Helen Edwards interview: Tactile mixed media textile art
Helen Edwards creates visually stimulating pieces of mixed media textile art which have an inherent tactile nature. To achieve this she uses various methods and techniques, harnessing her skills in metals, textiles and ceramics; photography, stitching, weaving, dyeing, printing and etching are often incorporated too. Helen’s work can be identified by its unique use of texture, pattern and colour.
Helen’s path to becoming a textile artist wasn’t straight forward; she first had a rewarding 21-year career as a speech and language therapist for the NHS in Durham, Sunderland and South Devon. Helen later completed a BTEC Art and Design course at South Devon College and a Foundation Degree in Integrated Crafts. The design skills and the need for experimentation learned during this training remains an influence on Helen’s work.
Helen is a member of the Society of Designer Craftsmen and the Devon Guild of Craftsmen.
We were introduced to Helen’s beautiful work at the Mall Galleries and we’re delighted that she has given such an insightful interview, packed with personality and glimpses into the life of a working textile artist.
Observe, draw, play
Why are you an artist?
I think it was there very early on. Just as some people have a natural “lean” towards sport, adventure, logic, maths, words or music, I realised how much I loved to observe, draw, play with colour and pattern and make, when I was a child. I believe these tendencies persist and can become stronger if they are encouraged.
I feel fortunate that I had the chance to train formally in Art/Design and Contemporary Craft in my forties, following a rewarding 21 year career as a Speech and Language Therapist. During this training I realized how much I loved texture, pattern and construction. I was encouraged to handle many different materials and this has carried through into my work today. The tactile quality of my pieces is as important as the visual quality. My porcelain piece “Mint-Net” feels intriguing but is visually very simple.
Absorbing textile by osmosis
Did your family nurture your creativity?
Not really – I went to a “high academic achieving” school but I was clearly more “arty” than academic. At the time “arts” were seen as a hobby there and were not encouraged as a career. I was a bit of a square peg in a round hole at that school.
When she was eight, my Mum came over from Belgium with her mother. She had no English and had to try and pick it up in her all English speaking school. Her creativity was never encouraged but she was clearly naturally talented – she had a gift with colour and interior styling and was very creative with food.
My Belgian Grandmother was always making something “textile” or was in her garden or walking her dogs.
Therefore, although my creativity wasn’t encouraged as a career choice, I think I absorbed it “by osmosis” from my Mum and Grandmother!
My husband and my two daughters have been tremendously supportive and encouraging in my career change.
What inspires you?
Looking / observing. I haven’t travelled much in the world because I’ve always got a dog in tow, but I try to get out and about wherever and wherever I can. I’ll always see things that inspire me, particularly colours, textures, patterns, and surfaces.
In terms of artists….Of course, because I love dogs so much, I have to mention Cecil Charles Aldin and the wonderful Valerie Davide.
There are artists’ work I instinctively warm to because they share the same “feel” as my work; I am always drawn to Sue Lawty’s work. Whereas I tend to work on a small scale, I love the rhythm, simplicity and scale of Sue’s work.
Because I have loved working with porcelain, I adore Fenella Elms’ exquisite porcelain work. I’m drawn to an eastern aesthetic – I love the textiles of Yoshiko Jinzenji and Young-Soon Kim. I’m lucky because I work two days a week at The Devon Guild of Craftsmen and I can imbibe its continually changing excellence which is both refreshing and inspiring.
Sketchbooks and experimentation in mixed media textile art
Do you ever suffer from Artists’ block?
No – the opposite! Little ideas pop into my head all the time. Some of them pop out again quite quickly while others stick and keep returning to my thoughts. I spend a lot of time working on them in my head until the idea has developed enough to start experimenting for real.
Do you use a sketchbook?
Yes – my sketchbooks are as important to me as the finished piece. I suppose that’s the advantage of attending a science based school and then working for the NHS where everything has to be so meticulously documented. I record every detail in my sketchbook as I work and experiment on a piece. It is my most essential tool. I am as fond of my sketchbooks as I am of my family photo albums.
Do you work in silence or with music?
If I’m working something out in my sketchbook I need silence – except I find if I’m really concentrating I talk “out-quiet” because it helps me solve problems.
A lot of my making is repetitive but needs concentration…then I listen to music with no words. I used to play the cello so I love to hear Julian Lloyd Webber’s “Cello Song” and “Cradle Song” and Pablo Casals bowing away unaccompanied, playing J.S Bach Cello Suites. Kathryn Tickell’s “Air Dancing” is another favourite.
If I’m working on pieces where I don’t have to concentrate as hard, I’ll listen to music with lyrics; Laura Marling, Martha Tilston, Emily Portman and Melody Gardot are lovely. I notice over the years, I’ve grown fond of some of my husband’s music….Mark Knopfler, Peter Gabriel and a few of Van Morrison’s songs.
What have you been working on recently?
The life of a textile artist
What are your other interests besides art?
Walking my dog anywhere and everywhere. I am fortunate to have access to moor, coast, woods and country lanes.
My garden – Trying to grow vegetables before the tortoise eats them or the dog tramples them. Trying to grow flowers to bring into the house.
Cooking and baking. I’m working my way through Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “Veg” book at the moment and I need cake.
I love seeing different places and I would like to travel more but I hate leaving my dog behind. My previous dog was an Irish Wolfhound – my soulmate, but not exactly portable. We recently re-homed a Collie / German Shepherd with bags of energy and affection. My daughter loves her and is willing to look after her for us so I may get to see a bit more of the world in the future!
Who would you love to collaborate with (living or dead)?
Kate Bush- I’ve followed her career over the years because her music and lyrics are genius and conjure up vivid visual images in my head.
Geoff Hamilton – because I loved learning from him when I first had a garden, by watching his clear, practical teachings on Gardener’s World.
Sue Lawty – because I admire her work and ethos.
What is the best decision you have ever made?
Marrying my husband. Because of that decision I have two wonderful daughters, I have lived in the North East and Devon, both counties I love and I have had the opportunity to retrain to become a textile artist with his support.
What is your favourite place to get away from it all?
Dartmoor is a head clearing place and I love the coast. My favourite piece which I have made is called “Haytor and Ness” and contains images of my family on Haytor and at Ness Beach in Shaldon…two of my special places.
We’ve always loved renting holiday cottages – in Scotland, Wales , Northumbria, Sussex, Cornwall – we’ve stayed in some delightful places.
My workshop is my sanctuary.
Being true to yourself as a textile artist
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Look, all the time at others’ work in any medium but just absorb the essence of what it is you like about the work. Don’t record it. Then, in your own work, be completely true to yourself and your work will start to take on its own character.
It has been useful to me to gain membership with The Devon Guild of Craftsmen and The Society of Designer Craftsmen. I am also a member of “Devon Artists Network” and they are excellent at informing you of Local and National Shows/Exhibitions and competitions to enter as well as related opportunities.
My work tends to be “niche “ mixed media textile art, rather than commercial – do what suits you best, but remember that very few textile artists can make a living doing just textile art. Keep your eyes open and think laterally about related work you could do to support your career as a textile artist. Many of the members of The Devon Guild have fascinating related work such as teaching, running bed and breakfast, sharing their skills through courses. Most “makers” find very creative ways to support their love of making.
Another tip for textile artists…if you can get your hands on any of the “Art Textiles of the World” series of books edited by Matthew Koumis of Telos Art Publishing you WILL be inspired. I am ever grateful to the wonderful tapestry weaver Jilly Edwards for introducing me to these.
Art Textiles of the World Books
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