Stewart Kelly interview: Drawing the human form
With dozens of group and solo exhibitions over the past 15 years, Stewart Kelly has certainly made a name for himself in the world of textile art.
Stewart’s work observes and documents the human form, recording its contours and expressions. The drawn and stitched lines are an accumulation of observations and experiences giving rise to the many possibilities of interpretation.
Occasionally figures are visible, whilst in contrast a line may represent a gesture or brief moment in time.
In this interview Stewart Kelly shares with us how his early exposure to the arts shaped his creative development, how he creates his signature expressive drawings, as well as where we can see his work this year.
TextileArtist.org: What were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Stewart Kelly: I recall having an interest in drawing and making from an early age. As a child, art and history books appealed to my imagination, frequently making drawings of the characters featured in historical paintings. When I was older I began to visit galleries and view artists’ work. I knew at that point a career I wanted to pursue a career in the visual arts. I wanted to be an artist and create artworks to exhibit in galleries, museums and public spaces.
Throughout my life many experiences have impacted my creative practice. The opportunity to travel to many cities in Europe and the USA during my twenties had a positive impact on my creative thinking. I was fortunate to visit many galleries and view artworks that had been influential during my earlier life.
In addition, the opportunity to share and collaborate with other artists has and continues to be a positive influence on my work.
My work as a creative facilitator has also influenced my practice. It would seem pertinent that the human form should be the subject of my work having worked with people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds in most educational and community settings over the last fifteen years. I have been commissioned to facilitate projects in association with schools, colleges, galleries, museums, hospitals and community arts organisations nationwide. In particular, I have worked extensively as an artist in the field of mental health. I have a continuing professional interest in studying how the visual arts can be utilised as a means to enhance an individual’s mental well-being.
The correlation between theory and practice
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I maintained an interest in the visual arts throughout my schooling. From school I decided to enrol in an art foundation course particularly motivated by my interest in figure drawing. During the course I was able to develop my drawing skills alongside my interest in textiles and surface design.
I enrolled on the BA (Hons) Fashion and Textiles course at Liverpool John Moores University with a view to pursuing the textiles pathway on the programme. I selected this course as it allowed a considerable amount of creative freedom. Throughout the course I was able to explore different aspects of art and design including life drawing, computer-aided design, weaving, dyeing, screen printing, embroidery and fabric manipulation techniques.
During the course I exhibited woven and embroidered textile samples with Indigo Salon at Premier Vision in Paris. This opportunity allowed me to exhibit and sell textile samples to designers looking to source fabric ideas to utilise in their forthcoming collections. My clients included Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Lauren Vidal, Sahco Hesslein and Ralph Lauren Home Collection.
During the final year of the course I focused mainly on producing a series of woven and embroidered sculptural textiles. This body of work was influenced by my figure drawings and allowed me to focus on specialising in creating fine art textiles.
After graduating, I received an AHRC bursary to study an MA in Textiles at Manchester Metropolitan University. The course offered me the opportunity to study the correlation between theory and practice resulting in establishing my fine art practice. My research involved studying contemporary theory in relation to my creative work. In addition, the course allowed me to experiment further with drawing, sculpture and photography in relation to my textile practice.
I have continued to exhibit my work in galleries and museums nationwide since 2000.
Overlaying multiple images
Tell us a bit about your process and what are your techniques.
My current practice is inspired by observing and drawing the human form. I use the drawings as a basis to construct layered surfaces which are created using a range of media. In particular, I am interested in exploring the effects of layering drawing and stitching. The accumulation of lines results in abstract images which are open to interpretation from the viewer.
Initially, I make observational drawings in response to the figure. I work intuitively to create expressive drawings which aim to capture the subtleties found in both gesture and movement. I record my responses spontaneously, focusing almost entirely on the subject, unaware of the image evolving on the paper. As the lines accumulate and overlap, the image becomes abstracted. The figures become less recognizable almost camouflaged amongst the multitude of lines. Each mark is unique and documents a moment in time. My observations and responses are distilled into lines.
I then transform and develop the drawings by cutting, re-assembling and stitching. Existing drawn lines are emphasized with stitch whilst additional lines derived from separate studies are imposed over the surface. The diversity of drawn and stitched marks create unique textures and quality of lines throughout the work. The drawn line is immediate whilst stitching is slower and more reflective. Occasionally figures are identifiable, whilst in contrast a line may represent a gesture or brief moment in time.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
My work explores the effects of overlaying multiple images. The layers of drawn and stitched lines record an accumulation of observations, mapping encounters and experiences. The pieces are complex and intense in their construction. Constructing them is often physical and enduring. The layers of different materials and processes create images which seek to achieve a deliberate ambiguity giving rise to the many possibilities of interpretation. The viewer is encouraged to consider where one process ends and another begins.
The work demands the viewer’s time to understand and interpret the different lines and shadows and make sense of their meaning based upon their own multilayer experiences. The quality and range of marks encourages the viewer to reflect upon the complexities and expressions found within the spectrum of human nature.
I have always been interested in the ambiguity of textiles, the potential for working in this medium and its ability to transcend the boundaries between fine art, craft and design.
During my studies I was influenced by the artists exhibiting in two exhibitions in the USA entitled Boys Who Sew and Men of Cloth. There have subsequently been similar exhibitions in the UK and Europe. The exhibitions consisted of male artists whose work explored cloth and stitch as a means for personal expression.
Motivated by my interest in locating my own practice, I established a correspondence with a couple of the artists featured in these exhibitions. The discussions mainly focused on the implications of male artists using textiles and stitch in a contemporary context. It highlighted the significance of these exhibitions and how they have contributed towards dissolving the boundaries between gender and creative discipline.
Transcribed through stitch
Do you use a sketchbook?
I rarely use a sketchbook in my current practice. My preference is to draw on large loose sheets of paper and pin them up around my studio in order to directly inform my work.
What currently inspires you and which other artists have influenced your work?
My current work is inspired by drawing the human form. Many figurative artists have influenced my work through the years including:
David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Henry Moore, Frank Auerbach, Vincent Van Gogh, Paula Rego, Frida Kahlo, Willem de Kooning, Euan Uglow, Richard Diebenkorn, Jenny Saville, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Bill Viola.
…to name but a few.
Film, theatre, contemporary dance, performance artists, and photographers have also influenced my work.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
Alongside my studio practice I am occasionally asked to participate in projects and collaborate with other artists.
Re-View Textile is a contemporary artists network based in the North West. Members were invited to produce a new series of works in response to the theme Hospitality for the Liverpool Independents Biennial in 2012.
21 members of the group and two invited artists from abroad created work that was wall mounted, free-standing and installation based. It was a collaborative project that linked three or four individuals working together to produce a series of works that were exhibited in an exhibition called Hospitality Re-Viewed at the Baltic Creative in Liverpool during the festival. I collaborated with artists Sue Beck and Diana Heredia on three works.
Between the Sheets was the second of the three works I collaborated on. Initially, Diana created a large cushion out of vintage linen. Secondly, I hand and machine embroidered a quilted cover for the cushion utilising text composed by Diana. Finally Sue created the figure which lay across the piece.
We decided not to communicate during the process of making the works; however, I later documented my experience of receiving and developing the piece for the exhibition catalogue.
I inherited a huge round white cushion which resided in the centre of my studio floor. Despite its presence it remained anonymous to me. A poem composed by the artist accompanied the object and offered an insight into its identity. The text recalled childhood memories and described an intimate space which offered comfort and reassurance. The re-appropriation of bed linen inherited from childhood was symbolic and the object became the embodiment of precious memories.
I produced a quilt, a comfort blanket to envelop and protect this sacred object. Intimate words were transcribed through stitch over the surface. They spiral in repetition as though experienced in a dream.
Further information about this project can be seen at www.reviewtextile.wordpress.com.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My current work fuses together the many of the different elements I have explored in my career over the last 15 years.
During that time, the advancement in technology has made it possible for artists to achieve greater potential in their work. I would be interested in exploring digital imaging in both drawing and textiles in my future work.
In addition, the rapid development of social media in recent years has enabled me to share my practice to a wider audience.
Work in different contexts
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Currently? My sewing machine.
Do you give talks or run workshops? If so, where can readers find information about these?
I frequently give talks about my work and facilitate creative workshops. I post information on website and Facebook page. Alternatively, groups or individuals can contact me directly to organise a talk or workshop.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
The opportunity to exhibit my work has come from a variety of different places. Historically I have contacted venues and galleries have approached me to offer exhibition opportunities. I am interested in showing my work in different contexts, bringing my work to a new audience and educating people about contemporary textiles.
In addition, I have been a studio member at Bankley Studios and Gallery in Manchester since 2008. I have regularly exhibited my work in group exhibitions and participated in the annual open studio event.
I am always interested in forming new relationships with galleries and I am currently interested in pursuing opportunities to exhibit my work internationally.
Where can readers see your work this year?
I am currently preparing for a solo exhibition at Bankley Studios and Gallery in Manchester during June. The exhibition is called Bodyworks and will feature a selection of works I have created over the last five years. The exhibition brings together the work from two previous solo exhibitions including Life Lines and Traces. A selection of drawings and a series of new textile/mixed media works will also feature in the exhibition.
In addition, I will be artist in residence working in the gallery space developing new works throughout the duration of the exhibition.
Further information can be seen at www.bankley.org.uk/artist-stewart-kelly.
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