This month I had the pleasure of catching up with textile artist Julienne Hanson her practice embraces many aspects of contemporary textiles.
She has exhibited work at the annual Festival of Quilts, NEC, Birmingham (2005-2014 inclusive) where, in 2005 she won First Prize in the category 3D Quilts. She has also shown work at venues as diverse as La Sucriere in Lyon, The Mall Galleries in London, Dudley Museum and Art Gallery, The Forum in Norwich, Craft Central in London and Bletchley Park, as well as at local venues in Milton Keynes.
Recently her work was chosen to feature in the Freeweaver SAORI studio in London as part of their exhibition "Restrictions, (un)woven reflections on lockdown". Julienne is a member of the Westbury Fabric and Fibre Guild (WFFG) and will also be showcasing her latest work at the forthcoming exhibition "Rotations and Intersections" which will take place at Westbury on the 3rd & 4th of October.
I caught up with Julienne to find out more .......
Can you tell me a little about your practice - How long have you been working with textiles when & how did it all start?
My textile journey began in the mid-1980s, when I acquired an old-fashioned, fourshaft Harris table loom, so I have been exploring different textile-based disciplines for about 35 years.
To broaden my knowledge and skills, I have gained City and Guilds qualifications in Embroidery (1995), Patchwork and Quilting 1 & 2 (2001, 2006) and Creative Sketchbooks (2011).
My current practice embraces many aspects of contemporary textiles including spinning, weaving, knitting, braiding, felting, embroidery, beadwork, making handmade papers and books, and preparing hand-dyed fabrics.
I stumbled on Saori weaving by accident in 2015, Saori freestyle weaving was invented by Japanese textile artist Misao Jo in the late 1960s. It has now become a worldwide movement. The term ‘Saori’ is a contraction of ‘ori’, the Japanese for ‘weaving’ and ‘sa’, a short form of ‘sai’, which in Zen has the meaning ‘everything has its own individuality’. Saori weaving emphasises creativity and free expression. There are no rules or restrictions. Instead, the weaver immerses herself in the process of weaving, improvising from moment to moment as her heart dictates by selecting yarns and threads that express her true self. Unlike today’s machine-made fabrics, each length of cloth that comes from a Saori loom is unique.
I was immediately attracted to this freestyle, improvisational and experimental nature of the practice and I now own two Japanese Saori looms!
What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium, how did it capture your imagination?
I’m not sure whether I chose textiles or whether textiles chose me. My maternal grandmother was a power loom weaver working in the Lancashire mills and my paternal grandmother was an accomplished embroiderer. Although I was taught plain sewing, knitting and dressmaking at school, a career in textiles was not considered to be a serious option when I was growing up in the 1960s, especially as the UK textiles industry was undergoing a steep decline at that time. However, I was drawn to the creative and design disciplines so I studied architecture at college and qualified with a Diploma in Architecture in the mid 1970s. After graduating with a Master’s degree from University College London in 1976, I was invited to pursue a full-time career in teaching and research at UCL, where I obtained a D.Phil. and where I remained for the next 35 years, eventually retiring in 2010 as Professor of House Form and Culture.
One of my specialisms at UCL was in the origins of architecture as revealed by the archeological and anthropological record. Some of the earliest human shelters were made of textiles like felt, skins, bark, branches and animal and vegetable fibres, and human built-forms like tipis, yurts, and tents exploited the tensile strength of textiles. As long ago as 1851 German architect Gottfried Semper had already proposed that one of the four elements of architecture - enclosure - had its origin in weaving. In addition to historic uses for clothing the human form and for household textiles and soft furnishings, today textiles are often incorporated into the ‘fabric’ of buildings to define spaces, absorb sounds and create a flexible and sensuous interior. So, once I retired from academic life, it seemed a natural progression for me to return to textiles as a means of creative expression.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I am inspired by colour, both in terms of its symbolism and also in respect of colour psychology and the effect that colour can exert on human feelings, mood, emotions and behaviour. However, I enjoy exploiting the tactile as well as the visual qualities of fabric and stitch, such as softness, flexibility, comfort, texture and drape. I am inspired by a deep love of nature, especially of the English countryside which has the power to astonish in a fleeting moment of wonder. Textile artist like Anni Albers and Shiela Hicks are among many trailblazers whose work excites my imagination. The feminist streak in my personality repeatedly draws me to myths and stories relating to powerful women, and increasingly I feel impelled to create work that calls-out social injustice and abuses of power.
One woman who intrigues me is the Ancient Greek enchantress, Circe. Legend has it that she was the daughter of Helios the sun god and Perseis, a sea nymph, which made her a minor goddess. She was renowned for her extensive knowledge of herbs and potions, which she used (among other things) to turn her enemies into animals. In Homer's account in the Odyssey, when Odysseus visited her island on his way home to Ithaca from the Trojan War, she changed most of his ship's crew into swine. After Odysseus persuaded her to return his men to their human form, he became her lover and stayed with her on her island for a year. Circe is among the very few legendary women who possessed knowledge and expertise that allowed her to live independently and exercise power over her male contemporaries.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
This is an interesting question as it raises the ‘art versus crafts’ debate. Textiles in general and weaving in particular are often thought of as either crafts or applied/decorative arts, as opposed to fine art, which is somehow considered to be more ‘worthy'. The same is true, incidentally, of architecture as opposed to buildings. This is far too large and controversial a topic to address here, and all I can say with confidence is that it took me several years of struggle and many abortive attempts to find my ‘voice’. The story behind the work I make is important to me, but I am not comfortable with describing myself as an artist. The work I make has to speak for itself.
Tell us about your design process from conception to creation?
It follows from my answer to the previous question that most of my woven projects begin with an idea that comes seemingly out of the blue to light me up with energy and enthusiasm. There then follows a period of research, experimentation and self reflection, expressed though visual note-taking, sketch designs and numerous samples. Once the idea has become more grounded, the project develops in an ongoing dialogue with the loom. Saori weaving is a freestyle process by which the work gradually unveils itself through audition and decision-making. At this stage, the design continues to evolve and the underpinning design concept is revisited and explored with just about every line of thread that is woven into the cloth. Once the cloth is taken from the loom its fate is more or less decided, but even at this late stage the look and feel of the finished fabric may encourage further design development and its final destiny may be unlike its original purpose.
"Strong Women", this piece won first prize at the 3D Festival of Quilts at the NEC
You’re involved with the Westbury Fabric and Fibre Guild – Tell me how that came about and what this group means to you?
Back in June 2016 I was interviewed for a (then) forthcoming book, ‘Maker-Artists of Milton Keynes’ (Linda Wilks and Ann Pegg, The History Press, 2017) that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the new town by exploring the lives, work and practice of twenty-five locally-based makers of hand-crafted artistic artefacts. Linda and Ann had been on the lookout for a local weaver and came across my work through Bucks Open Studios. This fortuitous contact introduced me to WFFG artists Jane Charles and Helen denDulk, who invited me to join the Guild in January 2018. I still remember my first skills-share led by Helen, on machine patchwork using the ‘create-as-you-go’ method! I especially value the skills-share ethos of Westbury and, of course, the opportunity to meet with like-minded textile enthusiasts.
The Guild is a brilliant way to build skills and confidence and to enjoy opportunities to exhibit current work to a discerning and supportive audience.
I understand that during lockdown you’ve been working on a fabulous piece of work titled “The Norns” which was created for the Saori Gallery in London, with the theme “Restrictions”. Tell me about this piece of work and what it means to you and how it reflects lockdown?
As the Covid-19 epidemic grew into into a world pandemic at the start of 2020, ‘lockdown’ began to bite and society entered a period of unprecedented restriction, I began to contemplate human destiny, and thus was reminded of the Norns, (Norse) or Fates (Ancient Greece).
In ancient times, these three powerful mythological women were held to be deities who determined the destiny of gods and humans.
The Spinner, (who was called either Skuld or Clotho depending on whether the myth was Scandinavian or Greek in origin, and meaning “that which shall be”), spun out the thread of a person's life.
The Measurer, (Veroandi / Lachesis, “that which is happening now”), allotted the span of one's life.
The Cutter, (Uror / Atropos, “that which has already happened”) cut the thread of life and so ended it.
The work these fictive women did makes them eminently suitable for a textile interpretation. These were the initial ideas that gave rise to my woven piece “Norns in a Time of Pandemic” but, like the layers of an onion, as I worked through the implications of the original concept, the piece grew in complexity and in the number of connections I was able to make to other aspects of my life.
From the outset, I decided that I would make garments for my modern Norns to wear. I had already completed a woven project, “Garments for the Saints”, in 2018, to commemorate the 800th anniversary of my local church, so I felt comfortable with the prospect of making woven garments. Reflecting the presumed ages of my Norns, the Spinner was originally envisaged as a young woman wearing a white dress, the Measurer as a mature woman wearing grey and the Cutter as an older woman wearing a long black dress. At this point, I determined that my three Norns would each wear a knotted lanyard to carry the traditional 'tools' of their respective trades, a distaff, ruler and shears. Each costume would also include a mask that protected the wearer from the Coronavirus.
I experimented with felted and beaded balls to represent the virus itself. As news about the virus spread and its impact became clearer in respect of different social groups, I decided that my Norns would also represent three significant and controversial social issues raised by the Coronavirus pandemic that particularly (though not exclusively) affected women. My Spinner would reference children's education, or rather the lack of it, and how that will disproportionally affect some groups in society in years to come; the Measurer would represent the role of the NHS, both healthcare workers and people shielding from the virus due to a medical condition, and the Cutter would draw attention to the way Covid-19 has invaded care homes, prematurely ending the lives of many older women. At this point, the garments took on an extra function of signalling these social groups. The white dress became more childlike, the grey garment adopted the appearance of hospital scrubs, and the black dress should look ‘historical'. The three masks morphed into a simple face covering, a clinical mask and a Venetian plague doctor’s mask.
Eventually my Norns began to take on references to my own family. The oldest Norn began to ‘stand for’ my Mum, who died in 2015 in a care home. This Norn wears a woven ‘memory scarf’ that is embellished with Mum’s mementoes and family photographs. The NHS Norn represents my two daughters Jess, still shielding at home, and Rebecca, a renal registrar at a major London hospital. This Norn wears two tiny woven pouches, a black and blue one holding disposable gloves, a scalpel and forceps; and a black and white one containing a disposable face mask, syringe, thermometer and pill packets. The young Norn, reminding me of my granddaughter, Ada, carries a woven satchel that contains four altered children’s books bearing messages about disability, racial inequality, gender discrimination and domestic violence as well as information about how each of these social injustices has been exacerbated by the virus during lockdown.
You’ll be exhibiting your piece “Norns” in the forthcoming exhibition “Rotations and Intersections”. Do you have any other exhibitions or events coming up that we should know about?
I’m not planning for a specific exhibition over the next few months, but I do have a new project brewing. It is a reimagining of twelve of the best-known fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm as a wearable, capsule clothing collection. Right now, I am working on a woven cape for Little Red Cap. The project will take me about a year to realise, as I am involved with almost every aspect of the making, from blending and spinning the garment’s fibres to sewing and embellishing the finished item of clothing, each of which will be an unique interpretation of the fairy tale’s theme.
Below you can see weavings from the forum (Norwich), Air and Water, my weavings Six Prayers for the Anthropocene from Craft Central (London), and a quilt Voynich Enigma, from the exhibition Secret Messages at Bletchley Park.
To view Juliennes work "Norns" do visit the forthcoming exhibition at Westbury Arts Centre "Rotations & Intersections". Visit https://www.westburyartscentre.org.uk/exhibitions-1
for full information.