Jennie Merriman interview: Pushing the boundaries
Jennie Merriman came to textile art slightly later in life, but has certainly made up for lost time since then. In the last few years she has developed her long-term love of working with acrylic sheets and using a variety of different techniques to challenge traditional processes and create her own unique brand of experimental textile art. She has created her own set of rules to inform this process.
Her compositions start from a simple geometric basis and work towards the characteristics of harmony and discipline. Her work begins with a two dimensional frame which is built up to create a three dimensional structure, forming patterns of stability between the various entities.
Here she tells us more about this incredible process.
Embroidery kits for Christmas
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Jennie Merriman: I had worked for twenty years as a Youth worker and loved to take in new crafts and ideas for youth club members to try out. When I was in my mid forties I interviewed a textile artist, Peggy Fearne, for an activity instructor post and saw her contemporary textile portfolio of samples and work and was instantly hooked. I was very naïve and had no idea such work existed, I found them so exciting.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work ?
As a child I remember the sewing machine was always on the table and used most days by my mother and later myself. She embroidered, knitted and made clothes for all of the family. I had embroidery kits every year for Christmas and embroidered well into my teens until other interests took over. The arts didn’t feature at home or in my life until much later. It was ‘the making’ that I always had access to, woodwork, metalwork, mechanics and engineering with my Father and textiles with my Mother.
The joy of experimentation
What was your route to becoming an artist? (Formal training or another pathway?)
In the late 90’s I had the opportunity to take my City and Guilds in Embroidery. I was obsessed and made up for lost time working five days a week, visiting museums and galleries, university textile shows and talking with as many people as possible about experimental textile art. I had taken early retirement through ill health and had found the perfect antidote and road to recovery. The course leader was Sarah Burgess she was inspirational and I thrived working with her and Peggy. I enjoyed all of it, the traditional, the historical, contemporary, hand, machine, constructed textiles and the sheer joy of experimentation. After exploiting as many ideas as I could I left after completing parts one and two with a fair idea of where I was going. Jean Draper helped me to refine my ideas and develop a body of work whilst teaching in Art and Design at Chesterfield College. It was a new and exciting world, sometimes lonely and often tough but I knew I was in it for the long haul. Much later working with Hilary Bower at Bankfield gave me many insights. She helped me to focus on what my work is about and how it is ‘of me’. She enabled me to find the path towards working independently.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques ?
I have worked with Acrylic sheet for ten years, it started as a backing material for my work. I then started to embellish it along with my work until it became integral with it and it has now become the main thrust of my work. I kept sketch books of design development for many years but latterly I have found that the short poems I write, words and ideas have started to inform my work along with experimentation using a variety of techniques and media as I continue to push the boundaries. My sketch books now seem to be about words, problem solving, geometric workings out and sourcing materials and equipment. There often isn’t much out there to technically inform my work and the main way forward is through experimentation
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
The work is conceptual and I am happiest when developing a 3D approach.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I work on my own, I have a studio at home and have a regular sequence of three or four consecutive days to help me get immersed in the work, especially when I am going into a developmental phase. Once I know what I am doing and where I am going it gets easier, then I can work whenever I have a few hours to spare.
I like to perform as many of the processes as I can cutting the acrylic sheet, drilling, soldering and bolting. Problem solving is a major part of the work. Searching for the right tools and hardware to create 3D structures I tend to spend far more time in hardware stores and shop fitters than scouring the stands at shows.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
The work that gives me a buzz when I see it and makes me want to fly is in the Barbara Hepworth Gallery, once inside I didn’t want to leave. Not only was it full of her sculptures but also a good number of works by Ben Nicholson who was the first artist to inspire me when doing my city and Guilds. Not far away is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park which housed Andy Goldsworthy (2007) and Jaume Plensa’s (20011) exhibitions.
Artists who can create a sense of inner peace within their work and sometimes create it within a room and occasionally within a major gallery are very special and it moves me immensely. The first time I experienced this was at the ‘Textural Space’ exhibition 2001 it was a huge step forward for me in terms of starting to understand what I was aiming for. The intimate knowledge of the medium, the craft skill honed as perfectly as possible. Walking through the ‘Gate of Bow’ I felt I was walking into another sense of being.
I felt privileged to be the only occupant in the gallery at Bankfield when visiting ‘Of Quiet Observation’ 2006 by Hilary Bower, I just wanted to lose myself in it. Hearing her lecture and experiencing her new work I knew without doubt I needed to be on the mentoring course with her starting in the September.
Feeling the spirit
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
After I finishing my City and Guilds June 2001 and continuing to work with a Native American theme I produced ‘Freeing the spirit’, the first in a series of 5 pieces of work. They were important because it was the first time I had started to use acrylic sheet integral to the work and although they were wall pieces they had three layers bolted together and were 3 dimensional. They measured 1m x 30cm and I saw them as my first pieces of experimental textile art. I entered them into the Great Sheffield Art Show June 2002 and they all sold. It was very exciting but I really missed them.
Reflection and transparency
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Working with Hilary and the ‘Reveal’ group (as we later became) gave me the confidence to let go of my past work. All I took forward was acrylic sheet and thread; completing the work ‘constructs’ was a defining moment. It was something very different, it worked on many levels and this work was now ‘of me’ and it gave me a growing confidence. It did not come from a specific design source but emerged from everything I had worked with over the last few years. On an inner level it was about the way we can construct our own reality, free ourselves from our past, and by using some of the qualities of the medium (reflection and transparency) take all of the pieces and start to construct a new life that was more harmonious and stable. My new work now includes shadow and movement which gives the work another dimension and which I would like to explore further.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I run ‘working with acrylic sheet’ workshops at Holymoorside near Chesterfield and the next workshops began in February. I will also travel to run day workshops for other organised venues and groups. Information can be found on my website www.jenniemerriman.co.uk. I have also been known to give the occasional talk.
Where can readers see your work this year ?
My work will be at the Platform Gallery from January until April 2013.
I will be taking part in Derbyshire Open Arts May 25th – 27th 2013 in Holymoorside Village Hall
I am part of the group Reveal and we will be at Fashion and Embroidery 21st – 24th March 2013, NEC, Birmingham
For more information please visit: www.jenniemerriman.co.uk