Vinny Stapley: Shades of feminine seascape
Mixed media textile artist, Vinny Stapley, discovered a rich source of inspiration when she moved from London to the maritime area of Mersea Island on the east coast of the UK. For the heritage boats, picturesque land and seascapes – coloured with a palette of marsh, sea and sky – helped to shape Vinny’s trademark style and became the focus of her series of artworks ‘ ‘Mersea Floriligeum’.
An ancestry of stitchers provided a solid foundation for Vinny, who credits her grandmother with teaching her Italian trapunto quilting and embroidery skills, whilst her great grandfather – a Paris-trained tailor – made coats for the little British princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.
So it was almost a given that Vinny studied printed textiles and specialised in embroidered textile design. But despite her degree piece being snapped up by the Donna Karan Studio in New York, she felt the pull of world travel and worked for touring recording artists before returning to start a family and a teaching career.
Finally, Vinny left London for the UK’s east coast and established herself as an independent artist.
Today she creates original artwork, prints and printed textiles to sell in exhibitions and at open studios. She takes private and public commissions including textile design, fine art and pet portraits and her creative workshops include screen-printing, textile and machine embroidery.
In this interview, you will learn how Vinny patiently waited through weeks of artist’s block – and what she created at the end, how she manipulates fabrics into 3D forms and employs screen and photo stencil printing, and how her beach-combing can mean hauling home the hulls of derelict boats.
Reinventing precious fragments
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Vinny Stapley: I have always sewn and used fabrics to make things from a very young age. There were always fabrics and dressing up clothes around our house, my mother made and knitted nearly everything we wore, growing up as we did in the Highlands very little was available to buy.
I adored the Blue Peter makes, and was always trying to copy them, but having to use what we had in the house rather than buying things especially, made me experiment and invent – not always sucessfully.
I was lucky to have very inspiring art teachers at my High School in the North of Scotland who had the view that textiles were equally as important a fine art medium as sculpture and painting. One teacher recognised that I seemed to naturally gravitate towards working with textiles and encouraged me to experiment with a range of embroidery stitches to create final pieces for my exams. She also showed me how to create natural dyes in the art department stock cupboard on an open bunsen burner ….. just think of the risk assessment for that now!!
Another wonderful teacher taught me to screen-print, and from that moment I was hooked. I loved the process and how you could achieve a range of very different outcomes.
I always loved clothes and costumes, and loved watching old movies and costume dramas. I dreamed of being able to create and embellish costumes with embroidery and beading: I think I would have loved to have been a costume designer in another life.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I was born in Scotland but my mother was from London, so we would take trips to London on the sleeper from Inverness and visit my grandparents in London which always seemed very glamorous. Grandma loved clothes and made extravagant creations. She lived near all the dept stores, which we would visit. I always loved the window displays which were pure flights of fancy.
It was a difficult childhood. The early part was spent on the Isle of Skye, and, even at a young age, I realised that we inhabited a beautiful landscape which became my solace and escape. I wandered off a few times (giving my poor mum a scare) – I loved the feeling of being within a wild landscape, the colours and drama.
After a move, our grandparents joined us when I was 10. Grandma taught me to sew, embroider and, memorably, how to do Italian quilting – trapunto – all the while talking about family history, the clothes and her life on the stage; she was a bit of a flapper in her time.
She would also talk about my great grandfather, who trained as a tailor with Worth in Paris. After immigrating to London at the end of the 19th century he specialised as a children’s tailor, notably making the little coats for Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Mum did the fittings for Princess Margaret (she was the same age and size) while all the tailors sat cross-legged on the table.
This went on to influence my degree show work; I created a series of little contorted screen-printed coats which featured tailors tacking.
As a late teenager I got involved in drama and music and started making costumes. I came to London at 19 and one of my first jobs was with a designer, starting in the showroom. When she realised I could sew I gravitated to making one-off creations in cotton lawn, silk and antique lace, learning from some very talented seamstresses. I adored reinventing the precious fragments and salvaging the distressed delicate materials that have gone on to become a feature of my work.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I had a place at Edinburgh School of Art on leaving school, but when I decided to move to London I gave up my place. I joined various bands and after gaining practical experience as a maker I went on to become a wardrobe technician and later a production assistant for touring recording artists. I had the opportunity to travel extensively and gained lots of experience working with a whole range of different materials from studded leather to beaded Bob Mackie gowns.
I stopped when my family came along and began making bespoke special occasion wear, costumes and I did some sampling for Red or Dead. But I had a sense of unfinished business and so started doing some art courses. I was encouraged by my tutors to take this further and do an Art Foundation. After that I applied and got into Middlesex University to study for a degree in Printed Textiles.
After achieving a first, I was offered a job as a textile designer specialising in embroidery in a large London Studio and then went on to work freelance for an agent. As much as I loved the creativity of the work, as a parent I was finding it hard to create a work life balance, and so I decided to do teacher training. I qualified as an art teacher, teaching in large London comprehensive schools (even harder!).
It wasn’t until the children left home and my husband and I moved out of London to live on Mersea Island in Essex that I decided to take the plunge and try to make a living as an artist. I started at local level doing open studios, working on public and private commissions and community arts projects, artist residencies in schools and then gradually built up to having the larger studio and doing workshops.
Throwing in a colour ‘pop’
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
I’m not sure that the process happens the same way every time. Sometimes I’ll have a bit of a vision of what I would like a particular outcome to look like and work backwards from there. Sometimes I have to start from a topic or theme for an exhibition by researching and writing up the concepts and ideas – mind mapping helps. I’ll then make a whole range of observations, usually using a range of mixed-media rather then traditional observational techniques.
I like wet and dry combinations, especially wax resist – I think it lends itself well to working with textiles. I lot of my processes come from working as a designer, creating a colour palette is fundamental to everything. It sets the mood, feel and emotion, which helps to link to the concept behind the piece. I always like to throw in a colour ‘pop’ which, although it might be used minimally, performs an important task in creating balance.
Just as I did when I was designing, I will gather together or dye up all of the fabrics, threads and components I’m thinking of using, before doing a range of different samples and experiments. Samples may be created by screen-printing, machine and hand embroidery. I also like using screen-printing inks and pigments in a painterly way onto fabric, and increasingly I use Photoshop to develop imagery and designs.
Responding to these samples, I’ll sketch out some compositional studies and then go on to develop slightly larger prototypes before making the final piece.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
I love direct screen printing techniques – it’s like painting through a screen and I will use that as a base for embroidery and photo stencil printing.
Machine embroidery is my go to passion. I love the edginess and fluidity of line, you can find yourself lost and mesmerised as body connects to machine … a kind of syncretism – ‘the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles’.
For the recent ‘Mersea Floriligeum’ body of work, inspired by looking at root networks and arteries, I have been experimenting with bonding techniques and dissolvable film. I used it to create webs and meshes to which screen print, plus machine and hand embroidery, were applied; I spent quite a long time interrogating these materials and techniques to achieve the effects I wanted.
Occasionally I will return to techniques I used when I was designing but never had the time to investigate fully; I integrate these into new pieces work.
What currently inspires you?
I’m still inspired by plants and in particular the flora I have found on my lockdown walks. They brighten a world where the consequences of the pandemic lurk in the undergrowth beyond.
For some new pieces I’m working on, I’ve been considering the links between flora and the feminine, and the darker side and myths about feminine mystique. I’m in the process of testing some constructed textile techniques, manipulating fabrics into 3D forms and I’m working with lighting to try and create shadows and distortions with these.
I’m very lucky to live where I do – to have the maritime landscape as a constant source of inspiration. In recent ‘Mersea Floriligeum’ pieces I investigated intertidal flora, delicate natural forms, their network of roots ‘meshing’ together our fragile coastline, reducing the destructive energy of the sea as it flows around them. In this I saw an analogy with the way the ‘web’ has bonded our lives and families together, especially in this time of climate and pandemic emergency and opening up a world of possibilities to explore from our homes.
Fabrics and materials inspire me – I’m a collector of all sorts of bits from delicate fragments to the sides of boats I’ve dragged off the beach – it’ll all have its purpose one day!
I have recently become a member of the East Textile Group and it’s inspiring to be part of a group sharing and developing ideas.
Developing a signature style
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
A piece that has both fond memories and significance for me is the delicate printed coat which I made twice with a period of nearly 12 years in between the two incarnations. The first version, called ‘Memory Coat’, was inspired by my mother talking about family history. The concept was to create a garment as an archive of this verbal history.
The little contorted coat was a sculptural piece and featured delicate faded photos screen-printed onto muslin scrim and decorative tailors tackings. I originally made this for my degree show and really I think it contributed to my being offered a job in a textile design studio and was eventually sold to The Donna Karan Studio in New York who were looking for new designers. I really didn’t want to sell it because the piece had family connections, but my tutor persuaded me. She said I’d learn more from letting it go and I could always make another – she was right.
When my family grew up, I left full time teaching and moved out of London. I decided to take time to develop my work as a textile artist. Having set up my studio I found that I was suffering from artist’s block and after a few weeks of staring at a blank wall (which I do think now was a kind of meditation process), I decided to revisit the ‘Memory Coat’ and make another version as my starting point for this next phase of my life.
My mother by this point was starting to develop dementia; for her, the stories about family history became more vivid, as her day to day memory and recent history dissolved. I called the new coat ‘Memories are yet fleeting’. After making it I collaborated with the photographer Chrissie Westgate to create an installation of the coat in a field of poppies near Ardleigh in Essex. This will always be a very special piece – I wonder if I’ll ever make another?
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I’ve have had a very diverse career in art and textiles and that is reflected in the breadth of my work. Having originally studied printed textiles and then specialising in embroidered textile design, I now feel I have created a signature style in that my work is a hybrid of theses techniques with a smattering of mixed-media painterly techniques thrown in as well.
I’ve been in the position of having to earn my living from my work as an artist; designing, working to commission, teaching and developing more commercial work has, until more recently, limited the time I have had to fully immerse myself in a concept or idea. I became known locally for my mixed-media pieces inspired by heritage boats and the incredible land and seascapes, with a colour palette of marsh, sea and sky, which I sold in exhibitions and at open studios. I suppose I have developed a certain trademark style and in the process learned a lot about myself and the way I work.
The last few years I’ve been carving out more time and headspace to specifically develop my own work. I have spent a lot of time drawing, observing and developing techniques/processes, and this is where the ‘Mersea Floriligeum’ series has developed. I’m reconnecting again with the conceptual ideas and artists that so completely inspired me when I was at art college, and I’m hoping that inspiration will manifest itself more in future work.
My newest work is feeling darker and edgier, I don’t know if that is reflective of the times we are living through.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Believe in yourself – don’t be discouraged. Cast your net very wide to find your hero and heroines and keep an open mind.
Work hard and draw hard – but don’t expect perfection: you learn more from the mistakes than the things that go right.
Best advice I was given was from a tutor at college reminding us that ‘Colour is king’ …. and she was right.
For more information visit www.vinnystapley.com
Has Vinny’s stitch journey given you any new ideas? Let us know in the comments below