Back in 2013, when it was announced that Hull would be the UK City of Culture in 2017, an Arts Editor at the Times tweeted ‘Hull for UK City of Culture 2017. *blank*’, adding, by way of an explanation, that they knew ‘nothing about Hull…nothing at all’. This attitude is, of course, typical of London-centric arts media, but it also speaks of a wider cultural contempt for a post-industrial Northern city that has struggled to find a place and an identity in the twenty-first century. Battling deprivation, economic decline and austerity, Hull has suffered from a lack of opportunities, hope, and vision. The City of Culture year gave its reputation a much-needed boost, as well as an injection of cash and a 365-day diverse programme of events that inspired confidence and creativity throughout the city. Yet some local artists criticised the organisers for focussing too much on big budget spectacles that brought in artists from outside the city and not enough on supporting long-established grassroots arts and culture organisations. Although the media might not know it, Hull has long been a creative city with a distinct voice. Poet Philip Larkin, a resident of Hull for thirty years, summed it up as a ‘a city that is in the world yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance’.
Hull-based artist Ella Dorton’s fabric portraits creatively capture the unique spirit of the city’s residents, giving a voice to those who have been left behind by society and, indeed, by the City of Culture year. Using recycled textiles and a collage-based technique, Dorton pieces together images of people in their homes, captured as they sit on the sofa discussing their life stories, dreams, and fears. Through the use of discarded textiles and the depiction of marginalised, working-class people, Dorton challenges the conventions of portraiture; her work disrupts the gallery and picks at the boundaries between art and craft, private and public space.
For her recent exhibition ‘Journey to the Centre of the Couch (Couches & Other Good Ideas)’, she transformed the Humber Street Gallery into a living room: the stitched fabric scenes were hung to form a long circular wall, creating an intimate space which invited the viewer to get close to Dorton’s subjects and their stories. Cushions and lamps enhanced this atmosphere; Dorton wanted visitors to ‘relax, sit down, and feel at home’. Dorton is skilled at connecting domestic scenes to larger narratives of social inequality, late capitalism and ecological crisis. Her subjects voice their own sense of being implicated in challenges faced by the wider world, with one woman, a recovering heroin addict, explaining that ‘I can relate to the destruction of the planet because of my own destruction of my own body’. Many of Dorton’s subjects express ‘[grief] at the state of the planet’, fear, and depression but there is also a clear sense of hope, recovery, and care running throughout the work.
Building community is at the heart of Dorton’s practice: she is a founder of Ground, an artist-run workshop and community space, and works on a number of community arts initiatives, including Mad Pride (2017), a project that aimed to ‘talk about how mad our world really is, about all the inequality and injustice, greed and violence, and how all this madness so often makes us unwell’ and ‘bring people together so we can help one another better navigate all this madness and build together a more beautiful world’.
I caught up with Ella to find out more about her practice, methods, and motivation…
Could you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
My name is Ella Dorton, I’m 28, from Hull. I’m a care-worker, and I co-run ‘Ground’- a community arts and activist space in Hull, with a bunch of friends. I am also an artist!
Tell us a bit about ‘Journey into the Centre of the Couch (Couches and Other Good Ideas)’, your current exhibition at Humber St Gallery – how did it come about? What inspired you to create this show?
In previous years, I’d been making large fabric portraits of people in my community, as well as fictional dystopian scenes of Hull flooded, an ocean of plastic etc. When Humber street gallery asked me to make some art for a show, I had an idea to combine these two ideas: I wanted to make portraits of people in Hull, and somehow incorporate some fantasy, slipping in bits of our conversations together and ideas they had about the world, in picture or word form. I found my sitters just by asking or being asked, often through Ground and ORTs (a sewing group for vulnerable women).
I started with a woman called Cassie, who comes to Ground. I went to her house a few times, and we drank tea together, ate a bit, and I drew her and wrote down snippets of conversation we had. Cassie wanted her life describing with 4 animals, which represent different parts in her life: adventuring, her victorious battle with heroin, losing her son. Other people were less pictorial and conversations were directly stitched or painted onto the work.
Climate change is on my mind, and I have been trying to figure out a way to talk about it through my art for a while. I didn’t expect that it would come out so naturally in many of the conversations I had with people I drew, so the work inevitably became a lot about that, as well as other subjects: motherhood, homelessness, addiction.
I planned to make 6 of these portraits, and sew them into a circular room that you could relax, sit down and feel at home in [the gallery].
The use of old bedsheets and scraps of material is so effective, what motivated you to use these textiles?
The fabric is all used. I like the aesthetic of using worn fabric; when someone gives you a pile of clothes there are loads of colours and patterns in there that I might not have chosen myself, which pushes the work in different directions and gives me a big range to choose from. The worn-out-ness of the fabric matches the worn-out-ness of peoples’ homes and lives. I like to recognise bits in the work….there’s my dad’s shirt, there’s Sally’s scarf, a bit of so-and-so’s sweaty shirt armpit there – and I think other people enjoy this too.
It’s important to me to make art out of scrap instead of buying new stuff. The fabric industry causes something like 10% of all greenhouse gases, the making, washing and disposing of it, as well as loads of other harmful effects on the environment, and the people that make it.
It also means, of course, that making the art is virtually free (except for glue, thread, and machine upkeep), meaning I can sustain myself on a low wage.
What drew you to the concept of home and the everyday? Do you view the domestic as an inherently political space?
I like drawing people in their own homes: the home is an extension of someone’s personality, and you can get to know a person through their stuff, their taste in décor, their messiness. In the home, people are in their own habitat, their own territory, and are often more relaxed and up for chatting. They can also seem more vulnerable and exposed, depending on the person and how they feel having someone coming into their space. I make good friends this way.
I find a lot of beauty in the mundane, and enjoy drawing people doing everyday tasks, eating, cleaning, sleeping – we all do these things (or we should), yet we do them so differently.
I love the way you stitched the voices of the community into the fabric. How important are issues of class and community in your practice?
I was brought up on North Bransholme, which is a council estate in North Hull. It had a bad reputation but it was a great place to grow up, because there was a lot of green space and not many cars. My parents are middle class from the South, and when I was younger I felt embarrassed of that, not wanting to be seen as ‘posh’ (there’s a lot of reverse snobbery going on). I’ve always found class a massively interesting and difficult subject to talk about, I find the diversity in people’s taste and culture in the UK a wonderful and interesting thing. However, I have seen pretty horrendous poverty in Hull, and a whole host of social issues that arise from that poverty and startling inequality. I’m trying to find a way to talk about it through art. The way I’m doing so at the moment is by talking to people and sharing peoples’ stories and ideas about the world. I started by asking my neighbours if I could go round and draw them, as a way of getting to know them and feeling part of a community. People usually seem to quite like being drawn, being seen as ‘art-worthy’ and interesting when often they don’t think they are. It’s exciting to be able to make and show work about these people and their ideas.
Finally, could you describe the work of Ground and what it means to you to be a part of an arts collective & community space?
I set up Ground with some friends about 4 years ago, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We found out about a building that hadn’t been in use for a good 5 years and needed a lot of attention, and we loved it back to life. Thankfully, a lot of people were up for helping us out, and a pretty solid community around Ground grew.
It’s situated on Beverley road, which is the main street into and through Hull, a street drinking hot-spot. Ground is opposite a methadone dispensary unit and a giant mattress shop, and next door to a Kurdish shisha bar. It’s an unusual place to have a gallery but we like that as we get a lot of different people through the door.
Ground is a space for art and activism, we run workshops, gigs, exhibitions, talks, and have studios upstairs. I love being part of an arts collective but it’s been hard work, it’s emotionally demanding and the organisational and admin stuff can be heavy at times. The best thing about it is teasing art out of people who think they can’t draw or make things, and collaborating together – the walls and ceilings are jam packed with peoples’ art and words.
Interview by Lottie Whalen