Vanessa Rolf: Drawing with the thread
Vanessa Rolf’s work explores maps, journeys, psychogeography, memory, memorial, inheritance, archiving and collections. She references found imagery and text to create layered narratives; this research is sometimes referenced directly but also through intuitive selection of colour, fabric and mark making with stitch.
Vanessa is a visiting tutor in Textiles BA at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL and last year became a member of the renowned 62 Group.
Alongside fellow RCA graduate Hannah Murgatroyd, Vanessa established ReachOutRCA in 2005 and has since worked with more than 3,500 young people, 200 teachers and 280 RCA students and graduates. The programme now includes around 40 workshops each year as well as projects with partners including Art on the Underground, the Crafts Council, the V&A and Frieze Foundation.
In this interview, we learn how Vanessa’s thoughts, influences, and instinctive working processes combine to create her unique images. She explains how changing techniques can prove liberating and how moving from London to Hampshire and starting a family has impacted on her work.
TextileArtist.org: How was your imagination captured by stitch?
Vanessa Rolf: Stitch for me is like drawing; you can make it up as you go along. I like that stitch is not permanent, that you can always unpick it. I also really enjoy the slowness of the physical process, the pace allows me to think as I make.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life influenced your work?
I believe our relationship to cloth is ingrained from an early age. It was not until I began to really question why I continually returned to the same fabrics, textures and colours that I realised it all stemmed from the aesthetic sensibilities I grew up with: utilitarian canvas, weathered, repaired cloth of navy, dirty white and faded black.
As a child, I spent a lot of time mucking around in sheds, garages and boat yards. Places where people are busy doing stuff and fixing things are still where I feel most at home. I have taken a fairly indirect route to being back in the company of people who wear overalls again, in places that smell of wood shavings and turps, but I think that is why I love art school workshops and other friends’ studios.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
My Foundation Art and Design year at Winchester School of Art was an amazing experience where I was first introduced to textiles, and the tutors were really influential in my choices. Something about their approach resonated with my way of thinking and excited me about the possibilities – which they pushed far beyond material or process – it was all about exploring ideas.
I went on to study Fashion and Textile Design in Birmingham at what was the University of Central England where I specialised in Embroidery after a term. It was almost like an apprenticeship; we had to be at our desks 9am-5pm. We hand embroidered for the first year and had to wait until the second year to be let loose on the machines. It created a love for the meditative, drawing-like qualities of hand stitching and a loyalty to the Bernina domestic sewing machine. I still have the same machine I bought during my degree; they are fantastic.
After I graduated I worked in womenswear design for 3 years in London whilst I worked out what I wanted to do next. I applied to the Royal College of Art Mixed Media course, never imagining I would get in. I did and it changed everything about everything for me. It was the space for me to think about how, what and why I make. It posed questions I am still trying to answer.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
I use hand, machine and digital embroidery along with appliqué and sometimes screen print, often in combination. Layers of meaning are built into the choice of cloth, placement, colour and technique, so I am less exploring a specific process than thinking how to create associations with the subject matter.
I enjoy using reclaimed cloth; wool, canvas and linen fabrics, that already reference a past use.
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I have never happily used a sketchbook. I can’t commit to them; it feels a struggle deciding on a format and what will be included or significant. I always find when I use a sketchbook ideas get left behind.
I have a scattergun approach; gathering anything that feels relevant, and I edit, order and reorder these images. I read around the subject, make lists and collect snippets of writing that resonate. I pin these up in my studio as I find it helpful to be able to see everything together, and I draw connections whilst I work with these things in front of me.
I don’t plan what I am going to make, the ideas evolve often as periphery thoughts as I make. The research process really excites me, exploring stories and developing these narratives.
Tell us about your process from conception to conclusion.
I am not very methodical when I work. I usually have a clear idea of the kind of feelings I want to evoke and the story the piece is telling, but the actual making is more haphazard – often things are dictated by the size of the cloth I happen to have or the placement of the imagery as it happened to come out of the photocopier.
I work in two opposing ways – sometimes I use imagery directly from my research but at other times I stitch more intuitively, drawing with the thread as I go along.
My training as a designer is quite ingrained; so many of those tools have stayed with me, helping me reign in my chaotic approach.
My studio wall serves as an exploded mood board, where I collate relevant images, colour palettes, fabric swatches and thumbnails sketches for possible samples to focus my ideas. I often get impatient and begin making whilst this process is ongoing.
What environment do you like to work in?
I have recently set up a studio at home since we have moved to a bigger place. I loved sharing a studio in the past and found having a community of people making brilliant work really exciting to be around. Having the opportunity to talk about my work or even just to share a coffee was really valuable too but I was working to fund the studio so I never actually had time to be there.
Also, I have small children so working from home means I can grab moments here and there whenever the opportunity arises, but I am still working on not being distracted by all those domestic chores piling up.
Exploring new ground
What currently inspires you?
I have made work about landscape, history and journeying since I was at the RCA. I was finding London a little overwhelming and read a book by Colin Thubron called In Siberia. The poetic descriptions of wide, open expanses of nothingness really captured my imagination and I began making a series of works based on his writing.
When my daughter was born my experience of journeying shifted away from these imagined travels exploring the psychogeography of place to repetitive loops of the local area and internal narratives. For 15 months I obsessively kept records of the frequent night-time wakings, reflected in a series called Sleep Diaries, where the repetition of stitches mark time.
I recently moved to Hampshire from London, having lived there for more than 15 years, and once again thoughts of how our sense of self is connected to place are filtering into a new body of ideas. Moving has been exciting but also very disorientating as if all frames of reference have been removed.
In an attempt to ground myself I feel a need to understand this new landscape and its narratives, which are older, less layered, multifarious or visible than London’s.
This is all developing into a new series of work about presence and absence. I want to explore some new techniques too that relate to imprints, shadows, spaces where matter is absent, maybe not all textiles based: cyanotypes, embossing, printing, casting and making rubbings. There is bound to be some stitch in there too, though!
Who have been your major influences and why?
I was really lucky to have Karen Nicol as my tutor at the RCA, she is an incredible embroiderer. Karen encouraged me to question every choice and see everything as an exciting opportunity for creativity.
I love the work of Arthur Bisbo do Rosario, I associate with his desire to record and document everything he saw and experienced!
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
I always want to share the narratives behind my work but the Poems to the Sea series of quilts, which I return to periodically, are very personal.
I inherited a lot of household linens from my grandmother, which I kept for many years not knowing what to do with. I decided to patch and repair them and create something useful out of them, layering the worn and torn cloth and giving it new strength by stitching like kantha or boro. Using the cloth I spotted laundry stamps with German text, and discovered they were requisitioned by my grandfather during World War Two from German ships before they were sunk.
This began a process of researching further into my grandfather’s naval experiences but also thinking more broadly about memorial and inheritance. Those quilts feel almost like something I found in my parents’ attic rather than something I made.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I have explored many different avenues to work out where my strengths lie and which elements of why and how I make are most important to me.
I love to teach and establishing and running ReachOutRCA at the Royal College of Art was a fantastic experience, but I keep coming back to stitch and the need to make my own work. I have come to think of making as in inherent way of processing my experiences and when I do not have this outlet I feel disorientated.
At the moment, with a young family, I am still in that phase where I have little time to make, ideas fill my head but I rarely have a quiet moment where my hands are free. I have set myself some goals, like exhibiting more, maybe even curating a show, finding opportunities to connect with other people and places, which keep me focused on the long term.
I have also created some kits, with thumbnail outlines, fabric and threads already selected so the minute I do have even just a moment I can make work without the preamble I used to enjoy when I had fewer commitments.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
I love all of the paraphernalia that is associated with textiles. I hoard other people’s old sewing needle cases, tins of buttons, off cuts of bias binding, packets of hooks and eyes, crochet hooks, quilting squares and anything else that comes my way.
But the piece of kit I probably could not do without is my iron. I never iron clothes but I love the way embroidery looks when it is properly pressed. I am also a big fan of bondaweb for collaging fabrics so the iron is essential.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes?
I don’t have anything coming up as I have recently had a baby but I teach and collaborate with others in all kinds of settings.
Where can readers see your work this year?
Do keep an eye on my website for updates. I also share my work and inspiration over on Instagram and would love to connect with fellow readers there.
Got something to say about the techniques, materials and processes used by this artist – let us know by leaving a comment below.