We are almost into July and the final three weeks of the exhibition to celebrate our former lecturer Marion Stewart. SEW: Together has been well received; lots of lovely comments from visitors and a steady stream of people coming from far and wide to see the work of Marion, her former students and pieces from the Dundee University collection curated by Matthew Jarron, head of Museum Services at Dundee University. There is another gallery tour next week, led this time by Dorothy Walker, (link to register interest, below) another former student of Marion’s and teacher of art in many Dundee schools. As we move into the final few weeks of the exhibition, it seemed a good time to share another Studio Conversation with you, this time with Marion Mitchell. A printed textile and embroidery student at Duncan of Jordanstone, Marion was a member of Embryo, Dundee Creative Embroiderers and the New Scottish Embroidery Group and exhibited with both. Following her Post-Diploma and teacher training, Marion worked for several years as a part-time lecturer in Embroidery at Duncan of Jordanstone, in adult education as well as running embroidery classes in her own studio. For some years she was a visiting tutor and lecturer in canvaswork for the Embroiderers’ Guild. In 1989 she and her husband set up their family craft and design business specialising in greetings cards, Marion was a member of Crafts in Fife and a representative of a steering group liaising between craft businesses in Fife, Fife Council and Business Gateway. As one of her former students we were delighted when Marion joined us to celebrate Marion Stewart in SEW: Together and I took the chance to chat with her and ask about her practice and life in embroidery.
Marion, in these Conversations I’ve asked everyone who trained at Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee how they review their years as a student. You and I studied the same subjects and we shared the same lecturers so I wonder with the passing of time how you look back at your years in DoJCAD?
- It’s funny, but I started at D JCA convinced I was going to specialise in Graphics. I had identified as a designer rather than a fine artist even while still at school, and graphics seemed the logical step. Thankfully though I was introduced to Printed Textiles in First Year by our tutor, the inimitable Willie Watt, and the plan was quickly changed. Like Raymond from your last conversation, (who happened to sit next to me in Textiles), my passion was for pattern. My graph paper pad was always at my side, and I could happily get lost in planning repeats and colourways within the constraints of a grid. Formal florals and geometric designs were favourites, overlaying colours to produce as many variations as possible within the limitations of the screen printing room. Colour was always extremely important – I wanted to create designs where the colours would sing, but at the same time produce a surprise reaction. I set myself challenges to put together “difficult” colours and get them to work aesthetically. The method of designing geometrically also leant itself well to a form of embroidery in which I became very interested – canvaswork. I felt at home once more within the grid of the canvas, and it sat very easily beside the work I was doing in Printed Textiles. I could use colour in blocks, bend and even break the rules of traditional canvaswork – paint unstitched surfaces, add applique, contrast flat smooth areas of stitch with highly textured “ mountains” of free stitch, because the canvas allowed for the use of threads and wools in a wide range of texture and thickness. In my 4th year I won an RSA Travelling Bursary and decided to use the money to visit North Africa to study the textiles and embroidery of Morrocco and Algeria. This prompted me to prepare by studying in depth, the domestic embroidery used to adorn ceremonial clothing – wedding dresses for example, and the rich embroidered curtains and hangings used in the homes of the nomadic people. In the end, I didn’t travel to Africa, but spent some invaluable time in Paris, visiting design houses, museums and actual working embroidery studios where I was made very welcome and given a lot of help and advice. My interest in African textiles remains though to this day. By the time I was in my post grad year, embroidery had become more important to me than the print part of textiles, much to the disgust of our external assessor Pat Albeck, who offered me a job in her design studio in London, but only after I had got all that, quote “embroidery rubbish out of my system”. Well, that didn’t happen!
You are one of the former students participating in the SEW: Together exhibition at the Lamb Gallery, Dundee University celebrating the legacy of our embroidery lecturer Marion Stewart. What lasting influence has Marion had on how you approach textiles?
- I count myself extremely lucky to have been one of Marion’s students. At the time we were only too aware how hard she made us work, how she expected us to put in many hours outwith college time on our projects – at the expense of our social life on occasion ( I remember a few all nighters to finish work just before our Diploma Show when my friends were out partying), and that wasn’t always looked on enthusiastically by her students. But the grounding was invaluable. We learned so much, not just about the artistic side, but the practical too – how to back fabric to exactly match the weight of the threads, how to stretch work, how to produce precise, neat stitches and then how to break the rules and experiment, and importantly, a strong work ethic which has remained with me throughout my working life. Marion’s voice was in my head while I was teaching and tutoring, producing work for exhibitions, and in the design business I set up thirty years ago. In my final year, Marion offered me the opportunity to take over a few of the non vocational embroidery classes which were so popular at the college, and that started a teaching career which covered art and design in secondary schools for a short time as well as various adult embroidery classes. I taught these classes for 25 years, making many friends among the enthusiastic people who came along, and seeing some of my students go on to become highly respected textile artists in their own right.
What was it that first drew you to study printed and stitched textiles?
- I’ve probably answered this already to an extent, but as a child from about the age of ten I was single minded that I was going to go to Art College, regardless of teachers trying to persuade me otherwise. Growing up in the sixties, I adored boxes of coloured pencils and the newly introduced felt pens. I spent hours sorting them into colour schemes and creating patterns. A large tin of about sixty Derwent coloured pencils was one of my most treasured possessions. I hung around the art department all the time at secondary school ( usually when I was supposed to be playing hockey or such like) – and loved every minute. But as I mentioned before, I leaned more towards design than drawing and painting. My mother was an excellent needlewoman and she taught me to sew, knit, embroider and crochet, so I guess the seeds were sown early on.
When I think of your work it is your use of colour and texture and anyone who follows you on Instagram will know how effective your colour palette is in projects. Is it fair to say that a love of colour is a prime motivator?
- Colour, colour, colour – it fills my head waking and sleeping. It is indeed a prime motivator. A chance collection of colours will often be the catalyst for a new project. It could be anywhere, just a glimpse – enough to imprint two or three colours in my brain, which I’ll think about, mull over, collect samples of threads and yarn and play around to get good proportions – a touch of one, a lot of another. These ideas or colour recipes don’t always get used right away. I store them in my imagination for future use. For example I have a range of colours tucked away from something I saw a few years ago – a painting, magazine page I can’t remember now – the source doesn’t matter but I will work with these colours to produce something entirely different at some point.
Are there sources of inspiration that remain favourites, subjects or themes you find yourself returning to?
- As I said, I consider myself a pattern maker, a designer rather than a fine artist. I adore the work of textile artists who draw and paint with stitch in a free and expressive way, textile artists with stories to tell or thoughts to share. But I know that is not really me. I want to share colours, textures and patterns. I am inspired by the textures of the threads and yarns I collect together to start a piece of work. I may end up with a finished piece which is quite small, but the initial mountain of materials and threads I’ve collected for it can fill a whole room.
What are the processes and techniques you feel are your perennial favourites?
- I’ve already said that I produced embroideries for exhibitions. What I haven’t mentioned is that although I worked prolifically for around fifteen years after leaving college, I then stopped completely. I had been a member of Embryo from its inception and I also took part in other group and solo exhibitions, but my life took a different turn around 1990. For the next thirty years I was first starting and then building, a business which although design related, and was called Embroidered Originals, had little to do with creative embroidery. It became an all consuming part of my life, and later my husband’s life as well, as we relied totally on the business to support our family and pay the mortgage. It was/is a greeting card business with the theme of hand embroidered designs at the beginning, but progressing quickly to a printed card design and publishing company. We worked 14 hour days, sometimes seven days a week and my own embroidery just had to be laid aside. I was confident however, that even though it was on the back burner I would have the opportunity at some point however far down the line, to return to it again. So now at last the time is available for me to pick up my needle once more. For the past year I’ve been mentally preparing for retirement from our family business and to pass it our to my daughter and son in law. (Laura is a textile designer in her own right and has been working with us for the past four years). I’ve started by allowing myself some free time to pursue a related craft in the form of crochet, something which surprised me by its addictive qualities. My love of colour is of course the driving factor and I see the blankets I make much like an artist’s canvas. The yarn colours are combined like mixing paint and I deliberately choose simple stitches so as not to interfere with the overall pattern. I work intuitively, deciding colours and stitches as I go along and find there is a marked similarity with canvaswork. So by accident I have found a route back to embroidery through crochet, and although I feel rather like Rip Van Winkle waking up after thirty years, I’m excited to be picking up where I left off. I’ve thought a lot about and studied, examples of contemporary embroidery – examples of how it has changed and evolved since 1990. I’ve made myself dizzy scrolling through thousands of images on Pinterest and I’ve come to two conclusions. 1. As a textile artist, or any artist, you have to be true to yourself. The little spark inside a creative person is there from birth, and you have to hold on to that. What made me feel at home with canvaswork thirty years ago, the structure and pattern is still how I think now, so I’m going right back to my roots and continue as if those years hadn’t got in the way. And 2. The abundant use of social media nowadays to exhibit, inform and display one’s work, although at times inspirational can also be confusing and lead to plagiarism. I see a sameness in a lot of work which I put down to people with less talent and imagination soaking up the readily available ideas of others. There was something to be said for being in your own bubble back in the day, with less outside influences leaping out of a smart phone all the time. You could develop at your own pace, face your own challenges and make your own decisions.
An artist’s studio is a private and personal place fitted out in exactly the way that works for that individual. Can you tell us something about your space? Do you like to work listening to music, or audiobooks or do you prefer to work in silence?
- I am beyond lucky that this summer I will be taking over the workspace that housed our family business and converting it into my own studio. It is an extension to our house, purpose built four years ago and is tucked into the roof space of our cottage, with four large velux windows and a juliette balcony overlooking fields. The light is amazing, the space is big – more than thirty feet long, and I’ll be able to spread out over various work tables with lots of room for storage of my threads and fabrics. It’s my falling asleep dream at night, planning the layout, and it’s very exciting. At the moment I am a bit of a nomad, moving my work and it’s paraphernalia from room to room, so August can’t come soon enough.
You have built up a really successful business since leaving College but you have intimated that you are starting to stand back a little. What are your future plans and will they include exhibiting?
- I’ve mentioned the fact that our business is moving to our daughter’s. It has become a successful enterprise and I’m proud of what we have achieved as a family. To now pass it on makes me feel the hard work was worthwhile, and at last this is our time – my husband is returning to his roots of drawing and painting too. My future plans are quite vague at the moment. For now I want to be spending as many hours as I can during the day, working in my studio, catching up on my textiles journey. Whether my work will prove it’s something worth exhibiting remains to be seen. I hope so, but I do not want to put pressure on myself at this point. I know my natural tendencies have been to turn everything I do into a business of some sort, but not any more. This time it’s for me. If other people want to see what I’m doing, great but it’s not important. Let’s just see what happens. I have a lot of catching up to do and perhaps to put a positive spin on it, a thirty year gap means I have a fresh eye and a new beginning to look forward to.
Thank you very much Marion, for taking the time to sit and chat with me. I find it interesting finding out about the different paths everyone has taken, former students of Duncan of Jordanstone who left that place and found their own way in the creative world. If you would like to see the pieces Marion has in the SEW: Together exhibition, two new pieces as well as an older canvaswork panel, then get along to the Lamb Gallery, Dundee University Tower Building. The exhibition is open until Saturday 20th July and is a unique record of work – well worth a visit. If you can manage on the 6th July to hear Dorothy Walker’s talk, which is free, then register interest at this link gallery talk with Dorothy
Apart from that, enjoy Marion’s Conversation, another coming soon.