Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Julia Griffiths Jones: Metal Guru

Julia_Griffiths_JonesBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

JH: Your work is celebrated and spoken about as though it is textile, but it is in fact made of metal. Were you a student of textile design or are the textile references more coincidental than that?

JGJ: I studied textiles at the Winchester School of Art and then at the Royal College of Art. The focus of my work, at that point, was much more about my own life. I made lots of diaries and printed them and I looked at Wales and my home environment. At the Royal College we were able to apply for scholarships. I did not know where to go, so I went to the library and that’s when I found this picture of a woman in Czechoslovakia and her house was decorated with all sorts of wonderful embroideries. I thought I have never seen anything like this; I have to go and find her. So I made up this strange proposal that I would go and find her. I was awarded the scholarship – much to my surprise – and started off by train from London to Warsaw. In Warsaw I found the ethnographic museum full of objects made from paper, fabric, embroidery, things for carnival, all sorts of things to celebrate customs and life.

JH: And the woman from the magazine article?

JGJ: Yes, I eventually found her as well! After I left college I went back and lived for six months in Bratislava on a British Council Scholarship, which was fantastic but also very hard. I couldn’t speak Slovak. I drew textiles more than anything and then had a show of prints in Newcastle. When I did make textiles I did not make lengths or things in repeat. Instead I made one-off pieces and a lot of work on paper and printed books.

JH: When did you begin to work with wire?

JGJ: In 1982 I went on another scholarship to Hungary and I did start using a bit of wire then. Although I studied printed textile design at Winchester, I did not have print tables or space after leaving. The wire became a real focus in the late 80s when I had this compunction to lift the drawing off the page and make it three-dimensional. I went and bought millinery wire to work with – so the wire came from the linear drawings I was making. I found myself thinking ‘I so love textiles and embroidery – and I can’t do embroidery – but I so love the linear movement of the embroidered line on cloth.’ Another influence was in Northern Slovakia when I went to work with tinkers and they were trying to make wire act like the textile.

JH: It sounds as though there is little separation in your mind between the pliability of the embroidered thread that you drew while in Eastern Europe and what you now explore through wire?

JGJ: Yes. My drawings of textiles are still my base. I think in a way you only have one theme in your life that you keep going back to and for me it is these drawings. People often suggest I go to India, but the decoration of the textiles there doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t know why. Greek textiles are interesting to me. You know how Hungarian textiles have a link with Persia and Finland… and Russian textiles are of interest.

JH: In your 2005 exhibition at the Mission Gallery in Swansea, I noticed that shadow seems to play as much a part in your work as the tangible, linear qualities of wire. Was this specific to this exhibition, or is shadow an intentional element of your practice?

JGJ: I do think that the work that has sheet metal set into areas does look better with shadows. But with the wire only pieces, shadow can be confusing. What I wanted was the shadows to be cast on the floor. I went to see Alexander Calder’s sculptures in Bilbao, Spain and I remembered that they have this lovely layering of the imagery on the floor as the mobiles gently moved.

JH: I imagine that working with wire is the complete opposite from working with cloth and thread?

JGJ: Yes, everything, every little join is welded. Using heat to finally form shapes can be precarious, but I find it a most satisfying technique to use.

JH: And the colour?

JGJ: Many, many layers of painting! First I paint a layer of white. This makes the metal go back to cloth in a way. Then I start to pick out the colour.

JH: It does seem that by translating the textile – especially textiles such as the embroidery traditions of Eastern Europe and Wales that are far less commonplace than they once were – that by translating these colours and pattern into metal you are providing them with a longevity that will long outlast the textiles that are your inspiration?

JGJ: Textiles do have a shorter lifespan than metal and I find the translation of fragile materials into solid metal to be an interesting challenge. Not many people travel to Slovakia for textile research. They go to Bali or maybe South America, not Europe. Perhaps I am intrigued by the records these sculptures offer……

JH: But you mentioned that your work is also quite personal? Are the textiles of Eastern Europe your only reference point?

JGJ: No, I also use Welsh textiles and things from my family. I’ve also tried adding textile to metal. I’ve used one of my mother’s dresses from the sixties, for example. I was not convinced with the wire form so I added pieces I had collected, in a way to bring the two of us together. But there is something so much more allusive when the metal speaks to the textile but does not go as far as becoming it, which I think is interesting. But I think I need to make the wire look more like an embroidered mark. That is really puzzling me, but that is where I am now.

JH: Thank you.

Embroidery Magazine (Nov./Dec. 2006: 22-25)