Cloth & Culture NOW Conference

The Cloth & Culture NOW exhibition has reached Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. Part of Manchester University, this gallery houses the North of England’s major permanent collection of textile art. It was my first visit despite the Royal Northern College of Music being almost next door. C & C NOW’s curator Prof. Leslie Millar had organised a conference  titled Sense of Place: art and the construction of identity. The programme was a lively mix of exhibiting textile artists, a number of prominent UK academics, a curator from Latvia and as a lively coda a Dutch artist with a passion for gingham!

A Puppet Show by Sandor Nagy

A Puppet Show by Sandor Nagy

First off was Dr Jeremy Howard from St Andrew’s University who presented a paper titled Embroidering the Truth. Focusing on the early years of the 20C he pointed out how fine artists had moved into textile design as a way of articulating the notions of nationalism and cultural identity surfacing in many European countries. Unlike some of the other speakers at the conference he chose the minimum of images and showed them to the maximum of effect. I found afterwards I could actually remember many of them – not so with most of the other presentations. A lesson here surely for our forthcoming Historical and Contextual Studies presentations in May. After an effective survey of European movements he landed on his own special interest in the Gödöllö cultural community in Hungary with its weaving school established by Istvan Medgyaszay in 1907 and its major textile artist of the Hungarian Art Nouveau Sandor Nagy. The Gödöllö community had very similar preoccupations to the Chipping Camden craftspeople of C.R.Ashbee’s Guild with its emphasis on the whole (good and healthy) life of its craftsmen and women. Sadly Gödöllö as a community only lasted until the early 1920s but it had many influential ‘friends’ and visitors including composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, and was clearly a precursor of the weaving studio of the Bauhaus.

Dyed Batik by Mary Lloyd Jones

Dyed Batik by Mary Lloyd Jones

Next up was an intriguing paper by Dr Moira Vincentelli from the University of Aberystwyth. Talking about ‘Cloth, Clay and Identity in Wales’ she again chose her images with care and restraint. She ranged over nearly 200 years of traditional practice in craft making: pottery, costume, quilting, tapestry and batik. Recent practice was certainly the most interesting part of her presentation: Lowri Davies with her take on the traditional Welsh lady in costume souvenir; Audrey Walker’s community tapestries in Fishguard celebrating the rout of French invaders and her Mondrian-like This is an Apple confection; the 7th generation potter Caitlin Jones use of scripts. She finished with a discussion of Mary Lloyd Jones an artist lately come to textiles who paints with dye. Her large-scale hangings feature at the National Museum in Cardiff and often incorporate the script and language of folk tales.

Before lunch Prof. Leslie Millar invited two of the exhibition’s artists from the Baltic countries Estonia and Lithuania to introduce their work and engage in a conversation. Severija Incirauskaite-Kriauneviciene and Kadri Viires were both reticent and almost inaudible speakers who needed serious stage managing (which they didn’t get) to bring out the best in their creative stories and presentations. Both artists clearly had original and singular ideas but seemed overwhelmed by the occasion. Better to hear them speak in their own language with a passion and intent than struggle to answer difficult questions. An opportunity lost.

Linen Hand Towels by Alison Morton

Linen Hand Towels by Alison Morton

Lunch was welcome, but the time left after the last session running over made it difficult to make the most of meeting some of the celebrated delegates. These included Alison Morton who is one of the great names of craft handweaving in the UK. I only managed to talk with her at any length on the bus to the station after the conference had ended. The Whitworth are currently preparing an exhibition of her father’s work. Alistair Morton was a student of Ethel Mairet and was a celebrated painter as well as a designer weaver. His family owned  Edinburgh Weavers, a company that according to Mairet’s biograher Margot Combes ‘successfully combined art and Industry’. Morton was close friends with Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, though his paintings resemble the abstract work of Winifred Nicholson. Alison I discovered still weaves (beautiful linen work) on Ethel Mairet’s Danish Lervad loom.

In the afternoon session Professor Anne Douglas talk on ‘co-creation and improvisation as a way of working with traditional culture’ was hit by almost every technological gremlin going. So much so that her talk only presented a glimmer of what I discovered later on her excellent websites was a great story with some inspirational outcomes (that included an opera for singers and knitters). I recommend spending time looking at the web presentation of her Shetland Island On the Edge project of 2003 titled Maakin. Wonderfully evocative photos and great ideas. The funding to make such a thing happen must have been truly  awesome!

Velta Raudzepa from the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Riga, Latvia came with a vast collection of slides and long historical survey of textile art across two centuries. The centre of interest was clearly the Soviet era and the many references to its legacy since independence the early 1990s. Textile art is a force to be reckoned with in Latvia as some of the websites of designer weavers demonstrate. The Latvian government promotes the art form widely in touring exhibitions internationally.

The conference ended on a lighter note – a thoroughly engaging presentation by Dutch artist Yvonne Droge Wendel on her project Universal Pattern. Her website from which she took copious examples says it all – gingham is everywhere and owned by every culture and society. Similarities with Sue Lawty’s World Beach Project (see my earlier blog in November) abound – there are photos of that red and white check from everywhere you can imagine. I was waiting for that picture of Alaska’s celebrated ‘hockey mom’ wearing it, but she didn’t included it. Shame!

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