Welcome to Future Heirlooms, where we interview textile artists and explore creativity and technique.
Today’s Future Heirlooms features the ambitious and inspiring work of embroidery artist Louise Riley. I myself did a life size bed work a few months ago and as a result a number of my readers forwarded me links to Louise’s work and of course I was blown away by her incredibly detailed and vibrant work. So I was delighted to reach across the ponds and learn a a bit more about Louise’s work and practice. I have edited the interview very little because Louise shares so much of her personality in her answers and bravely communicates with sincere honesty. So here we go…
Where do you live? How does this affect your work?
I have just moved to Stoke Newington, but my heart and my studio are in Dalston. I am definitely inspired by this area, people leave stuff outside there houses all the time and I know this is illegal and called ‘fly-tipping’, but in Dalston nothing stays there for very long, so it ends up being community recycling, all my mattresses are from there, therefore all the soul inside also. Ridley Road Market is probably the hub of inspiration, with the African fabrics and just the wealth of colour and material, I am always looking for objects that hold a descriptive quality or message just within themselves.
How did you begin to Embroider?
There was always two paths for me, Math or Art, I loved them both with equal measure, but I made the choice at A-Level, I was studying both and when it came to the end of the first year, I was dying of misery (not easy being 16) so I decided to change what I could and switched to all Art based subjects. I was the only one who did textiles, so I had a little table in the corridor with the sewing machine. My teacher came and showed me how to thread it up and then basically left me to it. It was a great adventure and very different to anything else in my life, I felt freedom and control and was quite happy when it all went out of control too! I have ever since linked embroidery with freedom. My teacher took me to a talk at the V&A to see Alice Kettle on my 17th birthday and my fate was sealed.
Are you self-taught or formally trained?
I have dipped in and out of education, but never really enjoyed the system. I simply can’t control the urge to break free! I would just find myself vibrating with anxiety, I feel much more relaxed just getting on with it and I am confident in my self-led progress. I learnt two great things on the year of degree I did. How to thread a needle so the thread didn’t get tangled and how to patchwork, it was worth it for those, but all the great advances have been on my own time.
Do you think this affects your practice? If so, how?
I do think it gives my work a unique quality, because it has never been forced in any other direction by outside influence, this may make it naÃ¯ve at times, but I think it also makes it human and fearless. I read up a lot about different areas of research, chemistry, biology, maths theory mostly so it is not devoid of academia, but I value the communion with the audience and make no effort to outwit anyone.
How does the practice of embroidery affect the conceptual aspect of your work?
The literal abundance of fabric and thread as domestic content and construction, not limited to gender, makes our relationship to it very close. They are a huge part of communion and relationships, family sofas, beds, carpet…
When I am sewing figures, I think of the thread being strands of DNA and the stitches binary codes and the fabric (our second skin anyway) a grid and that leads me onto String theory, experiences happening along side each other with endless alternative outcomes, it all just feels like cosmic alignment! It really makes me think that paint is just so pointless…
When did you start working large scale? How did you work evolve to this?
It was a mixture of three things, having a solo show in Berlin and feeling so dissatisfied that it was so stuck to the wall and there was this huge space between it all, it just felt insufficient and school disco.
The other ingredient was finding my first mattress, I had been thinking about them, but more about emulating them by cutting curves into stretchers, when I found the butterfly one I was with my daughter who was about 8 months old, it was a real make or break point in my career, I had this huge confused soliloquy in the street. Do I drag this rank old used mattress into the family home for the sake of art? But I knew equally if I didn’t then I had lost my mojo and may as well give up. I felt if I didn’t do it properly then I shouldn’t do it at all, because if it wasn’t amazing then it wasn’t worth coming between me and my daughter.
So I chose art and motherhood and it at times seems like a foolish combination, but I am happy watching them grow together.
Where do you get the source images for your bed pieces? How do they inspire your work?
With all my work things happen quite organically and there is no real formula. Sometimes I find the mattress and get the idea and sometimes I have the idea and hunt for a suitable mattress, sometimes people inspire me or sometimes I look for people in the situation I am looking to create. Either way I have to get people to take their clothes of and it is quite nerve-wracking for them and me! It doesn’t always work out, people often chicken out, or keep rearranging until I decide that it just isn’t going to work. In the sessions I am a bit ‘Ed Wood’ about it all, snap away in a nervous flurry. When they are gone, I curse myself for not taking enough time and sit down with a pen and ink and draw from the photographs until they turn into what I want. Then I scale up the drawing, but use the photo for the ‘colouring in’. Making mistakes are a huge part of my practice, I like to develop things on the job, so I never do a sample or anything, when I start sewing I just sew away with careless abandon until I formulate a stitching style, then usually all that stuff is underneath.
Can you talk about how the mattress as an object works conceptually with your work?
I use the mattress as a backgroundless background that holds weight of experience conceptually, spiritually and physically. Blood, sweat and tears like tree rings in its core. It presence in our rights of passage, our sleep, rest, thought dreams, the theatre of love spilled out onto it. How could I work on anything else! It is a ready-made canvas, it allows my ideas to penetrate it and collaborate with it to unearth a supposed breath-taking, yet ordinary, history or herstory.
Describe your Studio Practice
My studio practice is all over the place, sometime I literally work every hour sent in a total fit of untamed inspiration and usually a deadline and sometimes I just lope around feeling guilty and strange and like I am not making enough money and I should get a proper job. It would be difficult to write a day in the life, I am not very consistent. I would love to have a gallery or an agent that would just arrange all these shows for me, because I have an endless stream of ideas, but end up spending so much time on admin. Any offers?
How has your work evolved since you first began with Embroidery?
In some ways it has evolved A LOT, technically, conceptually and technical conceptuality regarding use of material. But I think my interest in human nature has been a constant and my conviction that the face is the door.
What else do you spend your time doing and do these inform your work?
Spending time with my daughter inspires my work a lot, I sometimes finish a piece of work and then think back to its inception and feel embarrassed to find a little bit of ‘mister maker’ mixed with a bit of ‘Charlie and Lola’. I enjoy making her clothes which really reinforces the construction side of fabric, but she doesn’t really like my style which is a bit more ‘Alice in Wonderland on acid’ than princess, she does like the silky pucci-esque and purple velvet cloak I just made her though!
I am always hoovering up details everywhere I go and will often have a particular quest or solution to find. I am wildly social, I LOVE hanging out either with mums and kids or friends or strangers, I think I eat it all up because my work-life is so solitary, but conversation is a huge part of my inspiration. Visiting galleries, dancing with my eyes closed, choral singing, hunting in the library, my Wednesday date with myself of sushi and cinema.
Where can we see more of your work?
Until next time keep stitching!
Joetta Maue is a full time artist primarily using photography and fibers. Her most recent work is a series of embroideries and images exploring intimacy. Joetta exhibits her work throughout the United States and internationally, and authors the art and craft blog Little Yellowbird as well as regularly contributing to the online journal Hello Craft. Joetta lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, two cats, a goldfish and a soon-to-be baby.