Eleri Mills: a longing for landscape

“Embroidery has a tradition of suppressing the female,” observes Welsh artist Eleri Mills, before countering, “but I’ve always found it extremely liberating.” Mills’ unconventional approach to stitch is all the more surprising when you see the artist’s diminutive stature. The scale of recent experimental work literally towers above her. “I choose to stitch standing up,” she explains. “I’m always walking when I’m stitching. I work with very, very long threads, which allow me to walk back to see what’s happening and look at the work in progress. It has to have the right composition, the right balance and rhythm and I can only assess these things at a distance. If I were to stitch in a static, traditional way that wouldn’t be possible to do.”

Landscape, in particular the rolling beauty of Montgomeryshire where Mills has spent much of her life, is the initial visual emphasis of her work. But the more you look, and listen to her speak about the inspiration behind her art, the more it becomes apparent that this connection to landscape is not the literal kind. She refers to “layered landscapes” that are “about revealing things and listening to the landscape. They’re about the poetry of a place.” Even her distinctive colour palette is described as a desire to capture a “vivid sense of place - quite emotional” rather than factual. Mills attributes colour inspiration to the Welsh painter J.D. Innes who, working a century before her, captured the Welsh landscapes of Arenig Fawr, Meirionnydd, near Trawsfynydd in what she describes as “almost psychedelic colours”.

Mills’ combination of stitch and paint has been a mainstay of her practice from the outset. “While I was in college I started combining hand stitching with painting and that’s a process that I’ve been developing ever since. But as well as doing hand-stitched work I’ve always drawn. It is the need to draw which has always fuelled my work, whether it is in pencil, charcoal or stitch.” Drawing appears in a range of guises, from the thinking-through drawing of the sketch to the marks of printmaking she was prompted to first explore when embarking on a part-time postgraduate course at Aberystwyth University several years ago. Her study of printmaking introduced the slippery plastic surface of acetate to her visual vocabulary and has prompted a new phase of experimental work. “I ink up the acetate and then scrape or wipe off the ink to reveal the imagery. I’ve found a very new sense of freedom in this work – it is an adventurous time for me.”

In 2011 Mills was awarded the Arts Council of Wales Creative Ambassador Award, which supported two residencies. The first took place at the Ruthin Craft Centre, nestled in the rural Denbighshire landscape where I first met Mills for a public conversation about her work in September of 2011. In the spring of 2012 she took up her second residency at Columbia University in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her residency in New York City brought her to a vast painting studio at Columbia University that had housed the likes of American painters Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin. Many of the musings about the impact of the Columbia residency that the audience we met in autumnal Ruthin a year ago may will now feel confounded. Catching up with the artist more recently, she explained that her time in Manhattan confirmed her sense that “landscape is a frame of mind” more than a physical site. She found “no conflict between Manhattan and Wales” and, ironically considering how space poor urban artists’ studios can be, Columbia’s vast painting studio prompted an expansion of her scale of work.

Mills is unusual in her hunger for new ways of working. “I find it very refreshing going from one medium to another. So I like to be able to go from the printmaking to charcoal to the pen and ink, to the stitched work – it gives me a huge sense freedom.” Fluency in such a range of tools makes different demands on the artist. The long looping mark of the embroidery stitch offers the option of reversal, of unpicking and re-stitching. In contrast a material such as ink is entirely unforgiving. “I find that ink sometimes unlocks ideas because you have to be very focused - it’s not something you can rub out and you’ve ‘had it’ if something starts to go wrong. Working with ink can sometimes push me forward if I’m getting stuck”, she explains.

Considering the scale and physical demands of her approach, it may be little surprise to hear that choreography is an art form she likens to her own practice. “Although I find it physically very tiring, I’m trying to get that movement through into my artwork. I find that very exciting – the possibility of creating that sense of movement in the mark making. It is something that I’d like to develop further and perhaps work with actors or dancers in the future.” This interest in recording a sense of energy may provide a key to understanding her recent American residency and why a landscape, so seemingly foreign to the image of rural Wales, offered a fruitful match. “The sense of energy is infectious,” she explains of her time in Manhattan.

Embroidery can offer an incredibly controlled and detailed way of working with the option, time allowing, to retrace and perfect. Mills’ approach to stitch disregards these attributes in favour of a sense of energy and attention to the physical demands and opportunities of loose, large-scale compositions with tails of loose threads often spilling out across her large compositions. “Landscape is a frame of mind”, she reiterates. “During my artistic journey which started about 35 years ago the landscape has evolved and has been many things along the way from the very graphic imagery for the National Farmers Union commissioned panels (which had to be correct in every detail) through to figures within an ancestral landscape to the very emotional recent landscapes. It is an on-going artistic adventure.”

Embroidery magazine (Jan./Feb. 2013: 14-19)