Step off the High Street of Watlington this May during Oxfordshire Artweeks and you’ll find yourselves in India, surrounded by wall art by textile artist Harriet Riddell (Artweeks venue 283) who has just returned from a trip to the northern state of Rajasthan where she stitched the glories of the people and the places they inhabit in free-motion embroidery. Each piece shows a place with its human stories woven in.
“I love India because of the vibrant colours, the hot sunny weather, the spicy scent in the air and the essence of the place, centred on a traditional folksy way of life” Harriet explains. “I travelled with a bike-powered sewing machine (I didn’t cycle across India with the sewing machine on my back this time, although I have done that before!) and the people of the towns pedalled it for me as I worked. It’s wonderful to be in an environment where people don’t have that English reserve. And the people in India have textiles ingrained in their culture and yet this is something different so they are always fascinated.”
Harriet stitches the view she sees in front of her onto plain raw canvas, appliquéing other pieces of fabrics over the top. She takes a very linear approach, as if drawing a whole picture with a single line, starting at one end of the canvas and stitching across.
“Sewing pictures is something I have just always done,” she smiles. “My mum taught me to use a sewing machine when I was five and although I don’t think I have ever seen her use one, her mum was a textile artist so it runs in the family! I also drew prolifically as a small child, filling my walls with drawings and so there was a magic moment when I was around ten and I discovered the free-motion technique on a sewing machine. It gives the freedom of using a pencil yet creates a tactile drawing with thread on fabric with thread, and it is much more versatile and permanent than a sketch on paper. I was hooked.”
“Now I stitch outside almost all the time, and I have to work very fast as people move in front of me so it’s a very intuitive process. I incorporate small pieces of the textiles that I gather in the places I go as I travel, and that’s particularly easy in India, land of textiles,” she continues. “It adds not only the colours and patterns of a place but the story of that piece of fabric too. This exhibition, for example, includes Indian artisans at work with their hands and street scenes from Jaipur, Jodphur and Jaisalmer, three cities known as the Pink City, the Blue City and the Gold City as the architecture of each has stunningly distinct colours. They’re very different from my Oxford and London pictures!”
Elsewhere in Watlington you’ll find more portraiture and landscapes in very different styles. Artist Mark Draisey (Artweeks venue 287), for example, began as a professional caricaturist on TV’s Spitting Image, designing and modelling the puppets. He also provided illustrations for many books and magazines such as Punch and Country Life before studying the techniques of the old masters to become a portrait painter. “I like to take time to observe those idiosyncrasies people possess, both facial and figurative, that I can incorporate into a portrait to capture the genuine person rather than a posed facsimile of what they think they look like”, he explains. “Bizarrely, my background in caricature proves very useful in this respect as it is those small inflections and subtle nuances that make the difference between a resemblance and a really good likeness.”
Laura Jane Wylder (Artweeks venue 290) captures the human figure in elegant contemporary style, each cast in stone, cold cast bronze, or at a specialist foundry where molten metal is poured into a mould. Once an aspiring ballerina for many years, whose dancing career ambitions were halted through injury, finding and celebrating inner peace became important to Laura Jane – both these aspects influence her work which is delicate, smooth, serene, and often feminine. Whilst they have a flowing organic energy within, each gives the viewer with a feeling of wellbeing, contentment and calm. Her characters have gently-softened features, so that rather than being an exact likeness of any individual, they instead represent humanity more generally.
From table-top to toweringly tall, Laura Jane’s collection, which also includes animal forms, began with a ‘Together’ couple which will be on show with her other pieces both during Artweeks (venue 290) and then in Laura’s first artisan studio at the prestigious RHS Chelsea flower show. “I’m so excited to have been invited,” she enthuses. “I’ve designed the space with a ‘minimal bohemian Ibizan’ vibe. I spent a year in a remote part of Ibiza which isn’t all about the party. It’s actually a very spiritual, creative island and living there was a truly grounding experience. It was so much easier to appreciate nature, life and the universe there. Being outside more made me feel closer to nature, and gave me an understanding of the importance of one’s environment. For example with the darker sky, I would always know what phase the moon was in and that’s the magic I’m trying to encapsulate with my sculpture.”
Elsewhere in Watlington, two professional photographers, Caroline Hyman and Dee Robinson present ‘Dogs and Other Animals’, a series of work which explores the bond between people and their pets and the way they live together and respond to one another (Artweeks venue 279). “The connection between owners (the other animals) and their pets, is an everyday serenity that people take for granted,” explains Dee. This exhibition is a reminder to look again.
"Coming from street photography I always looked at the street as theatre, the architecture as the theatre sets and the people as the actors. I have carried this philosophy with me and use it in all my photography: the way I look at the scene in front of me somehow falls into place when I apply it.
“I have been taking pictures since my parents gave me a Box Brownie for my 12th birthday, I still have it. I remember coming back from a trip to Madrid and showing a friend pictures of this fabulous city. I was so pleased with them; then his comment brought me up short. “Nice pictures Dee but where are the people?” This was a light bulb moment from then onwards I realised that without actors the play can’t go on!”
Alongside, visitors can also see Andrea Brewer’s stunning ceramics inspired by the ancient and universal symbol of the spiral (Artweeks venue 281). “Spirals can be seen extensively in nature in the form of plant structures, patterns of growth, and in the movement of elements,” explains Andrea. “Prehistoric cave paintings and tribal carvings show examples of spiral motifs and demonstrate how early humans instinctively knew the significance of the spiral, which modern science has since proven with the discoveries from the double helix of DNA to spiral galaxies.”
Visit artweeks.org to see when you can visit these artists as part of the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival. From May 4-27, hundreds of artists open their studios to the public or host pop-up exhibitions in interesting spaces.