Gill Smith’s passion for textiles is in her blood. But there is a lot more to her work than that. These days she prefers to call herself a mixed media artist and will draw upon any materials and methods that help her to get her message across.
“I’m keen make my textiles as contemporary as possible,” Gill says, “so I will mix them with any other media that I think will tell a story – glass, metal, plastic, painting, no holds barred. But it always has to have that element of textiles in there, it comes back time and time again in my life – even when I’ve wanted to get away from it!”
She’s come to realise that this passion has always been part of her family’s story. “My grandmother was a great needlewoman,” she says. “It was surviving really, dressmaking, mending and embroidery, chair backs, things like that. My mother did the same sort of thing, and my father talked about doing it as a little boy in the blitz, embroidering under the kitchen table to take his mind off the bombers flying overhead. I think textiles are in my blood really.”
A new journey
When she was younger Gill did do some hand embroidery and macrame, but as a history teacher with a family and children to bring up time was tight. But then retirement gave her a fresh opportunity to follow her passion.
She took a foundation course, and then a degree in conceptual art at West Kent College, where she was encouraged to think about the meaning of the work she was creating. She decided that she wouldn’t bring textiles into her degree work but when she had finished her first love was waiting for her. “As soon as I finished, the textiles came back with a wallop and I couldn’t stop,” she says, “and that’s the way it has been ever since. But now I also try to bring conceptual thinking into my work.”
“If there’s a concept behind the work, it has to be thought out and designed before I start. I sketch, I take photographs and the idea grows. Sometimes I start with a title, other times I might be travelling in the car and see a remarkable landscape I would like to use somehow. I think that inspiration is everywhere really.”
Puffins and plastic
Recently for example, she created a piece called `You are what you eat’. She and her husband visited the Farne Islands off Northumberland and were able to get amazingly close to the birds who live there, including the puffins who were feeding on sand eels. The beauty of the island also made her reflect upon the environmental challenges the world faces.
“I’d been thinking a lot about plastics in our seas and rivers and wanted to do something that related to that,” she says, “so I started my piece with a painted background and embroidered the puffin using my sewing machine. I work without a foot on the machine, to allow for greater accuracy in the detailing. So, I need a quiet space, where I can really focus on the freemotion embroidery - the needle can be quite unforgiving!"
“I also wanted to make the sand eels completely out of plastic. I worked with sweet wrappers, things with bar codes on them, cellophane and stuffed them with little cuttings of plastic. It’s a bit of a slow burn piece because you have to look at it for a little while to realise why the sand eels are made in that way."
Gill has been a member of Artspring gallery since January and can already feel her confidence growing. “There’s something really special about that having a group of artists behind you,” she says. “There’s a lot of support and help there, and I’m learning a lot from the other artists about the running of a gallery.”
"I love to exhibit, it gives me a chance to connect with people and explain the processes involved. It's always a thrill when someone expresses an interest in a piece."
“There something really special about that having a group of artists behind you”
Creativity for life
Gill is a firm believer in the mental health benefits of creativity. “Everyone needs something they can lose themselves in, whether that is art, exercise, cooking or, gardening. "For me, my textile work is an absolute solace and I can't imagine being without it."
“People often think they can’t do it but that isn’t true, everyone has the ability to be creative. You could join a class or have a look at YouTube, there’s so much information out there. The most important thing is to dive in – and you may be surprised where it leads you!”
“I’m always looking for that new experience, that fresh opportunity to learn, to bring new things into my work and I’m hoping that will never stop.”