixed working process – my work life is very varied so I have to be flexible. When making my own work I prefer to be in my studio (at Kingsgate Workshops in Kilburn) as I have no domestic distractions there. But I’m often working on something else at home too. Generally this works for me, although during some busy periods everything feels a bit fragmented – but I think this is the way of life for many craftspeople/artists as juggling making, earning a living (often through teaching) and family/home life demands high levels of flexibility.
Having periods of time when I can spend several consecutive days in my studio are wonderful and very productive times. When I’m working on one piece of work this is often when I’ll have thoughts about the next. I work quite slowly and meticulously – I’m a perfectionist too so undo and redo quite a lot!
Sometimes sorting and tidying my studio, or reading through my sketchbooks, is the starting point for new work, for example if I come across a material or sample I’d forgotten about.
Sphere of interests
Do you use a sketchbook?
Yes, I do keep sketchbooks, but not so much directly related to my basketry work, more in the context of generally recording, organising and thinking through visual information that I accumulate. I’m sure it does influence what I make, but there isn’t a direct connection.
Sometimes what I record in my sketchbook might be related to a course I do – I try to do courses in other craft and cultural studies areas as I enjoy being the student rather than the tutor from time to time! As I often work alone, it’s very stimulating to be working in a group of people. Sometimes I just sit and look through my sketchbooks; there are several themes which are fairly constant in my sphere of interests, and these are often reflected in my own work in one way or another.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I love visiting museums like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford and Tropen Museum in Amsterdam to observe traditional basketry and textile artifacts from around the world. To an extent I’m influenced by what I see, but equally I wonder at the vast potential of people to make amazing things from the simplest of materials, close scrutiny of this ingenuity and skill are endlessly inspirational.
I have a tendency to collect things – among other things, a collection of interesting paper bags!
I also have a large collection of traditional baskets from around the world, which I use a lot when I’m teaching. They are in my consciousness when I’m working in my studio and at home; there is such variation in materials, techniques, forms and functions, even within my collection.
Surface texture is an increasingly important preoccupation, the relationship between combinations of different papers can make subtle but significant changes to surface texture. Some pieces almost take on the appearance of porcelain, others have more textile-like qualities. I enjoy exploring how, when the technique is changed, identical materials have the potential for different forms and surface textures.
I find the process of weaving absorbing and allows for contemplation; the making process itself is motivating, so one piece of work very much leads on to another.
Some of the artists and craftspeople whose work I particularly enjoy looking at are:
- Sue Lawty
- William Scott
- Grayson Perry
- Sheila Hicks
- Tadek Beutlich
- Dorothy Gill Barnes
- Terry Frost
- Ed Rossbach
- Chris Drury
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
I made this piece of work about 10 years ago. It’s made from dyed cane and took ages to make as it’s quite big. Even though I rarely use cane in my own work now, I have a residual affection for this piece of work, which always reminded me of a piece of coral.
Awe inspiring skills and creative ideas
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Whether or not you’ve done a textiles degree, there is still always something more to learn and explore. It can be hard earning a living through making one’s own work, and not many people do. A way of keeping your own work going, even if you have to take a job which isn’t really related to your own personal work, is to enrol on some of the many day and evening classes in adult education. As well as being taught by some excellent practitioners, it is a way of keeping involved with what’s going on, working alongside people with similar interests, and sets aside time to think and make even when the rest of your life may not allow you to do this.
It can also lead to exhibiting opportunities, as it’s not uncommon for groups of students to put on exhibitions of their work. Keep visiting exhibitions and galleries, and keep your interest alive! Even the occasional one day workshop can be really inspiring. At first your own work may not be the centre of your life, but it can be part of it.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
I love looking at books about textiles, basketry and other craft areas. The ones I’ve listed below are mainly basketry books – basketry in some of its broadest applications. You probably won’t find them in a mainstream bookshop, but they are available from online booksellers (new and second hand) and you should be able to find some of them in university and college libraries.
- Weaving and Textile Structures
by Peter Collingwood
Published by Batsford
- Interlacing – The Elemental Fabric
by Jack Lenor Larson
Published by Kodansha International
- Paper : Tear-Fold-Rip-Crease-Cut
Published by Black Dog Publishing
- Ed Rossbach : 40 Years of Exploration & Innovation in Textile Art
Edited by Ann Pollard Rowe and Rebecca A. T. Stevens
Published by Lark Books
- ReCoil – Change & Exchange in Coiled Fibre Art
Published by Artback Northern Territory Arts Touring
What other resources do you use?
I don’t look regularly at blogs or websites, but here are a few which, when I do look at them, I can spend far too long wondering at how much amazingly creative stuff people do, whether they’re professional crafts people or artists, or just everyday people around the world with awe inspiring skills and creative ideas. Some of them are “interiors” blogs as I find these very interesting; they give glimpses into how people collect and arrange collections of objects.
I have bursts of looking at baskets and basketry on Pinterest – lots of things are repeated on boards, but now and then it’s possible to come across something really interesting. It can be a real time-waster though so I try to limit how often I look at it!
I subscribe to Crafts magazine, although I don’t always read it as generally I find it rather narrow and highbrow, but I won’t be cancelling my subscription either!
I used to subscribe to Fibrearts and regret it isn’t published any more as it was a really broad based journal covering a wide spectrum of fibre arts, but I still often look at my back copies.
I also enjoy Surface Design Magazine whenever I have access to a copy.
The materials and my hands
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Even though one of the things I most like about basketry is that there is essentially just the materials and my hands, there are also some very simple tools which I couldn’t easily manage without:
- A caneworker’s bodkin (large and small)
- Sharp side cutters
- Round nosed pliers and long nosed pliers
- Threaders – some of these are like rush-threaders and some I made myself
- Assorted needles with a large eye – some blunt and some sharp
- Sailmaker’s fid
- Pegs in various sizes
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so, where can readers find information about these?
Yes. I teach mainly at City Lit in Covent Garden, London; but I also teach on a freelance basis, and am happy to be invited to run workshops.
The next courses I’ll be teaching at City Lit are:
- The Basketry Project : Investigate, Explore, Make
Mondays, 10:30 to 4:30: 20th April to 22nd June 2015 (excluding 25th May)
- Random Weave Basketry: Explore Line, Form, and Space
Monday/Tuesday 13th & 14th July 2015
- Make a Small Twined Basket from Paper Yarns
Monday/Tuesday 20th & 21st July 2015
I will also be teaching a couple of courses this Summer at The Goodlife Centre in London.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
It varies, but generally I respond to invitations to show my work.
Where can readers see your work this year?
So far this year, I’ll have a small piece of work in an exhibition by members of the Basketmakers Association: Basketry Identity. The exhibition runs from Wednesday 25th March to Sunday 26th April 2015, 10am to 4pm Monday to Saturday, 11am to 4pm Sunday, at Riverhouse Arts Centre, Manor Road, Walton on Thames, Surrey, KT12 2PF.
I will also have work in the annual Staff Show at the City Lit, which runs from 12th to 28th May 2015. City Lit, 1-10 Keeley St, Covent Garden, London, WC2B 4BA.
My studio will be open during the weekend of Open Studios at Kingsgate Workshops later this year – check their website for details.
Want more information? Please visit: www.pollypollock.co.uk