Rebecca Fairley: OCA textiles tutor
Textile courses are offered by the Open College of the Arts covering a comprehensive range of media and techniques.
The objective is to provide students with a solid foundation upon which their creative capacities will flourish. Starting with the exploration of core issues relating to textile art, students develop their interpretation and application of imagery as well as tactile awareness. Tutors, such as Rebecca Fairley, help students achieve their artistic potential.
An important element of the program is the incorporation of intellectually stimulating material, including support from tutors who are already established textile artists and designers.
In this series, tutors from the Open College of the Arts will be exploring with us both theoretical and conceptual ideas relating to mixed media for textiles, contemporary practice, and a foundation of traditional skills. Rebecca Fairley begins this series by exploring her flair for the unconventional.
Methods, materials & ideas
I cannot really describe myself as a conventional textile artist. I do work with fabrics and yarn but I have a broader interest in materials and material manipulation. My particular interest is in using materials like fabric, knits and plastics to mould concrete surfaces. I am the course leader for textiles at the Open College of the Arts (OCA), a British-based open access institution that offers high quality arts courses by distance learning. My role includes tutoring, assessing and course writing. In this blog post I would like to share my work, my approach and what inspires me as a practitioner and how this has helped me develop a course I have recently written for the OCA; Mixed Media for Textiles.
Like many students who study at the OCA I worked towards a degree in textiles later in life. After a career in nursing and whilst bringing up my children I was given the opportunity to take my life-long love of making and explore it at university. I studied Surface Design for Fashion and Interiors at the University of Huddersfield where I came into contact with methods, materials and ideas I had not previously known. I worked in a whole range of materials including fabrics, plastics, wood and paper, learning traditional textile techniques like embroidery and screen-printing coupled with the contemporary technology of computer aided design and laser cutting. I do see the value of using modern technology. However, my excitement lies with using my hands to create.
The results had me hooked
I spent the final year of my BA immersed in materials and their manipulation, starting with broad and random investigations where I followed ideas and reached dead ends. The initial exploratory project focused on combining materials with techniques to investigate surface design possibilities. Some of the techniques I used included stitching into ceramics, moulding papier-mâché and stitching into it, moulding yarns dipped in PVA glue, knitting with plastics and casting objects into concrete. I had to be encouraged by my tutor to use concrete. My impression of it was that it is a cold masculine unforgiving material and not for me. However I went home and asked my husband to teach me how to make concrete. The first mix we made was in a bucket using a trowel to both measure and mix the constituents. It went something like this: place two trowels full of shingle aggregate and two trowels full of sharp sand into a bucket and mix. Next add one trowel full of cement and mix, followed by enough water to make a mix that moves but isn’t too watery. There were two things that struck me about this method; firstly it reminded me of baking or making pastry, so it felt incredibly familiar. The second was that the knowledge needed to add the correct amount of water had to be learnt through doing.
Using foil quiche trays because they were what I had close at hand I added seemingly random materials to the concrete. This included muslin fabric, a metal pan scourer, a broken plate and some wire removed from our house during recent rewiring. With my husband’s help I later polished these first samples to reveal the objects set within them. The process of making and the results had me hooked.
The smallest details
Using concrete as the main constituent I brought together my experiences and knowledge of other materials to explore the possibilities of using concrete as a decorative surface. This often meant doing things that others thought impossible, for example my husband thought it pointless to use a piece of knitting to mould a concrete surface. His understanding of concrete suggested it would run through the textile, escaping to the floor below. What did in fact happen was that only a small amount of water escaped and once the knitted mould was removed the concrete surface was left with the impression of the knitted yarn. What also happened through the weight of the wet mix on the stretch of the knitting was that the sample took on the shape of a dome. It’s these tactile qualities that lead viewers of my work to want to touch and understand the surfaces. It struck me then that the concrete was no longer a masculine cold unforgiving material; in my hands it had become tactile, intriguing and feminine. This has led me to believe that there is a language of materials and a dialogue that occurs in the hands of the maker.
My developing knowledge and understanding of using, testing and sample-making to gain new knowledge led me to study for a Masters by Research. As a practice-led postgraduate degree I continued my exploration of concrete as a surface design material.
What I love about concrete is its form-finding behaviour. The mould materials and the concrete work together to create something exciting. I am never quite sure what the results will be and I find this exhilarating. I learnt that this hardwearing material is actually very sensitive, it picks up the smallest details of a fabrics surface, giving me the opportunity to create fine concrete textures.
Aesthetically engaging surfaces
My knowledge of research in the visual arts and material manipulation has enabled me to write a brand-new and I think exciting course for the OCA. The Mixed Media for Textiles Course is a level one course that aims to encourage students to be innovative, curious and creative. It is set out to enable students to explore materials, mediums and methods as away of developing design outcomes.
I am inspired by others who like me have a curiosity for how concrete and textiles behave when put together. Some are textile practitioners who have become interested in concrete as a design material and others are architects or designers who see textiles as a way of shaping or controlling concrete. Tactility factory are a two-woman design company with roots in academic practice. They combine their two disciplines of architecture and textiles to create vibrantly textured surfaces. This is done by embedding especially designed textiles within the concrete’s surface, producing textures and patterns reminiscent of flocked wallpaper. Their impetus is the creation of aesthetically engaging surfaces. On the other hand, John Orr, assistant professor in architecture and civil engineering at the University of Bath, uses maths and computer aided design to form beams that are shaped to most efficiently take the load of a ceiling. To do this he has designed a method of using geotextiles secured in a wooden frame to mould the concrete in the shape calculated. The by-product of this efficient use of concrete is beams that are organic and ergonomic in shape, feeling gentle and easy to live with. I am also inspired by artists who reach inside themselves to find inspiration for their work, in particular Louise Bourgeois. Her self-exploration and broad approach to the materials she used allowed her to be always experimental and individual. She did not corner herself into a particular type of art, giving her the freedom of expression I very much admire.
For more information, please visit: www.oca.ac.uk
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