Ruth Lee interview: Text textiles and identity
Ruth Lee is best known for her textile art, although she is also an experienced lecturer, having taught at Cumbria Institute of the Arts for 25 years.
She is presently exploring new paths by combining traditional textile art processes and printmaking through digital technologies.
In this interview, Ruth reveals her earliest memories of creating art, the challenges associated with visualising three-dimensional concepts, and redefining herself as a textile artist.
Random button collections
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Ruth Lee: I was fortunate to undertake my degree at Liverpool College of Art in 1968-1971 in printed textiles. Encouraged to develop an individual and experimental approach to printed and painted textiles by lecturer Barbara Santos Shaw these three years at Liverpool have been the hugely influential on the path my career has taken ever since.
At that time the recognised career route for print was designing for the textile industry or building a freelance portfolio of print designs. My degree show was an interesting affair. Colourful wall art constructed from printed, dyed and painted textiles were exhibited in the corridor whilst the obligatory three metre lengths and associated designs made for a separate display.
I enjoyed the hands-on approach of working directly in the print room, with painted and printed textiles. I loved handling and working with fabrics and structures that I had created from scratch making them up into something to wear or hang on the wall or simply exhibit as textile art.
The following year (1972) the outcome of my postgraduate work at Birmingham Polytechnic, were printed and painted textile installations.
What or who were your early influences and how has your upbringing influenced your work?
Always allowed to make a mess and be creative, home in Coventry was somewhere we made things, from childhood through to teenage years and beyond. I can’t imagine a time when I didn’t have access to fabric, yarn and paint!
Our family always made things. Mum belonged to the “make do and mend” generation: yarns were unravelled to make something new, fabric recycled and cut up to make hooked rugs. There was always a fabric and yarn box with projects on the go: little workbaskets with skeins of embroidery threads, small balls of variegated wool for the inevitable knitting Nancy, and random button collections.
The real treats were the beautiful taffeta party frocks that mum skillfully sewed from new fabric, and dresses sewn from Miss Moffat prints. I have an old tea cosy incorporating tiny scraps of fabric from this era; it is one of my most treasured possessions.
Encouraged to use the “proper” treadle sewing machine and equipment at an early age. I have fond memories of the cutting-out scissors (which were only for fabric!) making a particular noise across the dining room table as you held them in the correct position to cut the fabric properly.
As a teenager I sewed much more than I knitted, altering and adapting dressmaking patterns which got wilder and more unconventional as I got older. I worked intuitively using the pattern pieces as a starting point.
My earliest memories of art (outside the home) were art classes at Southbank Road Junior school in Coventry, where the headmaster (a Mr Cook I think) taught us. Each class he would demonstrate, step by step, how to do a particular painting. Still in my possession is one particular picture which was used to show us how to build a landscape from background to foreground using colour, and making marks with brushes.
Fabric in colourful patterns
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Formal qualifications: Diploma in Art and Design, First Class Honours degree in printed textiles from Liverpool Polytechnic in 1971 and Higher Diploma (Postgraduate ) in Art and Design, Birmingham Polytechnic 1972.
As a mature artist I have been fortunate to be accepted onto the AA2A scheme twice (Artists Access to Art College). Firstly at Cumbria Institute of the Arts 2008 to develop a body of new work in printed textiles using traditional technologies and then at the University of Central Lancashire in 2011/12, working across traditional and digital printmaking and laser cutting technologies.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
All things being equal my chosen medium would have always been printed and painted fabrics, worked into with stitch and manipulated into various forms and constructions preferably on a large scale for interiors or as gallery pieces.
However, the costs of setting up as an artist-maker at that time (1972) was completely out of reach financially. I bought a domestic knitting machine initially as a short-term venture and a way of making knitted items to sell to fund studio space and equipment.
Knitting (hand and machine) and latterly off-loom techniques became my main medium for many years. Totally self-taught, I found that machine knitting was very visual, immediate and bypassed the chore of reading written patterns with tedious abbreviations to interpret.
Initially I designed directly onto the machine using basic hand-manipulated techniques and a crank-handle, punch-card pattern centre creating swatches of knitted fabric in colourful patterns and textures, with written notes accompanying the experiments for future reference.
Once I realised that it was possible to work visually, my eyes were opened to the full potential of creative machine knitting. Working from graphs and charted shapes liberated me from the limitations of a written pattern designed for a particular yarn and tension.
This approach, combined with free-form three-dimensional knitting techniques, set me on a career path I hadn’t really intended to pursue. In the mid to late 1970s, based in St Ives Cornwall, I found that my designer knitwear took off in a big way, leaving my ambitions with print and painted art textiles on the backburner.
Ironically the many years spent exploring knit/off loom techniques initially to create one of a kind wearable’s and then latterly as a means of communicating ideas has served me well: in particular developing the three dimensional aspect of my larger scale textile art work.
Where does it fit within the sphere of contemporary art?
This is a problem I have been trying to solve. I recently wrote this post on my Ruth Lee Textile Artist community Facebook page:
Now I have decided to work on my blog ribbonsandthreads.com and develop a new website I am trying to work out how best to describe what I do and make. Maybe I am putting limitations on the audience I want to reach (and on me) by calling myself a textile artist
Perhaps a more apt description might be:
Ruth lee, visual artist, maker of contemporary artworks in two and three dimensions, currently exploring new directions in her art textile practice combining traditional making processes in printmaking and textile construction techniques with digital technologies.
How ideas evolve
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.
On a practical level I work between two dimensions and three dimensions, usually commencing a new body of work in the former: it depends on the subject matter and potential direction I want the work to take. Working in the latter, I like to make three dimensional thumbnails in paper which are then refined and changed either working directly into a sketch book or developing the forms as paper maquettes. To begin this process I have made paper templates directly from objects such as shoes or de-constructed actual gloves to re-construct and re-develop the forms.
I have always found it difficult to visualise three dimensional form in two dimensions without an actual object to work from. Working directly with form works well for me as does commencing a new body of work with hands on sampling (Spirit Dresses for example). I take copious amounts of digital photos as I work which makes me look at the forms and shapes, the three-dimensional composition if you like, from all angles. In two dimensions I can frame and crop images quickly, quite often working between image processing programmes and hands on working.
In very general terms all of my work is about exploring how ideas evolve through the making process, in particular the close relationship between materials, processes, concepts and creative thinking.
Put another way it’s about thinking with my hands through the medium of textiles and textile-related practices. Engaging body and mind and responding to the sensory and tactile nature of the making process, with the added satisfaction of making something from scratch, whether the outcome is a piece of textile art or a functional accessory.
I think this philosophy applies across the board whether I am working with knit, off-loom construction techniques, print, stitch, laser cutting or digital image making.
So to be more specific and with reference to knitting and three dimensional off-loom construction techniques, I am fascinated with the magical transformation of simple linear materials such as hair-fine wire, paper string or basket-maker’s rattan into complex structures and surfaces. For example two-dimensional surfaces and three-dimensional forms building organically, one element at a time, stitch by stitch through the repetition of small pattern units designed from scratch.
Knitting as a metaphor to express ideas and concepts played a large part in the creation of Spirit Dresses 1 to 4, for example marking time passing, a symbolic journey, the slow, rhythmic process of hand knitting offering a quite thinking space.
Repetition and structure underpins much as of work: using such formal systems as Fibonacci numbers to create multiple images, where each image (or structure) is unique yet similar. The Fibonacci number system relates to growth patterns in the natural world.
As an example, Spirit Dresses: calculations for the number of rows and stitches, or the number of repeats per pattern unit were based on Fibonacci. The flexible and unpredictable nature of the materials (wire and paper string) created organic structures often looking like exotic sea creatures, or microscopic marine organisms and plant form, depending upon the scale of the work.
Do you use a sketchbook?
If the definition of a sketchbook is a place where I record and study visual information, record my thought processes, solve problems, experiment with media and material sampling for example then the answer to your question is most emphatically yes. It is the most important aspect of my practice.
For me these personal journals speak of journeys of exploration, sometimes of exasperation and sometimes of exhilaration. If my work was to go missing then it would be the loss of these intimate and personal journals that would cause the most heartache.
In a code or hidden message
What currently inspires you?
To answer this question I have looked to see if there is a common thread which connects my textile artwork. I think it is this: the concept of a textile narrative (a visual story) using the language of textiles to communicate my ideas.
Sometimes I start with a concept other times with a specific object or collection of objects. Currently I am working with gloves as part of a body of work which has a working title of Text, Textiles and Identity. Gloves combined with many other seemingly diverse influences moving away from the literal to more abstract concepts. For example, bar codes, hidden text, Cashes woven name tapes, Coventry Blue dye, patterns in the landscape, gardening, significant locations, relocating to Portugal.
I have always liked the idea of transforming a practical item of clothing which has a previous history into textile art where the finished work tells a story or conveys a message to the viewer. I like to intrigue, tantalise, challenge, pose questions to the viewer or communicate with like-minded recipients only: maybe in a code or hidden message for example.
I am fascinated by objects with a social history. In a way this new work links back to two previous exhibitions. For example “Made from Memory” 2004/2005 (Pickford’s House Museum of Georgian Costume, Derby) was inspired by upper class Georgian shoes and chimney/hidden shoes often found concealed in old buildings over the door lintel to ward off evil spirits. Here I wanted deconstruct and then reconstruct the shoes to create a collection of three dimensional pieces to ask the viewer to construct their own narrative and to question the provenance of these works. Shoe forms that might have been ancient artefacts exhibited in a museum context!
Reading Between The Lines 2007 continued with this idea, referencing perforated pattern templates such as knitting and jacquard punch cards, player piano rolls and using knitting jargon for the titles of some of these intriguing pieces of work, for example Repeat from * to * 55 times. Altered Text plays an important role in my work: the continuous looping structure of hand knitted connecting cable and paper string taking on the appearance of hand written texts.
Which other artists do you admire and why?
There are so many visual artists that I admire for different reasons that I thought best to focus on a select few which relate directly to my practice.
Contemporary Japanese textile artists because of their understanding of architectural space, use of texture and structure, light and shadows. Work which is exquisitely constructed with a great emphasis on the making process, sensibility and respect towards materials and a sense of harmony and spirituality with their surroundings and maker.
For example: Machiko Agano: organic, wave like installations knitted on large needles in steel wire, silk and fishing line. For example Koji Takaki: pieces which take cloth back to its original threads using a process of disintegration to create new works in linen thread, steel. Polypropylene and water soluble film for example.
As an artist and educator Hisako Sekijima for her book “Basketry Projects from Baskets to Grass Slippers” from which I learnt so much about the expressive potential of basketry and in particular the concept of space being a second material and the way materials evoke a form and working method.
A contemporary context
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work changed quite dramatically around 2000 with the realisation that almost anything long, linear and flexible could be used to make large-scale, three dimensional knitted structures. This really excited me so I began experimenting with anything from electrical cables through to basket-maker’s cane. The latter came about because I was teaching a fibre arts module at Cumbria that explored traditional off-loom techniques in a contemporary context.
The outcome of this was an exhibition of fibre arts and mixed media work in 2003 Inside Out set in the peace and tranquillity of Norton Priory Museums and gardens in Runcorn, Cheshire. Here were the beginnings of Spirit Dresses 1 to 4 and the realisation that knitting could be used as a metaphor to express ideas and concepts.
At the same time I began to experiment with combining bonded fibre surfaces made from silk fibres with areas of open work machine knitting, knitted in ultra fine, sewing thread papers and further embellished with machine stitching and simple block printing techniques. Much of the work created for Made From Memory 2004/2005 and some of the artefacts made for Reading Between the Lines 2007 developed these experimental surfaces.
More recently I have experimented with digitally manipulated images of knitted structures for large scale digitally printed fabrics and for laser cut textile art.
Having worked with contemporary textile construction techniques since the late 1970’s I am finally returning to my roots in print but not abandoning all that has gone before: I hope to explore new directions in my art textile practice combining traditional and alternative processes in printmaking (etching, cyanotypes, screen printing), textile construction techniques, using a range of digital and hands-on technologies.
Since moving from Britain to Portugal in 2013, I have discovered a new world of intense light and colour; strong light and dark patterns and shadows, ancient buildings and empty landscapes and so much more to be explored. A series of acrylic, laser cut tiles combined with layered prints of birds completed in 2012 make the link between past and present where the laser-cutting and layering evoke concepts of time passing, journeys and the spaces in between.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Find your own voice and make work that communicates some kind of narrative, emotion or meaning that can be communicated through textile media and techniques.
Engage body and mind, think with your hands and respond to the sensory and tactile nature of the textile making process,in particular the close relationship between materials, processes, technologies, concepts and creative thinking.
On a practical level: be prepared to find alternative ways of using your skills to pay the bills: running workshops, lecturing part time, making small saleable pieces as spin-offs from your major works for example.
Believe in what you are doing even when the going is hard.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
- Lost In Lace Transparent boundaries Lesley Miller. Published by Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery 2011 ISBN 978-0-9570494-0-6
- Textural Space: contemporary Japanese Textile Art. Exhibition catalogue. Exhibition curated and organised by Lesley Miller. 2001 ISBN 1-899817-06-9
- Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting: process+ materials. Museum of Art and Design. David Revere McFadden 2007 ISBN 978-1-85149-568-9
- How to Wrap 5 More Eggs: Traditional Japanese Packaging. Hideyuki Oka. 1965, 1972 and 1975 ISBN 0-8348-0108-6
- Textile Techniques in metal: for Jewelers, Textile Artists and Scupltors. Arline M. Fisch. Published by Robert Hale. London 1996 ISBN 0-7090-6007-6
A certain spirit
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so, where can readers find information about these?
I am open to suggestions with regard to running workshops and classes either in the UK or here in Portugal. In the UK I would be looking at summer schools or short courses.
You can see my working process in my chapter, Flights of Fancy 2013 in Approaches to Stitch, edited by Maggie Grey, photography by Michael Wicks. My challenge was to show the reader how to develop two existing textile artworks in a new direction combined with a new element (gloves).
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
My most inspired exhibitions are where I have had the privilege to access museum collections to research specific objects with a gallery space to exhibit the work For example the collection of Georgian shoes which resulted in “Made From Memory” Pickford’s House Museum of Georgian Costume, Derby.
I would love to access the collection of historic woven ribbons in The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry (my home town) and discover more about the “Coventry Blue” dye as part of my research for Text Textiles and Identity.
Other considerations when choosing where to show my work include finding venues which have a certain spirit and place and where my work has a real affinity with the space.
Where can readers see your work this year?
After two years in the artistic wilderness since our move to Portugal, I have been struggling to find a narrative; the story line, the threads that links my seemingly diverse work. Finally I have started making work again. My long-term aim is a travelling exhibition connecting locations of personal significance… but first to make some new work to present to various galleries.
Learn more about Ruth Lee at: ribbonsandthreads.com