Alison, you were the founding Chairman of edge and although you are well known by most of us, for the benefit of some of our newer members can you tell us a bit about your early influences?
I think I first really became aware of the power of textiles when I saw an Arts Council Exhibition in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh more than thirty years ago. Here I found the work of weavers like Maureen Hodge. I had never seen anything like this except perhaps for some Scandinavian designs at Heals in London. In my first job teaching in a large Edinburgh comprehensive I also found myself working with an inspired home economics teacher, Moira Wood, who introduced me to the magic of machine embroidery. From that moment on I was completely hooked. In 1974 I was invited to become a member of the 62 Group. I have never stopped embroidering and exhibiting since then.
Where did you train, what did you study and how has your work developed over the years?
I studied for the joint Fine Art degree at Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art. The fact that I started out as a painter has had a major influence on the way I approach my work. Often it is the way I combine paint with stitch that makes my work distinctive. I think perhaps this training may have stopped me from over ‘compartmentalising’ different techniques and hopefully valuing all kinds of different media and approaches.
What are your main sources of inspiration and have they changed?
The major source of inspiration for me is the Scottish landscape, particularly the wilderness factor and the constantly changing light. I was brought up in London so this has been a real revelation to me. I hope I am still seeing new aspects – at present that of hidden geology and past histories. I love landscape painting too from the more traditional works of Claude Lorraine and Turner to Nolde and Eardley.
I also love working in the round and have enjoyed producing many ‘soft sculptures’ over the years, playing with various contradictions.
Like you, some of our members have an artistic background in other disciplines, what is it about stitched textiles that draws people to express themselves through fabric and thread?
I think stitched textiles have qualities that you only find in part in other media. What other technique could you describe in so many ways? Textures of all kinds, rich, shiny, rough, glitzy, smooth and so on – textiles have the lot!
Which textile artists’ work do you most admire and why?
I love Audrey Walker’s work, her painterly qualities, her handling of simple domestic themes and her interest in portraiture. I also admire Rose Campbell’s work. She has such sensitivity to the atmosphere in landscape, wonderful drawing skills and remarkable embroidery technique. I also love the warmth and colour in Kim Gourlay’s work and Sarah Burgess’s witty response to life through her textiles.
What do you see as the future of textile art in the coming years? Will we gain more credibility within the artistic mainstream?
I wish I could be more optimistic here. I cannot believe that we still have to fight our corner with galleries more than twenty years down the line. Sadly we are as yet unable to find a real resolution to the art/craft debate. I think too there is still prejudice felt in some quarters towards an artistic field which tends to be dominated by women.
You are current Chairman of PSG, how are you enjoying your term of office?
I have really enjoyed working with the Practical Study Group. The members have such a wealth of experience between them. Having taught all my life I appreciate the value that this group places on education. It is also a small group with all the advantages this brings – often working together so we get to know each other well, despite the membership coming from across the whole UK.
The Bankfield exhibition last year was very successful and your pieces much admired, are you planning further development of the ideas we saw there?
I think my pieces, based on the wonderful Chinese dolls in the Bankfield Museum in Halifax, were a bit of a one off for me. I had great pleasure making them and I think we all enjoyed responding to the museum’s collection. I’ve always liked problem solving so making them fly was fun. I hope they’ll have a few more outings – they’ve never seen Scotland – before they’re finally consigned to their bag!
What are you presently working on?
Since leaving full time teaching last year, I’m hoping that I’ll finally have time to build up a body of work on one theme. Earlier this year I was awarded a development grant from Kincardine and Deeside Arts Forum. This has helped with the study I am making of the River Gairn near Ballater, its progress from the source to where it joins the Dee. Not only is the glen through which it travels a most beautiful landscape but it is also steeped in the history of a lost way of life. I’m busy working on a series of 3 dimensional pieces at the moment inspired by traditional geological block diagrams at the moment, combining at last my love of landscape with my interest in working in the round!
What would be your message to the members of edge?
That we still all need to work together and with a loud collective voice push our way into the artistic mainstream!