Explore Fiber is a collaborative website showcasing and exploring fiber as a fine art material.
Stewart Kelly is an internationally recognised artist based in Manchester, United Kingdom. Stewart gained a BA (Hons) in Fashion & Textiles Design from Liverpool John Moores University specialising in textile art and design. During his studies, Stewart exhibited and sold fabric designs with Indigo Salon at Premiere Vision in Paris. His clients included Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Lauren Vidal, Sahco Hesslein and Ralph Lauren Home Collection. Following this, Stewart received an Arts & Humanities Research Board Postgraduate Award to study for an MA in Textiles at Manchester Metropolitan University, specialising in fine art textiles.
Over the last twenty years, Stewart has established a profile as an international artist. He has shown his work in over 100 exhibitions in the United Kingdom, Europe, USA, Canada and China. Stewart’s work has featured in several international publications including Embroidery, Inspirational, Textile Fibre Forum, Textile View and Cover Magazine. In addition, he has published online interviews with ArteMorbida, Explore Fiber, Textile Artist, Textile Curator and Mr X Stitch. Stewart is a member of the European Textile Network and the Surface Design Association.
“What is it I have to tell myself again and again? That there is always a new beginning, a different end. I can change the story. I am the story. Begin.”
I have instinctively drawn, stitched and constructed objects for as long as I can remember. I recall it was specifically an interest in drawing which followed me through school, and eventually led me to enrolling on a foundation course in art and design at a local college. At the beginning of the course, I assumed I would pursue a purely fine art route, however, as my work progressed, I began to explore textiles and surface design.
This resulted in applying for the fashion and textile design degree at Liverpool John Moores University, with the intention of pursuing the textile pathway on the course. I chose the course at Liverpool as it appeared to allow a lot of creative freedom. I was able to pursue drawing, computer aided design, weaving, dyeing, screen printing, embroidery and fabric manipulation techniques.
One opportunity which came out of the course, was to exhibit with Indigo Salon at Premier Vision in Paris. The opportunity allowed me to exhibit and sell fabric samples for commercial conversion. I recall being very excited to travel to Paris as a teenager, and meet many professionals working in the textile industry. I can specifically remember talking to Italian textile agents, who were so animated and passionate when they talked about cloth!
Towards the end of the course my textile work became more sculptural in its appearance. I produced a series of works which initially were woven using various materials such as paper and plastic. I then machine embroidered over the surface, before finally applying heat to the surface in order to sculpt their appearance.
Drawing in particular continued throughout my studies. Specifically drawing the human form, mainly through life classes, but also drawing performance, including dancers and musicians. In addition, I began to explore how I could fuse textiles and surface design with drawing. I experimented using a sewing machine as a drawing tool alongside side other conventional drawing materials.
The development of a personal language through drawing, and as a vehicle to convey meaning and ideas, has always remained central to my practice.
Following my graduation, I was awarded an arts and humanities research board postgraduate bursary to study for an MA in Textiles at Manchester Metropolitan University. I recall the week I arrived in Manchester, was the week of 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a sense of uncertainty rippled across the world, I found myself in a new city, not really knowing anyone and unsure how my creative practice would evolve. The human form had become central to my work leading up to starting the course. However, rather than just focusing on process, I wanted to delve beneath the surface and explore certain themes within my work.
The course offered me the opportunity to study the correlation between theory and practice. The themes which became relevant to my research included self-portraiture, the projection of identity, the depiction of gender and sexuality. I corresponded with various artists around the world whose work explored these themes. In the studio, I began to visualise this research through photography, painting and embroidery. However, at this point, I felt that I wanted to my work to reconnect specifically with my interest with drawing and textiles.
I began using my body as a drawing tool, printing myself on to large pieces of paper and cloth in order to create images which I intended to be more forensic in their appearance. Later, through subjecting the drawings to some digital manipulation, the images became reminiscent of Rorschach ink blots tests. I also began to explore this theme on cloth. This line of enquiry led to producing a series of sculptural pieces, including one piece which consisted of 30 body forms featuring prints of my body. As you can imagine, it was a tall order to complete project and not an experience I would be willing to repeat!!!
“The studio is a laboratory, not a factory. An exhibition is the results of your experiments, but the process is never-ending so an exhibition is not a conclusion.”
Following the completion of my studies, I acquired a studio at Bankley Studios & Gallery in Manchester, UK. The studio houses 35 artists working in all disciplines. In addition, there is an artist led gallery space with a changing programme of exhibitions throughout the year. Acquiring a studio offered a renewed focus for my practice, and marked a new successful period in exhibiting my work.
Prior to joining Bankley, I had been a member of an open printmaking studio and was able to learn various techniques. I became particular interested in collagraph and etching. During this period, I also continued drawing the human form, but I was not interested representing the figure literal way. I began overlaying images, and the drawings began to take on a conceptual nature. The layering of marks became a way of building and reflecting on experience. And this approach to working became a metaphor in the work.
Establishing my project at the studio, I took with me the wealth of drawing and print material I had produced during the previous couple of years and I began to consider how I could relate this work to my textile practice. I wanted to explore the human form as a theme, but not in a figurative sense, something more abstract. Initially, I used a viewfinder to select small sections of drawings and prints. I later began to embellish these pieces with machine stitching focusing on the quality of line within the drawings.
The resulting pieces formed the Fragments series. They small and intimate in scale, almost portals in to drawings on paper and cloth, depicting aspects of the human form. In addition, as the pieces developed I became interested in how they began to form sequences.
Following on from the Fragments series, I began to develop a new series called Life Lines.
Similar to the Fragments series, figure drawing provided a starting point for the project. However, instead of using a viewfinder, I began by cutting drawings into strips and weaving the two images together. I was interested in seeing how two images corresponded and overlapping lines formed a new image. During this creative process, the figures are transformed. They lose some of their physical appearance and take on a more conceptual nature.
During 2013, I was commissioned by the Bowery Gallery in Leeds, UK to produce a new body of work to be exhibited as a solo exhibition in the gallery. Further to the Fragments and Life Lines series, I began to work on a larger scale and consider how the pieces would work in space. I produced 10 new pieces which formed the basis of a drawing installation exhibited in the gallery during 2014 called Traces.
The installation offered a different way for an audience to engage with my work and I documented viewers responses throughout the exhibition. Some people identified the figures within the pieces, others read the images as landscapes or maps.
Face to Face
“Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every airborne particle in its tissue.”
Subliminally, my work often reflects events in my own life. At this point, I was interested in developing a new body of work which would enable me to connect with different artists, authors and curators around the World. In addition, at this time I joined the European Textile Network and the Surface Design Association, in order to pursue international exhibiting opportunities.
The resulting project was called Face to Face. There are eleven works in this series, completed between 2015 and 2017. This series of works was a development of my previous projects. However, the Face to Face series is intentionally figurative and more confrontational in its appearance. It was also an opportunity to explore colour. The pieces were constructed is several stages. Initially, I made several observational studies of faces from life using ink on paper. On my return to the studio, I cut out all the faces and began to arrange them in the form of a collage. Finally, I machine stitched over the surface in order enhance lines and blend colours.
I felt the development of these pieces, enabled me to explore the correlation between process and subject matter. I was interested in creating a series of works which were neither exclusively drawings or textiles. The pieces are ambiguous in both the process and subject matter. In addition, I began to explore scale, and the pieces grew considerably larger in size. I can recall the challenges of developing large machine stitched pieces on paper, and remember being underneath the work, attempting to stitch the pieces on several occasions!
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart… I am, I am, I am.”
Alongside my creative work, I have over the last 20 years worked in most education and community settings with all ages, abilities and cultures. Specifically, I have worked considerably in the field of arts and mental health, facilitating projects in hospitals, occupational health settings and community venues. I have a continuing professional interest in researching how the visual arts may be used as a means to enhance an individual’s physical or mental wellbeing.
During 2018, I was invited to develop a series of works to be photographed and published in a forthcoming book exploring the theme of art as medicine. The author selected certain artists to submit works which reflect upon how creativity can assist an individual in recovering from a period of physical or mental ill health. Subsequently, I established the Body Mapping project, which was a personal project incorporating text, stitch and dye in order to create a series of works which embody the space between drawing, textiles and sculpture, and resulted in three new sculptural textile pieces, 40 Hands, 40 Heads and Me & My Shadow.
Several years prior to starting this project, I completed a Foundation Course in Art Therapy with the British Association of Art Therapists. Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which making images and objects plays a central role. During the course, I was able to experience and participate in several creative and reflective activities art therapists utilise in their practice. The course was enlightening and was instrumental in helping me develop the pieces for this project.
“Stitch can be metamorphic; it can be transitional both physically and conceptually. Cloth and stitch can seem at times to be as one entity, one invisible world of meaning, a harmony of direction and experience. At others, it can seem more like a struggle with identity, an uncomfortable alliance between opposites, both demanding to go their own mutually exclusive directions, their pathways being in no way linked.”
Following the completion of the Body Mapping pieces, I was enthusiastic to start a new project. The Body Mapping project was largely introspective, therefore, I wanted to develop a new series of works which would be colourful, joyous, uplifting, and a celebration of life!
During November 2019, I travelled to India for a research trip. I went to West Bengal and visited many crafts men and women working in Kolkata, Murshidabad, Shantiniketan and Bishnupur. During the trip, I was fortunate enough to travel to often remote villages, to see artists working in their studios. This included weavers, printers, dyers and embroiderers. I was particularly interested in researching Indian embroidery, specifically Kantha which is synonymous with the region. The fabric produced in the region is breath taking! The trip was equally moving and inspiring, and I hope to return to India again before too long.
Following my return from India, I returned to drawing as a starting point to generate new ideas. I have recently collaborated with the Centre for Advanced Textiles at Glasgow School of Art in order to produce a series of drawings digitally printed on to cloth. It is my intention to use the printed cloth as the base for embroidery, providing a way to continue the drawing through stitch.
My current interests include exploring the possibilities of combining drawing, hand and machine embroidery with digital drawing, printing and embroidery. I am interested in the fusion of analogue and digital media within the context of my creative ideas. In addition, I intend to explore the correlation between process as a metaphor and subject matter in my work.
Looking ahead to the new decade, I intend to create a body of work which consolidates many of the ideas I have explored over the previous twenty years. In addition, I aim to connect with people in different ways including; live drawing, performance stitching and artist residencies.
Stewart Kelly 2019.