Ruth Lee: From conception to creation
Connecting the threads; creating a narrative through the language of textiles. Communicating ideas but not always telling the whole of the story. Intriguing; tantalising; posing questions; drawing in the viewer to invent their own storyline, which may or may not be the original intentions of the artist. This is the essence of Ruth Lee’s work.
Underpinning my work is a balancing act between how ideas evolve through the making process; their close relationship between materials; the hands-on making processes; concepts and creative thinking.
Informed by hands-on printmaking techniques, enhanced with stitching, layering and various construction techniques, much of my new work is about exploring the positive role of digital technologies in conjunction with the handmade, alongside more traditional techniques such as etching, and working with woodblock techniques.
Moving to Portugal nearly four years ago, the biggest shock to my system was realising that I needed to rebuild my professional life and networks as a textile artist and printmaker from scratch. I was presented with a blank canvas, which at times was overwhelming but which afforded me an opportunity to re-evaluate my practice and to be who I wanted to be.
Printmaking has been my way into meeting like-minded souls in Portugal and my association with Matriz, Associação de Gravura do Porto, has been an absolute lifeline, learning a whole raft of new techniques and working practice. It is this link with printmaking that has enabled me to move on with my practice and is apparent in the finished work I have chosen to use for this interview.
Inclusion in Contextile 2016, the Contemporary Textile Art Biennial held in Guimarães, Portugal was a notable success. I was delighted to discover that a large-scale piece of work had been accepted for the international exhibition. It was one of 54 pieces of work in the show selected from 732 proposals.
Blow the Wind Southerly (created 2014) combined handmade prints taken from laser-etched wood blocks, with hand-produced silk papers, stitched and construction techniques, and is the link with current work. I was also invited to give a short talk entitled Handmade Digitally: Digitally Handmade.
In this article, which is part of our From conception to creation series, Ruth talks about Imagined Landscapes which was the title of a three-person exhibition at The Crypt Gallery, St Ives, Cornwall, UK in late August 2016. These featured small-scale works shown below. Imagined Landscapes 1, 2 and 3 were an important aspect of her contribution to the show: a landmark in this particular creative journey, which also included large-scale digitally printed and laser-cut textiles.
Name of piece: Imagined Landscapes 1, 2 and 3. Three interlinked linked pieces were made to work together or hung individually
Year of piece: 2016
Size of piece: Each piece, unframed, Image size 15cm x 31.5cm, paper size 25cm 50cm.
Materials used: Fabriano papers, oil-based inks, stainless steel threads.
Techniques used: Soft-ground etching, collage and hand stitching.
A sense of belonging
TextileArtist.org: How did the idea for the piece come about? What was your inspiration?
Ruth Lee: On reflection, much of the work for ‘Imagined Landscapes’ was about a sense of place and belonging in a transient world. A road map referencing locations of personal significance overlaid with seemingly ancient-looking landscapes. An inner landscape, which linked past and present, now even more meaningful having moved to a new life here in Portugal from the rugged landscape of north Cumbria.
The three small finished pieces, Imagined Landscapes 1, 2 and 3 were made early on in the year-long production of new works for this exhibition, becoming the catalyst for much that followed.
Where to start? I usually have far too many starting points and need to sift and refine down to find my focus. In this instance, the subject of gloves and their wearer had long been a major preoccupation, but with no real sense of purpose or concept. Ready-made research awaiting further development.
Suddenly the drawings I had been making of old, worn gardening gloves in 2015 made sense, speaking of a common history between myself and my family: a love of plants, gardening and the land going back to my childhood in Coventry, and continuing throughout my adult life wherever I have lived.
What research did you do before you started to make?
Visual research included making marks and textures relating to landscape, and superimposing them onto the glove forms. Working between hands-on drawings and computer-generated imagery, images were cropped to look like aerial landscapes. Etchings were reworked into layered collages to reflect the layouts of the cropped glove like landscapes.
Landscape marks layered with organic hand-knitted structures came to resemble an imagined landscape seen from the air, hinting at ancient rocks, river beds, pathways, rail tracks and long gone dwellings: a dreamlike landscape of no particular location.
Finding a visual language
My chosen colour story speaks of distant blue horizons where colours become more grey as they recede into the far distance of a wide open landscape and the colour contrast less in evidence. A metaphor for the passing of time.
Collage techniques with paper and thread evolved from the initial drawings. My aim was to find a visual language which connected and integrated the print, stitch and construction elements and where one element adds to the other in a seamless whole. These small pieces asked for physical depth and a definite tactile element, whereas the large-scale digital textiles used colour to imply a sense of depth and space.
Some of the preparatory sampling for Imagined Landscapes 1, 2 and 3 are shown below, for example drawing with stitch over woodblock prints onto long-fibre abaca papers, torn and layered etched fragments, leftover newsprint tests.
For example, exploring ways of linking these discarded print fragments with a series of stitched grid lines over transparent papers making reference to maps and grid lines.
Practical problems encountered were how to stitch onto a relatively inflexible surface (Fabriano etching paper) where repeated stitching could result in unwanted perforations and disintegration of the surface. The subtle organic texture of this fairly heavyweight paper was suited to the landscape imagery, so solutions had to be found.
Working with small fragments of torn and shaped etchings to create the desired layered look, the solution was to stitch them directly to a single-layer base print, but first piercing through both layers to create holes for the threaded-up needle to push through. The paper layers were held in place with a minuscule amount of double sided tape so that the piercings on each layer coincided.
Much of the subsequent stitching is worked on the front side of the paper only, with the thread looping and linking into previous lines of stitches, creating a network of surface pattern in the same way as I have previously worked with experimental knitting and netting
Add to this mix the decision to use a lively silk/stainless steel thread because it holds the open looping shapes well, the making process at this stage progressed slowly, but offered up the required results.
Was there any other preparatory work?
Just to make the whole process of creating work for a major show even more of a challenge, I decided to learn more about etching techniques; a subject that was fairly new to me. I have been considering ways of integrating printed and stitched marks and textures for a while.
Landscape-linked subject matter was an ideal vehicle to do this A working method chosen to complement the larger-scale digitally-produced textile works.
For example; developing soft-ground etching techniques using samples of knitted textiles.
This is where a soft resist is used on the metal plate, and then an imprint from a textured surface, for example, open work knit structure, is taken. Part of the soft ground is removed, leaving those areas to be attacked by acid.
Aside from image making, I had to learn how to use the etching press, plate preparation, inking and cleaning routines prior to printing, learning about inks and practicing cutting, tearing, and using a damp pack to prepare the printmaking papers.
What materials were used in the creation of the piece? Where did you source them?
Zinc plate for etching and associated chemicals. Source: Printmaking studio.
Fabriano paper suitable for etching, strong enough to be used damp, and firm enough to stitch into. Source: Printmaking studio.
Stainless steel thread: Online supplier, see discussion above regarding choice of this material.
Standard oil-based etching inks: Printmaking studio.
What equipment did you use in the creation of the piece and how was it used?
Needles, thread and thimble
Take us through the creation of the piece stage by stage.
The progression from initial deliberations through to the creation of the finished pieces was worked out well in advance during the development and sampling process as described above.
The practicalities of working with a combination of etched and stitched papers left little room for disasters at the final making stage, excepting last minute fine tuning and in particular ensuring that the three pieces worked together visually as a whole for the exhibition.
What journey has the piece been on since its creation?
Imagined Landscapes. The Crypt Gallery, Norway Square, St Ives, Cornwall. TR 26 1NA 27th August – 9th September 2016. Ruth Lee, Pauline Liu-Devereux and Bob Devereux.
Framed in simple white wood frame, Imagined Landscapes 1 and 3 are for sale and can be viewed in Galleria St Ives, 5, Tregenna Hill, St Ives, Cornwall TR26 1SE UK.
For more information visit: www.ribbonsandthreads.com
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