The interplay between productivity and thrift has always directed my practice. As a child, the sustained urge to express myself and experiment meant that even a generous supply of paint and paper, could not keep up with my constant making. I soon identified household waste as a useful addition to my stock of art materials. The ubiquitous nature of cloth meant that there was a never-ending variety of colours, textures, and weights. I foraged the by-products of family life, especially enjoying the translucency and patina of worn items such as stained jelly-making muslin, thread-bare dish cloths. Marks of use, like ink smudges and mud spatters were pleasing details adding a nuanced narrative to my collection. Using left-overs allowed purchased materials, such as paint and thread, to go further, and demanded inventiveness as the palette was limited.
I come from a large Irish family who, regardless of occupation, are good with their hands. Traditional skills have been passed down from generation to generation. It was my father who taught me to knit one hot summer in a garden in Galloway, while the nation celebrated the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Certain values too seem to be in the blood. Waste-not-want-not is one that underpins my art, fuelled by a family which passes on bags of “bits” because no snippet of wool or corner of hankie silk is deemed bin-worthy until it’s been considered for reuse.
As an undergraduate architecture student in the early 90s, I used textile collage in 2D and 3D to explore concepts, clarify principles and illustrate designs. With little cash to spare, I established a supply of free materials from local market traders. Fruit and veg sellers donated hessian sacking, nylon net, and thick paper packaging, whose bold logos and juice stains formed the basis of the colour palette I use today. I unpicked jumble sellers’ unsaleable clothes to harvest decent cloth, finding unfaded seam allowances and pocket linings quite thrilling.
Stimulating as architecture was, I felt unsettled by my tendency to focus on transient aspects of design. In 2005, I began training as a to landscape architect, where designing for temporal and spatial change, using materials whose aesthetics varied through the seasons, seemed to offer a more conceptually-aligned path. And it seemed clear that the landscape profession was more committed to sustainable and ecologically beneficial practices.
During my master’s degree in landscape architecture and subsequent practice as a chartered member of the profession, I continued to use mixed-media collage to solve problems and communicate ideas. I used Rotring ink, Tippex, Letraset, typewriting, and carbon paper (standard stationery items in my design office at the time) to alter the surface of materials, increasing the complexity of my palette. Often my collaged works were simple concept models or maquettes, but at times they were quite intricate pieces. Pleasing similarities between the materials and processes of landscape and those of textiles became increasingly apparent. I pleated, creased, and crumpled cloth with landform remodelling in mind and used tiny seed-like stitches to couch randomly scattered fibres while considering seed ratios for meadow mixes.
As I repeatedly considered landscape whilst manipulating textiles, the parallels between the two disciplines multiplied and an interchangeable vocabulary emerged: layers, seams, edges, folds; permeability, translucency, opacity; scorching, tearing, shearing, flickering, rolling; wispy, exposed, concealed, punctured, stained, reflective, dappled, ribbed. Many of my works are simply responses to such words. Others result from my exploration of a landscape typology, species combination, or vegetation structure.
Over the years, I developed a deep tacit knowledge of different types of fabric and how they behave when painted, layered, combined and connected. Cumulatively, I craved the time and space to test and challenge myself by making work that was more than just a part of the design process. I wanted to experiment with techniques that required sustained use of a sewing machine and to scale up my work. This had always seemed appropriate given the fact that landscape architects uniquely undertake design at all scales from macro to micro. The conundrum eventually led me to cease practising landscape architecture in late 2016. Since then, I have remained connected with the profession by teaching part-time as a university tutor but have devoted most of my time to developing my art practice.