Shiny, Happy People: Carrington, Larkin & Coward

“Materials are there to tell a story,” explains Ann Carrington. But that does not mean these materials need to have experienced a lifetime of use. “Straight off the peg factory-made objects from china,” she explains, can hold just as much interest as “knives, forks and domestic objects.” Carrington should know. Her large-scale two and three-dimensional creations magically mix the familiar, such as buttons and beads, to create surfaces that pack an unexpected punch.

In the early 1990s a Commonwealth Grant allowed Carrington to travel in southern Africa. There she saw embroidery work in Zulu land and noticed their use of embroidery needles, which were often left intact as part of the design. The trip taught her that the region’s creative output was much more sophisticated and advanced than she had anticipated. African children recycle the “objects adults would overlook” she explains. For instance, something like a safety pin, Carrington explains, is “rare and beautiful”. As a result, objects we might consider to be the tools of textile production become integral decorative elements of the design.

Collecting is far from a new pastime for Carrington, who “always collected and kept sketchbooks and collaged visual diaries.” Sculpture is an extension of this process of accumulation. A firm believer in lateral thinking and an “awareness of everything in the world”, her work often celebrates the everyday materials that others see as mundane. Street culture and outsider art all rate high on her radar.

While the individual components of Carrington’s work could fit into the palm of your hand, the buttons, pins and needles that make up her work are often writ large. In fact scale change is crucial to Carrington’s creations. For example, Haberdash Clash is based on the face of a coin. Where etching lines in metal once appeared, Carrington has used clusters of safety pins. The Pearly Queen series refers to another tiny object of domestic use, the postage stamp image. But here each individual single ink print dot has been translated into a pearl button. Carrington teases out even more of the story when we speak, explaining that in the 1880s a shipment of Japanese buttons spilled into the Thames River. The Pearly Kings and Queens were in fact itinerant traders who salvaged the spilled shipment and adorned themselves with buttons, signalling their community role as the forerunners of trade union leaders.

Carrington’s considerable success has taken a route as fiercely independent as her approach to materials. After early success with the gallery scene, she came to realize that she “did not need to sit around waiting for approval to make my art.” Until recently her work sold by word-of-mouth. “I don’t like the pressure,” she explains of the conventional relationships with galleries she has eschewed.

The approach seems to have done no harm to her career, which began with Paul Smith’s purchase of numerous works from Carrington’s Royal College exhibition in the early 1990s. Recent collaborations include work with companies such as Lulu Guinness on a series of handbags and works for a new boutique hotel that opens in New York City next Easter. I wonder if these high profile commissions come with their own compromises and pressures? “Commissions really stretch you,” she explains of the benefits of working this way. While buttons and beads are far from the only materials to grace Carrington’s visual vocabulary, I suspect that these new projects continue to be created as she has always worked, very much on her own terms.

When Geraldine Larkin launched her company Seoidra in 1991, her passion for hand embroidery was directed to the fashion industry. She studied fashion at Central Saint Martins and sequins and beads make a more familiar appearance on our clothing than in the spaces we inhabit. But Larkin describes her work for interiors as “a natural progression” and the longer we speak the more I understand why.

While fashion may seem like the place where anything goes, Larkin reminds me that garments have weight and washing requirements that often rule out heavily embellished work. Caroline Saffron, who now handles Larkin’s interiors work, first encouraged her to explore interiors as a further outlet for her ornate surface decoration. The match may sound like a curious one at first, but sequins and glass beads provide interiors with an all-important form of natural lighting. When reflective materials are stitched onto large wall panels, their surfaces can carry and reflect light much like the addition of a mirror or glass would do. Which all makes sense as it is often mirror and glass beads and sequins that Larkin painstakingly stitches. In many ways they provide a less restrictive outlet for Larkin’s ornate and intricate designs.

Larkin’s approach seems to embrace the intricate nature of embroidery. No project seems too large, or pattern too detailed. She refers to embroidery as making the “invisible visible” and her broad vocabulary of hand techniques often celebrates details that others might attempt to conceal. For example threads securing sequins become another layer to the decorative pattern in their own right.

“I am constantly researching, particularly craft and traditional techniques.” Much like Carrington, travel provides rich sources of inspiration, particularly India and China. Her most recent work continues to draw inspiration from the very structure of embroidery, which has led her to the work of the pointillist painters. A new collection of cushions that use thread work with sequins and fabric florets that act like lacquered lace in chiffon are now in the making.

“Veggie taxidermy” is the name Donya Coward has coined for her range of richly decorated animal heads launched in 2007. She admits her current success was “born out of boredom. It has escalated to something I enjoy and now don’t know what I would do without it!” First inspired to simply “use up some materials” that were hanging about, Coward began making brooches out of scraps as an independent project at university [where?]. “Initially I quickly put things together with a glue gun and loads of beads.” A children’s story followed, which she wrote and then illustrated using fifties style drawings and fabric faces. Coward admits that as a fashion/knitwear student it took time for her to realize her new style of work was “desirable.” “My degree tutor encouraged me to continue making brooches out of scraps. It was only then that I realised they were desirable.”

Today Coward continues to stick to her “original ethos to use what I have”, although the “character of each creature depends on materials I buy when I need to create the right personality. Creating new creature personalities has also become Coward’s “excuse to wander and shop!” Shopping online for things like seed beads and even scouring skips for thread, ribbons and wool usually completes her need for materials.

Being in the right place at the right time also has a little to do with this process. Magpie, for example, sits on a biscuit tin Coward salvaged from a neighbour’s house after her death. When the property sold the new owners set about gutting the home. Coward nabbed the biscuit tin, which contained her elderly neighbour’s sewing collection of lace bundles, zips, hook eyes and recycled the contents in Magpie. “It was a magpie way that I collected things that don’t belong to you,” she explains. “Perhaps it is a bit morbid, but I think the nature of artist scrabbling away in a pile of rubbish.”

Five canine portraits by Coward were in the Paul Smith shops in Paris and London earlier this year and she is now busy on work for the Alternative Crafts exhibition at the Rebecca Hossak Gallery, which opens in March of 2010. An exhibition in Margo Selby’s exhibition space follows in June.

She admits that her recent flurry of work has meant that she now employs a prop maker to create the foundations of her increasingly complex creatures. Pet “portraits” have now grown into complete figures. “I do the skin,” she explains of her new working method, “and get the prop maker to create the foundation that would take me twice as long to make.” Very sensible. It also allows Coward to keep her hands on the sparkly things - something a magpie would admire.

Selvedge magazine (Nov./Dec., 2009: 46-51)