Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Anthea Walsh: line of enquiry

Anthea_Walsh_embroidery_coverBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Anthea Walsh

Anthea Walsh can draw. It is far from her only strength, but it is a rare one. Designers that draw are an endangered species, which is why Walsh’s printed and embellished textiles have a refreshing visual integrity. Her drawings aren’t boisterous expressions of mark making. Nor are they over-the-top mismatches of colour that claim to be intentional. Instead Walsh delivers something far more unusual: pencil drawings of objects carefully scrutinised with attention to the details of scale, proportion and surface texture. This is not to say that her work is safe, or even always easy on eye, but it is underpinned by skill, something some sectors of textile art and design are trying to dismiss as a bit-too-boring-to-continue-to-bother-with. The lesson to be learnt is that the traditional skills of observation and drawing that Walsh brings to her work are a large part of what makes it far-from-boring.

Walsh is currently in the second year of the Crafts Council’s Next Move scheme. Support from Next Move, in conjunction with the Arts Council of Wales, has allowed her to spend two years based at Swansea Metropolitan University. Described by the Crafts Council as “an innovative setting-up scheme” Next Move is “designed to put new designer-makers on the fast track. It provides workspace, access to equipment, grants, training and promotion opportunities in the supportive environment of a college host over a two-year period.” Walsh and eight others were 2007 recipients, spanning the disciplines of ceramics, glass, jewellery and, of course, textiles. Fifty-one makers to date have received support from the scheme with an impressive 92% success rate for makers setting up their own business. Access to SMU’s extensive facilities, Walsh notes, “has provided a fantastic opportunity to bring other techniques and materials into my textile practice. The freedom to explore and make in other departments has been influential to my creative thinking.”

The past two years of funding have provided Walsh with the breathing room for her practice to mature from her MA studies in Textile Design at Winchester School of Art and her BA in Fine Art at Falmouth. “I have always loved textiles: my grandmother was a seamstress, so I took an interest from a very young age. During my BA Fine Art course at Falmouth College of Art, I began to collage with vintage fabrics, stitching into the canvas, and embellishing my paintings with beads and sequins, so embracing textiles was a logical step.” Curiously, her time at SMU seems to have made her work even less commercial than her student portfolio. This may come as a surprise, but also relief. Most would agree that support for makers such as an introduction to business skills and access to equipment that may otherwise be prohibitively expensive has to be worthwhile. But thankfully this has not resulted, in Walsh’s case, in a tempering of her unusual aesthetic. In the long run, I suspect that the originality of this work will translate into its most marketable asset.

Walsh’s work is a peculiar combination of the decorative and the minimal. Bejewelled spiders and peacock feathers, embroidered mussel shells, moths and snowy landscapes all take their turn as content. The result is a refreshing, if disquieting, exploration of form and texture. She explains that many of the drawings in her recent work came from sketchbooks brought to Swansea when she began her residency two years ago. All of the material is drawn from first hand observation, even the spider, which is in fact the shell of a dead bird-eating spider spotted in a pet shop. Another characteristic of recent work is a bold acceptance of the stark white canvas. Two extremes are at play: ornate embellishment populating areas of digital prints, contrasted with naked whiteness. Her approach to composition is similar to the Dutch artist Tillike Schwarz, who layers stitch upon stitch in a tangle of colour and texture and then leaves, bare and untouched, large portions of her composition.

Refreshingly, this work does not scream of technology. In fact the grey scale digital prints of her pencil drawings may escape unnoticed as prints. Interestingly, nor does this work scream of the maker’s hand. Walsh has not subscribed to the “messy craft” trend. Skill is evident throughout. Her sense of scale is unusual, often incorporating attention to incredible detail in pieces that are quite large. Much of her recent work is one metre square, the smallest still 70cm square. Collage, her first instinct, is still alive with many elements that may look from a distance to be printed in fact made of carefully cut layers of semitransparent fabric. Curiously, colour never comes from her original drawings, but is always an addition through stitch, print and embellishment. The bird-eating spider, for example, is digitally printed in greys, the curves of its legs then picked out in stitch. It is these lines that then reappear in the upper left of the canvas, abstract seismographs or gestures of the dead creature’s once agile movements.

Gold leaf, I learn, is making an appearance in her next series. And Walsh would welcome an opportunity to work with a museum’s Natural History collection, understandable considering the subjects she draws. Previous projects have included the artwork for CD covers and interiors commissions. Now under development is a body of three-dimensional work, the result of her time in the ceramics department at SMU. “My basic interests will always be in the hand made,” Walsh predicts. “Physically realising an idea, creating something by hand is very important to me as an artist.” I suggest her next take on the handmade will be worth keeping an eye on.

Dr Jessica Hemmings is Associate Director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at the Edinburgh College of Art

Embroidery magazine (March/April 2009: 14-17)