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The Dark Side of Textile Art

Quite recently,  one of my students (you’ll know who you are!) was talking about the work of Tracey Ermin, how she admired her ability to put so much of herself into it, to be totally honest.  This, she agreed, is what really constitutes the art in textile art, the work says something,  expressing the soul of the artist, even if that feeling is complete despair.  I, like my student, cried when I first saw some of her more private pieces, particularly the very poignant prints.

And then you left me, work by Tracey Emin, a searingly honest depiction of loss – loss of partner, loss of child, loss of self and maybe loss of hope too.
And therein lies the problem as well; I am always encouraging students to put themselves into their work, I try to do it myself, but sometimes is this approach just too dark for comfort? Suffering from SAD at this time of year as I am (November through to January is button down the hatches time for many like sufferers) I want something which lifts rather than deepens the depression, not inner angst. I was recently at the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate and as you know,  certain images and impressions, artists and work, always strike with real force at such events. For me it was the work of Jean Bennett, who is not only a very talented textile artist, but an art therapist. She encourages her students, often acutely suffering with life’s problems, to go into that suffering, to examine it and to depict it as it feels.
Hope, fixed fibre and stitch by Jean Bennett, which is actually meant to depict the feeling of being in a private hell, relieved only by tiny glimpses of light breaking through now and then. [click on the image above to see a larger copy to get a real sense of the work]
Her  work is amazingly dark – black I would call it, but she did emphasise,  even in these pictures of hell, there are little spots of white in the compositions. These and the birds which symbolise hope and escape from problems, even if for only a few hours, promise  a brighter future one day. I was bowled over by  the quality of Jean’s work, but still had to fight the urge to run away – so dark, at this time of the year. I emphasise that not everyone would feel like this, and maybe some people are completely unmoved one way or the other, whatever the time of year.
For the same reasons, although I deeply admire the work of Rozanne Hawksley, I cannot ever view it for more than a few minutes at a time – coward or what? Too many images from a Catholic childhood  I fear, too much suffering, guilt and anguish? Although maybe in July it would be fine?

Rozanne Hawksley is one of the UK’s most renowned textile artists, often including animal bones (like here),  references to religious relics and suffering in her work.
This reminded me of something  discussed at art school – something called  the  “The Monet effect”, sometimes referred to by art historians.  By this is meant, the way Monet deliberately chose to work very bright and cheerfully in an uplifting way.

Claude Monet, The Magpie, 1869, wintry but still depicting the beautiful side of life.
Its often wrongly assumed that Monet was endlessly cheerful because of the way he worked, when in fact he was quite aware of the sad and painful side of life. He often had money problems, suffered a terrible bereavement and failing eyesight dogged him most of his adult life. To paint cheerfully was for him a kind of cognitive therapy – a re-programming of  thoughts   (as opposed to classic talking therapy)  descriptions which do neither approach much justice,  but gives the rough idea.

I leave you with the work of Julie Senior just completing Texiles 3: Your Own Portfolio. Her work, though based firmly on her own drawings, also references  the working methods of Monet, after extensive research on the artist.  Julie’s initial photo of hay bales in an English landscape was quite dull in colour, she choose to make the tones brighter and more sunny. She says in her logbook,   “studying Monet’s Hay Bales has set me thinking about the importance  of mood and atmosphere and its something I would like to develop further”. I’m so pleased to hear this, because its often an underrated factor in what we do as artists. We all wish Julie very good luck with this, I’m sure.

Posted by author: Trisha Goodwin
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9 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Textile Art

  • I also saw Jean Bennett’s work at the K&S Show and was particularly moved by ‘Hell’. It was very reminiscent of Rodin’s Gates of Hell but with incredible fragility. Thank you for blogging this as I had trouble finding Jean’s site when I had tried.

  • I admire the honesty in this post, and realise this is a key aspect of reflecting on whatever work one does, the more honestly we reflect, the easier it is to learn and move forward.

  • I find this time of year difficult too, although it usually lifts a little for me once my birthday has been and gone. Its more difficult for me to comment on the textile work because I always need to see it in reality and then imagine touching it. However, Claude Monet’s painting struck a chord. Not particularly because of its ‘cheerfulness’ but because of it being of snow. I remember last year how much better I felt being in fresh snow because it was so bright and light.

  • Thanks Jane, I do believe honesty to be one of the most important things we can bring to our work; although not always easy. From childhood we are trained to keep our feelings hidden, quite often, even from ourselves, partly survival instinct to protect from vunerability. When you lay yourself open, as Tracey Emin does for instance,you can set yourself up for a lot of criticism and hurt too.
    Catherine, yes reflected light from snow can act in the much the same way as a lightbox (or so my husband, from a scientific background as opposed to arts, says!).

  • Thanks Trisha. I don’t think any of us really like the ‘down’ feeling we get from being in the dark so much at this time of year. I know that for me my textiles work helps to lift that feeling. I’ve discovered that walking to catch the bus for work rather than using the car also helps; it might be cold and wet sometimes, but not only do I save money, I also see so many things that inspire me even in just a short journey in the streets near to my home. I’d recommend it to anyone!
    Thanks also for mentioning Monet whose work I’ve always admired, but, while I’ve analysed why and reached several conclusions, I hadn’t ‘twigged’ that it was in part due to The Monet Effect!
    Here’s to the spring that’s just around the corner ;o)

  • Thanks Judith for your kind comments. Yes, it is quite “normal” for most people to feel a little low in Winter. Even SAD sufferers like myself, after the morning sickness (quite common) abates can feel a little better for a short walk if able; better painkillers also make this more possible nowadays. One day, I suppose they’ll be able to treat the pineal gland malfunction itself, as my GP suggests. I don’t want to dwell on the subject – but see wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder

  • Re SAD I think I’ve cured myself by fitting daylight bulbs in the house.
    Regarding this comment “I do believe honesty to be one of the most important things we can bring to our work …….. When you lay yourself open, as Tracey Emin does for instance,you can set yourself up for a lot of criticism and hurt too”
    I wonder how as artist’s we can learn to deal with having to continually hear criticism of that type and still retain the honesty that’s so essential to do anything worthwhile. I seem to be forever reading personal attacks on artists because of the type of work they’ve done. Criticism that’s about the person or format of the work, not about whether the work is good or not, but whether the person is “nice” or not. If the “niceness” of the artist was really a factor in whether their art was any good or not we’d have to rewrite most (if not all) of art history.
    So that leaves me wondering what happened to the idea of critical judgement in art, has it got replaced these days with whether or not the artist appears to be a nice person?

  • Hi Anned, I so agree with you; I think that artistic criticism, has got muddled up somewhere of late with the general, not very nice criticism, of the reality TV show type – I think this has confused things. Real criticism, of any type of art (and I include literature, dance, etc) is balanced and well informed and about the nature of the work, and how well it conveys its message or not and how it does this. When I did my BA in Art History, you really had to justify every remark you made in an essay. Some artists inevitably led chaotic lives we wouldn’t want to live ourselves or did things we wouldn’t do, and you needed to comment on this – but it was more in the spirit of empathy and understanding how this fed into their work – never judging them personally. The weekly Group Crits we had on my MA Textiles course were designed to help you cope with criticism as an textile artist or designer. Not easy standing infront of a piece of work having a large group of people dissect it! But again we were not allowed to attack anyone personally, just to criticise the actual work with intelligence, sensitivity and hopefully,empathy. The only thing to do with any unkindly meant comments of the personal kind, is to perform a large “metaphorical shrug” and move on, whilst retaining our own personal dignity.

  • With reference to some of the comments about the darker aspects of creative processes, Darian Leader writes (The New Black) that the arts exist to enable us to access grief. They do this by demonstrating publicly how creation can emerge from the chaos and turbulence of a human life. He quotes artists such as Paul Klee and Barnett Newman who said that emptiness and even chaos are prerequisites for creative work. Uncomfortable truths, but truths nevertheless.

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