FUTURE: FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
73x87cm, free motion embroidery on canvas
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ABOUT THE WORK
In Alison's own words
The future of the freedom of expression is fraught with danger and difficult questions. Although some sanctions are needed to protect people, for example from libellous statements, I find the idea of the criminalisation of language, a worrying aspect of the current climate and where it might lead – a world of closed minds and controlled opinion and debate. My thoughts for the future are a combination of bleak concern and hope.
I wanted my artwork to reflect this and bring an awareness of just how precarious the state of freedom of expression is; that without due care and consideration, the balance could be tipped and freedom eroded further.
Using free motion embroidery, I created a textile work of two contrasting faces; one showing a silenced voice, the mouth sealed with sewing pins. Black and white birds encircle and entrap the head, representing thoughts, showing that controversial issues and indeed life are not always black and white.
This first face has no way of voicing or discussing those thoughts. As time goes on it feels as though there is less freedom of expression and thought, particularly with the manipulative effects of the media and social media – will this be further circumscribed in a 100 years’ time? If there is no true open debate, opinion cannot be explored; illogical or unsound ideas cannot be overcome through reason. Truly harmful opinions may be pushed underground and left to fester. Society becomes self-regulating to fit in, to feel safe. People may avoid voicing their true opinion for fear of reprisal or being trolled – your words used against you.
The second face is open mouthed and eyed; words, questions and colourful debate flowing forth; the thoughts becoming speech; small black and white birds still present as part of the conversation and diversity of opinion, values and views – my hope to define freedom of expression more widely and unabridged.
Alison Carpenter-Hughes is a mixed-media artist, focusing on free motion embroidery; experimenting with the sewing machine as a tool for ‘drawing’ or ‘painting.’ There is a certain ambiguity to her work as each piece reveals only a fragment of their subject; drifting off into a dreamlike state and highlighting the passing of time, the loose hanging threads adding to their sense of incompletion, imperfection and impermanence, leaving the narrative open for the viewer.
We had a short chat with Alison to get to know her better
What is your creative background? How did you start making art?
I was very creative as a small child, and I had my own drawer in the kitchen where I could keep my art supplies! I had computer paper, felt tips, stickers, erasers and some small bits my Mum saved for me too. In primary school I remember winning a drawing contest, the prize was a big bag of felt tip markers. That felt like a sign that I was doing something right.
I was quite a solitary child, I spent a lot of time drawing, sometimes my Mum would draw with me. I was also an avid watcher of TV art programmes with Tony Hart and Rolf Harris. In secondary school, my art teacher was always really encouraging, although I wasn’t very happy there. It wasn’t until I went to do my Foundation course that I felt like “I had found my people”.
What were some of your early influences?
I was very influenced by the museums, galleries and historical places we visited on our family trips. My parents used to buy me things like comics and they are huge fans of Fantasy Fiction (even now) so that’s also played a big role in how I view the world. Stories of fantasy and adventure, King Arthur, ghosts, vampires, Star Wars, James Bond - all of those things I felt very connected with when I was a child.
Colour as well, I’d always be wearing these bright clashing colours. I still love bright clashing colours even now! When I was 14 I was given my Nan’s Japanese style kimono dressing gown (that had been passed on from the Great Grandmother) which was very delicate and it had all these bright oranges and pale greens. That’s the point where I knew I wanted to go to Japan at some point. I was very interested in Japanese art and art that was inspired by Japan - people like Klimt, Bonnard, Van Gogh.
You did a residency in Japan didn’t you? How did that go?
Yes, I finally got my dream after 30 years! It was a really wonderful experience but also such a culture shock. Tokyo is an amazing and vibrant city, there was so much to be inspired by. I was living with other artists and it was great to be able to get so immersed in creativity. Being able to take two months and focus on just art was really incredible, because at the moment I still work part-time and balance it with home life. All of that was pushed aside and I could just focus on the art.
Usually when I'm applying for things it's focused on the experimental side of the work - new materials or new ways to sew. I knew that I wanted to look more at things like Edo paintings, Yakuza tattoos, colours and patterns, modern and traditional elements of Japanese culture. After my third week there I realised what was most important and it was actually the people. I was taking candid photos of people and using them as my source material.
When did you come to embroidery as a medium?
It was relatively recently actually. About 10 years ago I started thinking about embroidery; I’d always had an idea in my head that it’s something I’d want to try. In 2016 I took up a textile class on a Tuesday evening and the teacher was great because she was open to teaching us things that we wanted to learn. When I started I had asked her to show me how to do free motion embroidery, so she got me to just write my name and showed me the basics. I went home and did a few more pieces, teaching myself as I went along.
In 2017 I saw an open call for a residency in a new studio. I wanted to develop my free motion embroidery into more of a fine art discipline rather than the cutesy pictures I was doing at home. As a mixed media artist I was embroidering on paper and materials that are not usually associated with sewing. Using a patchwork of torn papers for drawing gave me the inspiration for the loose threads and rough edges.
Just before I started this residency my Dad had gone into hospital after having a heart attack. As part of the residency, I had decided to sew a portrait of him sleeping, so the piece became quite poignant. The loose threads, his sleeping face and the approach took on a very ethereal quality and that’s when free motion embroidery really started to click for me.
What are your inspirations and creative process?
I have insomnia but I also have very lucid dreams, so I am often inspired by both of those. Sometimes it can be a piece of music or some song lyrics. Sometimes it's the right materials coming along that can push me to create the work.
For each new piece I create, I often use a new material. It’s hard to tell how it will react, but I work intuitively and allow room for mistakes and happy accidents. I sometimes work directly onto the material, but I also draw with charcoal on brown paper and then transfer it onto fabric. My sketchbook is primarily for writing - I jot down ideas and little pieces of inspiration, make brainstorming pages.
I take each journey as a learning curve, and figure things out as I go along. The process itself is very therapeutic and I often feel a strange sense of detachment once a piece is finished. Art is one of the things in my life that allows me to be who I truly am and I can immerse myself in the moment, whether it is me creating or through viewing someone else’s artwork. I need to be creating to have good mental health.