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From the nigredo series 2, 80cm x 80cm, linen, wax, paint, stitch. Photo: Michael Wicks.


From the nigredo series 1, 80cm x 80cm , linen, wax, paint, stitch, wood ash. Photo: Michael Wicks.




Artist: Beverly Ayling-Smith
of Finchampstead, Berkshire, UK

Interview 97

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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.



Beverly Ayling-Smith is a textile artist living in Finchampstead, Berkshire, United Kingdom. Beverly originally studied sciences and holds a BSc (Hons) in Microbiology from the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK and worked in antibiotic research and Public Health before developing her interest in textiles and obtaining a BA (Hons) in Embroidered Textiles.

Stemming from an interest in cultures that create textiles either to wrap the body after death or to place in the grave with the deceased, Beverly's work examines the emotional resonance of cloth particularly in relation to feelings of loss and absence. In her work she aims to connect with the experience of the viewer and evoke an emotional response.

Having achieved an MA at the University for the Creative Arts, in Farnham, Surrey, Beverly is currently studying for an MPhil/PhD in textiles, researching the use of cloth in contemporary art practice to materialize the work of mourning. Beverly has work in the Whitworth Art Gallery collection of contemporary textiles in Manchester and has presented her research at national and international conferences. She is currently working towards a solo show in GalleryGallery, Kyoto, Japan in September 2013. Beverly's website and also at Transition and Influence.


Cloth and Memory exhibition, Photo: Gerry Diebel.


Tell us about your work?

My work examines the emotional states of mourning and melancholia and I try to evoke the feeling of loss and remembrance in the viewer. In the past my work has focused on the rituals and practices undertaken by the bereaved after someone has died. Pieces such as Burial and Shroud have text from the Prayer Book printed on them – not prayers, but the instructions for what to do in the burial service. My research into the history of the shroud has helped to inform this work and the use of cloth in rituals of mourning has a long history. In its simplest form it is used to wrap the body of the deceased as well as playing an important role in the social conventions of dress in mourning rituals, particularly in the Victorian era. Cloth has been described as a 'second skin' and this long association of cloth with the body during and after life, means that it is a uniquely appropriate medium to be used as a metaphor for grief, loss and mourning in my practice.

Recently I have been using cloth to explore the experience of mourning over time - the raw emotion immediately after bereavement through the healing and fading of the intensity of grief, which however, always leaves a scar. One of my more recent pieces was called remembering, repeating and working through where I was trying to capture the overwhelming nature of grief. It is a large piece (5m x 3m) and was made to fill the entire wall of the exhibition space. It was made from patches of black linen which had been sanded and waxed and then pieced together to show a sense of how, when someone has died we go through a process of remembering shared experiences which re-confirms that the person is no longer here. The patches were stitched together in a rhythmic way with the stitches evenly spaced and the patches overlapping. The surface was then covered in a web of larger stitches as a way to evidence how one can be caught up in the emotion of mourning and find it difficult to move on.

Other recent work has examined the idea of grief healing over time and the way memories become embedded into our lives. For this work The Resonance of Loss I have used the image of a small child's dress as a vehicle for expressing loss. Mourning is integrated into the structure of our lives emerging at different times to stain our emotional states. The way the image of a child's dress can emerge from the surface, echoes the way in which feelings of loss can come to the surface at different times.


Shroud, 16' 6" x 30", linen, print, paint, stitch.


From where do you get your inspiration?

My inspiration mainly comes from academic research on theories of mourning and grief counselling and also in reading about different people's stories of loss and the different customs around the world that people use to cope with that loss.

The boro textiles from Japan intrigue me. I was fortunate enough to visit Japan in 2010 and saw an amazing collection of boro textiles and garments while I was in Tokyo. The utilitarian fabrics and clothes have a ragged beauty about them, made where textiles are hard to find, they were repeatedly patched and mended with whatever fabric was available and then handed down from one generation to the next. The patching and mending and the hours of sewing that it entailed, speaks to me of the love and care the women who stitched these fabrics had for their family.


World of Threads Suggests:
"Boro - Rags And Tatters From The Far North Of Japan"


Revelation, 85cm x 60cm, lead, linen, print, stitch.


What specific historic artists have influenced your work? 

The German born American artist Eva Hesse (1936 – 1970) has been an influence on my practice, particularly the pared down nature of some of her work such as Sans ll, latex boxes installed in a double row on the wall. Her use of repetition and multiples has also influenced my thinking – for example her series of paintings of repeated rectangles in gouache, watercolour and ink in muted grey tones. She was also innovative in her use of materials – including cheesecloth in some of her latex pieces. This has encouraged me to consider the materials I use and not to worry if they are not conventional materials from which to make textile pieces.

I have a book of the prints and drawings of the German artist Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945). A few years ago I visited the Kathe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin, which houses one of the largest collections of her work. It was an almost overwhelming experience. Her powerful depiction of the effect of war and poverty on people is very affecting. The searing emotion in works such as Mother with Dead Child and the pain in her face in her self-portraits are truly remarkable. I am always drawn to the power contained within the work in an understated way. Her depiction of women and the pain they carry in their lives whilst they strive to care for their families has a universal resonance.


World of Threads Recommends:
"Prints and Drawings of Kathe Kollwitz"


Detail: Splitting Up


What specific contemporary artists have influenced your work?

The British artist Rozanne Hawksley was one of the first artists I discovered who used textiles in her work to convey powerful emotions around issues such as war, death, loss and injustice. I first saw her work in 1998 in an exhibition On the Edge curated by Julia Caprara and was really moved by the emotion contained in her work. I also saw her retrospective exhibition at the Ruthin Craft Centre in Ruthin, Wales in 2009. Her piece Pale Armistice – a wreath of white gloves, commissioned by the Imperial War Museum has become an iconic image of the loss of life in the First World War. Although some of her work makes for uncomfortable viewing, it challenges the viewer to consider issues such as the misuse of power, death and grief.

The Colombian artist Doris Salcedo has also had a huge influence on me. She transforms everyday materials into work of immense power, which carries great emotion. I saw her exhibition at the White Cube gallery in Hoxton, London a few years ago and was particularly affected by the installation Atrabiliarios - shoes - placed in windows cut directly into the wall. The niches were covered over with animal fibre stitched over the opening with surgical thread. This piece was made after Salcedo's experience of the identification of corpses in mass graves by their shoes. In 2007 Salcedo also created a work for the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in London. Shibboleth was a 548-foot long fissure in the floor of the Turbine Hall – a thin hairline crack at the start widening to a few inches and in some places over a foot deep. An interesting aspect of this piece for me was that when the work was 'removed' i.e. the crack filled in, it remained visible and will always be so, like a scar forever present on the floor of the Turbine Hall.


World of Threads Recommends:
"Doris Salcedo: Phaidon Contemporary Artists"


From the nigredo series 1, 80cm x 80cm , linen, wax, paint, stitch, wood ash. Photo: Michael Wicks.


What role do you think fibre art plays in contemporary art?

Fibre art deserves an equal place in contemporary art alongside any other medium and I think it is gradually achieving this. In the past, textile artists had to submit work in selected shows under the title of 'mixed media' in order to be given a place – textiles would not have been considered 'art.' Things have moved on since then and more fibre art is seen in contemporary galleries. I think we, as textile artists, have people like Tracey Emin, Michael Raedecker and Yinka Shonibare to thank for making people more aware of textiles in contemporary galleries, although even they are unwilling to use words like 'stitch' in descriptions of their work.

The work of curator Lesley Millar in creating exhibitions that bring the best of Japanese textile art to the UK, has also had a tremendous influence on our perception of textiles having an equal place in the art gallery, and raises the bar in terms of the quality and range of the textiles that are shown, bringing to a large audience the best of contemporary textile art.


World of Threads Suggests
"Tracey Emin: My Life in a Column"


From the nigredo series 2, 80cm x 80cm, linen, wax, paint, stitch. Photo: Michael Wicks.


Tell us about your training, how it has influenced you and how you have applied what you have learnt.

My first degree was in Microbiology and, although I haven't worked as a scientist for some time now, I feel that the scientific way of working (making small changes in experimental processes and the documentation of these experiments) has spilled over into my artistic life. I studied for my BA (Hons) degree in Embroidered Textiles in a distance-learning programme when my children were still young and I couldn't attend university full time. One of the benefits of this is that it made me resourceful in terms of materials and processes. For example, if I wanted to use a particular technique it meant that rather than being taught, I had to find out for myself how to do it and what equipment I needed. It always had to be able to be done within a domestic environment. My first place to look was always the hardware store rather than the expensive specialist supplier. After the BA course I spent two years working on my own, making pieces that were informed by my research into the development of the shroud in England, from a winding sheet to the coffin garments and body bags used today. I also exhibited in different venues in the UK but I then felt it was time to undertake some more academic research and so enrolled onto an MA course at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, UK.


Detail: Burial, 8' x 5' linen, print, paint, stitch


Please explain how you developed your own style.

My own style manifested itself as I was working towards a Diploma in Stitched Textiles with my tutors Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn. They would sometimes set the class challenges using key words such as 'crossing boundaries' or 'imprisonment.' And I often found myself exploring the darker side of these inspirational words. Together with the constant question of why - do it this way, why use these materials, I found that my stitch became more minimal but I knew why each one had to be where it was and in what material. Now when I work, I often use a word or phrase and use that as my starting point. I also spent a lot of time learning how to distress fabrics and make them appear aged – to me they hold more meaning when they contain the history of their use and wear and tear.


Untitled, 60cm x 40cm, lead, linen, wax, paint, print, stitch.


What other mediums do you work in, and how does this inform your fibre work?

Previously I have used lead as an element in some of my work because of its association with burial. I prefer to work with natural materials such as linen, calico and muslin because of the way they retain the memory of use within them. Also some of the materials and processes I use are not necessarily traditionally textile orientated. As a textile artist I am not constrained by any set of materials or methods – I can utilise whatever I feel is the right material for the work I am trying to create. I have also used the transfer of text to fabric as part of my work and used my own body as a medium, painting it and then laying on the cloth to create body-prints that I have then stitched. I am currently exploring the use of video to create a piece about the meditative qualities of preparing cloth for use, but the video will also be used to celebrate the qualities of the cloth and its inherent meaning.


Detail: Evocation, 60cm x 35cm, lead, linen, wax, stitch.


Through your art, are you attempting to evoke particular feelings in your audience?

My current research is on how artists can use cloth in art practice to materialize the work of mourning. Cloth has a long association with the body, both during life and afterwards in death and burial. Therefore, it is uniquely placed to be used as a metaphor for the trauma of grief, mourning and loss in contemporary art practice.

Freud's psychoanalytical theory of mourning states that it comes to a spontaneous end after a certain period of time. But listening to the personal experiences of many people this would not seem to be the case. We all carry with us a degree of unresolved mourning – which, in certain circumstances can rise to the surface and be as raw and painful as in the first days of grief.

My work seeks to make a connection with the unresolved mourning of the viewer and assist them with the 'work of mourning,' the working through of memories that confirms that the deceased has gone but that there is still a continuing bond with them in that remembrance.


Detail: Healing series,193cm x 40cm, calico, paint, lead wire, stitch.


How did you initially start showing your work in galleries?

I first showed my work in a series of exhibitions of textile work and later, through membership of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, to showing in mixed exhibitions. I now belong to a group of artists based in the Thames Valley in the UK in which many artistic disciplines are represented.


Installing 'remembering, repeating and working through' at Whitworth Art Gallery, 5m x 3m, linen, wax, stitch


Tell us about your studio and how you work:

Although the spaces where I work are small, I am fortunate enough to have two separate work places so that I can devote one to writing and one to my practice. The space where I do my writing is in the converted attic of my house – far enough away from the front door for me not to answer it if I am concentrating on writing. The studio where I work on my practice is a ten-minute walk from the house and is a room in an old farm building. It is very peaceful and quiet with no Internet access and so I can be on my own to think and work. The farm building is set in twelve acres of land and the road has no through traffic. When I am trying to make work that has an element of meditation about it then it is ideal. Sometimes I like to sit and think and look at my materials before I start work. It settles me and reconnects me to what I am trying to achieve. My initial training as a microbiologist means that there is an element of the 'experiment book' in my sketchbook. When I am exploring processes and techniques I make lists of different variations to try and write down what I feel works about a piece and what doesn't.


Writing space


Where do you imagine your work in five years? 

In five years time I would like to have completed my PhD research and would also like to be making work that reflects my research interests and exhibiting to an international audience.



The Resonance of Loss, 70cm x 70cm, linen and paint


What interests you about the World of Threads festival?

The fact that it has a real passion for showing a broad range of textile art and showing the best of what contemporary artists are creating.


Cloth and Memory exhibition space, Photo: Richard Brayshaw


Do you have any upcoming shows?

Later in the year I am having a solo show in GalleryGallery, Kyoto, Japan.
28th September – 12th October 2013.



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