UK Textile Tour Day 9: Audrey Walker at the Ruthin Craft Centre – Wales
One week before I was scheduled to leave on my trip, I received my “Embroidery” magazine, the publication from the UK’s Embroiderers’ Guild. To my surprise, an article highlighted an upcoming exhibition at the Ruthin Craft Centre in Northern Wales of Audrey Walker’s amazing embroideries. And it was opening one day after I was scheduled to drive North through Wales up to Scotland!
As an artist who does a lot of pictorial work, I’ve been a fan of Audrey Walker’s work ever since my mentor and tutor, Gail Harker, introduced me to Audrey’s intricate stitched portraits. So, without much hesitation, I worked out a change in my itinerary to stay an extra day in Wales, so I could see the exhibition on its opening day.
Audrey Walker’s six-decade long career in embroidery has influenced many contemporary embroiderers. Not only is she an amazing artist in her own right, she succeeded Constance Howard as the head of the Goldsmith’s College Embroidery & Textiles Department (1975-88) guiding another generation of makers. She focused on teaching her students to seek out and explore their ideas first, then to study the history and techniques to realize their artistic vision. Her first textile associate was Jan Beaney, who went
on to become internationally renowned for her stitchwork, as well as being one of the Cities and Guilds tutors and evaluators who taught Gail Harker. So, I guess I can claim Audrey is my embroidery great-grandmother!
This exhibition, in Audrey’s 90th year, is a retrospective of her work, with pieces coming from as far away as the U.S. (owned by private collectors) brought together at the Ruthin Craft Centre, the location of Audrey’s first solo exhibition 18 years ago.
Audrey’s start in textiles began ten years after completing her degree in fine art (mainly portrait painting), after seeing an exhibit of fabric collages by Margaret Kaye (1912-2002). Prior to that , Audrey associated embroidery with the domestic textiles of her youth. Rather than continuing on as a painter, textiles became Audrey’s medium of choice. She even incorporated some of her family’s domestic textiles into her artwork, giving a nod of recognition to the historic roots of embroidery.
Topics that have figured prominently in Audrey’s work include “momentary glances, encounters, inward smiles, the power of a gaze, vulnerability and the simple pleasures of life”. Some of her figures have a wistful, enigmatic look or smile, reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. Audrey’s process includes drawing portraits prior to her stitching and even drawing at the end of a day of stitching as a critique of her work or to an express an idea to develop in the future.
It’s remarkable to see the incredible detail that has gone into each of these large pieces. The images are created through color blending with the threads.
“There is no doubt that building up an image with absolutely separate lines of colour – the threads – is an endlessly fascinating and pleasurable activity. But it can be infuriatingly slow and it has all kinds of hazards! …However, the very slowness of the process can be productive. It allows a longer encounter with the idea and therefore the chance to explore it more fully and critically. It offers opportunities for valuable interludes – for instance setting a large piece on one side for a time in order to work through related thoughts on a smaller scale or in a different medium. The prooblems in the larger piece are often solved through side-stepping into related work.” (Audrey Walker ‘Insights’, 1999.)
Audrey was a regular participant in the “62 Group” exhibitions from 1966 – 1981. Starting in 1962, the 62 Group of Textile Artists was created as support for serious professional textile artists. Audrey joined in 1964 and remains an Honorary Exhibiting member.
Inspired by a tiny embroidery fragment less than 2″ high at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Audrey created “Observed Incident.” The 14th Century inspiration had 3 knights in full armor with a watching figure. She wished to salute the unknown embroiderer’s imagination with a large scale version of the topic.
The Big Blue Bowl is part of Audrey’s recent body of work where she is experimenting with a single line of stitch, rather than overlapping stitches.
Once in a while you need to give in to temptation… as I did by going out of my way to make it to this exhibition. I’m so glad I did!