Alice Kettle: Telling Stories With Their Eyes

Winchester Discovery Centre

Textiles tell us stories, stories that are printed, woven, sewn and knit into their surfaces and structures. Textiles also allow us to tell our own stories, stories we carry with us and search for in the surfaces and structures that surround us. This capacity of the textile to narrate and be narrated is central to the vitality of contemporary textile practice. Looking Forwards to the Past, Alice Kettle’s significant public artwork for Winchester’s Discovery Centre is, among other things, a complex textile narrative. It invites reading on many levels, providing a vision of the city’s past, present and future. It also allows us, as viewers, to discover our own stories.

Of the textile arts, Kettle’s chosen medium of embroidery arguably represents the clearest historical connection to textile narration. Traditional embroidery samplers literally contain letters and words that can be understood as both textile and text. Looking Forwards to the Past provides a far more complex narrative. Colour, texture and image replace words to present the viewer with possibilities rather than conclusions. The sheer scale of the work (16.5 metres long by 3 metres tall), and its anticipated lifespan, require multiple approaches to its reading/viewing. “I am aware that this is a piece that has to have a life into the future,” Kettle explains. “It has got to outlive me and my children, so it can’t be rooted stylistically anywhere in particular. I wanted it to have a contemporary feel, but something that would also have a sense of moving forward. That is why I let colour lead me because colour is something that transcends time.”

To continue the textual analogy, Kettle’s chapters and paragraphs are balanced against the overall impact, shifting between detail and specificity on the one hand and impression and effect on the other. The history and contemporary life of Winchester, the place where Kettle was born, raised and has chosen to raise her own children, is represented. But also available is a chart of open-ended references that invite the viewer to make their own reading and find their own stories within. “Sweeps of colour cover the whole piece and create a dynamic surface,” Kettle explains of the embroidery’s unifying theme. The vivid palette is inspired by the Winchester Bible’s illuminated manuscript, which dates to the 12th century. Set in gold leaf on raised plaster, Kettle notes that the illuminated letters “have a real affinity with the way I work which is about surface quality and light. The balanced illuminated letters with little incidents contained within provided useful examples of extremes of scale and detail.”

Not to be caught looking in only one direction, technology has played its hand as well. The enormity of the commission demanded a revaluation of process, in particular the introduction of “embroidery equipment that is relative to the scale of the mark.” Before this project, Kettle stitched from the back of the fabric, effectively working blind. The Omni Stitch machine changed this unusual perspective and allowed for thread to literally be drawn across the top surface of the work. Kettle concedes, “Previously there had been a sense of detachment because of working from underneath. With the Omni Stitch I got very carried away with drawings!” The variety of embroidery machines used throughout the project has resulted in the expansion of Kettle’s already experimental vocabulary. Stitches build densely across the ground as though the thread has scribbled its way onto the fabric surface. Elsewhere the fabric is overworked with single fat thread or contrasts with precise machining. The result is engrossing, causing the eye to move from thread to mark to image and back in a recurring cycle of discovery.

As well as new equipment, Looking Forwards to the Past is also the product of collaboration. Guided by Kettle’s eye, different hands and machines have all left their mark on the work. Students from Manchester Metropolitan University and Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton created sections that became part of the larger, collaged whole. This fundamental shift in practice required Kettle to “absorb others’ work into the piece.” The challenge was eased by the unanticipated benefit afforded by the scale of the work, which took on board different elements far more easily than her previous work would have allowed. “The huge scale of the piece made it quite liberating,” Kettle concludes. “One drawing becomes a small incident within the context of the whole piece. That realisation was very empowering.”

Stories within stories populate the layered work. Perspective ranges from that enjoyed by a viewer outside the building to the close scrutiny of a viewer arm’s distance away from the cloth. In this sense the work needs to be viewed inside and out, night and day, over and over. “I think the right hand face is the defining image,” offers Kettle “which in a sense is in the wrong place if you think we read things from left to right. But in the context of the building that is what invites you in. It is a gentle gaze, almost like the narrator’s face, reflective and thoughtful. The second face looks back to it, as though it is listening to the story.” Between the two gazes are images ranging from grassy fields to medieval ceramic tiles from Winchester Cathedral and Antony Gormley’s sculpture Sound II (housed in the Crypt of the Cathedral). There are also groups of people standing in conversation, socialising, and snap shots of a community and daily social interaction. Punctuating the left hand side of the work is a bold geometric shape. The mark is both eye catching in its prominence and difficult to define. Kettle suggests it is “a question mark that the face looks towards, like a punctuation mark or jewel.”

Curiously, Kettle’s narrator is a face with prominent eyes but no mouth. It is a narrator poised to tell us new stories through images rather than words. It is the story of Winchester’s present and past, as well as our own. Hopefully it is also a narrator for the future. “I want people to move their own stories into the work,” Kettle explains, “and make their own discoveries.”

Dr Jessica Hemmings, October 2007