Interview with Nigel Cheney
When you were a child, did you want to become an artist and did your parents encourage your creativity?
I was a quiet and shy child who liked books and ‘being inside’. I enjoyed making but only really became interested in art when I started drawing at school. We were given a homework list of still lives, (red cabbage, taps, reflection in a spoon etc). I remember being told that there were different grades of pencil and to go to WH smith and buy a 6B. Away I went and never looked back. By the third week I had done all the tasks. I was put into a stream that did their art O’level early which meant that the next year I had to do a craft subject. Inspired by a printed sunflower on hessian with chunky french knots that hung on the art room wall I decided that textiles was for me. I was blessed with an amazing art teacher who was incredible influential in my development. I miss her.
As my education progressed I became interested in both fashion and art.
My Mum was a factory-machinist, my Dad was a factory manager in the clothing industry. So it was very natural for me to have a sewing machine in the living room, it was just how my Mum earned her living. It was just this thing that was there. Every day my Dad brought home fabric, she sewed it together. He took it away again. It was nothing magical, nothing glamorous. ‘Symingtons’, was the major industry in Market Harborough, Leicestershire where I was born, they were makers of ladies foundation wear.
Texture is a vital and constant aspect of my work. It is the rendering of the surface to the drawing media or creating tactile qualities through materials and stitch. And the fascination with wanting to touch the finished work is an incredible element in how I perceive whether my work is successful or not.
Copyright Nigel Cheney
What was your training, how it has influenced you and how you have applied what you have learnt.
I studied a foundation in art and design before going on to study embroidery at Manchester Polytechnic under Anne Morrell and Judy Barry. I will always be grateful to them for developing such an amazing course. After graduating from my masters from MMU I went into industry. This was something of a shock after being wildly and extravagantly creative!
Why did you go into fibre art and how you decided on this medium?
I had an early interest in making, knitting, sewing , embroidery and learnt some basic skills as a child and then in school I worked my way through technique books. Always hungry for new processes. By college I was obsessed with machines and ignored hand work. I moved to Ireland and had no machines so became fascinated with hand work, especially as I was having to teach it to students.
Copyright Nigel Cheney
When & how did you realize that you had the confidence to proceed with your art?
In school. There really was no alternative once I had begun to work with cloth. My parents were concerned and I think would have preferred I did something with the maths I had like accountancy. However my father was insistent that I should do ‘whatever makes you happy’. I have been blessed with the most supportive family anyone could wish for.
copyright Nigel Cheney
We do the issue on animals, so we will describe your animals, especially the dogs. Why did you choose for dogs.
The image was a response to the concept of commenting on the farcical nature of money and national debt. It came out of a call for work in Ireland’s year of craft.
‘gone to the dogs’ comprised 6 large, printed and embroidered textile, wall-hung quilts. Approx. 1.5metre sq. each. Consequently I made a series of 50 30 cm sq. pieces for ‘spare change’ as part of the goldilocks and bears exhibition.
They are all bold, playful, colourful, complex images comprising of digital print on a textured cotton fabric, with embellishment in a variety of embroidery processes, including hand, free machine, and digital machine embroidery.
copyright Nigel Cheney
Does the series belong to the past, or is it possible you’ll be doing animals (dogs) once more.
This series came to a conclusion and recent work has looked at the idea of ‘decoration’ and focused on remembrance of WW1. That project is coming to an end and yes I will be returning to animals. I will always be fascinated with animals. This summer I drew elephants and penguins. Just because I needed to.
I have been asked to do specific pets for people and I suppose I will get around to it. I swore I had never ever drawn a cat and then a friend from school sent me an image of the drawing I did for his mother….
Birds are an incredibly important image in my work and again I can talk for a long time about why. There are many depths of associations with images of birds. I think that because I am an embroiderer that my love of materials is very, very important to me. I think that constant questioning of what I am working with and why it is really there. So I think very often the drawings and paintings happen on one level and they inform other things but I don’t particularly know why at the time. I bought some teal wings over the internet. I will be drawing them soon and I think they will want to become textiles at some point.
copyright Nigel Cheney
What is the reason of your choice of the money-like backgrounds you use
The intricate and complex nature of the decoration of a banknote deters forgery but how relevant is it in today’s society where substantial money is often an invisible, abstract asset that can disappear or be lent in its billions.
I have always had a fascination with old banknotes. Family and friends would give me spare change form trips abroad and I have collected random notes from a defunct currency where a note that was once worth a life’s wages is now a novelty item in a street market for a few cent.
Each of the banknotes has a particular association with an individual, from the childhood neighbour from Trinidad to the gift of a tattered old note from a friend returning from their travels. The illustrations of dogs are intended as a humorous interpretation of the conflicting worlds of both pedigree dog-shows and dog racing.
copyright Nigel Cheney
What particular feelings are you attempting to evoke with your work in your audience?
This body of work reflects upon the associations of value and speculation. In our current economic climate we see currency as something ‘not worth the paper it’s printed on’. Our futures are gambled upon with seemingly no more care than a bet on a dog race. Whatever our position at least we can attempt to look upon our lives with colour and vitality! Materials and tactility are vital in conveying those ideas. The base fabric is Pivotal. Weight, handle, feel, fibre composition, weave structure are all crucial and go hand in hand with choice of approach. I’ve often worked with vintage fabrics or garments and this is often due to a fabric quality that is impossible to obtain in new materials.
With thread I’m fussy but I am lazy. I don’t like to dye threads, particularly machine threads. I prefer to gather a mountain of varieties and balance them against each other. The weight of 30’s or 40’s machine viscose rayon can make or break a piece for me. I love unusual machine threads and will try and have a good and extensive range to hand. Its not always possible and I enjoy the challenge of rebalancing colour relationships if you can’t get exactly the colour you want in a machine thread. It’s a big difference between the weavers and printers who go on and on about colour boards and exact matching. I prefer to be more spontaneous. I’m more of a magpie. The relationship of matt/ shiny, fluffly/smooth an unusual texture a hint of neon… all will allow the work to be fluid and breathe. I always have a vision of the final work before I begin and it never ends up like that. If it did I think I would give up, there would be no personal challenge. It’s the surprise of listening to the work and being open to change that stimulates me. Its always about asking a question and being prepared to engage in a conversation with the work (what does it need/ want/feel/ demand) to satisfy it.
copyright Nigel Cheney
Please tell me about the relation between hand- and machine-embroidery in your work
My practice used to have a lot more free machine stitch. Lately I’ve wanted to include more hand with the machine. The machine is often a tool to construct, build, lay the foundations whilst the hand becomes a flourish that adds a touch more depth and vitality.
The ‘hand-made’ is an essential element in my work. The willingness to commit to spending several hundred hours laboriously hand stitching an image is a testament to this. The simplicity of this activity and the need for patience in seeing a decision come to realisation is a slow seduction for the maker. The placement of colour and surface qualities is often intuitive and resolved through a method of trial and error, all of which are easy to imagine but hard fought for in physicality. Influences of textile design and trends in colour and surface underpin all the creative choices in realizing concepts as artifacts.
Contemporary Craft that exploits both hand operated and computer driven machinery places the work in current debates around the role of technology. Makers have always valued their tools, as such the transition from a dye bath, or screen-printing to the use of digital printing is a natural right of passage for craft. The computerized method that allows a complex image that is made up of layers of both scans of existing objects and hours of hand rendering is the first layer in building these pieces. The contrasts of stitch qualities, which are applied in hand or controlled through a computer are also factors in the choice of methods to produce the work. The necessity is the multiprocessing of cloth through craft means to produce this artistic work. The skill in controlling a domestic sewing machine and using it as a drawing tool with the rhythms and surfaces of thread and fabric, takes time and craftsmanship to realise. The design process is integral in selecting and organizing these techniques in addition to the skill in the physical framing and threading of a compterised multineedle machine, all these factors speak to the tradition of craft. The language of ‘making’ and ‘craft’ are terms that hard materials can often assume ownership of. When Adamson refers to the materials in ‘Thinking through Craft’, 2007, he is happy to reflect upon ceramic practice and quote a ceramicist.‘ De Staebler himself has repeatedly confirmed this description of his process, saying that clay ‘has an inner instinct for form’, and that ‘what I have tried to do for a long time is find out what they clay wants to do’ A conversation with Stephen De Staebler, Ceramics Monthly (April 198). p.62
I would put forward the proposition that all materials have an inner life that can be listened to by the maker. Cloth is certainly no different from clay in forming part of a discussion between the maker and material, with regards to final outcome. In contrast to form I find that cloth wants to speak to me of a surface, with colour applied through dye and stitch, to imagery and texture created through rhythms in thread. Ultimately I aspire to have produced work with an aesthetic that creates a new value for its viewer. If the world has gone to the dogs then can we at least celebrate the madness?
The industrial/computerised side of embroidery has always been a fascination. Probably due to my parents background as both factory manager(dad) and machinist (mum). I learnt a lot of hand techniques when I was young and used my first machine in domestic science at about 13. I realised the machine could be a drawing tool when I was 14 and loved the speed and energy. During my undergrad I loved the Schiffli and its ability to produce yardage and quantity with control and repetition. In the MA I loved the possibilities of CAD/C Am. In that time we were still on black and green monochrome monitors and with no stitch editing facility. My work in Industry allowed me proper training on designing for production and the importance of every single stitch. Moving from prototypes or artworks where multi processing was encouraged to have to consider the efficiency of machine embroidery to have the most impact at the lowest price was a steep learning curve. The tricks in how to build and render surfaces on a variety of base cloths really helped me as an embroiderer. When you see a mistake duplicated several thousand times you get more aware of each element of a design.
When I moved to Ireland and began teaching full time I had to grit my teeth and embrace hand stitch again for the first time in years. I must have matured somewhere along the way as I rekindled a passion for hand stitch.
Copyright Nigel Cheney
What is the connection between your drawing and your embroidery? What was first? Sometimes it is difficult to see the difference when looking at your works in print.
I always draw. It may be a doodle on a post it to communicate to someone else. It may be a detailed graphite rendering, it may be computer manipulation but somewhere in the process there is a response before I ever get as far as cloth and thread.
Drawing has always been the most important element in my work and it was easy to get lost in that and never feel the need to realise it in colour or materials. I feel paper and cloth work at two separate speeds. The drawings are often done years before ever becoming cloth. I had used a lot of traditional screen printing at college to get my imagery onto cloth. From 2000 I have been excited by the possibilities digital print can give in bringing that drawing to another surface. We simply didn’t have access to that technology in college at the time and I still prefer to outsource that in Glasgow through CAT as I find they always give me exceptional quality and seem able to understand my ramblings. In college I was teaching students who had never held a needle before. Fr some of them they are more fluent with technology and multineedle CADCAM embroidery allows them to achieve the control of line and shape. The Gone to the dogs project relied heavily on digital print using scans of my drawings.
I love its grace and control and the intricate ‘jacquard ‘ type qualities of fills but then want to disrupt and change them. Since the Department acquired the Brother PR600 I have had to find the time to really explore what it can do. It’s a very basic form of punching and the processes I would be used to in industry were not readily apparent. Embroidery is a wonderful medium and the scale of a stitched mark will often cause the image to simplify. Relationship of ground and image, weight of thread, density of stitch structure, scale of stitch… infinite variety.
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What other fibre artists are you interested in?
My boss and best friend Helen MacAllister always inspired me.
Karen Nicol is jaw droppingly awe inspiring
What other artists inspire you.
I’ve been looking at Heath Robinson illustrations lately, Beardsley, Shin Tanaka.
Where do you imagine your work in five years?
I really can’t speculate too much.
If I thionk back 5 years I never would have imagined that I would have written a book ( Textile Surface and Manipulation, with Helen MacAllister for Blommsbury as part of their Textile Handbook series). My current wrk responds a lot to textile artifacts such as uniforms and that is a new departure to be working in the round in a more sculptural sense. I feel there will be stitch, machine and hand. With CAD embroidery where I feel the control and exactness often needs a more human touch. The contrast of weight of a hand stitch is vital.
I love multi processing. I love hybrids, I love composite processes. I truly think there is nothing new. We have 3 types of stitch , 3 approaches to manipulation, construction, embellishment… everything ‘new’ is some permutation of those. I rely on a wide repertoire of methodologies and methods. These are dependent on material, scale and desired outcome.