Sorrell Kerrison: Exuberant brush-stroke portraits in stitch
Sorrell Kerrison makes stunning hand-embroidered, Fauvist-style expressionistic portraits. Each image explodes with colour and texture, giving life and movement to the subject’s face, hair and clothing. Her works require huge amounts of patience to complete; even the portrait backgrounds are often entirely hand-stitched.
Sorrell completed a BA (Hons) degree in Television and Radio and spent time working on music videos and documentary films, as a performer and a gig and festivals organiser. She was the singer/songwriter in the band No Plato from 2009 – 2011; the band was named after a W.H. Auden poem she loved. From 2013 – 2017 she was the singer and guitarist in a grunge garage band, Pinot Grigio. Moving into textile art, she combines her love of music and creating art with great passion, making portraits of musicians and other people who have made significant contributions to the people.
In 2017 Sorrell created the album cover artwork for Andrew Hung’s debut solo album “Realisationship” (Lex Records). She was also commissioned by Bolton Museum to create four embroidery portraits of significant benefactors and curators for their permanent collection. These were unveiled in 2018 and are housed in the Chadwick Rooms in the new Egyptology wing. Her work has been featured in the Embroiderers’ Guild Magazine, on the Selvedge blog and in the Stitchery Stories podcasts.
In this interview, you’ll discover how to use your passions in life to spur on your artwork. You’ll discover in detail how Sorrell creates her work.
On first glance, you might think machine stitching must have been required for the complexity of these works, but when you look closely you can see each stitch has been carefully made by hand. Sorrell’s attention to detail and willingness to work on each piece for hundreds of hours produces incredible results that you need to see to believe. Read on to find out what inspires her and see some of her astonishing portraits. You won’t be able to take your eyes off them!
From make-do-and-mend to punk music to embroidery
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Sorrell Kerrison: I love that the textile world ranges from wall-based art forms to fabrics with function and everyday items that you wear.
I was brought up in a ‘make do and mend’ household. Both my parents made and built things, so it wasn’t seen as anything unusual to make or fix your own clothing. I’ve been in various bands throughout my lifetime and used my skills in making and augmenting clothing to print t-shirts or fix up charity shop clothes and make them a little more stage ready.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I grew up in a working-class household, so if you wanted something you had to make it or upcycle it yourself.
At the time I envied people who just bought things box-fresh, off the shelf. Now I realise that this upbringing provided me with invaluable re-use skills and a better mindset towards the negatives surrounding materialism.
I have been in bands since I was about fourteen years old. As a teen, I was highly influenced by the local music scene, band zines, the Riot Grrrl movement of punk feminists and the grunge era.
I enjoyed gathering charity shop materials and making them my own. I had many self-made pieces of clothing that had ‘controversial’ slogans on them! I think making something to wear is empowering, even if the item is badly made! It’s yours, unique and a part of you.
Riot Grrrl was a big part of my teens and twenties. The ethos of that whole feminist movement gave me a good foundation for growing up at a time when I was moving away from the small, closeted village where I grew up, in Wales.
I’m so grateful for the influence of people like Kathleen Hanna, Courtney Love and PJ Harvey on my life. Seeing strong woman achieve great things, advocating equality and being brash and intelligent made the greatest of impressions on me.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I don’t think there is really a direct or complete route to becoming an artist. In one way I have always felt that I am an artist and in another, I feel like I am still becoming an artist.
I studied film-making at university, which lead me to making band videos for people in the music scene. I also did tour management, made merchandise, mended clothes and built stage sets.
I’ve always created things and isn’t that the essence of being an artist?
After university, I moved to London to try living in the capital and making music. It’s a tough place to live. I barely slept between working full-time, gigging, rehearsing and doing all the other artistic side-line projects I was involved in.
In 2012 I moved to Bristol to live with my boyfriend, who is now my husband. I joined another band and carried on with my multi-tasking lifestyle. I had taken up embroidery more seriously by then having started cross-stitching while recovering from surgery.
But I never felt truly happy with following and making patterns.
To earn a living, I tried the online shop route. I made patterns for other people to follow but I felt the patterns were mundane. It didn’t make me happy. Plus so many other people were already selling patterns way better than me, so I was fighting to be part of a market I didn’t enjoy. It didn’t make sense to keep trying that route.
I was listening to a lot of Grime music. I enjoyed the positive vibes of the music, the lyrics and followed the life of UK MC and Grime artist Wiley and Grime became very influential to me.
After a lot of life upheaval, my husband and I decided to move to Liverpool. I was still embroidering and making textile art whenever I could.
I made a portrait of Wiley and off the back of that piece I was asked by Andrew Hung (from the electronic music duo F**k Buttons) to make an embroidery portrait of him for his debut solo album cover. Of course, I jumped at the chance!
I spent around 200 hours in one month creating the piece to the deadline.
It was so exciting to see my work printed up on a vinyl cover and suddenly it was everywhere as part of his tour promotional material. I’d walk past a music shop and there would be a giant piece of my work printed out. It was wild and exhilarating!
How a meditative state aids the production of my work
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
As I come from a Riot Grrrl background, I like to be flexible and freestyle! Nothing in my work is particularly set in stone. My techniques are a bit punk and raw. I want to improvise as I go and I love it when accidental mistakes happen, rather than planning every aspect of a piece.
Once I’ve picked a subject matter, I sketch them a number of times until I feel like I’ve captured something I like.
I scan and print that sketch, flip it and then using a lightbox I trace on the black of the design using a heat transferable fabric pen. I iron the design onto a piece of fabric, sew-up the edge to prevent fraying and then attach it to a hoop or frame and begin sewing.
I don’t have a full, detailed plan for what and how I am going to sew. I have a synaesthesia-like sense of an aura from individual subjects, which gives me their base colour. I hunt out that colour range from my box of threads and go from there.
I always start by sewing the eyes as that is where the soul of a person resides. If I can get their eyes right first, then I know the rest of the piece will follow.
I tend to fall into a meditative state once I am around 50 hours into the piece. Most of my pieces take over 250 hours to complete. I just zone in and enjoy the flow and movement of the embroidery.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
My technique at the moment is to transfer my sketched pattern onto calico, stretch that piece of fabric into a frame or hoop and then begin stitching in an improvised way until the piece is completed.
Also, I have used other techniques with some of my pieces.
My ‘Margaret Atwood on Blue’ piece was stitched onto calico as normal, but then I cut out and transferred the portrait to felt so that I could involve some goldwork purl into the process of stitching her hair. This portrait was transferred onto a blue felt backing and I added appliqué clothing and the piece became a mixed textile media work.
What currently inspires you?
I’m constantly inspired by films, TV and books. I found the return of Twin Peaks (Season 3) by David Lynch so affecting and such an incredible piece of television.
How do you make something so unique when everything has been done?
David Lynch seems to just be able to manifest his imagination so fully in his work. It’s astounding! I find his approach to creativity and his ethos towards meditation and mental health also very important in this modern age.
The topography of the face
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
I was commissioned by Bolton Museum to create four portraits for their refurbished Egyptology wing. I was so excited to have been chosen as the artist to create these works.
One of the portraits was of a significant curator to the museum called William Midgley and reading about his work within the museum was impressive and highly affecting.
I love delving into people’s lives when I create my portraits, trying to embody and essence of the person in their captured image.
The creation of the portrait of Midgley was the first time I attempted to create a beard! It was actually quite daunting at first and I didn’t know how I was going to achieve the look and feel that I wanted.
I managed to amalgamate a whip stitch and some weaving techniques to get the flow of the hair in his beard to overlap and I’m really pleased with the end result.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
In the beginning, I felt that my work looked a bit like topography. A two-dimensional, birds-eye version of the map of a face.
As my work has developed it has become more and more complex, taking on more of an expressionistic, brushstroke approach.
I am currently in the process of creating a self-portrait and it has been an interesting process so far. It’s really hard to decompartmentalise your face into its various peaks and troughs.
It’s so much easier to look at someone else’s face! We are so used to our own face that we almost don’t know it as well. My initial sketches were difficult to capture and I was very aware of exaggerating parts of myself that I don’t like, or finding myself emphasising features of ‘beauty’ or ‘ugliness’.
A self-portrait is very soul-baring in many ways.
I want to be able to depict myself in an honest way. I’ve had to learn to let go and stop trying to control my image. I try to approach it as I would for any other portrait and have found that breaking down the image into shapes is helpful.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Keep working! Keep experimenting!
Look to other cultures and countries for their historic textile techniques.
YouTube is a great source of information. Don’t feel that you have to ‘know’ how to do something expertly, just begin. Read a bit, learn a bit and then throw yourself in the deep end. You’ll make something far more interesting if you don’t approach it to the letter. You will develop your own techniques through to your mistakes.
Also, remember that it is OK to correct people if they try to name your artwork as ‘craft’ or ‘hobbyist’. There is nothing wrong with either of these things, but textile work is one of the longest forms of art in terms of production time, effort and skill. Yet people want to dilute it simply as ‘hobby-work’ or something twee.
You CAN use textiles for fine art!
Your work is as valuable as that of an oil painter and materials should not be hierarchically pitted against one another to make any artist feel that their art is more or less worthy.
For more information visit www.sorrellkerrison.com
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