Happy New Year everybody! It's here Swansea Festival of Stitch 2018 is only 7 months away, so it's time to let you all know about the wonderful textile artists working in the Swansea Bay area. I hope these interviews will inspire you, encourage you to take a look at other areas of textile art you might not know about, and leave you with the spark of creativity well and truly ignited for this special year.
My second interview in this series is with Alastair Duncan, a local tapestry weaver whose passion for his creative art shines like a beacon throughout the interview. I hope you enjoy reading our interview and looking at his beautiful and original work. I found listening to Alastair tell me how he started weaving and how his creative practice has developed so inspiring, I hope you feel the same after reading his story. Thank you.
A Life-long Love Affair
Hello: It’s a bright cold late November morning as Alastair greets me at the entrance to his home and walks me through to the studio at the end of the garden. It’s a bright, light airy space with lots of room for working and storing materials. Alastair currently shares the studio space with his wife, who is a ceramicist and his daughter who is a jewellery maker and has recently returned home from university. As Alastair makes coffee, my eyes are everywhere looking at all the work on display, the three working desks and the very large loom which doesn’t swamp the room which shows what a large space the studio is. Alastair comments that it is a fully self-contained unit with all mod cons. I dream of having a creative space like this one day! To break the ice, we talk about “what do you do with all your finished pieces?” Fortunately, the studio has a high ceiling and the family can store their pieces on the walls and shelf space under the roof. It is a valid thought, though: what do we do with all our completed pieces, samples, materials and things we hang onto because we never know when they will come in useful.
Let’s get started: Alastair had a recent exhibition at Oriel Q in Narberth in November, which I had gone along to see. The exhibition was called “Past Tense”, and showed his recent work with tapestry weaving and barbed wire. As well as the exhibition, Oriel Q also held a Q&A session with Alastair and jacquard weaver Ainsley Hillard. The video, in two parts, in which Alastair and Ainsley talk about their work, processes and creative development is available on Oriel Q’s Facebook page (link at the end of this article). I started the interview off by asking Alastair about the exhibition and some of the points raised in the interview videos. Where did the inspiration come from for his tapestry weaving pieces made with barbed wire? Alastair stated that the original idea had come from the barbed wire, as he had grown up in Belfast in the 70s and 80s when the Troubles were at their height. The idea to use the wire as a symbol of conflict arose when he was listening to debates about the peace process in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. The wire represented conflict, both political, social and personal. The response in Wales, though, has been somewhat different as barbed wire is normally used in the farming community for confinement/containment and does not have the same charged symbolism that it holds in Northern Ireland. When Alastair exhibited the pieces in Northern Ireland he got the response he had been expecting: mainly negative reactions to the barbed wire, perhaps due to the work bringing up uncomfortable memories for the viewers. As Alastair commented, everyone’s experience of art is different, and part of the purpose a piece of art has is to trigger a response or thought from the viewer; it is this response that forms the dialogue between an artist and his audience.
How did Alastair and Tapestry Weaving begin: I next asked Alastair about how he came to be a tapestry weaver. Alastair went to college expecting to be a painter. His Grandfather painted, his mother was also a painter and so at the time he had a very conservative idea of what an artist could be. At college he discovered there was an awful lot more out there to explore. Alastair started feeling frustrated with painting, as he couldn’t do what he wanted to do with paint. As part of his course he could study loom weaving and was then introduced to tapestry weaving. (Just a quick definition of the two practices: loom weaving is making cloth to be turned into another item such as soft furnishings and tapestry weaving is to make an item which stands alone such as a wall-hanging and other decorative piece). The versatility of tapestry weaving took Alastair by surprise as it’s possible to do almost anything you want to with this form of weaving. He could produce as much texture as he wanted to and could use any materials that he wanted. In Alastair’s own words, his introduction to tapestry weaving was the beginning of a life-long love affair with this artistic medium. He loved everything about using the loom: the rhythm and sound of the loom, the physicality of creating the pieces, the touch of different fibres in his hands. When he first started he didn’t have a teacher, so got everything wrong but, as every creative person will know, when you fall in love with a technique or practice, you don’t get frustrated by the mistakes - it’s all part of the learning and you are so eager to learn that it just doesn’t matter. Alastair did go on to learn with Alan Shaw, from the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh. Alastair felt that it took him between eight and ten years to become fully competent in tapestry weaving. I commented that that was the timescale of a traditional apprenticeship and he agreed. After that period, he could see that he was able to weave what he wanted in the way he wanted to. Alastair remembers his very first piece, “Strawberry Waterfall” which was red, lots of pile cascading down from the hanging. Initially he created wall-hangings which were relatively small then he progressed to larger pieces, incorporating wrapping, binding and plaiting. In the 1980s he did quite a lot of corporate work for banks and other financial institutions, pieces which were large and used lots of pastels shades. Alastair has made 16-foot tapestries for the Allied Irish Bank, Bank of Ireland and First Trust Bank.
What are your methods for creating a tapestry, how do you go about researching and developing an idea? Alastair has found that his development of ideas has changed as he brings new materials into his work. Previously he had a very set way of going about producing his pieces. The process would start with background research, he would write, take photos, design and then produce a sketch for the tapestry. Through working with wire and metal his approach to design is becoming different. There is a lot more openness in the process, he samples far more before beginning a piece. Alastair still does research, drawings and photography but there is more flexibility and the whole process feels more intuitive. He confesses to doodling and playing on the computer - never underestimate the importance of doodling! His favourite drawing media are watercolour sticks, pen and ink, soft pastels and charcoal. He now works from a basic design but is always flexible when making the piece. He finds the design is not finished until the work is finished. He admits to a lot of stuff being taken out and reworked. It’s good to see that even established artists don’t see something as finished until it’s been taken back and reworked several times! Alastair has several main themes which run through his work: conflict, communication and the environment. He is very keen to continue his work with wire/metal and weaving, both have become equally important to him and it’s the combination of the two working together which inspires him to create new work.
Moving on – Sound and Touch: Alastair had talked about his interest in sound and touch in the exhibition video and I was keen to find out more about this combination of the senses in his work. Alastair said that he is involved in an exhibition which will be coming to Swansea in 2019. The exhibition is called “Sound and Weave” and is organised by the British Tapestry Group. Alastair will be making interactive tapestries, soundscapes which are triggered by the movement round the piece. In the future, Alastair wants the audience to have a physical connection with the work. Touch the piece and something will happen. He mentioned that in the hierarchy of senses touch is more important than vision in understanding the world around us. I agree, and we talked about the “touch/don’t touch” issue around textile art and the frustration that can trigger for the viewer. While we were talking about Alastair’s early years growing up in Belfast, he commented about the constant gunfire and bombs going off. I suggested that this constant soundtrack of danger and conflict may have made him more aware of sound and could have influenced his deep interest in sound and soundscapes. Alastair felt that that was a good thought and one to think further on. I asked how the incorporation of sound began in his work. Alastair told me that he had been involved with artist in residence projects in many schools in Wales and the use of sound became part of these projects. He remembers working on large communal tapestries where the children were taken out to do research, drawings and photography and to interview the locals about the theme of the tapestry. The interviews and local sounds went into an interactive CD or DVD of the project. The children were working on all these different elements and Alastair loved doing the recording with them. Alastair is currently working on a project called “Our Gower” with local comprehensive schools. He has found it so interesting to see the children’s reaction to the sounds in the landscape. As he commented they are used to sounds coming from their digital devices and their interaction with screens. Taking them onto the Gower marshes can be challenging but very rewarding too. By the children being there they change the environment and it changes them. Alastair has another creative venture “StillWalks” which has grown out of his multi-media work with schools. He is very interested in recording the environment, not just rural locations but urban soundscapes too. Alastair feels that the skills of listening have made him more aware visually. By being more attuned to sounds, he can see more and see more clearly too. This is all feeding through into his tapestry work. The weaving informs the “StillWalks” projects and vice versa. There are two textures at play here: visual and aural and these inform his current work. It is so interesting to see the development of an artist’s creative practice and how they work through things to find their own unique perspective.
I then asked Alastair some of the questions I am asking all our creative textile artists in these interviews in the run up to Swansea Festival of Stitch. What advice would you give your 16-year old self? Alastair was quick to respond saying “Be open to possibilities. There aren’t any rules.” He added that he had grown up with painting, his parents held a Saturday morning art class in their Belfast home, and he had thought that this was the only way to be an artist. When he went to college his view on what art could be expanded considerably.
What saying/mantra do you try and live your life by? Alastair says that for him being true to yourself is the most important thing, and being open to possibilities. He added that it is necessary to make a living, if you can do that by doing something that you enjoy then that’s the best outcome. He stated that his way to achieve this has been through education, working as an artist in schools. He commented, “While producing a tapestry to the best of my ability is important to me, it doesn’t matter about talent: if it’s something you enjoy doing and you get an opportunity to do it, then you have the essential thing in life”. He added there is always a balance between being the creative practitioner and the business side.
Whose work do you admire in your chosen field? Alastair was very keen to mention two artists who artists whose work he admires a great deal. They are both Polish artists: Tadek Beutlich (1922- 2017) and Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017). Alastair showed me a piece by Tadek which was a sculpture of sisal, which he has in his collection. Alastair drove to Sussex to see a retrospective of Tadek’s work and commented that “it was so worth it”. Magdalena is more a sculptor who uses fibres in her work, but it is her use of scale in her pieces which Alastair really admires. Alastair said he was “so excited to see what is currently going on in the field of tapestry weaving, although perhaps some of it is more fibre art than traditional tapestry. There are lots of exciting things happening all over the world.” He went on to say that other textile artists/weavers who have influenced him by their quality of weaving are Sara Brennan and Joan Baxter. Their work is totally different to his, but it’s the quality and standard which is so impressive. We then went a little off-piste and discussed computerised weaving, a topic that is covered in the Oriel Q video by Alastair and Ainsley. We talked about how much an artist should be involved in the process of creating and making. Is it enough to come up with the idea, or should the artist be involved in the physical making? I mentioned Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin as contemporary artists who come up with the idea or design and then have others to make the work. Alastair commented that it was nothing new, the Spanish artist Juan Miro worked with tapestry weavers as well as being a painter. He worked in collaboration with others but had direct involvement in the completion of the work.
What’s the best thing about living in South West Wales? Alastair came back with the same answer I would give. “It’s the combination of woods, mountains and the sea. All these different environments so close together.” He added that these three elements of the landscape are essential for him.
Describe Swansea Bay in 3 words: “Lively with arts.” Alastair said that he originally came to the area to do an artist in residency at schools and stayed. He built his studio here, and everything in his creative practice has been launched in Swansea. He felt that the links between the arts and education in Swansea were very strong. Alastair commented that “in the last 6 years the art scene has really grown, you’re almost spoilt for choice for the number of exhibitions, concerts and events going on weekly”. He added that “working in a studio can be isolating so you have to make a concerted effort to get involved in the wider artistic community.” We discussed the artistic vitality of the area and yet there is the constant uncertainty over the future of gallery and other artistic spaces. This was especially important in both our minds, as our conversation took place before the announcement of the City of Culture 2021, where Swansea lost out to Coventry.
The fun stuff:
Favourite bands/music? There was no doubt in Alastair’s mind: the answer, David Bowie, came almost before I’d finished asking the question. “He showed you could be anything you wanted to be and was always moving forward in his music.” Alastair feels he has a very eclectic choice in music, and commented that the music played in the studio is very different to that played in the house. With three people working in the studio, there must be be quite a bit of compromise – but Alastair said that their choices were definitely more avant-garde when they were working.
Cymru am Byth: Welsh cakes/Bara Brith served with butter or not? Alastair was quite clear on this: Bara Brith most definitely has to be eaten with butter; he wasn’t too fussed about Welsh cakes, but was certain that they shouldn’t have too much sugar on them. I asked him if he had any favourite bakeries for the tea-time treats, but he wasn’t confessing anything! Welsh comics, Rhod Gilbert or Rob Brydon? Alastair said “Rhod Gilbert nails it every time”. He finds Rob Brydon annoying, but knows it’s a deliberate part of his act. So far Rhod Gilbert is clearly in the lead in the Welsh comic race, let’s see how he gets on with the other interviewees.
And Finally: On behalf of Swansea Festival of Stitch, I would like to thank Alastair for giving up a precious Saturday morning to talk to me and sharing so much about his life and work. Once again, I have learnt so much about another area of textile art. I look forward to finding out more about the artists Alastair has mentioned in our interview. What I find so encouraging is that Alastair has found his own way to be a creative artist and to make a living from it. His future projects sound so interesting and I am really looking forward to seeing the “Sound and Weave” exhibition in Swansea in 2019. I came away from Alastair’s studio inspired by the different elements of his creative practice and their evolution. Thanks once again for your time Alastair, and for the coffee. I do hope the experience of being interviewed wasn’t too traumatic for you!