Interview and text: Julie Parmenter
Aran Illingworth is a UK textile artist, who paints in thread. Her exhibition, Hanging on the thread: Portrayal of Poverty, is at The Knitting & Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace, London, from 6-9 October, and at Harrogate Convention Centre from 17-20 November, 2022. For Selvedge, she talks to Julie Parmenter.
Julie: Aran, your distinctive appliqué textile panels tell of the lives of people often ignored by society— those living with extreme poverty, deprivation, homelessness, and displacement, particularly women in India. What can visitors to The Knitting & Stitching Show expect from your exhibition?
Aran: When people are out and about during daily life, it's easy to ignore homeless people, and suffering. It is not until we see an image, such as a photograph or piece of artwork, addressing these issues that we are really forced to confront the realities that surround us. Pictures tell many stories. Visitors can, therefore, expect to come face-to-face with the realities which are the primary focus of my images. That said, there is quite a bit of variety in the moods and emotions evoked. It's not all about grim reality. For instance, When we were very young is quite touching, not at all hard-hitting. There are other aspects for the visitor to enjoy, or to catch their interest, as well. First and foremost, seeing, technically, how thread and textiles can be used to create compelling image.
Julie: Your painterly style is rich with detail and expression, all of which you sew by hand. It must be an extremely time- and labour-intensive process. Can you tell us more about how you developed this technique, and how long it takes you to create a finished piece?
Aran: I developed my technique through trial and error, over several years. Primarily, when I was studying for my degree at the University of Hertfordshire. In considering how I wanted the finished article to look, I was not only influenced by textile artists, but also, for instance, by Kathe Kollwitz's hard-hitting images of World War I. Jenny Bowker's quilt images of people in the Middle East were another influence, along with amazing textile pieces by Audrey Walker. But, in the end, I didn't copy other people's techniques. I had to develop an approach of my own which was different from those of other people. It normally takes at least two months to complete a work, from taking a photographic image, creating the appliqué base, which is then hand-stitched, adding clothes and other background elements, to finally taking the work for framing and photography.
Julie: You have said that your aim is to draw the viewer into the story of the subject, or subjects, in your work by provoking an imaginative and emotional response. It’s hard to look away from the gaze of the women in your portraits. How do you select the people whose stories you want to tell through your art?
Aran: Ideally, I like to work with images that are accompanied by a story. For instance, my very early work, Madonna and Child, was derived from a photo taken in Delhi by an Australian photographer, who told the tragic story of the young mother in the image— the loss of two children, a life begging on the street. In the case of East of Eden, the picture was taken in Prague by my son, who told me the story of abuse and defencelessness that lay behind the image. Of course, it is often not possible to find out the story behind any given image. And, in any case, the image once selected has to tell its own story, without the additional context that I might have known initially. So, with or without contextual information, I look for images which speak to me, which evoke a certain response in me. With this as the starting point, my task is then to find a way to convey my response to the viewer.
Image: There's nothing in the world I wouldn't do. Plight of War series. Courtesy of Aran Illingworth.
Julie: Do you see your portraits as a way to give under-represented people a voice?
Aran: Yes, very much so. The adage 'a picture is worth a thousand words' is a cliché precisely because it is so accurate. I was always concerned about vulnerable people of all kinds and situations during my career in nursing, and this concern is now carried over into my art. It finds expression there.
Julie: You became an artist relatively late in life, following a career in nursing. What made you choose a different path, and did your nursing career provide inspiration for your creative life?
Aran: My career in nursing was absolutely a factor which provided inspiration for my life as an artist. But, not surprisingly, it was not the only factor at play. My interests, both in art and in sewing and textiles, were originally fostered by my mother, when I was growing up in Malaysia. However, although these interests were acquired at an early age, it was not until much later in life that the opportunity to focus on art presented itself. It was only after I had given up my career in nursing, to look after my son, that I eventually had the opportunity to study and practice art on a part-time basis— initially at the local college, and then at the University of Hertfordshire. Although textile art is very different from nursing, there is a common thread of concern for the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, of caring for people, which runs as an underlying theme and inspiration right from the start to the present. There is, actually, a direct connection between my artistic work and my career in nursing, in that I used art for therapeutic purposes when working as a psychiatric nurse.
Julie: Has your Indian heritage influenced your artwork, and the choice of textiles as your medium?
Aran: Yes, absolutely. Indian heritage has many aspects and depths, and these include a very widespread preference for vibrant colours and startling contrasts in the use of textiles. But there is more; folk embroidery, as well as the kind of fine art textiles found in temples and other public buildings. You can see some of these elements directly in my work. For instance, in the use of an Indian green Kantha quilt as the backing for I'm a big girl now, in the current exhibition. India has a tradition of representing the human face and figure going back literally thousands of years, and this is an ever-present influence, permeating and informing my artistic choices.
Julie: You are passionate about traditional embroidery but are concerned that opportunities to learn it are decreasing. Do you think this will have an impact on textile art in the future?
Aran: Traditional embroidery is certainly a passion, without which I would not have developed my textile art as I have. Whether or not opportunities to learn traditional embroidery are decreasing is less clear. We are currently living through a period of uncertainty, where in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, courses in this area seem to be less widely available than before. But this is against a background of quite firm foundations. The courses offered by the Royal School of Needlework, and others, for instance, are not in abeyance. And, in general, acceptance of textile art in exhibitions and public displays seems overall to be increasing. Also, the trend from face-to-face classroom teaching towards virtual learning is probably a strong mitigating factor. So, while allowing for current setbacks, in general I view the future with optimism.
Image: Madonna and Child VI. 72 x 88 x 3cm. Appliquéd with recycled fabric, hand-stitched on a quilted background, on stretched canvas frame. Courtesy of Aran Illingworth.
The Knitting & Stitching Show takes place from Thursday 6th to Sunday 9th October at Alexandra Palace, London. It features galleries by leading textile artists, including Aran Illingworth; Archana Pathak; Maggie Scott; Marcia Bennett-Male; The 62 Group at 60; Vivienne Beaumont; and Jess Blaustein, the 2022 winner of The Fine Art Textiles Award.
SELVEDGE readers attending the London show can claim £2.00 off adult advance tickets, and £2.00 off concessions using the code SELVEDGE22. Please note that the discount code expires at 23:59 on Wednesday 5th October 2022, and is not applicable on Saturday 8th October.
SELVEDGE readers attending the Harrogate show can claim £3.00 off adult advance tickets, and £3.50 off concessions, using the same code: SELVEDGE22 Please note that the discount code expires at 23:59 on Wednesday 16th November.