Assignment Three: Research Essay

Is it possible to develop a sustainable practice in Textiles? Where do love of vocation and the word “art” infiltrate?

– Two way showcase:  Louise Gardiner and Alice Kettle

Many textile artists today find 70/30 lives a necessity, working in another career field, to “support” doing what they love; namely their artistic presence.  Within my text, I aim to ascertain if it is possible to develop a singular career in Textiles.  Where does love of what they do sit?  Is there still a stigma with Art v Textiles/Craft?  If so, does this affect Textiles as a sustainable source of income?

Viewing the two artists typed in my tile, as working examples, it will be enlightening to look over their career paths to define if this idea of a singular career is possible and if so, how it has been achieved.  Looking at two artists rather than one, creates a sense of balance within the text, leading to an equitable outcome.

The intention within this body of work, is to answer the questions below and develop personal conclusions, based on the evidence unearthed:

–          Have both afore mentioned artists begun their careers in the same way?

–          Are they maintaining a sustainable singular practice? (To qualify: Is this their sole career?)

–           If so, how?

–          How has love of Textiles driven them?

–          Has the Art v Textiles/Craft debate affected them in any way or influenced their practice?

Let’s first scrutinise how each artist individually came to their current practice.

Alice Kettle was exposed to the artistic realms from an early age.  In an online interview for Textile Artist, she confides she has made her own clothing ‘from early years’ (Picher, 2011).  This led onto work in a craft shop as a teen; ‘it gave me a glimpse of the world which I wanted to be a part of’ admits Kettle.  Family ties also helped, her mother having an interest in galleries and often taking her along.  Interestingly, her mother collected textile artworks.  I wonder if this early airing made her cloth-biased?  Sometimes in our lives, it can take years for our real vocation to flourish.  This may explain why Kettle began studying for her BA in Fine Art and later moved to Textiles; was this originally chosen to defy her mother’s interest in things tactile?  No admission can be found.

Louise Gardiner came from a farming background, with no early dalliance in the arts.  Yet she readily admits in almost every interview, that it was her parent’s hard working and ‘labour intensive’ example, which drives her practice.  She forms a key archetype of someone who was not nurtured to become an artist, but found her own way.  Qualities observed and learned in our early years, even when unrelated to the arts field, can combine to make our practice stronger and more importantly, lasting.

The above information leads to the conclusion that there is no “right” or “wrong” beginning.  As Gardiner discloses in Mollie Makes; ‘we have to make our own opportunities’ (Mollie Makes, 2016).


Fig 1.  Louise Gardiner.  Mollie Makes.  (2016)

Are these two artists’ one-off cases?  Opinions could allude to a certain amount of luck or financial backing to create comfortable lives.  Thus questions arise; are they both maintaining a sustainable practice from their art?  Or are they simply embroidering their realities, via clever posts on social media, which filter and edit their lives to convey a creative persona, when in reality, they are stuck behind a desk at a local retail store?


Fig 2.  Louise Gardiner.  Instagram.  (2017)

Evidence would suggest that these artists are indeed true to their illustrated status.  What does this suggest?  What is their secret to success? To their achievements?

In one interview, Gardiner opens with the words:  ‘you have to make your own opportunity:  You can’t just wait for it to land.  I’ve always been driven…if I don’t get it out there, no-one will come find me’ (Johnson, 2011).

In contrast, Kettle has formed a more relaxed attitude; when asked in an interview with Mr Stitch whether she worries about work and finding opportunities, she simply states:  ‘I go where I am asked and that is that’.  In my opinion, this seems a less pushy approach, yet how does it pay off?  Her full time job at Manchester University and constant commissions obviously are well enough paid to keep her anchored.  One may say that hers is a sensible attitude, she has what the world of commerce would call a “proper job”, it just happens to be in her favoured field.  There are chinks in her armour though.  When filmed for COLLECT, she admits to viewing her work critically while providing a positive slant:  ‘I am proud of my work “Creation” which I did at an optimistic time and finished a few days before my first daughter was born. This piece saved me when it was bought for the Museo applicant Oggi in Turin…that piece started my new life and I knew I must work on and it would be ok.’  (Simmons, 2011).  This seems to imply that love is the motivating source here; love of art, love of child to come.

The word art has been used in this context, to allude to its Oxford dictionary definition; ‘to emulate the true quality of what is beautiful’, which can apply to art, textiles, and craft, whatever we are referring to.  As the word explanation continues:  ‘or of more than ordinary significance.’  (Oxford, 2015) How can it be said that this could be applied only to works on canvas, and by that lets hone it down further to techniques; oil or watercolour, which is the most prestigious?

Returning to Gardiner, she admits to an ‘ever changing practice…I see myself as a contemporary embroideress’.  In The Textile Curator  she confides that ‘security’ (financially) is vital: ‘I have to have several strands to my career; become more professional, more commercial, book illustration, large commissions and teaching’.  (Adams, 2014)

Another string in her bow was a six part column for Sew magazine.  Within each issue in 2013, she throws us a humorous and seemingly honest insight into her life.  ‘These days my job seems less about creating original embroidery and more about social media and marketing’.  Through this particular column, written in July 2013, I apperceive that her days are made up of the following:

  1. Embroidering
  2. Photoshoots and modelling art work for films and promotion.
  3. Selling and organizing exhibitions
  4. Teaching
  5. Social media, Instagram posts, updating website

(Gardiner, 2013)

From the above, a calculation can be made that on an average day, only 20% of her time is spend on embroidery and making.  As she admits within the same column; ‘To survive it is as much about getting your work out there as the making, but there must be balance’.  The feeling of what is unsaid floats; if no balance was implemented, what would be the point in pursuing this laborious, at times draining job?  Again this is where the invisible thread of love comes in.

Both artists work on large scales, which preludes the question of the future, when they are no longer able to take the weight of this cloth.  Do they see this as a time limited career?  As uncovered, Kettle has a full time job to rely on, however Gardiner is freelance.   This would lead to the evidence based assumption that each artist has in fact chosen or accepted a different path although we must say that their Fine Art beginnings are similar.  From this it can be understood why Gardiner especially has to be, as one interviewer for put it; ‘restless, unbridled’.  She discloses: ‘I know that my life as an embroideress is limited because embroidery is a physically demanding medium’.  She has her own remedy to this concern:  ‘I now archive my work through professional photography…I feel it will enable me to explore new avenues; I would love to do a book’.  Her background fuses with the present; coming from a self-confessed ‘hard working family’, who in her own words ‘had to be entrepreneurs, inventive too’, she knows how to plan ahead (Mollie Makes, 2014).

Returning to Kettle, the idea of being employed as a tutor may seem a sacrifice, giving out in vocal form, rather than working on her own practice.  Yet evidence of her authorship (see my reference list) and reoccurring commissions show that even in compromise, there is balance.  She has had more success than Gardiner in approaching Fine Art galleries to exhibit her work.  My personal experience of observing these are at VAST: 2015 at The Royal Scottish academy in Edinburgh and The Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead.


Fig.  3. Alice Kettle.  Pause.  2009.  The Scottish Royal Academy (2015)


Fig 4.  Alice Kettle.  Golden Dawn.  2014.  Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead.  (2016)

Similarities are noticeable between her painted plans and executed pieces.  Maybe it is this foundation of university learning in paint that has led to thread painting on the canvas some may draw upon, which attracts curators of these establishments to her work? Without interviewing those qualified to answer, it is impossible to arrive at a definite conclusion on this; yet when interviewed by a curator at The Merston Gallery, she herself does hint towards this (Kopeseck, 2012).


Fig 5.  Alice Kettle.  Penelope’s bed drawing.  (2003)


Fig 6.  Penelope’s bed embroidery. (2003) (linked to previous drawing)

Both artists seem to have an inner sense to prove a point, whether they are aware of this or not.  In what way?

Embroidery v Fine Art, Textiles v Art, whatever guise it’s sealed in, is yet to be resolved.  Gardiner was published in Homes and Antiques magazine as saying she was ‘tired of it (embroidery) being considered less significant than fine art and drawing’.  Is there a cure?  It would seem to come from her work, her teaching….giving out to others so that they too can envelop themselves in this unofficial petition.  “Someone notice embroidery” she exclaims, her noted frustration observed within a film for COLLECT (Stevenson, 2012).  A subtle contumacy to this debate, may be seen in the form of her luxury line of homeware.  Printed cushions and silk throws can now adorn the elite’s pad, digitally printed with her designs.


Fig 7.  Louise Gardiner.  Luxury printed textiles on display.  (2016)

Within a description of this range published on her website, she states:  ‘Each piece is a work of art in its own right and a great way to introduce an element of contemporary textile art into the home.’ (Gardiner, 2017) This could be perceived as her Trojan horse, her way of “introducing” the potential customer to her art, without escaping their comfort zone.

As previously ascertained, Kettle seems to challenge and defy Fine Art rules.  She has subtly woven her fibre based artistic medium into many art galleries, rather than those weighted towards textiles and craft. Was this a calculated move? In Inspired to stitch she reveals:  ‘Yes I had a painting background, now I find ways to articulate this into textiles, gestural line becomes gestural thread line, mark making in any medium is simply that’  (Springhall, 2012:  211).  On the Embroiderers’ Guild website, they have designed a section entitled ‘Stitch as an art form’.  A variety of influential artists were asked to contribute to this page, including Kettle.  The highlight of her paragraph can be surmised by these words:  ‘Embroidery is art’.  She adds meat to her statement:  ‘I wonder if it really matters if embroidery is art or not? What seems more important is a questioning of material, an understanding of process and an opening up of ideas.’ (Kettle, 2013) Her pragmatic vocal response takes the heat out of this protracted polemic concept; she unpicks and diffuses the agitation from this opinion and takes it back to the original meaning of the word art itself:  Beautiful.

A final piece of evidence comes from Jessica Hemmings, contributing editor for Selvedge magazine.  When reviewing Kettle’s Mythscapes exhibition, she garnishes her column with these words:  ‘Celebrating the painterly qualities in textile art often runs the risk of sounding as though a mimicry of fine art is all textile art should aspire to.  But in the case of Alice Kettle….Far from mimicry, these spontaneous compositions …reflect a union of textile and fine art’ (Hemmings, 2005). Doesn’t this debunk any notions of a divide?  Shouldn’t the two be enjoyed as an enhancement to our lives, rather than picked apart like misplaced stitches?


Fig 8.  Alice Kettle.  Bag of winds. (Mythscapes collection) (2003) 

To recap, we have noted that Kettle and Gardiner may have taken their careers in different directions; freelance or employed, yet they form templates, patterns of how it is possible to develop a sustainable practice in Textiles.  Evidence has been established via the longevity of their work and published successes.

The word vocation was used in my title.  In definition, the word means a strong impulse or inclination to follow a particular activity or career.  Doesn’t this fit?  If we research, the first to come up in a thesaurus in line with this word is art.  No, both artists admit in various ways that this is a not an easy path, yet in Kettles words during an interview for The Narrative Line’; ‘it is beautiful, it can be very, very special’ (DCCI, 2012).




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