Get comfortable, grap a cup of tea or coffee, and read on to learn more about the fascinating art of Rosalind Wyatt!
Hello, I am Karen Thiesen, and I have been admiring Rosalind Wyatt’s work for years... ever since the photos of her project The Stitch Lives of Others started appearing on the internet. I had the opportunity to take a workshop from her and was delighted to find that not only is she an amazing artist, but an extraordinary person and teacher.
You have a degree in calligraphy and bookbinding...what made you switch mediums from paper and pen to needle and thread?
It wasn't really a question of switching, more like progression; towards the end of the calligraphy & bookbinding degree, I'd taken a module called painted lettering, where we were to design letters for a medium. I had chosen a text which I felt lent itself to be applied onto textiles; the tutors loved the work and I guess saw my aptitude with textiles. One particularly astute tutor suggested a masters at The Royal College of art- mixed media specialism within Constructed Textiles. So I applied to a Textiles course with a purely calligraphy portfolio. My training at the RCA was a complete sea change in direction, learning and development. Moving from an entirely craft based coursed to an art/design education where everything was judged not on whether it was 'right' but whether it was authentic was challenging to the core. During this postgrad, I too questioned everything and had to dig deep to find my voice. I began to re assess how I made marks and my work became very abstract. My range of writing tools became broader, and gradually I discovered that it's the intention behind making a mark that gives it power and presence. One of the tools I picked up was a needle- I thought 'I wonder if you can write with this'. And so it was this simple process of discovery, that stitch by stitch you could form a letter... in thread!
One of the most amazing things about your work to me is that you can copy a person's handwriting in stitch without first tracing it out or making a pattern of any kind! How do you do that?
First of all you have to look and observe closely all the details of a written artifact. The more acutely this inspection takes place the better, and with all your senses! I think we've lost touch with the power of this form of communication. After the voice, an original document records a particular moment in time, a happening, an event! Who wrote it, the content, the thoughts and feelings and intention all come together in a physical manifestation. What is it telling you? Once you feel this connection, you can begin making. The choice of fabric and thread is informed by the original- so if the original handwriting is heavy, use a heavy thread! But don't labour over this, ordinary cotton and calico is fine. Then It's like sketching the contours of a face, mostly you look at the original handwriting, which I always keep as close as possible to the fabric. It does take concentration, but like anything, the more you practise, the easier it becomes. Above all, enjoy it and work with an sense of wonder- watching it all take place!
Tell me about your project "The Stitch Lives of London".
This came about from a body of work called 'the stitch lives of others'. People responded in such a personal way, giving me their textile heirlooms that I felt there was a bigger project waiting to be created. So the idea for SLL came about. It's an art textile installation telling the story of London through text and textile- a modern day Bayeaux Tapestry. People donate their stories in the form of a garment and handwritten document which then becomes an artwork. Eventually all the pieces will hang together, side by side, like on an imaginary washing line that forms the pattern of the River Thames. It is about and for the people of London. So far there are 10/5 garments including an athletic running top donated by Baroness Lawrence, celebrating the life of her son, the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence; the shirt actor Jude Law wore when he played Hamlet on the London stage and this year two garments- a historical piece based on 4 diaries of a stretcher bearer in the WW1 and a contemporary garment donated by Jonny Benjamin of the #findingmike campaign.
"A boy who loved to run" garment donated by Baroness Lawrence to The Stitch Lives of London
Shirt donated by Jude Law, worn in a 2009 production of Hamlet
What is your favorite piece that you have created?
Impossible to say! Like having to choose your favourite child.... But I might just concede that I thoroughly enjoyed the Fortnum & Mason commission of two stitched garments 'I wish I were with you' and 'Because it's there'.
You have studied Zen brushwork in Japan, and now you have just come back from a 3 week artist's residency in India. How do those experiences influence your art?
I never set out to travel to either Japan or India! They seem to have come about from a need or question. After a very formal training in western calligraphy I was always looking at oriental calligraphy and enjoying the freedom and flow of it. My question was how can those zen masters seem to pack so much into a single brush stroke. Even though I didn't understand Japanese script, the marks spoke to me and conveyed a freshness and immediacy that jumped off the page. Then I went to an exhibition of zen scrolls at Oxford university and that was a real lightbulb moment- it took me right to the feet of a living zen master. I felt compelled to make contact and soon after I was invited to visit. Zen brushwork has become part of my artistic practise ever since. This system continues to challenge me about how to make a mark without 'doing anything', and furthermore about the true source of creativity. It is a lifelong study.
India has always played a part in my life- albeit remotely. I grew up with the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta and the practise of meditation alongside a simple knowledge of the great epic poems and Sanskrit texts. These great teachers and cultures change you from the inside- you can tap into a well spring of knowledge, freedom, understanding and happiness. This recent residency was my first visit to India to stay as part of a community in rural Gujarat. It was extraordinary and challenging at the same time. I'm still working on a new series of collages based on my time there and digesting it all.
What is your favorite inspirational quote?
The one I always come back to again and again ends with the simple yet profound sentence 'you are a note in a world song'. It's very practical- you have to come out of what you are not, those thoughts and feelings that go round and round, the decisions you take, the separate sense of self....and listen. The world song is happening right here and now.... and you are in everything!
“If Shoes Could Talk”
What is the best thing about working in your studio?
I think a certain atmosphere is created in a space that accumulates over time. It's impossibly small and crammed with all my materials, tools, books and work; sometimes when I've been away for a while, I'll return and just feel so grateful that there is a space where I can be and create. Even though it's physically small, it's light, bright and clean away from the house- at the bottom of the garden. Then of course, it's in the best city in the world- London!
Rosalind will be teaching a workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, May 11-17, 2015, her first time teaching in the US! Details at www.womanwithaneedle.com.
To celebrate, I am giving away a copy of Leanne Prain’s excellent book, Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles, featuring Rosalind’s stunning work on the cover!