Coastal scenes lay­ered in fab­ric

In­spired by the North Devon coast­line where she lives, tex­tile artist Rachel Sum­ner cre­ates colour­ful col­lages from scraps of ma­te­rial, de­pict­ing un­fet­tered land­scapes and seascapes

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Caro­line Rees Pho­tog­ra­phy: Jeremy Walker

Small boats rock on the tide in North Devon’s Taw-Tor­ridge es­tu­ary as oys­ter­catch­ers, curlews and egrets feed in the shal­lows. Away from the wa­ter, the land­scape is a mix of hedgerows and fields, punc­tu­ated by sheep, small clus­ters of houses and the odd farm building. It is this com­bi­na­tion of coast and coun­try­side which in­spires tex­tile artist Rachel Sum­ner’s vi­brant fab­ric pic­tures of land­scapes and seascapes. She has been mak­ing her lay­ered col­lages of fab­ric scraps and stitches for nearly 20 years, us­ing ap­pliqué and ma­chine em­broi­dery. “I love that the area is un­tamed,” she says. “You have sandy beaches, seagulls fol­low­ing the trac­tors in the fields, and there are old boats with peel­ing paint­work. Look­ing at all those colours un­der dif­fer­ent light con­di­tions in­spires me.”

Dis­carded scraps

Rachel has had a love of tex­tiles since child­hood. “I had two grand­moth­ers who used to make our clothes,” she says. “As chil­dren, we were al­lowed to go to choose fab­ric with them. With me, it al­ways had to be nat­u­ral ma­te­rial: cot­ton, usu­ally. I used to hoard bits, and I re­mem­ber once try­ing to weave with strips of fab­ric.” Do­ing a col­lage adds depth to an im­age, and she likes the idea that dis­carded scraps can go back out into the world and have an­other life. “It makes me feel com­fort­able about what I’m do­ing. At col­lege, I had a fear of the blank can­vas. I pre­ferred to dye fab­ric, cut the bits up and see where it led. I use mostly cot­ton, silk and linen from my life­long col­lec­tion.” Rachel grew up in Northamp­ton­shire and went to art school in Maid­stone, Kent, but never took to fine art. Study­ing tex­tiles as a sub­sidiary sub­ject, she re­alised this was where her in­ter­est lay. Af­ter leav­ing col­lege, she lived in France, where she started paint­ing on silk, which was pop­u­lar at that time. On her re­turn to Bri­tain in 1999, she set­tled in Devon where she had fam­ily as well as be­ing at­tracted by the beauty and va­ri­ety of the land­scape. She dug out her old ma­te­rial pieces and started ex­per­i­ment­ing with col­lage again. “I wanted to do some­thing that had more depth to it,” she ex­plains. “Silk paint­ing is like do­ing a wa­ter­colour. You’ve re­ally only got one chance to get it right, whereas col­lage wasn’t all about the draw­ing. It was

some­thing I could ma­nip­u­late and build up more. It’s a hun­dred times more creative for me.”

Eye-catch­ing de­tail

While she is out, Rachel takes pho­to­graphs which will act as re­minders of a com­po­si­tion or a de­tail that catches her eye. But she does not copy those im­ages in fab­ric. Her work process is much more in­tu­itive. “There are sev­eral ways in,” she says. “Some days, I don’t know what to do, but I need to get back into the work. I will pull out tiny bits from my big tubs of fab­ric and see if I can make a square with them. Per­haps the next day, I’ll see that I could do a small study of a bird on that, though some pieces sit around for months be­fore I’ll see what to do. “The other way in is when I have a def­i­nite idea in my head. I pull out bits of fab­ric and end up with a heap. The first stage is the ba­sic back­ground; then I add the de­tails in lay­ers. The en­joy­ment is putting all the dis­parate fab­rics to­gether and mak­ing a com­po­si­tion.” She doesn’t draw her de­signs be­yond do­ing a sim­ple ini­tial sketch for place­ment pur­poses. Her larger pieces are spread in a light-filled stu­dio ex­ten­sion at the back of her house. She used to ex­hibit with her late sis­ter Mary, who painted coun­try scenes. Her main sewing room is a small bed­room where she has two in­dus­trial sewing ma­chines and bas­kets of colour-co­or­di­nated thread, sacks of fab­ric pieces and an old plan chest con­tain­ing works in progress.

Colour com­bi­na­tions

When she is work­ing, she has a mood board in front of her sewing ma­chine that in­cludes the pho­tos she has taken, often of colour com­bi­na­tions. “I have al­ways been at­tracted to colour. I shared that with my sis­ter

Mary. I like sea blues, and I get ex­cited when browns and blues work to­gether. I like toned-down greens, with hints of other colours, and I also like touches of bright con­trast. Greens and browns are hard to come by in found fab­rics, so I cold-dye my own.” Un­like nat­u­ral dye, this does not fade. Once the pic­ture el­e­ments are in place, Rachel holds them to­gether with iron-on in­ter­fac­ing ma­te­rial and stitch. “I have to make the pic­tures to my own sat­is­fac­tion. The idea of putting glue on fab­rics that I love would be anath­ema to me,” she says. Stitch is also used for em­bel­lish­ment where nec­es­sary. “My work is quite pre­cise. The stitch is the draw­ing el­e­ment. I try not to over­work it, but I use some to con­vey rough veg­e­ta­tion or add tex­ture to a tree. The stitch moves it on to a more re­fined im­age, but it’s also an­other colour op­por­tu­nity.” She uses a hand­ful of dif­fer­ent ma­chine stitches, mostly a form of zigzag for de­not­ing waves on the wa­ter, for ex­am­ple, or to cover the raw edges of the ap­pliquéd el­e­ments. At the end, she hand-stitches fine de­tails. “It might be if I’m do­ing a flock of birds in the dis­tance or for the birds’ beaks and eyes. It’s also a way of hav­ing a close fi­nal look at the pic­ture.”

Land and sea

A re­cent seascape was Ap­ple­dore Seagulls. “I kept see­ing a boat that al­ways has an amaz­ing re­flec­tion un­der it, with a dis­tant land­scape across the es­tu­ary be­hind and a col­lec­tion

“Where my fa­thers stood Watch­ing the sea, Gale-spent her­ring boats Hugging the lea; There my Mother lives, Moor­land and tree. Sight o’ the blos­som! Devon to me!” John Galswor­thy, ‘Devon To Me’

of seagulls on it. The chal­lenge was to do the re­flec­tion. In the end, I used dis­solv­able fab­ric. I sewed onto it with white, grey and sil­ver thread, then I soaked it in wa­ter. The back­ing dis­solves and the stitches hold to­gether.” She uses polyester thread in her work be­cause cot­ton breaks if it is pulled back and forth on the ma­chine. Rachel’s seascapes are more im­pres­sion­is­tic than her land­scapes. “The sea is very dif­fi­cult to do, but you try to con­vey what it does to our senses,” she says. One ex­am­ple was Shore­line, a large work of a fa­mil­iar part of the es­tu­ary near her home. “That one is the syn­the­sis of repet­i­tive walks and how I feel about mov­ing through that land­scape. It’s con­stantly chang­ing, and the light is play­ing on the wa­ter. You can do dec­o­ra­tive things with lay­ers of blues and try to give the sense of en­joy­ment you get from the sea.” Ru­ral scenes pose a slightly dif­fer­ent chal­lenge. “Land­scape is often green on green, so you have to de­light in the lit­tle things that can lift it. I did a pic­ture of lap­wings af­ter I came round a cor­ner and saw them dot­ted in a field with a lovely tin-roofed shed. It’s great when you find an old striped bit of fab­ric and, from a dis­tance, it looks like a roof. I even look for­ward to putting in tele­graph poles be­cause they add a struc­tural el­e­ment and make the eye travel through the pic­ture. I don’t want to pre­tend there are no build­ings or peo­ple, as our land­scapes are a prod­uct of hu­man ac­tiv­ity.” A re­cent work she has un­der­taken is of a dis­used dock

in Ap­ple­dore. “I like ves­tiges of past in­dus­tries, where old boats or lime kilns are be­ing grad­u­ally claimed back by na­ture. They’re de­cay­ing, soft­en­ing and blend­ing in, and there’s such beauty in that,” she says.

Stylised stud­ies

Many of Rachel’s pic­tures de­pict her sur­round­ings, but she has re­cently spent a lot of time work­ing on stud­ies for a book, Stitched Tex­tiles: Birds. That has in­volved col­lect­ing re­search ma­te­rial on in­di­vid­ual birds in or­der to get the ba­sics right. It is a theme she has con­tin­ued, re­cently com­plet­ing a pic­ture of a mag­pie’s nest, in­spired by a tan­gle of scraps and thread she had, and her own mag­pie ten­den­cies to col­lect. Rachel has also em­broi­dered imag­i­nary and ab­stract mar­itime scenes, in­clud­ing one seascape that fea­tured a huge fish in the sky. “That rep­re­sented my thoughts about get­ting your liv­ing from the sea and how im­por­tant the sea was in this area,” she says. The less lit­eral, fan­tasy-land­scape route is one she would like to ex­plore fur­ther in fu­ture. “I’m al­ways try­ing to de­velop what I do. I don’t want to have a prod­uct and just keep plug­ging away at that. I need an in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­est.” In her more stylised pic­tures, she oc­ca­sion­ally adds other found ob­jects. These may in­clude but­tons, la­bels or a piece of rope. “I can’t throw them away, so I in­cor­po­rate them. It’s just a bit of fun.” Hu­mour is an im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent. “I have to have a smile in each piece. With birds, I’m par­tic­u­lar about their eyes and pos­ture be­cause that’s where we see the hu­mour in an­i­mals. Chick­ens are bril­liant for that. They’re in­fu­ri­at­ing if you keep them, which we did in France, but they’re al­ways look­ing around, and they’re a great shape, which gives you lots of scope.” Rachel en­joys mak­ing large-scale pic­tures, mea­sur­ing up to 3ft (1m) wide, though there are prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties with a work of that size. “You have to make it in strips to get it un­der the nee­dle, then join them to­gether at the end. It has to be a sub­ject I re­ally want to do be­cause of the time fac­tor and the lim­ited de­mand.” These can take six months to com­plete, but she works on smaller pieces at the same time. Most are 12-16in (30-40cm) wide, though in­di­vid­ual bird stud­ies can mea­sure 7in (18cm) square. These take ap­prox­i­mately a week to make.

Rachel prefers her work to be left raw and often mounts on can­vas, though buy­ers tend to favour hav­ing it pro­tected un­der glass. She is a mem­ber of the Ap­ple­dore Crafts Com­pany, and her work is for sale in its shop.

Ma­te­rial mem­o­ries

In par­tic­u­lar, Rachel en­joys han­dling fab­rics that have per­sonal res­o­nances and can re­mem­ber where two-thirds of them came from. “I’ve used tiny frag­ments of my mother’s wed­ding dress in the sea in pic­tures. It was pale blue with a swirly pat­tern. And of­f­cuts from my aunt’s dresses have been passed on to me, so they go in. I like that be­cause they are part of who I am.” That said, she is not sen­ti­men­tal about util­is­ing them. “I’m quite hard­line about it. Us­ing them is based only on colour.” Al­though Rachel loves fab­ric, she de­signs pic­tures that are more about im­age than sub­stance and is pleased that many peo­ple are sur­prised when they find out they are tex­tiles. “It’s grat­i­fy­ing that men as well as women like them even though they’re tex­tiles, be­cause they re­spond to them as pic­tures,” she says. “I like sub­ject mat­ter that’s not too soft. I have a painter’s eye. I can’t get car­ried away by sparkly fab­rics, and I don’t use much pat­terned fab­ric. The ma­te­rial is there to serve a pur­pose. I want peo­ple to judge my work as an im­age.”

An ab­stract in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Bide­ford’s Long Bridge. Part of its fas­ci­na­tion for Rachel is the fact that the arches are dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes. She also de­signed a tourist ban­ner for the town based on its bridges, old and new.

Bird sub­jects bring char­ac­ter and some­times hu­mour to Rachel’s pic­tures. She aims to cap­ture their stance and at­ti­tude.

A fin­ished art­work, called Lap­wing. The pic­ture is based on a coun­try scene Rachel walked into. The birds help to break up the pre­dom­i­nant green of the land­scape and cre­ate a fo­cal point. › This coun­try fields scene is await­ing the ad­di­tion of a fab­ric...

Rachel hand-stitches a col­lage from the back of the piece. She likens the stitch­ing to fine draw­ing, which cre­ates de­tail and tex­ture. Her needle­work also adds more strands of colour.

Lay­ers of the col­lage are built up from scraps of fab­ric and quirky found ob­jects; in this in­stance, stamps.

Sketches and de­signs are one start­ing point for Rachel’s com­po­si­tions. On other oc­ca­sions, she will pull out hand­fuls of ma­te­rial scraps for in­spi­ra­tion.

Rachel in­cor­po­rates shades of one colour to add depth to her pic­tures. Her ar­ray of threads re­flect this, with blues for the sea, which in­flu­ences much of her work, and rus­set hues which lend them­selves to land­scapes.

Rachel places cut-out port­holes on a col­lage fea­tur­ing a boat (above). She uses her own pho­to­graphs as a guide when building up the rows of streets ris­ing from the wa­ter’s edge (be­low).

The bold de­pic­tion of a light­house jux­ta­poses what is hap­pen­ing be­neath the sur­face of the sea with what is go­ing on above. A va­ri­ety of blues, green, mauve and white take the eye from the fish in the shim­mer­ing wa­ter to the one mir­rored on the weather...

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