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Textiles based artist and Artists talking blogger Elena Thomas talks to Andrew Bryant about the centrality of drawing, the importance of dialogue, what makes a good blog, art as a state of being, and more...
Andrew Bryant: Your practice is rooted in textiles and you also draw and make mosaics. Which came first and what have been your influences along the way?
Elena Thomas: Textiles and drawing came first. I have drawn ever since I can remember. Ever since being physically capable of holding a pencil probably. I now do life drawing every week, but it can be frustrating, some days just don’t go well. Others you just get into a groove and it’s great. I think it is important for me as a visual artist to be able to draw. It’s like being “match-fit” I suppose.
I used to embroider with my mum as a child, forgot it for a while, but picked it up again at college, like an old friend. I now feel that textiles are the medium I express myself most clearly with. I only use recycled fabric in my work, never new. I love the Gee’s Bend quilts for this reason, and my friend Kim Porter has been a big influence too, her “worn and washed” http://www.wornandwashedfabrics.com business started me quilting. Just get some fabric you like and stitch it together. I don’t really do “proper” quilting. I like old embroidered household linens too - they come with a history I can use. I like the mends, tears, stains, the marks of other people’s lives.
I like to mix patterns together. My father was Serbian and the paintings of artists like Ivan Generalic and Ivan Rabuzin and that eastern European feeling for textile design have affected the aesthetic choices I have made for years: colour, pattern, the sense of community and narrative, and the occasional gruesome fairy tale.
The mosaics are a bit of a detour… I love Cleo Mussi’s http://www.mussimosaics.co.uk work for the same reasons I love old patchwork, making something useful or beautiful out of other people’s cast offs. I have done several pieces with the children in school. They love it too, especially the fact that they leave something permanent behind when they leave.
AB: You are currently doing an MA in Art Practice and Education. Was this a decision based on needing to earn a living as an artist or do you see teaching as part of your practice?
ET: This is the eternal discussion! I need to earn a living. I am fortunate enough to have a job that I love, that is creative. I started by doing the Artist Teacher Scheme, when I got this job, thinking it would help me be a better art teacher. The MA at Birmingham City University followed on as I didn’t want to stop the process. I think it has made me a better artist. Not so sure if it’s made me a better teacher - it depends on your criteria for “good teaching”. I think I teach less, and have become more of a technician and facilitator.
I don’t see teaching as part of my practice, but my changing practice has changed the way I teach. There has been a blog discussion recently about whether you can be a “proper” artist if you have another job… what rubbish… being an artist is a state of being. It’s how you think. The job you do to pay the bills is irrelevant in my opinion.
There is a train of thought, though, that if I say that being an artist is a state of being, the way I think, then everything I do is part of my practice…so I’ve just contradicted myself, I might need to blog about that! (and maybe read more De Certeau?
AB: Your latest blog is a conversation between yourself and two other artists Julie Dodd and Franny Swann. Why is dialogue important for you and how do you think it functions as a public facing aspect of your art?
ET: The dialogue is everything. I spent many, many years making stuff and playing almost in solitary confinement. The dialogue is what has changed my life and my practice, whether that is through the Artist teacher scheme, MA or blogging. It functions as a public facing aspect of my art in that I couldn’t now do it without other artists questioning me and commenting, be they real or virtual.
Franny and Julie are tremendously supportive, and useful friends, we have posted things to each other, such as photos or statements, to get feedback, knowing the answers we get will be honest, but also kind. Being able to explain, translate, present my work to other people, artists or otherwise, is crucial to me. I’ve got better at that bit lately, while trying to avoid the arty b******s that can hinder that communication.
The blog with Franny and Julie, to me, is magic. We three women don’t know each other, we live hundreds of miles apart, and yet something has drawn us together… the way we work, a sense of humour, a turn of phrase, something intangible. I don’t know where it’s going, but the conversation is great! Facing the public with that conversation was a tricky decision as you can tell by the blog… we’re still not sure if it should be the only way we communicate.
There are some things it is unfair to discuss in public… so there will probably be some that goes on by email rather than blog. We have the occasional secret we don’t tell! But there is something interesting about getting to know someone only through what they write. If we never do anything else but blog with each other, I feel will become a valid collaborative piece of work in itself.
AB: The title of your blog ‘Threads’ encompass your interest in the ‘trace’ (‘threads’ can be slang for clothes) and in narratives and connections. How did you get interested in these subjects and what is their significance for you?
ET: I am always interested in history, what’s gone before, what trace it leaves, what influences people have on each other, particularly parents and children. The threads of my work constantly cross between thoughts of my parents, my mother particularly, and my children. I think about the children I teach. I think about childhood in general.
I am also fascinated by the way our language is peppered with textile references: button your lip, zip it, stitched up, spinning a yarn, big girl’s blouse! Phrases like this pop up frequently in my writing too.
When I use an old garment or pillow case or bit of faded curtain for a piece of work, it speaks to me, it has a life story before it got to me, it’s layered with meaning. When other people see it they may have different memories prompted by it. It’s a sort of short hand. Using these clothes puts you somewhere, or some other time, instantly. You never know what the response will be, people often tell me stories prompted by “I had a coat like that when I was little” or I have had someone cry because I’ve used the fabric their grandma had as curtains in her bedroom.
We form very strong emotional attachments to our textiles. My alterations or additions have become more subtle recently, as it would be a shame to alter something so much that this very personal response in the viewer was lost.
AB: There is a piece on your website http://www.elenathomas.co.uk/home called Straightjacket. It looks like a vintage quilted baby’s coat that has been adapted. What kind of conversation about the relationship between children and parents are you hoping to open up here?
ET: Haha! It is actually an adult sized garment. It is made from old fabric, but it is a garment that I made. I wanted to find a way to express my thoughts about children who grow into adults ill-equipped to cope with the world because of over-protective parenting. It is the cosiest, warmest, comfiest, safest straightjacket. But it is still a straightjacket.
I believe children should get to know themselves and what they are capable of. This involves risk taking. Some parents are good at this, others are not so good. I think the government telling us how we should parent doesn’t help, it takes away responsibility and initiative. The erosion of communities doesn’t help either. Our communities used to aid parenting. That seems to happen less now. Parents seem scared to let children out into the world. I know these are sweeping statements. But they are sweeping statements I think about, and care about.
AB: This interview marks the first anniversary of your initial Artists talking blog. What motivated you to start a blog and what keeps you interested?
ET: It was actually suggested to me by one of my MA tutors. She was probably thinking I talked too much and needed another outlet for all the whittering on! I thought I’d just write stuff like “Today I went to the gallery and saw… and I thought it was rubbish/excellent”. I wasn’t prepared for the conversation, the sense of community that is here. If I am pondering a piece of work, or full of angst about the way it is being read, I slap up a photo and ask. People seem genuinely interested and understanding about the fact that sometimes you’re not sure. They offer advice, and it helps.
That has been the best thing. It’s that that keeps me interested. At first I wondered what on earth I would blog about, but I don’t seem to have any problems there, there’s always something to say. My practice is a bit all-over-the-place… textiles, drawing, sheds, and recently the sound and music work that I’ve been doing with Dan Whitehouse www.dan-whitehouse.com. Writing the blog has turned out to be a good way of seeing all these disparate parts as a whole.
AB: Finally, this interview was prompted by both your blogs being in the blog top ten for April 2012. What is it that makes a blog successful?
ET: Errr… dunno… Is probably not the answer you’re looking for… but I am puzzled why my blog has been read so much. (Remember that GOING PUBLIC isn’t just me, but Franny and Julie too). The other blogs that I think are successful though, and keep coming back to, are the ones where the writer is in discussion with themselves, trying to come to a conclusion, or decision about their work, such as Anthony Boswell’s and David Minton’s blogs.
Also, of course, Franny’s and Julie’s, which tell of the struggle to keep all the plates spinning, similarly Sophie Cullinan’s. Bizarrely, David Riley’s and Rob Turner’s “Over the Golf Course” too, their work is nothing like mine, yet they seems to have thoughts that strike a chord with the way I think. That’s what I like when I’m reading other blogs: getting a glimpse into the way people think and work.
So when I’m writing, I try to be honest, but about myself, not critical of others or the world we work in too much. No one wants to read personal gripes. I’m grateful that I am an artist, and can work at it. The comments are comforting, or pull me up and make me think a bit more carefully about things…
I’m happy to change my mind in public! I like my blog to sound like me; I like to think I can be funny; I like to throw everything into it… sometimes I lose the thread and have to read it back as I might start a discussion with myself then forget all about it; I like to think I don’t take myself too seriously.
Threads blog by Elena Thomas
Going public blog by Elena Thomas, Julie Dodd and Franny Swann
Shedding blog by Elena Thomas
Andrew Bryant is an artist and freelance editor living in London
First published: a-n.co.uk May 2012
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