Sorrell Kerrison: Exuberant and colourful portraits in stitch
Sorrell Kerrison’s stunning, Fauvist-style portraits explode with colour. Every thread in her hand embroidered designs brings the subject’s face, hair and clothing to life.
Making an unconventional move into textile art from the music industry, from singer to stitchaholic, Sorrell keenly combines her love of music with her art. Her passion is making portraits of the creative people, and particularly the unsung heroes, she admires.
Her work includes a bright and bold image for Andrew Hung’s 2017 debut solo album, Realisationship. Seeing her textile art reproduced on tour posters, album covers and in music stores was an incredible feeling for this artist.
Using your life’s passions to spur on your artwork is a great way to push yourself, and Sorrell achieves this with a bold energy that is truly inspiring.
Her attention to detail and willingness to work on each piece for long periods of time leads to incredible results. Each of these complex pieces takes Sorrell hundreds of hours to complete but she admits the meditative nature of stitching is extremely soothing.
The result is a series of distinctive portraits. You won’t be able to take your eyes off them.
The meditative stitcher
Sorrell Kerrison: I like to be flexible and freestyle. Nothing in my work is set in stone and my techniques are a bit punk and raw.
I’m influenced by my punk feminist background. I prefer to improvise as I go. I love it when accidental mistakes happen.
Once I’ve picked my subject, I sketch them a number of times until I feel like I’ve captured something I really like. I transfer the sketch to the back of my fabric using a heat transfer fabric pen, attach it to a hoop or frame and start sewing.
The colour palettes just come to me. When I study my subjects closely, they seem to have a colour range associated with them. I hunt out those colours from my box of threads.
I always start by stitching the eyes, the soul of a person. And if I can get them right, then I know the rest of the piece will follow.
After many hours of stitching I tend to fall into a meditative state.
Most of my pieces take over 250 hours to complete, so I zone in and enjoy the flow and movement of the act of embroidery.
Sometimes I adjust my technique. For my work ‘Margaret Atwood on Blue‘ I cut out the stitched portrait and transferred it to a felt backing so that I could include some goldwork purl into her hair. I added appliqué clothing and the piece morphed into a mixed textiles work.
I’m constantly inspired by films, TV and books. I found the return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series such an incredible piece of television.
I mean, how do you make something so unique when everything has been done? It’s astounding how David Lynch seems to be able to manifest his imagination so fully in his work. I find his approach to creativity and admire his ethos towards meditation and mental health.
Seeing strong women achieve great things, advocating equality and being brash and intelligent made a great impression on me.
I’m so grateful for the influence of people like Kathleen Hanna, Courtney Love and PJ Harvey.
I studied film-making at university, which first led me into making band videos. I also did tour management, made merchandise, mended clothes and built stage sets. I moved to London but found it a tough place to live. I barely slept between working full-time, gigging, rehearsing and various artistic side-line projects.
In 2012, while living in Bristol, I took up embroidery, starting with cross-stitch. I tried making stitch patterns to sell, but I felt the patterns were mundane. I never felt truly happy with following and making patterns.
After a move to Liverpool, Grime music became very influential to me. I enjoyed the positive vibes of the music, the lyrics and followed the life of UK MC/Grime artist Wiley. I decided to make a stitched portrait of Wiley.
Off the back of that piece, musician Andrew Hung (from the electronic music duo F**k Buttons) asked me to embroider his portrait. He wanted to use it for his solo album cover. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I spent around 200 hours over one month, creating the piece to a deadline.
It was so exciting to see my work printed up on a vinyl cover. 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!
I love delving into people’s lives when I create my portraits, then trying to embody the essence of those people in my work.
In 2018, I completed four embroidery portraits commissioned by Bolton Museum for their refurbished Egyptology wing. One of the portraits was of a significant museum curator called William Midgley. I read about his work within the museum and found him an impressive character.
This was the first time I had attempted to hand stitch a beard. It was actually quite daunting at first. I didn’t know how I was going to achieve the look I wanted.
I combined a whip stitch and some weaving techniques to get the overlapping flow of the hair in his beard right. I’m really pleased with the end result.
The topography of the face
In the beginning, I felt that my embroidery 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.
In 2020, I created a self-portrait and it was an interesting process. A self-portrait is very soul-baring in many ways.
It’s really hard to de-compartmentalise your face into its various sections, peaks and troughs. Isn’t it much easier to look at someone else’s face rather than your own? And often we are so used to seeing our own face in the mirror that we tend to dismiss the details.
My initial sketches were difficult to get right. I was very aware of exaggerating parts of myself that I didn’t like. I found that I was emphasising features of perceived ‘beauty’ or ‘ugliness’.
I tried to depict myself in an honest way. To do this I had to learn to let go and stop trying to control my image. In the end, I approached it as I would for any other portrait. And I found that breaking down the image into shapes was really helpful.
From punk music to embroidery
I love that the textile world ranges from wall-based art forms, to fabrics with function, and everyday items that you wear.
As a child, I was brought up in a make-do-and-mend household. If you wanted something, you had to make it or upcycle it yourself. But I realise that my upbringing provided me with invaluable re-use skills and a better mind-set towards the negatives surrounding materialism.
I’ve been in various bands and as a teen I was highly influenced by the local music scene, band zines, the Riot Grrrl movement and the grunge era. I often used my skills to make and augment clothing, print t-shirts or fix up charity shop clothes to make them a little more stage ready.
Many of my self-made garments 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.
I’ve always created things. Isn’t that the essence of being an artist?
You don’t have to know how to do something expertly, you can just begin.
I want to encourage other aspiring textile artists to keep working and experimenting. I find lots of inspiration from the historic textiles and techniques found in other cultures and countries. And YouTube is always helpful. Read a bit, learn a bit, watch a video and then throw yourself in at the deep end.
I’ve found that I make something far more interesting if I don’t approach it to the letter. Techniques are best developed through having a go and making mistakes.
In 2019, Sorrell completed a series of works exploring her transition to motherhood. You can find out more about them in our article Stunning stitched self portraits.
- When you bring your life’s passions into your textile art, it will help to keep your motivation high.
- For a difficult or complex subject, try breaking it down into a collection of simple shapes.
- If you want to create a textured effect, like a beard or hair, then combine and experiment with stitches to get the effect you are looking for.
About the artist
Sorrell Kerrison was commissioned by Bolton Museum to create four embroidery portraits for their permanent collection. Her work has been featured in Embroidery Magazine. She was the winner of the Open/Textile Arts Category in the Hand & Lock Prize 2020, with her embroidered self portrait.
What do you think of Sorrell’s distinctive use of colour? Leave a comment below.