One of the great pleasures of my time as a lecturer at the former Dundee FE College was being in daily contact with the wealth of creativity in the other artists also working there as lecturers. We were a diverse group; painters, jewellers and silversmiths, ceramicists, photographers, as well as textile artists who all worked to create an atmosphere where observational drawing was the basis of everything. One of the other tutors working in the Textile department at that time was Claire Heminsley and although we have now both left the College, we have remained friends and in contact through Off the Rails Arthouse – Claire was the driving force behind the setting up of the Arthouse. I delivered City & Guilds Stitched Textile courses at the Arthouse in Ladybank, Fife, for four years which was very enjoyable and there is a varied on-going programme of classes and workshops enjoyed by many. However it was Claire’s own work and practice that we chatted about when we met recently. A graduate of Glasgow School of Art, last year Claire celebrated 30 years trading as Incahoots with clients like the Glasshouse Hotel, Edinburgh, Woodmansterne Publications Ltd, Gleneagles health spa, Gleneagles Hotel, House for an Art Lover Glasgow, Church of Scotland, British Airways, Royal Society of Architects Scotland, and BBC Scotland. She has exhibited and won several awards, and featured in many articles and books over the years.
However I was keen to hear her thoughts about her work and practice so started by asking about her time as a student at GSA. Claire, as a graduate of Glasgow School of Art with its reputation for excellence in textiles and stitched textiles what are your memories of your time at art college and do you feel the teaching and your time there has left a lasting influence on your artistic practice?
- Recently I was listening to some podcasts about GSA and the innovations that took place during the 1970-1986 it was an extraordinary time and I feel very fortunate to have been a student at the tail end of this period. There were 8 people in my year; we had attentive members of staff, both full and part-time, and many were practicing artists. We also had the support from brilliant technicians. At the core of the teaching was drawing; experimental, observational and exploratory all of which was used to develop ideas and critical analysis. This has stayed with me ever since and is embedded in my practice and has influenced my own teaching.
It’s always interesting to peep behind the studio door, to that space which for an artist is where it all happens. Can you describe your studio? Do you like to listen to music or the radio while you work or do you prefer silence?
- I have a studio in my home which has great light and although it is full of stuff I am fairly organised, before I start anything new I always have a clear out ready for the next body of work. Depending on what I am working on I listen to Radio 4, Radio 6 music and audio books. If I am writing I am in complete silence so I can concentrate.
What are your favourite materials to work with? Does stitch still play a large part in your work?
- I don’t really have favourite materials. One of the legacies from my Art School days is the idea that nothing is off limits. I am driven by the concept and the interpretation of the drawn mark rather than materials. Stitch is a component within this. However there is still something magical about the sound of the sewing machine or making marks with a needle and thread.
Many people are tentative about drawing but how important do you think it is to have a daily or regular sketchbook/drawing habit?
- I don’t have a regular sketchbook habit but that is probably because I draw when I want to and I love it so it comes naturally to me. I think that ‘school drawing’ when the sole purpose was to record the subject accurately is probably responsible for many people being so ‘tentative’ about it. There are many approaches to drawing and finding a relevant and personal one is more important.
You have sometimes worked with another artist, do you enjoy the collaborative process and would you recommend it as a way of developing work?
- I haven’t really worked collaboratively but it is something I am looking into and hope that I can explore soon. Any collaboration has been through commissioning someone to print or make something for me so isn’t strictly speaking collaboration.
You recently had an exhibition in Glasgow, Objects of Celebration. Can you tell me a little about it and what was the inspiration behind the work
- The inspiration behind the work was from an observation that human beings seek out celebration as a counter-balance to the difficulties that life throws at us. ‘Objects of Celebration’ are the material signs of connecting relationships whether emotional or spiritual. After extensive research into the theme, conversations, responses to questions from social media call outs two recurring global themes developed and became the key focus, these were- Decoration and Movement. Decorating our environment or ourselves for a celebration: Movement from dance rituals to the flapping of bunting, these are the two elements that informed the body of work.
‘Things on springs’ was an installation of over 60 constructions that visually tell the narratives I have collected about the rituals of celebration.
A conversation and a present triggered the design idea for the installation.
The Conversation…My cousin worked in Papa New Guinea and described constructions that she saw at celebrations and cultural shows. Using gathered flora and fauna people created beautiful, symbolic, decorative headdresses for each tribe with surprising additions of found objects like tatty old tinsel or a plastic fork. For many years I have been collecting found objects or things that I did not want to throw out. Inspired by these headdresses I found the perfect opportunity to use this collection in my work.
The Present…At the beginning of the project a dear friend who knows how much I love utensils gave me an antique whisk. When touched it wobbled for ages. I thought that attaching things to the whisk would be a good way to combine decoration with movement. A factory in Skipton made me perfect replica springs and I spent 3 months making ‘things on springs’. They all have their own story and sit wobbling together; hopefully they encapsulate the joyful feelings of celebration.
Also in the exhibition were large textile pieces using screen and digital printed cloth with stitch and a collection of mixed media drawings.
During the process of making the work for this exhibition I realised that I was also celebrating the beauty within the most ordinary objects.
How do you approach the planning of a gallery exhibition like Objects of Celebration?
- The designer part of my brain loved working out how I wanted to use the space. The light and height of the building informed the scale and I knew I wanted a strong large focal point. I simply drew it out in my sketchbook and fortunately I had great technical support from friends and the technician at the gallery, which enabled me to realise my vision. I wanted to take advantage of the gallery height, as I usually work quite small I was determined to increase the scale, which I did with four large textile pieces. I also designed the catalogue using InDesign which was a challenge but again the designer in me loved that process.
You are always busy but have you plans for the next few months?
- At the minute I am working on a new website which will focus on the ‘Art’ side of my practice. This always takes me ages and is pretty dreary but I have a great web designer to guide me along so I hope to have it ready in the next month. I have started teaching and mentoring a bit more again which I have loved and next year I plan to expand this further…..So many great people out there to work with. Off the Rails Arthouse still takes up a fair amount of my time….but it continues to be a labour of love!
I will be exhibiting at Pittenweem for the first time next August so I have started designing that space in my head thus far but I am really looking forward to making new work for a totally different event.
Well, I’m looking forward to that already. Thank you Claire, it’s been really good hearing about your practice and to learn more about the thinking behind the ‘Objects of Celebration’ work. Good luck with your plans for 2019 – I’m looking forward to seeing what you produce. If you would like to see more of Claire’s work including her beautiful scraperboard drawings have a look at her website here
In the meantime, enjoy……