Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Sally Greaves-Lord’s Walls of Colour

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Sally Greaves-Lord

Sally Greaves-Lord’s career is one of only a handful in textile art that requires little in the way of introduction. Her large-scale abstract paintings and prints on silk and cotton have carved a well-regarded niche for themselves since her graduation from the Royal College in 1982. Today her work continues to explore painted and printed pattern through abstract compositions defined by their colour. “I just love looking at colours and colour combinations,” she explains. “It seems very shallow, but I’ve realized that is probably my favourite thing: colour and shapes.”

For an artist whose career has been largely defined by colour, it is interesting to learn that her early work did not explore the bold combinations that have become something of a trademark. “At the Royal College,” she explains, “my work was reasonably austere. Although I loved the decorative side of Secessionist architecture, in my own work I always felt like I wanted to limit the colours. I used only one or two dye colours during my MA. I would reduce the dyes so that they were paler versions of themselves, but the only colours were a black and a blue, and the natural colour of the cloth.” Reflecting on these early works she explains, “the forms were very simple. I think, in a sense, I worked more instinctively then, or at least less-consciously, if you can say that.”

Greaves-Lord’s technique makes her, by definition, a painter and printer of cloth. But what strikes me about her large scale work in particular is the suggestion of the structure of woven cloth her pattern making presents. If her process has come to feel less instinctive over time, her technique of balancing the subtraction of colour with its introduction continues to feel intuitive. Drawing, she explains, has underpinned her practice from the start and the “points where buildings and landscape meet” are an ongoing interest. Perhaps it is these architectural references that make her patterns feel, at times, like magnifications of the structure of the woven cloth upon which her painted and printed marks rest.

Today Greaves-Lord seems less concerned with what she has produced in the past, than how to keep her practice fresh in the present. “As time goes by you look at what you have done and don’t want to be stuck,” she explains, “so you make a conscious effort to move out of a safe zone.” A clear departure in her recent work is move away from the acid dyes she has used for decades. Work show by the Lesley Craze Gallery at this year’s COLLECT, for example, used only pigments. “I don’t have a studio with extractors,” she explains, “and I thought, ‘it has been too many years that I have been mixing up acid dyes and using discharge paste’.” The transition may have felt inevitable, but it is has proven far from easy. “Pigments do have a different feeling,” she admits. “My first thought was how will I ever do any work again? But I think I had to do it, I didn’t want to have those chemicals around. It will have to be the way forward.”

Although Greaves-Lord’s work tends to take on the format of banners that tower above the viewer, she develops her designs in the round, never entirely sure of top and bottom. “I still have a problem deciding what the top is,” she admits, instead envisioning each work as “a fragment of larger piece.” While the whole is not meant to ever be physically united, I am reminded of chapters of a book, both able to stand alone and contribute to a larger whole. The sheer scale of much of her work brings a physical element to her process. But rather than work with assistants she explains that it is solitude that was, and continues to be, a crucial component to her work: “Maybe it is easier in the first part of your career, but now I feel that if I don’t really get stuck into it, it might evaporate. I know it won’t, but it is the bit that really keeps me alive.”

Embroidery Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2006: 40-42)