Thick ropes of yarn hang heavily from the ceiling, twisting around each other. These strange and ungainly shapes in Judit Wilson’s sculpture are reflected in its ungainly title: Ulrich. Ulrich likes spaghetti and dog-walking, Amelia. Amelia likes Ulrich.
By contrast, Hayley Mills-Styles creates intricate, detailed machine embroideries. Haptic Memories and Decaying Time are small rectangles of dense, deft stitching that recreate scraps of memories.
I was reminded of these and other textile artworks when I visited Off Grid, the fabulous exhibition of Sheila Hicks’ work, at The Hepworth Wakefield. I thought of several artists whose work echoes Hicks’, as they use similar materials or processes, or work at large and small scales.
I’m a curator, I draw on my experience of disability activism to organise exhibitions and events that celebrate the work of disabled artists, and that raise issues relating to disabled people’s experiences. I’m interested in the intersection of textiles and disabled people’s lives, and in disabled artists who work with textiles.
The variety in Hicks’ work sparked so many connections in my mind with disabled artists I know, that I wanted to share them. Thanks to support from Yorkshire Sculpture International, this idea became Follow the thread, a pop-up exhibition to be shown in Wakefield for a few days during the run of Off Grid. Having a major collection of Hicks’ art here in Yorkshire is a great opportunity to show some local, exciting textile art that deserves greater recognition.
This exhibition features work by Wilson and Mills-Styles, as well as alabamathirteen, Amelia Baron and Carrie Scott Huby. Between them, like Hicks, they have made small-scale woven and embroidered pieces, wrapped objects with thread and created elaborate hanging textile sculptures. Others have repurposed fabric, or have stitched lines and patterns to tell a story. Their narratives include memories, connections to place, feminism and experiences of disability. They are playful, disruptive, opinionated and powerful.
These artists all live or work in Leeds and Wakefield. Some of them are members of DISrupt, an artists’ collective working to challenge disabling barriers and to make sure that disabled artists are taken seriously. But there are other artists that come to mind, from across the country and beyond. For example, Raisa Kabir is an interdisciplinary artist and weaver based in London. There is a connection to Hicks’ work through her use of woven textiles and text. And Kabir’s focus on the cultural politics of cloth, labour and embodied geographies would make for an interesting dialogue with Hicks’ practice.
On the landing of The Hepworth Wakefield, a frieze of large, irregular discs, wrapped around and around with multi-coloured yarn, marks the entrance to Off Grid. This is Varmayana (The Place of Shining Light) (2018), and there are more wrapped Grand Boules inside. These evoke the powerful and mysterious sculptures of American artist Judith Scott (1943 – 2005), which she created by wrapping objects in fabric and thread.
Of course, there are many artists, disabled and non-disabled, who use textiles. Textiles are versatile, portable and include materials and equipment that are affordable and close to hand. This makes them particularly suitable for disabled artists, who are more likely than others to be on low incomes, to make their work at home rather than in a studio, and who may not be able to work with heavy or large materials.
All the artists in Follow the thread are disabled women. They use traditional techniques, often with a twist, to change perceptions of textile art and disabled women. They have embraced the possibilities of textile materials and techniques while at the same time subverting them to share their view of the world. They are overturning ableist ideas that disabled women are passive and vulnerable. Textiles are a vehicle for disabled women artists to be confident, powerful, funny and angry.
While this exhibition is inspired by Off Grid, each artist has developed her own style and approach independently. They connect and communicate through a shared language of thread and fibre. These artists have picked up and followed the thread of conversation, giving voice to disabled artists.
Written by Gill Crawshaw
Follow the thread is in the Ridings Centre, Wakefield 27-30 July, then by appointment the following week. More information here.
Click here for information about DISrupt, the disabled artists collective in Leeds
Off Grid by Sheila Hicks is at The Hepworth Wakefield until 25 September 2022.
18 July 2022
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