Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Greek Myths by Carol Shinn & Alice Kettle


Greek Myths: Carol Shinn and Alice Kettle

The Iliad and Odyssey are considered by many to be the basis of the Western literary tradition. For centuries the myths these epic poems tell have captured the imaginations of artists and inspired countless works of art. Working from different sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Carol Shinn and Alice Kettle have both, in recent years, created substantial bodies of machine stitched textiles which reference these Greek myths. They cite, like many before them, the universal and timeless qualities of Homer’s epic poems as part of their appeal. But this may be where the similarities between their work ends. On a conceptual level, comparison of Shinn and Kettle’s textiles reveal two distinct ways in which narrative inspires art; on a material level, comparison reveals two artists who are pushing the limits of machine stitching to very different extremes.

British artist Alice Kettle saw the prospect of her first major solo show as an opportunity to “develop a large focused body of work” and dedicated the almost two years of concentrated production to “Mythscapes.” Kettle’s initial interest in Greek myth altered considerably during the time she worked on the series, from a firsthand relationship with the Greek culture and landscape where she spent part of each year, to a personal response to the tales of journey and change told by the myths. The series coincided with a time of considerable upheaval in the artist’s personal life and became both a “tribute and farewell” to the time she had spent in Greece as well as a private acknowledgement of an emotional journey she sees as not dissimilar to that of Odysseus’ struggles. These changes as well as memories of her father reading children’s versions of the myths, such as Heroes of Greece and Troy, to her as a child made Homer’s Odyssey, which she read while working on the series, a particularly poignant and timely theme for her textiles.

American artist Carol Shinn expresses a similar attraction to the universal themes the Greek myths contain, although her response to the myths is on a much less literal level. Shinn’s “Greek Myth” series began as a response to what she noticed as a tendency in viewers to anthropomorphise the inanimate objects contained in her work.  Shinn responded by selecting titles for each work from Greek myths. The gesture suggests a humorous connection between image and title but also offered Shinn “a way of portraying some of the pathos and human emotion that I had missed previously by not portraying human subjects in my work.” Her familiarity with the myths stems first from her childhood education where the classics were considered standard reading material at school, as well as their relevance to contemporary culture through films such as the Coen Brother’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” based on the Odyssey and released while she was working on the series.

Machine embroidery is employed with dramatically different results by these two artists. Shinn’s photorealism is rendered on an intimate scale and based on photographs she has taken and collaged together. In earlier work she painted a rendering of the photograph onto canvas, which was eventually entirely covered by stitches. She now uses a computer to organize her compositions digitally and uses a photo transfer technique to print a guide onto the canvas. She explains that the “technique of machine stitching comes from my love of drawing. The stitches, which completely take over my canvas, are like pencil hatching.” From a distance, and in reproductions of her work, the densely stitched surfaces look deceptively like a photograph. In person the work has a far more tactile quality, the surface more akin to moss than a glossy photographic print.

Unlike Shinn who stitches from the front of the canvas, the large scale works Kettle creates are for the most part stitched from the back of a blank canvas. She attributes the scale of her work to her education as a painter during the 1970s when, “Fine Artists were encouraged to work large with an emphasis on the physicality of paint.” It can take months just to build up the background of colours and she admits that it is always a surprise to turn over the fabric to see what she has stitched. After the labour of completing the background the final stitches, which outline figures and pull the composition together, are moments that continue to thrill her. The densely textured nature of her work means that unstitching is rarely needed. When changes are made she tends to stitch over and build up colour rather than unpick and remove texture.

Shinn, who arrived at machine stitching via tapestry weaving, believes that while machine stitching takes on a much more frenetic pace than weaving, you are able to “become what you are stitching” during the process. She sees each stitch in hand embroidery as premeditated while the speed of machine stitching allows her, “not to think of individual stitches, but of whole shapes, color areas, and color modulations in those areas.” Kettle similarly cites the immediacy and rhythm of machine stitching as aspects that drew her to the technique and remarks that, “When I sit in front of a sewing machine I feel that I know who I am. I feel empowered with a voice that I do not feel I have even when painting.” While the meditative possibilities of machine stitching may sound attractive, the free stitching technique these artists use mean that they are working at the outer limits of what the sewing machine is really designed to do. Unlike hand embroidery, lapses in concentration while machine stitching can quickly turn into mechanical nightmares.

Recent work has drawn both artists into new investigations. Shinn is currently working on two new series that focus on windows and chairs in “spaces people would want to be in, but with manipulated details.” Because she found the collage technique she employed for the Greek Myths “visually arresting but difficult for the viewer to enter” she is now keen to use the intimate scale in which she works in draw viewers into convincing spaces where the work exists as a “world unto itself.” Earlier this year Kettle installed “Red and Blue Movement in Three” at The University of Manchester’s Martin Harris Building, home to the Music and Drama Department. The new series is, in Kettle’s words is, “more stylistically and technically complex” than earlier works and expresses “the different energies of shared creativity.”  In spite of these new investigations, one suspects that Greek mythology’s tales of challenge, struggle and triumph – whether understood on a material or a thematic level – will never be far from these two artists’ minds.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2005: 18-23)

image: Alice Kettle