women designers, lost and found

Sometimes themes seem to rattle around in my head, connecting with other dialogues I have had. Last week I attended a really interesting Study Day at the House of Illustration as part of the Women in Print series organised by Desdemona McCannon on the theme of Enid Marx and contemporaries. The subject of women’s careers, and specifically their profile compared with their male counterpoints was discussed – not a new idea, but as a recurring theme I thought it worth revisiting here. In the same week Stylist magazine featured an article about the price of artwork made by women compared to men. It was such a coincidence I’ll expand some thoughts here.

It’s not a secret that women often have a harder time gaining recognition in many lines of work in comparison to their male peers. I wrote in a previous blog post about Eric Ravilious and friends at Compton Verney that it certainly wasn’t lack of skill that kept the women such as Helen Binyon from comparable public attention, and therefore further opportunities through their careers. There are highly talented women in history who we are only just giving air-time to, but the fact is their careers may not have excelled in the way their male counterparts did, or if they did they may well have been paid less for the work because they were women.

Enid Marx chose not to take issue with gender-bias in her career, and got on with a multi-disciplined design portfolio, with impressive outputs including books, textiles and patterns which were beautifully communicated through the exhibition at the House of Illustration (sorry it’s just ended!) – but you can visit Compton Verney instead. We got to see the exhibition as well as listen to knowledgeable speakers such as Enid Marx expert Lottie Crawford giving a really insightful illustrated paper about the legacy that Enid Marx and her peers have created for us today, as well as Jane Audas taking us through a fascinating journey of clients and sales put in to a broader context of who’s who.

I have heard people wonder why we need to make a point about this being a gender issue, but I would say that this has been said from a male perspective, and not from those being subjected now and in the future to selective opportunities due to gender. As a woman designer, and female academic training mostly women to have design careers where there is a history of undervaluing female contribution, I remain concerned.

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It is sometimes the case that research can be discovered more easily about men because they were promoted more and as a result have a higher profile, whether through greater self-confidence, the social / commercial networks or marketing material, from family or company archives, past exhibitions or publications. During the study day in London the point was made that there was also a sense that women got on with the designing, often alongside raising a family or carrying out other domestic tasks. Did they lack the opportunity to promote themselves, didn’t see the need, or couldn’t find the time? Working in isolation at home can certainly challenge one’s self-belief compared to working in an office with colleagues who can praise you and your work as and when required. This reminds me of the freelance work of Sheila Bownas, almost accidentally discovered and collected by Chelsea Cefai, and brought to a new appreciative public in the last few years. The family knew little of the extent of her prolific output of designs as a textile designer until Chelsea pieced the jigsaw together, and thank goodness we know of her now!

There is another consideration here. Does the discipline these women are working in make a difference to their profile? Enid Marx worked across illustration and textiles, but her illustrations are better known. Is this because as an illustrator your name is usually on the cover of the book, even if it is on the inside, or on the poster? For freelance textile designers it can be quite different. The name of the company is usually printed as legend details on the selvedge, but historically not always the name of the designer. If this is the case we may never trace the designer. This remains the case today in industry when big name brands buy in freelance patterns and the designer’s name is not carried through.

The article in Stylist compares Mark Rothko and his fine art paintings to Anni Albers’ textile practice; the subject of a show coming to Tate this Autumn. When the Bauhaus opened its doors in Germany in the Twentieth century the founder, Walter Gropius, stated anyone could study any discipline, and yet the women were rather heavily steered towards the weaving workshop, considered suitable for women. That was where Anni Albers learned her skill, fell in love with the teacher Josef Albers, took his name on marriage and continued to live in his shadow; he led a fine art practice of painting while she made textiles. I can’t wait to see the Anni Albers show – and for Anni to have the publicity men with lesser creative careers have had before.

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Craft, seen as a second-rate subject to Fine Art is part of the discussion throughout the article in Stylist, and it also makes the point that textiles is seen as a domestic activity, thanks to the increased leisure time during Victorian era. Grayson Perry has made significant strides in opening up the conversation about value of craft, but far more needs to be done to change opinions. As an academic one of my biggest concerns is the lack of respect textile design currently receives as a subject in the education curriculum and agenda. It’s becoming one of my catch phrases but I really mean it – we all wear pants! How can textiles be seen predominantly as a past-time, a hobby – when we all wear textiles, sleep under textiles and protect ourselves with textiles? How dare this government puts at risk the supply chain of future textile designers because it doesn’t see it as important enough to be a GCSE? Fashion is nothing without textiles, and this industry is one of the big ones on the global stage – don’t get me started on that!

Refocusing back on the study day, we also discussed the nature of research carried out by women, and that the particular approach / nature of research writing holds a female voice that may not be considered intellectual enough; often relating to social networks, domestic arrangements and family life. Several female audience members agreed that they doubted their own confidence when finding their research voice alongside the traditional academic tone / content they believed was expected by their male counterparts. Are women undermining themselves and lacking confidence in their own abilities?

I don’t have the answers but this is not a conversation that should stop. More dialogues involving men and women about historical and contemporary design practice, craft and textiles are needed. There is not one way, this is not binary, but we need to make sure the different voices, approaches, strategies and practices in the creative subjects and beyond are given a platform. The diverse ways of being whatever it is we are should be valued, and represented by a diverse community. Wouldn’t it be lovely if talent and opportunity were really the key ingredients for building profiles, gaining opportunities, and writing about it!

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The versatility of Ravilious & friends

There are a flurry of exhibitions on and books out at the moment relating to Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, as well as their peers. Since the fabulous Ravilious show at the Imperial War Museum in 2003 / 04 curated by Alan Powers, it seems this really has been their revival. Certainly according to my social media feeds we are all loving this celebration of talent from days gone by, and many contemporary designers are inspired by the styles of these greats.

The exhibition, Ravilious & Co. at Compton Verney explores this network of friends and collaborators in an extensive and beautiful show of art and design pieces, demonstrating their skills, creativity and versatility across products and for varied clients. Having seen this show in Sheffield; a touring show curated by Andy Friend and the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, and previously being familiar with much of the era’s iconic designs it’s nice to see some of the exhibits rather like old friends, as well as others new to me.

Ravilious_ComptonVerney1images kindly shared by Compton Verney:

Eric Ravilious, Sussex Church, 1924. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
Eric Ravilious, Portrait of Edward Bawden, 1930. Royal College of Art

There are also new pieces and names to discover. One thing that struck me was the talent of others in the group that have not received quite the same fanfare, but should be rewarded with the recognition – Helen Binyon in particular as a print-maker in my opinion. My notes recall ‘The Wire Fence’, 1935 specifically, such a beautiful interpretation of the subject through pattern and print. I kept returning to admire it!

A section of exhibition text also struck a chord for me. It stated that Paul Nash had “believed a good artist could turn his or her hand to many things – and would need to if they were to earn a living from their talent”. Nash had taught some of this new generation of designers at the Royal College and was also seen to live by this approach of traversing the landscape of art and design. Famous for his paintings both as a War Artist and not, he also carried out commercial design briefs for companies such as Cresta Silks (owned by Patrick Heron’s father) and Edinburgh Weavers (directed by Alastair Morton) and established the rather short-lived Unit One, bringing together artists and designers of the time.

When the individuals such as Bawden and Ravilious turned their creative hands to making drawings and prints, or designing ceramics, book covers, end papers, posters, murals, fabrics and much more, they did so with such confidence and accomplishment – an understanding of each product, the form and audience, each outcome intelligently designed for the specific brief. This isn’t a case of one image translated on to multiple surfaces as so much of today’s designing tends to be – I feel strongly about this when educating my own design students! Don’t do a ‘Cath Kidston’, (not the only company to do this!) and apply any / every pattern to any surface, but consider the requirements and potential of each product, learn from the expert manufacturers about how the production of the image or pattern can work best, and learn from what has gone before while creating something of its time.

KFarley_Marx_Angus_1Image details, photographs by Kate Farley from publications: Enid Marx by Alan Powers / Peggy Angus, by James Russell:

Enid Marx, study for ‘Spot and Stripe’ Utility fabric, 1945
Peggy Angus, Tile mural, staircase, Whitefield School, Barnet, 1953/4

Yes a designer can earn a living with their versatile skills, but I also have no doubt that Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx, Peggy Angus and others of this time thrived on the creative challenges of the commercial brief alongside their fine art practices. It’s known that Enid Marx liked the confines of designing Utility fabrics for the reason the design restrictions gave her boundaries to challenge. An open brief can be far more stifling! How would you hold the cup, turn the page or approach the wall, and how can pattern relate to the space? I love learning the particulars about each new production method or new application / context I design for.

Returning again to the subject of this particular exhibition at Compton Verney, items on show include drawing studies, proofs, original painting and drawings as well as commercially printed products. The most moving item was a letter from Bawden to Ravilious’ wife Tirzah after hearing news of Eric’s death, lost over Iceland on a mission as a War Artist, that demonstrated the strength of friendship the two men had for each other. Tears filled my eyes. It’s a big show, and it takes time – you will need to be fueled by cake!

My hope as a designer and educator is that this sustained interest in such a talented network of designers whose work reached across the public domain may rub off on the new generations of designers visiting this exhibition as well as on the vision and ambition of those who commission us too! While it’s lovely to see re-issues of these great designers work, I’d like us to move forward and create a new exciting design era built on this intelligence, empathy and skill. In the meantime, see this show if you can! It ends on 10th June – so get moving!

KFarley_plate_EricRaviliousImage detail, photograph by Kate Farley of plate by Eric Ravilious for Wedgwood

Also check out:

Edward Bawden at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London until 9th September 2018

Enid Marx, House of Illustration, London until 23rd September 2018

Bawden’s Beasts, The Higgins, Bedford until 27th January 2019

learning to look

I’m fascinated with how artists and designers stylise what they see. It’s a creative journey that drives me in my work too. Look at this image below of a wood engraving ‘Butterflies’ by Enid Marx, 1939. The same sort of leaves have been executed in several different ways to provide visual interest, tonal variation and depth, communicating different information about the leaves.

Butterflies_ENIDMARX

This is also a great example of how to use negative and positive shapes in printmaking / monochrome imagery, again to create visual interest and movement around the elements in the composition. I took this photograph from the fabulous Enid Marx -The Pleasures of Pattern book by Alan Powers published by Lund Humphries – I recommend it!

EnidMarx_pleasuresof patternBOOK

Also, I’d recommend a trip to Compton Verney to see her design work alongside her Folk Art collection.

woven landscape

It seems right to me that as someone keen to draw images I chose print as my medium of design rather than weave but I do think there is a strong sense of the spirit of woven cloth in how I see things, and for that I thank my upbringing in Norfolk. The strong horizontal line of the sky meeting the fields interrupted by vertical fence posts or reeds creating visual rhythms can leave me feeling utterly complete. Back in Norfolk this Easter, once again I breathed in the space, the horizontal and vertical of Horsey; one of the most perfect places.

I removed colour from this image as I wanted to clearly show the structure of the stripes, but colour is much of the joy in this landscape – the purples, greens, yellows, varying from minute to minute in the ever-changing light. I add them below. One day I will weave again.

Horseyreeds_weave130

KFarley_Horsey_palette

talking to myself through teaching

I’ve spent many hours over the last couple of years reflecting on my teaching career that stands at about 18 years, give or take a bit. In order to apply for Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy I had to write thousands of words that explain and reflect on the impact I have made on not only the students I have taught but the colleagues and peers across the industry I relate to in my professional practice. It has been a big ask to fit my diverse experiences in to the word count along with the cross referencing required, but I’m delighted to say my hard work over the ‘holidays’ and the work of my colleagues in writing supporting references has meant I achieved Senior Fellow and I’m rather relieved / proud. (I was however disappointed to discover that rather than receiving a fine water-marked, embossed and foil blocked certificate I had to download it! … I digress.)

I’ve written many times about how important it is for me to combine my design practice with my academic career and although it doesn’t make my life easier, it certainly makes it more fulfilling. They really are mutually supportive. The reason I am so driven to support the students in reaching their goals is because I know how rewarding a career in design can be. From having the confidence to draw in a different way, to picking up the phone to a new client, to realising your dream of seeing designs commercially available…, to be paid to do what you love doing… why would I not want to help others to do those things?

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It’s also important to hear myself saying these things to students. It’s as if I am telling myself as well as the students! Yes I must chase that lead, make sure I’m paid a fair rate or keep my website up to date! Each creative has different ideas about how and where to move forward with their ambitions and the art of teaching is to work out how to nurture, support, push and challenge positively. Being creative is not easy. You put your sensitivities on the line to be judged, sometimes by those with less creativity than yourself, but who holds the budget. There are certainly pages in my sketchbook I wouldn’t choose to share at a group tutorial, but the process of knowing you are not alone in learning the creative process is so valuable. It’s also the case that it’s often easier to critique someone else other than yourself! Would you listen? Maybe one mis-perception is that once you graduate you stop learning – I plan to keep learning forever! Each project I work on is an excuse to learn more, not only about myself as a creative, but new practical or technical skills to take on board for me, as well as sharing with colleagues and students.

I’m very aware the reality behind social media may be far different than the stories being told online. I make sure students are made to think about that, – use the benefits of social media while considering the stories they read and the stories they create. While I like the way we can find out so much more about what’s going on, and who we need to know (can you imagine only having the yellow pages?!) there are complications with so many aspects of our practice being shared. Copying, audience expectation, peer competition versus mutual support, networking and peer validation are ups and downs of today’s design world. I approach my teaching very much like my designing. Honesty, integrity, and fulfillment…. support, encouragement and creative ambition! Even writing this is like giving myself a tutorial! What’s my homework?

KateFarley_grasslines_WIP_blog

 

evolution in practice

I’m thinking about different aspects of marketing and promoting businesses in textiles for a lecture tomorrow and I came across this image which got me thinking about how my practice has evolved and my priorities have changed since I took this picture only a few years ago. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to shape and alter the practice I have, to take on projects that suit me at the time. Hooray for portfolio careers! Right, what’s next?…

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telling stories

Each project I create is part of a longer narrative of my practice and as I look back over the years it is easy for me to see common aspects and joined up thinking spanning those projects. As I teach this year’s final year students on the BA programme I lead I am reminded of my own journey starting out in design, and the questioning I did to work out what sort of work I wanted to be represented by in my step beyond graduation. The challenge of the Final Major Project!

I understand the battle and pressure to work out your own style, the look or handwriting to be yourself, but funnily enough I don’t think that is the thing that holds my practice together anymore – you may disagree, and I’d be interested to know! What has become the common thread holding so many of my projects together has been the story, the narrative within each project. I could never have imagined this all those years ago, even though I was making books! I’ve made many artists books that contain single narratives, but I’ve also worked on large-scale projects that involve public toilet doors that act as pages of the book with a story across them. This is also true for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where my designs are laid out in gravel across three huge roof-scapes. I’ve also been challenging how to place pattern within single designs, such as in my Plot to Plate tea towel design, telling the tale of growing, cooking and eating food. I’ve made series of prints, and a set of posters, all held together by a narrative. The more I look the more examples I can see.

If only the graduate me back then could have told me that the key aspects of my practice would work themselves out I would have worried less, but then again, it is the search for these answers that take you on the creative journey in the first place. Some people like to know what they are going to design, design it, then be pleased it looks as they planned. As for me, I like learning as I go, push myself that little bit more, find a bit of creative strength to step out of my comfort zone, and then be pleased I got somewhere I didn’t know existed. The creative process is a difficult thing to explain, but it’s all the more interesting for being that way.

KateFarley_narrative_blog

Top left: artists book in collaboration with Wes White for Sherborne House, Dorset, 2004

Bottom left: visualisation for the roof-scape at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Birmingham, 2009

Right: Plot to Plate tea towels, 2014