Hilary Bower: Bleak & Beautiful

Bleak and Beautiful
Hilary Bower explores contrasting materials in her textile work, paying particular attention to the “insignificant and simple details” that fascinate her.

“I do bleak well,” British textile artist Hilary Bower notes with a chuckle. “Summer is not my season. I like bleak and stark.” She goes on to explain, “It is the colours and textures that aren’t there that I try to find.” Bower’s search for the under-explored has led her to an array of material metaphors for human existence. “I like huge old warehouses,” she explains, “that physical feeling of insignificance, like being near deep water. It can feel prickly, melancholy, but it also takes you away from the cosiness and I like that edginess.”

Textiles are renowned for their coziness, which may be why Bower’s most recent body of work introduces the textile to some of its sharpest contrasts: wire, lead, nails and aluminium alongside organdy, muslin and linen threads. These contrasts embody a departure in a practice that began with Bower’s decision to specialize in embroidery, while studying for her Fashion and Textile degree at what was Birmingham Polytechnic (now the University of Central England in Birmingham) in the early 1980s. Before this, Bower spent four years devoted to social work. “People matter to me,” she offers as an explanation for the ongoing links she makes between people and her textile practice. “I am fascinated with people. The insignificant and simple details, I find beauty within them.”

Bower’s most recent body of work began in 2004 with the assistance of a British Arts Council grant. She concedes that this recent work does in some way “echo the bleakness of other people” but remarkably this bleakness is tinged with optimism. The land also plays an ongoing role, not in the sense of landscape, but in the repetition of the land’s patterns and materials. “Trees, furrowed fields, the colours and textures of early winter” all play a part in this work. “Even as a child,” she reflects, “I was always drawn to certain materials, tools, metals, woods, watching other peoples’ hands working.” Ideologically, her approach looks and sounds like the embodiment of contemporary craft, in all its hybrid and evolving aspects. Bower concurs, explaining that her work does demand “physical crafting” as well as a “sense of place in my head.” She also acknowledges that along with shifts in material her palette is increasingly sombre, but reflects that these changes are “not always conscious. I am pairing back surface and material to get to a new visual language. It is less about colour, but materials are more intuitive and sensed.”

Multiples are often present, which Bower explains is the result of her original interest in architectural patterns. The first appeared six years ago, when she recognised that working in this manner “creates another presence” in the sense that “one small insignificant element” gained “significance when ‘massed’ or multiplied.” Repetition is, of course, a quality that textiles comfortably reflect, but within Bower’s increasingly expanded vocabulary of materials, repetition also fulfils her desire to find beauty and importance in the insignificant. The works of contemporary British textile artists Maxine Bristow and Polly Binns come to mind. Bower names Eva Hesse, although she refers to Hesse’s work as, rather than an influence, something she has “absorbed without making conscious decisions.”

“I have strived to make work that is of me” she explains, acknowledging that this approach has at times created a “deliberately blinkered” relationship with contemporary practice. Rather than “going out and seeking inspiration” Bower refers to a sense of “waking up to something” that occurs when finds connections between her work and that of others both working within the arts as well as nature. Part conscious and part intuitive, her formula seems to be working. “When I finished my degree, I allowed myself five years to be a textile artist. It will be twenty-four years, this summer”, Bower concludes, with a hint of both surprise and satisfaction.

FiberArts magazine (Nov./Dec. 2007: 52-53)