Interview: Ella Dorton on Craft, Community, and Culture

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

Spotlight: Blandine Martin, ‘Objets sans importance’

Our spotlight this month is the mixed-media artist Blandine Martin. Martin works with materials including sand, recycled paper and timber to combine the organic with the abstract. Looking at objects and their place within the domestic sphere, Martin questions and transforms everyday objects, their assumed function and associated rituals, particularly rituals involving women. Objets sans importance explores the weight and lasting legacy of female history, and how society has objectified women.

Passengers Installation at the ugly duck gallery, 2019. Textiles and suitcase.
Bud, 2019. Metal fork with orange felt.

“Blandine plays with conceptual ideas and the art of dismantling objects and their purpose along with their narrative”

Artist’s Statement
Spilled dreams, 2018. Metal bowl with plastic.
Reserved, 2019. Cut up chair and textiles.

See more of Martin's work over on her website. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Spotlight: Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė

OBJECTS TO COMPARE. 2009. Iron details, cotton. Cross stitch, drilling

The embroidery works of Lithuanian artist Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė takes texture to a new level. She takes metal as her starting point – buckets, spades, even cars – and stitches into them. Challenging the domestic association with embroidery, these found objects are placed into the public realm. The kitsch cosiness that Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė associates with cross-stitching is given a twist as she pokes through metal gives new life to discarded objects. She draws on a post-Soviet landscape in Lithuania in her work, as she writes on her website “in the postwar years, our grandmothers stitched tablecloths in the villages, and the paths were so decorated, and in the Soviet era, our mothers made crossed cushions and napkins through household lessons”. This intergenerational skill-sharing is then developed in her practice, to question sentimentality and access to embroidery practices. She doesn’t want to make “private kitsch for private interiors” but rather expose the work, patience and mindfulness that goes into the cross-stitch practice. Taking the floral designs from hobby magazines, these “popular culture citations” make us look back at the origins of the techniques. These established traditions recontextualise the objects they adorn – whether that’s on broken gun shells or metal spoons. Imbued with new use, these forgotten objects might tap into a nostalgic aesthetic but actually point us towards history in a new way.

WITH LOVE FROM…”. 2018. WWII FlaK anti-aircraft gun shell. Cross stitch embroidery, drilling.
WITH LOVE FROM…”. 2018. Detail

Every Stick Has Two Ends, 2012. Shovel parts, wood, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
MORNING TRIO. 2014. Metal pan, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
MORNING TRIO. 2014. Detail
Greed, 2012. Metal spoon, cotton, Cross stitch, drilling.
After Party, 2013. Tin can, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
Between City and Country, 2009. Metal bucket, watering can, milk can. Cross-stitch, drilling. 

Words: Jade French

All photos: Modestas Ežerskis.

http://www.severija.lt

Pinkie McClure Makes Stained Glass Sing

Pinkie McClure is an artist using the allegorical power of medieval stained glass as a vehicle for contemporary expression. Stained glass was invented in the 12th century to communicate to a largely illiterate population, its vivid colours having a seductive quality that’s hard to resist. However, its narrative role has been largely abandoned in recent years, which is something she hopes to change by making work that reflects the world around us today.

Artist Statement: On ‘Beauty Tricks’

My goal is to seduce the eye, but crucially, to deal with contemporary subject matter, telling darkly humorous stories from modern life.  When I started work on ‘Beauty Tricks’ I wanted to make something beautiful. This led me to question interpretations of beauty and immediately a multitude of thorny contradictions popped up.

I decided to explore the way the beauty industry affects us and our environment. The central figure is based around a classic madonna, but she has liposuction lines on her torso and  hypodermic needles and scalpels adorning her halo. Her nipples have been censored. Two little girls gaze up at her beautiful pink frock from a grey world of abandoned plastic containers. Above her, medieval scales traditionally used to symbolise the ‘weighing of souls’ refer to  the long-running L’Oreal ad ‘worth it, not worth it’. A woman fires a gun at a mirror, smashing it to smithereens. To her left, a ‘kindly’ grandmother knits a web of Barbie dolls and to her right is a bulimic Rapunzel. The palm trees refer to the palm oil industry, the roses symbolise feminine beauty. At the top, Satan is hopping across the towers of Oxbridge with a pile of books heaped on his back, stealing all the knowledge while the women are distracted.

Other work:

‘Landfill Tantrum’ (2013)
Self-portrait Dreaming of Portavadie (2019)
‘The Storm’ (2017)
‘Stop Go.’ (2015)
Rewilding at the Clootie Tree (2016)

https://www.pinkiemaclure.net

Geta Brătescu: The Dance of Form

Geta Bratescu – The Line, 2014 from Stefan Sava on Vimeo.

At the 2017 Venice Biennale’s Romanian Pavilion, Geta Brătescu’s exhibition ‘Apparitions’ cemented her status as a rising star on the international art scene. Aged ninety-one, Brâtescu was something of an unusual art world darling, yet she was well-known in her native Romania for a rich, multidisciplinary body of work that she would develop up until her death in September 2018.  Subsequent exhibitions of her late work have emphasised the surprising ways that Brătescu continued to add depth to her innovative oeuvre. The drawings and collage pieces on display at Hauser and Wirth London’s exhibition The Power of the Line offer a vibrant display of bright shapes, jazzy geometric patterns, and lines that romp across the paper making manifest the physical ‘gestures of the [artist’s] body’. Her collages recall the energy of Matisse’s late cut-outs and the colourful verve of Miro; yet they express a kinetic and performative zest that is uniquely Brătescu’s and that threads, in various guises, throughout her seven-decade-long career.  

Geta Brătescu Courtesy the artist, Ivan Gallery, Bucharest and Hauser & Wirth

 ‘Armstrong’, the first piece that greets visitors to Hauser and Wirth’s The Power of the Line, is a joyous introduction to Brătescu’s musical, mercurial form. A collaged photograph of musician Louis Armstrong is followed by a concertina sequence of colour and pattern that bursts from his trumpet. Vibrant yellow and red tones evoke an ecstatic explosion of music; jagged, rhythmic lines of thick crayon dance through each section, occasionally merging to form flailing Keith Haring-esque figures. Brătescu drew ‘Armstrong’ with her eyes closed, channelling her own inner visions in a manner that recalls Surrealist automatic drawing. This method demonstrates Brătescu’s absolute faith in the line’s expressive physicality; like singing and dancing, the act of drawing lines on the page communicates the rhythms of the physical world around us. She worked across many mediums, but the line remained a fundamental part of her artistic vision and practice:

“The spider’s thread borne away on the wind is a flying line. Drawing owes a huge amount to the energy with which the hand traces lines and the character of this energy is determined by the character, the mood, the culture, the vision of the artist. In fact, it is a mysterious phenomenon. To trace a line, a simple line, with the feeling and awareness that you are producing expression; that line is necessary to you beyond reason.”

Although her work has a clear relationship with non-objective abstract art, Brătescu creates an embodied art that is in dialogue with the material, ephemeral everyday world. Works assembled from discarded objects, such as crumpled paper, coffee sticks, matchboxes, netting, nod to Kurt Schwitters; in her journal, Brătescu described Schwitters’ Merz as the epitome of the conflict ‘between the ideal of the gesture and the perishability of the matter caught up in the gesture’ – an impression that gains a particular resonance when viewing pieces created by a housebound artist at the end of her life. Like Brătescu’s earlier performance art and work with fragile textiles, the drawings and collages on display at Hauser and Wirth express a sense of the finite. Many bear the traces of the artist’s labour: faded lines where the marker pen begins to fail, patches of glue, the trace of pencil marks. This also speaks of the spontaneity of Brătescu’s approach, which is evident in Gestul, desunul (‘The gesture, the drawing’), a wonderfully engaging film of Brătescu working and reflecting on her process with fellow Romanian artist Stefan Sava. She is shown seated at her desk, utterly absorbed by the paper she works on; her hands shake and, at times, struggle with the pen. As she inks in blocks of colour, she jokingly acknowledges the painstaking effort, asking first Sava and then the pen in her hand if they ‘have the patience’ for her process. This hands-on, slow method is essential for an artist who understood drawing as a gesture of the body; a physical act, like a dance, through which she explored and captured the world around her. Brătescu’s reading of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu offers an insight into her own perspective: she describes Proust’s world as one of ‘absolute tactility…full of forms and colors, not so much seen as traversed’, words that could easily be applied to her own creations.


Geta Brătescu, Medea’s 10 Hypostases, 1980, Collection of Adam & Mariana Clayton, London. Photo: Stefan Sava

Brătescu shied away from politics: she dismissed feminism as ‘a uniform’, played down the experience of life under Romania’s repressive communist regime, and declared her studio to be an ‘apolitical’ space. Yet, the centrality of the body throughout her oeuvre hints at a certain political intent. For a series of works inspired by Medea (the Medeic Forms of the late 1970s), Brătescu used her mother’s old clothes and created a method she called ‘drawing on textile with sewing machine’. These unsettling abstract textile works suggest the violence and conflicted desires of womanhood, as well as the stifling strictures society places on them. Aesop, another mythological figure, featured prominently in Brătescu’s work as a joker; her fondness for him and for the more modern fool Charlie Chaplin suggests a similarly disruptive design behind her ludic lines. In the late drawings, they impishly morph into smiling faces and shapes that evoke breasts, ova, and sperm, evoking a defiant joi de vivre that mocks autocrats and old age alike. Following Brătescu’s lines lead us into a space both playful and profound, where our expectations of avant-garde culture, age, and gender are upended and a joyous chaos of form reigns.

Geta Brătescu: The Power of the Line was on display at Hauser and Wirth London, 27 Feb – 27 Apr 2019.

Words: Lottie Whalen