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The Whitworth: Textiles Study Visit Review

The Whitworth Art Gallery is situated close to the university campuses Manchester in it’s own mature parkland. The recent renovation and expansion of the building has almost doubled the space available as well as bringing the outdoors closer to the gallery spaces. The plan for the day was to spend the morning looking at the textiles exhibition and then examine some of the gallery’s archive material in the afternoon.


The current textile exhibition based around the colour green and its associates gave us plenty to look at and explore. The work ranged from the contemporary, for example Michelle Walkers quilt made from plastic bags, to the historical. A number of us were particularly struck by an 18th Century wall hanging made in Turkmenistan. This large faded piece constructed from a cotton base and hand embroidered in silk and wool thread seemed to hold many intriguing secrets. The more we looked the more we saw in the detail of the piece and the more we questioned its origin and construction. We had time to closely examine the work learning from each other and allowing our curiosity to lead the discussion.


The older pieces in the exhibition filled us with awe for the skill and dexterity of the often-unnamed makers. The more contemporary work excited and enthused us, inspiring the use of techniques, materials and composition. It was useful to see such a wide range of textile pieces giving the students and myself the opportunity to compare style, techniques and materials used across time. This led to a conversation about what textiles is, and how our understanding of the subject has changed and continues to develop. We also talked about how we all see different things in a piece of work and how our past experiences and knowledge informs our understandings.
For the afternoon we spent a couple of hours in the gallery’s collections centre. I had arranged for the students to see work from the textiles archive of a number of established contemporary artists. These were Alice Kettle, Michael Brennand- Wood, Michelle Walker, Eleri Mills, Lesley Mitchison and Colette Gilmartin. The work is kept in boxes along with a fact file. Once we had been told how to handle the work we were left to explore and investigate the items. For many of us our disappointment with the exhibition work was that we are unable to learn through touch or turn items over to see the reverse. This distance was removed whist looking at the archive, allowing the students to more fully experience the work. Included with the textile pieces were fact files that contained information about each artist, some research material the artist had used to inspire the work and samples of sketchbook material. I felt these two elements (research and sketchbook pages) sitting along side the final outcomes helped the students to see how their own research and drawing fits into the creative process.


Throughout the day the students took notes, photographed and sketched the textiles that interested them. They talked to each other and myself about what they were looking at, sharing ideas and thoughts and learning from the experience. I hope they ended the day feeling more knowledgeable, inspired and more fully involved in the oca learning community.
I plan to make another visit to The Whitworth Art Gallery in the near future to look at the emerging textile artist’s collection.


Posted by author: Rebecca Fairley
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