Sarah Gwyer: Beaded beauties
Sarah Gwyer is known for her exuberant work incorporating a rainbow of stitched colours with a vast treasure-trove of beads and charms. Through her painstakingly-crafted portraits and sculptures of famous faces she explores celebrity culture, consumerism and commercialism.
Drawing on inspiration from the work of bold, brash artists like Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, Sarah’s creations bring traditional craft concepts into pop art. Her work crosses the boundaries of textile art and pop art, reaching new audiences of art-lovers and craftspeople who are drawn to her dazzling embellished and embroidered works.
Sarah studied Fine Art at Cardiff Metropolitan University, followed by a Masters degree in Printmaking at the University of the Arts, London. In 2019 she won Best Use of Colour in the National Needlecraft Awards. She has exhibited in the UK and in New York, including recently at the Columbia Threadneedle Prize exhibition in 2018 (Mall Galleries, London) and at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in 2017 (London).
In this interview Sarah shares how her journey as an artist began as a child, stemming from time spent with her wood-carving grandfather and with supportive art teachers. Discover where she finds the inspiration for her sensational portraits, and learn how to use beads, buttons and charms in your own textile art.
The benefit of great teachers
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Sarah Gwyer: The thread itself first attracted me to textile art. It gives such versatility and strength. Thread can be used in so many ways to tell a story. I love its heritage and feel passionately that textile art is too often overlooked in the art world. I wanted to play a small part in changing that.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I grew up around lots of crafting. My maternal Grandfather was a wood carver; I used to love spending time in his workshop and this is where I first learnt how to work in three dimensions. Also, I was fortunate that my school, Newent Community School truly valued the visual arts. All my teachers were, and still are, practising artists.
My work has been particularly influenced by James Rosenquist. I visited his Retrospective at the Guggenheim, New York and the scale of his work is often in the back of my mind. I loved how easy it was to access visually, the colours and the ambitious size of his work; his painting F111 is over 83 feet! I’ve always believed art should be for all and that you can make a statement without alienating the audience. All of his work does this and it is visually stunning to boot.
My daily life has a large influence on my work, trying to bounce around all the things women are expected to be while balancing my career and a young family. These experiences have led me to explore the concept of womanhood in today’s world. My balancing act would not be possible without very supportive family and friends.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I’d known I’d wanted to work in the visual arts since primary school. I set my sights on completing an art foundation course. During this course, I confirmed that I wanted to become an artist. I accepted a place on a Fine Art degree at Cardiff Metropolitan University. From there I went on to a Masters in Printmaking at the University of Arts London.
While studying in London I was picked up by a commercial gallery, which enabled me to start off my professional career in 2008.
A few years later I took some time out to start a family and as they’ve got older and started school I’ve been able to pick up where I left off.
Getting the eyes right
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
As I’m stitching a piece I’m already thinking ahead to the next. Each work takes several weeks or longer so normally I have a fully-fledged idea or two ready to go.
To start, I create a digital composite by sifting through hundreds of images of the chosen subject. For example with the Duchess of Cambridge, her hair, face and body are all from different photographs. I looked for pictures with the most ‘Kate’ hair and found the best image of her looking right into the camera. By merging these source images it also ensures there are no copyright issues with my work. I then sketch my design out on to a canvas.
Whether I’m using beads or cotton threads I always start with the eyes first. I find it helps with proportion and it’s the one aspect that needs to be exactly spot on, or it will have a negative huge effect overall.
I then tend to work outwards in every direction. I might avoid an area if it’s particularly difficult, for example, the hands. I try to complete the tricky areas working in natural light and with absolutely no distractions.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
For thread-painting, I normally use two threads at a time and a size 8 needle. I knot the end rather than weaving it in because I’d rather have a messy embroidery back than a missing needle.
When I’m struggling for a colour match I use one thread from two of the nearest shades and twist them together. Most of my portraits have used this colour mixing technique at some point.
My stitching method is simple; a lot of silk shading, a little chain stitch and occasionally French knots to add some extra texture. For bead embroidery, I stitch through every bead at least twice and charms added to wall-hung pieces are anchored down, so there is very little movement in them. I work in clusters to ensure the sizing of beads is fairly equal throughout the work.
What currently inspires you?
I love finding inspiration in the little things such as pops of bright colour in unexpected places. My Instagram feed is often full of fun new things I’ve spotted. Sometimes I come across a charm that instantly reminds me of a particular celebrity and a portrait evolves from there.
I’m also honoured to be a member of the Society for Embroidered Work. I’m in awe of my fellow members’ work and they have inspired me with so many new stitches and techniques to experiment with.
The allure of Amy
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
My favourite work is a sculpture ‘Amy Remixed’, stitched in 2017. It’s a 3D beaded portrait of Amy Winehouse sitting in a Buddhist pose and features thousands of hand-stitched embellishments.
Amy is a subject I’ve returned to a lot and I feel the piece was a great culmination of the last few years of work. After five years of trying, this was the piece that finally enabled me to exhibit at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Achieving this accolade was definitely worth it, despite dealing with the numerous previous rejections. A BBC2 crew followed my entry that year, bringing bead embroidery to new audiences.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has developed a more refined style and aside from creating limited edition prints of some of my embroidered works I’ve left behind printmaking entirely.
I’ve become much more aware of the environmental challenges the world faces and have started to produce work that acknowledges this, as well as continually finding ways to make my practice more sustainable.
Going forward I see my practice almost splitting in two; with smaller portrait works on one side while and large, ambitious pieces on the other. I’m currently working on a large multi-panel thread-painting that will take me through the next decade, if not longer!
I feel we are on the cusp of brilliant change as a society and I’m really excited to be stitching through it.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
There are two main pieces of advice I wish I had known.
The first is always thoroughly document and photograph all of your work. I have several pieces of work that I have no visual record of, but they are out there somewhere. It helps you develop your work and style if you can look back on it.
The second is to persevere. Take a really long-term view of your career. For the vast majority, it takes years if not decades to build up to a full-time career as an artist.
For more information visit www.sarahgwyer.com
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