24th Jan 2019
Hi Astrid and Oisin - thank you very much for the coffee; it’s beautiful.
My practice, for the last year and a half, has focused on embroidery work and textiles. It all came about when I had an idea to cross-stitch one of those old samplers you see at a National Trust places and stately homes. They were traditionally school girl exercises or a leisure activity for the young ladies of the residences. When I was 9 years old, I got taught by my grandma’s sister how to cross-stitch as well as a few other stitching techniques and I wanted to subvert that traditional view of stitching as a feminine craft, which comes from society’s institutionalised constructs of gender.
This year has been a big one in terms of pushing my artistic work and exploring embroidery, textiles, thinking about social engagement as well as challenging myself creatively. This week, I am taking down my current exhibition, Taut Fibre, which was the outcome of a 6 day residency around libraries in St Helens. It was in collaboration with Art in Libraries in St Helens, Heart of Glass and Homotopia. http://www.homotopia.net/festival-item/jonathon-beaver-taut-fibre
When I was asked to participate in this residency, I started thinking about books that I've read, been inspired by, and that have comforted me and that got me thinking about words and language too. In hindsight, a lot of my recent work has been about words and literacy more broadly; how words can empower, bring us together, wound us and make us feel all sorts of emotions. A lot of the words I have used, are words that have resonated with me from my upbringing, memories and experiences linked with family, friends and personal circumstances.
I think the conversations that developed with the public during the residency confirmed for me that words do bind us together and we should try and understand and continue to learn. It shows me that a common thread (pardon the pun) regardless of who we are, where we come from, who we share a bed with, etc., is indicates that words and talking are powerful and can be interpreted loads of ways.
My working process is varied depending on what I’m working on- sometimes, it’ll start with an idea and then drawing it out, albeit roughly, in my sketchbook; sometimes I’ll stitch small scale versions especially if I’m making motifs or a new font. However, I am guilty of just getting my needle and getting stuck in: starting with stitching an ‘x’ and seeing where it goes, sometimes followed by unpicking a lot of threads and rethinking! I also have this superstition - all the work I have created since October 2016 has been done using the same needle; I consider it a talisman and if I don’t use that particular needle, I won’t have that magic to create.
Fundamentally, this year has taught me that I can create outside of the comfort of my own flat and go into spaces where I can engage with people in that they will come and ask you questions about what you’re doing as well as being based in a variety of venues and areas with it being performative, in that I am using my hands, body in a way which can be seen as live theatre.
I’ve starting to think how I can make my work less two dimensional and more sculptural (I touched upon it, during my solo exhibition with 60 Windsor https://ibb.co/51V1syG and https://ibb.co/9rpvMKy) as well as starting to work on large-scale pieces. With my recent residency, I experimented with natural materials to dye my Aida cloth. I’m also thinking that I want to start using mirrors in my work to show both the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of the pieces as I think equally create an importance and both/all sides should be seen.
My research process draws on superstitions, my family tree and the phrases, habits and memories that disappear from history so easily. The saying ‘What’s for you won’t pass you by’ is something my grandma O’Leary would say to me if, for example, I didn’t get a good grade for an exam or get the job I wanted. It’s one of many phrases she used. As a child, I was always fascinated by these many sayings; their folk magic and even paganism, contradictions to me and my own grandma’s Catholic upbringing. ‘This is my body, this is my blood’ is about queer bodies, HIV stigma as well as religious connotations. The LGBTQ+ community, my shared experiences with friends and family are a continuous part of my research and motivation. These word pieces comprise Aida cloth (a woven fabric used for cross-stitching and needlework) and cotton threads. The pieces have loose and exaggerated threads to extend the words, drag them to the ground and root/bind them there with 'us' but also show the unravelling complexities and an understanding that words aren't fixed, they’re fluid. Also, I was thinking a lot about history (family history in particular) and archives so thought about threads of time that connect us from the past, present and future.
From my experience, animation and embroidery both require patience and attention to fine detail. I suppose with animation, or stop-frame like I work in, you build up a picture frame by frame for the overall finish and there are similarities with embroidery in terms of starting that first stitch and seeing the finished product come alive. I see parallels in that both are crafts that have older origins and are continuously brought into a contemporary setting for example, in animation there is a long history of picture manipulation to appear as moving images from the late 1880s (and some would say it’s history goes back further) and that too can be said for embroidery work which dates back thousands of years for practical purposes.
I was in the right place, at the right time in regards to this residency coming about. James Lowry, a lecturer in the Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies (LUCAS) wanted to set up an artist’s residency programme as a way of exploring and opening up local archives. He and I have mutual friends and he had been following my work and invited me to be the inaugural resident artist. My work there explored themes of family and local history based on genealogical research conducted by a University of Liverpool student, Beth Grant. The residency culminated in an exhibition entitled Dream of the Dead, Hear from the Living. The residency started on the anniversary of my grandma’s death and the title of the exhibition relates to one of her superstitions. The residency opened up dialogues between myself, the research assistant and archives around the local area. These discussions helped in outreaching and forming relationships for the University of Liverpool as well as future development in my practice. With this residency, it was never a solo endeavour but one in which we all relied on each other to bring alive and transform materials into meaningful new stories. The residency raised questions of how I, the artist, worked alongside a researcher as well as archival institutions to search and use archives; as well as creating new work to be archived and catalogue.
In regards to authors, I always find myself coming back to Angela Carter for her retellings of fairy tales that take the gender norms that I grew up with and turn them on their heads, as well as her themes of coming of age. This resonated with me in terms of wanting that escapism away from the small town boy scenario as well as reading that there can be non-toxic male role models in the world. Additionally, her books tie into the magic, folklore and superstitions that remind me of my grandma. My favourite Angela Carter book is the Bloody Chamber because it has strong female characters like the women I grew up around. We had a strong matriarchal family and continue to do so, and those women I look up to.
Unlimited resources and funding would mean that certain worries like paying rent and being able to eat would be alleviated. Whether or not this access to money would impede my creativity and make me complacent, I’m not sure. I suppose, if funding was no issue, I could dedicate my life to my work without the financial woes that I and a lot of people face under our current political system. Having said that, a dream project would be to really think large and upscale my work so the funding would enable me to have a large studio space as well as working with expensive materials e.g. large panels of metal. Also, access to more resources and funding could allow me to have an international collaborations.