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A Stitch in Time: An Interview with Textile Artist Alice Kettle

A Stitch in Time: An Interview with Textile Artist Alice Kettle

12 October 2017 | Nicola Freedman

Despite the numerous difficulties of forging a career in the arts, Alice Kettle has firmly cemented herself as one of the UK’s most exciting, and prolific, textile artists. Using thread to examine the interconnected nature of society, her vast, beautifully stitched panels have won countless awards and are represented in collections all over the world. To celebrate the upcoming launch of her latest solo exhibition 'Alice Kettle: Threads', Culture Calling speaks with the British artist about the power of textiles, becoming less introspective, and tackling the pressing issue of migration.


Lost Limb (c) Alice Kettle
 
Hi Alice, thank you for speaking with Culture Calling today. Can you tell us how you began your career?
 
I trained as a painter in the 1970s/80s and then I moved into textiles, specifically stitch when I was a graduate at Goldsmiths. When I finished studying, I went freelance and have been stitching ever since.
 
Was becoming an artist something you were always intent on doing?
 
I think so. My mother was a would-be creative. She was always making things at home – she made all of our clothes and my grandmother would knit. We were also taken to exhibitions and galleries – she would take us to places and show us things. I think it was about using our imagination, being creative and also about having alternative views.
 
You trained as a painter, but have become internationally known for your textile works. What drew you to textiles in particular? And what triggered this shift?
 
In part, it’s because I like the engagement with the material practice, the touch and the feel, and I like the repetitive nature of stitching. I felt like I had a much stronger voice as a female in terms of crossing over between the domestic and more public space - I could say more with more authenticity. I also think it brought me closer to my female roots and the heritage that I embraced in terms of my family and English culture.


Stitch Head III (c) Alice Kettle

 
Many of your works are of an incredibly large scale, which is rather impressive considering the intricate nature of stitching and textiles. How does the size affect your process as an artist, and does it have any influence the nature of the subject itself?
 
Yes it does, particularly because I have a painting background. The reason I like stitching is because a lot of it is intuitive and unpredictable, and you can change, work over and repair and respond to what’s happening in front of you. It feels very laborious sometimes, but in another way I feel that helps me into the space and the repetitive nature is quite therapeutic. Then there are other times of intense, creative activity when you have to make difficult decisions. I couldn’t retain that level all the time, so it’s lovely knowing that there is this ebb and flow.
 
But I like the challenge of making something huge which has this epic quality. It feels to me that, as humans, we want to be ambitious, we want to aspire to something beyond our capacity. So creating something that surpasses our own expectations of ourselves is quite important – that you are not complacent. And I find that it expands the possibilities in my mind, my imaginative possibilities, and my practical skills. The other thing, in terms of the way I work, it has this almost snake quality to the stitching, and if you are working with a difficult size, you see the rhythm almost like waves – which you sometimes lose on a smaller scale.
 

Ormo (c) Alice Kettle
 
Your latest exhibition, Alice Kettle: Threads, celebrates the 10-year anniversary of your signature public art work, Looking Forwards to the Past, and also brings together a wide selection of the work you’ve made over the past decade. What was your experience making the piece, and how do you view your body of work today?
 
As the first exhibition is linked to another exhibition in a year’s time at the Whitford [Fine Art], it has a sense of marking a moment. So Looking Forwards to the Past, which was a huge piece, is the beginning of this ten-year exhibition. And the last piece, which I’m completing now, is the beginning of the [Whitford] exhibition. What I wanted to demonstrate was that it is just a moment in time – that everything is this idea of a continuum.
 
I’ve become less introspective in terms of how I work, and I think my work has opened up in terms of technique – I combine a lot of print, and a lot of the print is taking on painting that I then print on fabric and stitch on top of - it’s almost kind of recovering some of my past painting background. So it’s less dense in terms of material properties, and I also think it’s more varied in terms of how I’ve present the human condition. While I was much more interested in myself ten years ago, I’m now much more interested in the responsibilities I have to the world.
 
As you mentioned, the first major work for the emerging Thread Bearing Witness project will launch with the Threads exhibition. Can you tell us a bit more about the project, and how you became involved in it?
 
One of the biggest challenges I think of the 21st Century is the whole issue of migration. We are all affected by it and saturated by images of it through the media, so we all have a view on it. As an artist I felt that I had to engage with it in terms of showing I care, and having something meaningful to say in my own work.
 
Beyond that, my second daughter has worked very closely a lot with refugees, people in difficult situations. I felt that, in a sense, I had lived her experience because she had been profoundly affected by it. And I saw my relationship as a mother to my daughter as a reflection of other mothers, families and children in terms of displacement, which was a narrative I felt I needed to acknowledge in my own work, using textiles as a way to engage with it.
 
However, while the first piece of the Threads exhibition engages this refugee narrative about displaced people, it’s not about depicting a singular theme or a particular event, it’s much more about multiple narratives and the kind of enormity of the whole issue.


Orphrey (c) Alice Kettle
 
For the Thread Bearing Witness project, you’re working in partnership with refugees, asking them to contribute to and inform your new artworks. How did this come about, and what has your experience working with them been like?
 
It’s an ongoing project which is currently in its early phases, and will continue all through next year. I’m working with small groups and, in terms of authorship, I’m very mindful of the fact that their voices are presented respectfully and in the way they want them to be heard.
 
I meet up with a Syrian women’s group once a week, and I’ve met with refugee artists who I’m getting to know and we’re drawing together, talking and just working together really. I am also working with DWAN (Digital Women’s Archive North), who are launching a project with Manchester refugee artists, so we are going to do workshops with them all through next year. In a way, the whole thing is evolving and developing and I can’t predict how some of it will work, but I want to be as inclusive as I can. They will be contributing actual work and others will be contributing drawings which I will then represent in my own work.  We are also doing a big public participation piece call the ‘Stitch Tree Project’ - anyone from anywhere can stich a little tree which will then be stitched together to form a huge quilt. It’s about the individual voice becoming part of a collective energy, creating something that is about beauty, which is really hard to see at present given some of these really difficult issues.


Golden Dawn (c) Alice Kettle
 
How has working directly with refugees and asylum seekers affected you, both personally and professionally?
 
It has affected me profoundly. On the one hand you say, ‘What am I doing?’ - you question what artistic practice can do to change the nature of their situation. But I have to be deeply respectful and sensitive to how they represent and articulate really difficult issues, which has made me completely step back in terms of furthering my own voice. I have to be as strong as possible in negotiating a balance with authentic contribution, whereas normally I would just say what I want to say and be quite bold and forceful in terms of my own discipline. And in a way, I’m not wanting to be overtly political, but politics is of course an issue. So that’s really extraordinary, and I feel deeply humbled by all of those that I have talked to. Although it has been very difficult to process, you also come out feeling that there is an extraordinary resilience in creativity. Textiles is a very good vehicle for that because it’s absorbent, and also has trade roots which connects the world, and gives us a community of practice and a common language, which is a fantastic way of coming together.
 
Looking ahead, what do you hope to achieve with your work, and is there anything you are still eager to do? 
 
I’ve got a huge creative capacity and I want to go on making textiles - big, narrative works that engage with difficult issues, but in a kind of quietly powerful way.
 
 
Alice Kettle: Threads runs from 28 October 2017 – 14 January 2018 at The Gallery, Winchester Discovery Centre. For more information, please visit the Hampshire Cultural Trust website.

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