Follow a Thread: Anna Ray

Five years ago, Anna Ray embarked upon a brief three-week residency at the University of Birmingham’s Winterbourne Botanic Garden. Over the following two years she created In the Garden, a series of eight hand-stitched embroideries inspired by the residency. A further three years followed before the work was exhibited first in the summer of 2009 at the gardens, and as part of the current touring exhibition Follow a Thread. “The garden series,” Anna concludes, “has taught me that there is work worth taking the time to create.”

This approach doesn’t fit comfortably with much of what life teaches us to prioritise these days. Even with the attention the media now gives to down time, relaxation and that ever-illusive pursuit of happiness, five years is a long time to remain patient. Ironically, Anna describes herself as impatient, acknowledging that this may “seem absurd when I make these painstaking works.” But In the Garden has provided a sage reminder of the benefits that come with giving a project the time it deserves. Today “it is important to keep the momentum of my work going, without rushing the process,” she explains of the pace her practice now enjoys.

Ten years have passed since Anna earned a Master in Fine Art Tapestry from the Edinburgh College of Art’s celebrated (and now closed) course. Her place and subject of study was determined less by the discipline of tapestry and more by what she saw as “the only course broad enough. I didn’t want the focus of my work to be commercial.” Clearly, the breadth of approaches fostered during her studies has ably fuelled a decade’s worth of independent practice.

The variety of approaches that make up her diverse practice start with one question: “I ask how can I make this? The answer dictates the scale.” (Perhaps the largest counterpoint to the Garden series is Knot a massive wall installation measuring 160 cm high and 320 cm long, which dwarfs the artist.) Part of this variety can be explained in practical terms. “I need to break free after working so small,” she offers. “It is a relief to work more physically.”

This flexibility has allowed Anna to make the most of opportunities as they arise. “You have to make things happen for yourself, not always work in the same way,” she offers as timely advice in these cash strapped times. Turning a compromise into an opportunity may be the best way forward for all of us. “I have five or six drawings that are ready for me to begin stitching,” she explains. “There are always different projects on the go, awaiting fortuitous moments.”

Textiles act, for this artist, as translation for drawing. “As a student I projected drawings over furniture, the domestic space and fabrics,” she explains. “By reworking a drawing in stitch, I revisit the moment of drawing, imbuing it with more permanence and significance.” But the success of the Garden series is less about the central role that drawing occupied in making the work. Instead Anna notes the importance of the immediate time spent on location during the Winterbourne residency and the “feeling I was in a place in a garden, feeling real space, real weather, real time.”

In the months that followed the residency, visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Textile Study Room provided technical inspiration. “My previous work had been linear,” she explains. “I wanted to create an eclectic series. I had the feeling I wanted things to clash and be disjointed.” Rather than avoid embroidery’s traditional connotations each work explored the other extreme. “What if I embroider flowers?” she found herself asking. “I wanted to treat each piece separately and take risks: sickly sweet, traditional, others more troubled.”

While the series shares a delicacy and certain eye for colour, each work also provides individual emotional glimpses of very personal narratives. For example, hatched stitch lines of burnt orange fill Alone. In the bottom right hand corner a fine stitched text reads: “I looked out and the sky was orange. I thought it was beautiful but ominous. What if there was an explosion and this was the glare. I would be alone. I was alone.” The white expanse of Spit is sprinkled with red and pink blossom-creatures and stitched with tiny black text: “He told me they would spit at me. I never went near them again.”

Now a mother herself, Anna explains that during the residency, “I found myself reflecting on things as an adult. Life is long and things pass.” For example, childhood memories of the fuchsia bush came with her father’s jesting warning, “don’t go too close they will spit on you,” which appear in Spit’s text. “Children take things so literally,” she sighs at her innocent belief in his warning. Are these uncomfortable, unsettling observations notes of a crueller side to humanity?

Other embroideries in the series are striking for their beauty. Amaranthus contains several flowers that sit on a field of white threads and reflect snowy white, soft grey and muddied gold. In contrast, Garden toys with the expectation of traditional embroidery’s organised formality. More like a child’s drawing, quick sharp stitches prick a centred composition, overlaid with flowers that look to have bled onto the page from a doodle above.

Does her choice of materials ever cause a problem? “Textiles can get in the way of where you can show,” she admits before confirming her disinterest in the labels of fine or applied artist. What remains most important is “the satisfaction that comes when I see people looking at the work.” But, “I need to keep my rational thinking out of it.” I suspect it is this instinctive approach that allows her to work beyond the fear of extraordinary time or energy required to complete an ambitiously large or threateningly detailed idea.

The Winterbourne Garden series is, in her words, full of “mysterious imagery” and “flickering surfaces”. Five years on, she admits to seeing a “strangeness in the work” that is an attraction. It is as though time now allows this artist to see the work from the distance we occupy as viewers, enthralled and a little bemused by the content.

A publication of the work is available through

Embroidery magazine (May/June 2010: 18-23)