Interview with Stewart Kelly

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Stewart Kelly is an internationally renowned British artist who has exhibited his works in numerous exhibitions in Europe, United States, Canada and China.

Stewart holds a BA (Hons) in Fashion & Textiles Design from Liverpool John Moores University, which specializes in textile art and design.

His work revolves around the human figure that the artist represents, transfiguring it through a process of overlapping images. During the creative process, these images are transformed, losing some of their physical nature and taking on a more conceptual nature.

His figures detach themselves from the materiality of concrete life and represent the artist’s experience of humanity and its evolution over time.

It was written of his art work: “Stewart, as an artist, taps into, he understands that physical observation can only take you so far, that the human experience is so much more than the sum of its material parts, that each life is a multiple experience. Through his consistent overlapping of the projection of multiple imagery of the human form in observation and experience, he is celebrating the journey that weare all on.
That is the special significance that Stewarts’s work plays within our conception of life. He portrays through his work, through the symbolism of his line, the strands of our lives, strands that are both physical and sensory, materially commanding and emotionally poignant. Stewart portrays the human form in all its fullness, as the completeness of experience
.”

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www.bankley.org.uk/Artist-Stewart-Kelly

“Face to Face 1”, 2015
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 60cm X 60cm.
copyright Stewart Kelly

Face to Face 1–detail”, 2015,
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 60cm X 60cm                  
copyright Stewart Kelly

Stewart, can you talk about your choice to work with threads as the medium of your art?

I have always been interested in the ambiguity of textiles, the potential for working in this medium, and its ability to transcend the boundaries between fine art, craft and design.

I find the possibilities of placing traditional techniques in a contemporary context, alongside the potential to draw with thread and paint with stitch an endless source of inspiration.

I believe this ambiguity alludes to the human condition and continues to hold a specific relevance to my own creative ideas.

“Life Lines 8”
Monoprint and Machine Embroidery on Paper
Copyright Stewart Kelly

“Life Lines 11
Monoprint and Machine Embroidery on Paper
Copyright Stewart Kelly

Your works have a figurative basis, then layer by layer, they are transformed into abstract images. Can you tell us about this relationship between figurative representation and abstract representation in your works?

The accumulation of drawn and stitched lines within my pieces frequently results in the creation of abstracted images.

I am interested in how the pieces evolve in this way, and how this process provides a metaphor within the work.When figurativeimages are overlaid multiple timesthey become abstracted,they acquire a new identity, and are subject toreinterpretation.

The androgyny of the figures embodies a detachment from gender, culture and thought. I believe the universal appearance of the figures invites viewers to inhabit the work, and experience their gestures and movements.

“Face to Face 2”, 2015
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 60cm X 60cm
Copyright Stewart Kelly

“ Face to Face 2 (Detail)”, 2015
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 60cm X 60cm.
Copyright Stewart Kelly

What is the meaning of stratification for you, which is a constant feature of your works?

The process of layeringholds a particular significance in the creation of each of my works.

Initially, I make observational drawings in response to the figure. I work intuitively to create expressive drawings which aim to capture the subtleties found in both gesture and movement. I record my responses spontaneously, focusing almost entirely on the subject, unaware of the image evolving on the paper. As the lines accumulate and overlap, the image becomes abstracted. The figures become less recognizable almost camouflaged amongst the multitude of lines. Each mark is unique and documents a moment in time. My observations and responses are distilled into line.

I then transform and develop the drawings by cutting, re-assembling and stitching. Existing drawn lines are emphasized with stitch whilst additional lines derived from separate studies are imposed over the surface. The diversity of drawn and stitched marks creates unique textures and quality of lines throughout the work. The drawn line is immediate whilst stitching is slower and more reflective. Occasionally figures are identifiable, whilst in contrast a line may represent a gesture or brief moment in time. The layers of drawn and stitched lines record an accumulation of observations, mapping encounters and experiences. The pieces are complex and intense in their construction. Constructing them is often physical and enduring. They become the embodiment of the artist and a record of the time taken to produce them.

The work explores the effects of overlaying multiple images. The viewer is required to interpret the image creating a dialogue between the physical and unconscious body. The layers of different materials and processes create images which seek to achieve a deliberate ambiguity giving rise to the many possibilities of interpretation. The viewer is encouraged to consider where one process ends and another begins. The work demands the viewer’s time to understand and interpret the different lines and shadows and make sense of their meaning based upon their own multi layered experiences. The quality and range of marks encourages the viewer to reflect upon the complexities and expressions found within the spectrum of human nature.

Work in progress

Work in progress

Can you tell us about the most recent series Face to Face?

The Face to Face series was completed between 2015 and 2017. There are eleven works in this series.

This series of works developed from my previous projects Fragments, Life Lines and Traces. These projects focused on an abstract interpretation of the human form. However, the Face to Face series is intentionally more figurative and confrontational in its appearance. It was also an opportunity to explore colour.

The pieces were constructed is several stages. Initially, I made severalobservational studies of faces from life using ink on paper. I then cut out all the faces and began to arrange them in the form of a collage. Finally, I machine stitched over the surface in order enhance lines and blend colours.

The work explores the correlation between process and subject matter. I was interested in creating a series of works which are neither exclusively drawings or textiles. The pieces are ambiguous in both the process and subject matter.

My work often reflects events in my own life, and I have been fortunate to exhibit these works around the World. To date these pieces have been shown in the UK, Ukraine, Slovak Republic, USA, Canadaand China. The Face to Faceproject has enabled me to meet and connect with artists, authors and curators around the World.

“Face to Face 4”, 2016
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 60cm X 60cm
copyright Stewart Kelly

“Face to Face 4 (Detail)”, 2016
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 60cm X 60cm
copyright Stewart Kelly

Stewart, your works are not particularly large, such as Fragments and Life Lines are small in size. Can you tell us about your stylistic choice?

The Fragments and Life Linesseries marked a new successful period in exhibiting my work.

Following my studies, I returned to exclusively drawing for a period of time. I felt the primacy of drawing would encourage me to return to something basic and familiar.

In addition, I began to attend an open printmaking studio in order to studycollagraph and etching.

During 2008, I joined Bankley Studios &Gallery in Manchester. Acquiring a studio offered my practice a renewed focus. I took with me the wealth of drawing and print material I had produced during theprevious couple of years. I began to consider how I could relate this work to my textile practice.

I wanted to explore the human form as a theme, but not in a figurative sense, something more abstract.

Initially, I used a viewfinder to select small sections of drawings and prints. I later began to embellish these pieces with machine stitching focusing on the quality of line within the drawings. The resulting pieces are small portals in to drawings on paper and cloth, depicting aspects of the human form.

“Life Lines 1”
Monoprint and Machine Embroidery on Paper

Copyright Stewart Kelly

“Life Lines 4”
Monoprint and Machine Embroidery on Paper

Copyright Stewart Kelly

How has your work evolved over time? What are the differences between your early works and your more recent ones?

The human form and human experience have been enduring themes in my work throughout my career.

As a graduate and an emerging artist, my work was often introspective, sometimes autobiographical. Initially, this included documenting personal experiences of walking in the natural landscape. Later the figure became central to my work. I became interested in exploring themes which included self-portraiture, the projection of identity and the depiction of gender and sexuality.

Over the last few years, my work has focused on observing others, documenting their movements and expressions.

My creative practice aims to document personal experiences and communicate emotions. Therefore, it would seem pertinent that the human form is central to my work.

In addition, my work often reflects different aspects of my life. Through my future work and research, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between myself and my creativity.

Face to Face 11”, 2017
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 140cm X 90cm
copyright Stewart Kelly

“Face to Face 11 (Detail)”, 2017
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 140cm X 90cm
copyright Stewart Kelly

How do you choose the subjects or the theme of your works, what inspires you?

My recent worksare inspired by drawing the human form.

Many figurative artists have influenced my work through the years including; David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Henry Moore, Frank Auerbach, Vincent Van Gogh, Paula Rego, Frida Kahlo, Willem de Kooning, Euan Uglow, Richard Deibenkorn, Jenny Saville, Robert Maplethorpe and Bill Viola to name but a few…

Film, theatre, contemporary dance, performance artists and photographers have also influenced my work.

Can you tell us about the reasons that lead you to work in series, that is, to create works that constitute the development of each other?

Creatively, I often think in terms of a theme or a project. The advantage of working in this way means I can focus on developing a body of work over a period of time. Whilst completing my recent projects, I was interested to seehow the pieces would evolve sequentially.

Looking ahead, I intend to explore the possibilities ofproducing individual works which do not necessarily form a sequenceand consider how they may link together in a different way.

“Face to Face 5”, 2016
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 50cm X 155cm.
copyright Stewart Kelly

“Face to Face 5 (Detail)”, 2016, Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 50cm X 155cm, copyright Stewart Kelly

“Face to Face 7”, 2017
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 230cm X 80cm
copyright Stewart Kelly

Is the technique or the idea more important? What do you think determines the success of a work?

Ideas and working processes inform one another. The process can, in itself,become a metaphor.

I believe the success of a piece of work is determined by sincerity and establishing a dialogue with an audience.

As an artist you bring something to someone’s life. Whether they view your work in an exhibition or online, it is an opportunity to inspireor educate in some way.For a short time, you can encourage people to stop and think. For some, that intervention may be fleeting, for others something potentially powerful and dynamic may happen.

Art is about communication. It is a language you have to create. As an artist you do not necessarily find yourself through your work, but you make yourself. I believe, my creative identity has been formed through all my personal and professional experiences.

Face to Face 7 (Detail)”, 2017,
Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 230cm X 80cm
copyright Stewart Kelly

What do you think is the most important difference between a craftsman who works with threads and fabrics and a textile artist?

I do not consider myself exclusively a fine artist, a designer or a craftsperson, however, my practice contains an element of all of these.

From a business point of view, I understand why categories exist in order to locate artists and makers. However, from a creative point of view, labels do not make sense to me.

As a graduate and an emerging artist, it is difficult to see your career long term. I found I would often be working on a design project or exhibiting drawings in an exhibitionat the same time. I pursued diverse opportunities and worked in different ways. Over time, my practice has evolved in an organic way, and my current work is a fusion of all the areas I have worked.

Stewart, in your biography I read that as an artist you have also worked in collaboration with institutions and organizations in the field of mental health. From your experience, how can art also have a therapeutic function?

I have a continuing professional interest in studying how the visual arts may be utilised as a means to enhance an individual’s wellbeing.

When we are being creative, our brains release dopamine, which is a natural anti-depressant. Creativity usually takes concentration and it can lead to the feeling of a natural high. Therefore, participating in creative activities may even help alleviate depression.

The average person experiences 60,000 thoughts a day. 95% of those thoughts are similar on a daily basis. Immersing yourself in a creative activity produces an almost meditative state where your mind becomes engaged in what you are doing to the extent that you may temporarily forget your worries. In order to find calm, peace, and happiness in one’s life, the focus needs to be on one’s inner self. This can be achieved by becoming disciplined in a creative activity that will naturally lessen the importance and therefore impact on those thousands of thoughts we experience every day.

“Trace 9”.
Ink, Wax and Machine Embroidery on Paper.
copyright Stewart Kelly

“Trace 9 (Detail)”
Ink, Wax and Machine Embroidery on Paper

copyright Stewart Kelly

What are you working on right now? Do you want to tell us about your current textile projects?

During 2018 I have focused on completing a series of commissioned works.

The project was originally established in 2015 during my Bodyworks solo exhibition and residency at Bankley Studio & Gallery in Manchester.

Several years ago, I completed an Introduction to the Profession of Art Therapywith the British Association of Art Therapists. Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which making images and objects plays a central role. The essence of art therapy lies in the relationship between art and therapy. As such, art therapy involves both the process and the products of imaginative activity and the provision of a safe environment within which it is possible for individuals to discover, explore and share the meaning their images or objects may have for them.

During the course, I was able to experience and participate in many creative and reflective activities art therapists utilise in their practice. The course was enlightening and I was interested in placing this experience in the context of my own practice in the form of a specific project.

Subsequently, I established a personal project which incorporated text, stitch and dye in order to create a series of works which embody the space between drawing, textiles and sculpture.

Earlier in the year, I was invited to develop a series of works to be photographed and published in a forthcoming book exploring the theme of art and medicine. The author has selected certain artists to submit works which reflect upon how creativity can assist an individual in recovering from a period of physical or mental ill health.

This commission offered a renewed focus for the project and resulted in three new sculptural textile pieces, 40 Hands, 40 Heads and Me & My Shadow.

 Foto della galleria (Copyright Stewart Kelly)

  • FOTO 1   “Face to Face 8”, 2017, Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 180cm X 90cm.
  • FOTO 2  “Face to Face 8 (Detail)”, 2017, Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 180cm X 90cm.
  • FOTO 3  “Face to Face 9”, 2017, Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 180cm X 90cm.
  • FOTO 4  “Face to Face 9 (Detail)”, 2017, Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 180cm X 90cm.
  • FOTO 5  “Face to Face 3”, 2016, Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 60cm X 60cm.
  • FOTO 6  “Face to Face 3 (Detail)”, 2016, Ink & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 60cm X 60cm, copyright Stewart Kelly
  • FOTO 7  Face to Face 6”, 2016, Charcoal, Hand & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 75cm X 80cm
  • FOTO 8   “Face to Face 6 (Detail)”, 2016, Charcoal, Hand & Machine Embroidery on Paper, 75cm X 80cm.
  • FOTO 9  “Trace 4”, Ink, Wax and Machine Embroidery on Paper.
  • FOTO 10   “Trace 4 (Detail)”. Ink, Wax and Machine Embroidery on Paper.

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