The Festival is only a few months away now, I hope you are as excited about all the wonderful things that are going to be happening in August as I am. The winter seemed as if it would never end this year, but let's hope that May finally brings us the Spring that we have all been hoping for.
I would like to share with you my third interview in the local textile artist series. I met with Ruth Norbury earlier this year. It was so interesting talking to Ruth and hearing about her textile art journey . Ruth is one of our Masterclass Tutors at the Festival and she is also running workshops at The Environment Centre in Swansea in the run-up to the Festival. Ruth will have an exhibition of her textile art at The Environment Centre throughout August.
Spending just a little time with Ruth I came away so inspired by her commitment to the environment and to her determination to carve out a career as a textile artist.
I hope you will feel the same way after reading the interview, and whatever your dream/ambition may be, that you do a little something every day towards making it happen.
Ruth Norbury - The Quest
Way back at the beginning of February, before the ‘Beast from the East’ arrived and we thought that Spring was only a few weeks away, I found myself in the maze of streets in Uplands, Swansea looking for Ruth Norbury’s house. Just as I was about to ask someone if I was in the right street I looked up and saw a little kitten and old sewing machine in a window and thought this must be the place, indeed it was.
James and Ruth opened the door to their home, one of those deceptive houses which look small from the outside but inside there are lots of rooms with high ceilings and a feeling of space and light. They have recently set up home in Swansea, but their personalities are already stamped on their house. They share the house with several cats who I was introduced to and got to have a quick cwtch with during our interview. Each cat had been rescued by Ruth and James, and they had some very sad stories to tell, but the love the cats receive in this house is clear to see. James has worked as a writer but is now focusing on his painting and doing well. His paintings were throughout the house, large abstract pieces with interesting textures and subtle colours. Ruth took me upstairs to their shared studio where we began the interview. A lovely space full of light from the big front window, James’ paintings on the floor, Ruth’s work on the walls and textiles and sewing materials on the big table in front of the window where the old sewing machine took pride of place. Squig, a tiny kitten and the newest addition to the family, joined us and enjoyed playing with my pen and sitting on my notebook.
Let’s get started: To get the interview underway I asked Ruth what was the strangest thing she had used in an embroidery. Ruth answered quickly “re-purposed boat curtains”, then thought for a bit and the items kept coming: barbed wire, chicken wire, found objects, nails from a fire, watch parts, rust, parts of a peacock feather and tea bags. As that list implies Ruth believes in making sustainable textile art and will use unwanted materials, found objects and other ethically sourced materials whenever possible. Ruth and James have strong principles and beliefs about living a sustainable life and this covers every aspect of their life. I’m full of admiration for the principled way in which Ruth and James live their life, they are both an inspiration. An example of their conviction is that Ruth has been involved with the Viva organisation’s art for the animals project, where she donated money from the sale of her embroideries to animal charities.
Ruth belongs to Swansea Embroidery and Textile Group and had recently brought along a tapestry to their Friday workshop which was a commission piece. The piece was so detailed I had to ask how long it had taken and how many shades of wool had been used in the background. The tapestry was a cushion of a crow with a foliage background. Ruth had put on her blog that the tapestry had 41,500 stitches, so when I asked the length of time to complete the piece she smiled. “Let me do the maths”, Ruth calculated that it had taken 3 months to complete at more than 8 hours a day! There were 20 shades used in the background to produce the foliage effect. Ruth bought the wool from e-bay in job lots to get the colour range that she needed. As a vegan, Ruth doesn’t normally use animal products in her work, but buying the wool second-hand just about got past her principles.
We talked about her current work which is based on the Franklin expedition in search of the North West passage. In one of life’s funny little co-incidences there is a television series on satellite/cable that has just started called ‘The Terror’ which is about this expedition. They took everything they could possibly need on board, including a monkey! The members of the expedition had the mind-set that they were invincible – ‘we’re the Royal Navy we will succeed!’ They had to abandon ship and then had no idea how to survive in the Arctic. Inevitably, it did not end well, and all members of the crew were lost. What is interesting is that the Franklin expedition seems to be a thread which runs through Ruth’s life and has acted as a trigger for developing her interests and shaping her life to some degree. We will come back to it later in the interview and then my title will make more sense.
Ruth has been using the old Singer machine for the Franklin piece. The machine has its own name ‘Kerchunkerchunk’, and we mused over what she has seen and what she has made over her time. I’m so pleased Ruth names her inanimate objects, I do too, and you do get some funny looks when you reveal their names to others. Ruth said that her Mum had commented that this old machine sews the nicest seam, and she said it’s true.
The search for self: I asked Ruth how she began her career in textile art. Ruth began at a very young age, she sent gifts of embroidered cards to James while they were still in school and had just started going out together (How wonderful!). James’ Mum saw them and suggested that Ruth should consider embroidery and textiles as a career. Spurred on by this Ruth did a year of a City and Guild qualification, and once again a lady said to her, ‘if you don’t try to make a career of this you will never know’.
Ruth then began to get known for her work as a traditional embroiderer and has had her work featured in many Embroidery and Textile magazines. She received commissions for her bird embroideries and laughingly said that she was known as the ‘bird lady’ at the local framer’s. However, as the commissions were coming in for the bird embroideries, Ruth was going through a period of self-discovery, and trying to find out what ‘being Ruth’ really meant which involved working through this process and finding out what it would mean for her art. Part of the process was looking at new ways of creating art and new subjects to explore. With this period of self-reflection came a feeling of being shoe-horned into a place where Ruth didn’t want to be, and she rebelled. Ruth said that she wanted to put “two fingers up to the lot of you - I want to do what I want to do, not what others want me to do or what is expected of me”, she added.
It seems to me that the struggle to find self and to manifest this in art is one of the strongest drivers in the history of art. The re-invention of artists such as Constable, Turner, Van Gogh and Picasso, is what makes their work so vital and relevant today. The danger in doing more of the same is that the creative spark begins to flicker, and the work no longer interests and inspires us and that begins to show in the work itself. Ruth admits that it is very tempting to bring to the Swansea Embroidery group’s Friday workshop things that people would like to see. She had brought a piece of experimental work to one session and had received a very negative reaction from some members. We talked a bit about how following your own creative path can be isolating at times, but you can find allies and kindred spirits in the most unlikely of places if you are open to possibilities and willing to take that leap of faith.
I asked Ruth about her more experimental work. She is exploring different media, using tools like Photoshop to create images to develop into embroidered pieces. She has been producing pieces related to feelings triggered by listening to certain music. I asked what type of music she liked and had an amazing few minutes when Ruth was telling me about ‘Industrial metal’, a branch of heavy metal I’ve not come across before. Ruth gave me the names of some of the bands such as 9-inch nails and Combichrist. If you’re tempted to Google them or to go to iTunes I suggest you have the volume down very low!
More recently Ruth contacted Maggie Grey and asked if she could send her some images and videos of her work. Ruth commented that it was on one of her brave days that she did this. I recognised being in that place of uncertainty myself, and the maelstrom of thoughts that swirl through your mind before you make the decision to pick up the phone or send that e-mail. From that brave day, Ruth got involved with Maggie’s ‘workshop on the web’ initiative, which is still going strong. (Full details of this, other websites and useful information will be available at the end of the interview). Ruth has also shares her knowledge on YouTube with her own channel ‘Ruth Norbury Art’ with videos ranging from ‘how-to’ sessions to more complex embroidery projects, these are still available to view.
We then moved on to the questions I have been asking all our creative textile artists in the run up to Swansea Festival of Stitch.
What advice would you give your 16-year old self? Ruth smiled and said “Believe in yourself, don’t do what other people want you to do. Keep creating and finishing. Don’t listen to the inner critic”. She went on to add, “Know when it gets a bit hard, accept that it’s part of the process and push through with it. I’ve got to make it work, it’s my living!” Ruth admitted that when it gets hard it can be intense and sometimes unpleasant, and there is a lot of self-doubt and questioning. However, she said that “if you can work through that and understand that there is no such thing as a failure, we learn from everything we do then that puts the not so good times into perspective.”
What saying/mantra do you try and live your life by? Ruth felt that her and James’ philosophy in life could be summarized by the simple phrase of ‘Raise my standards’. Ruth went on to explain, “that means raising my standards by raising the quality of my work, the quality of my life. We try to live a low impact lifestyle and to do what we can for the environment”.
Ruth suddenly had a big grin on her face and said, “Well there is also another mantra I would like to live by – ‘Be more Squig’! There’s a lot we can learn from observing animals and they way they react to the world around them and live completely in the moment.” Having had the pleasure of little Squig’s company throughout the interview, I agree with Ruth.
Whose work do you admire in textile art? Before Ruth discussed the textile artists she admires, she wanted to say that James’ dad had been a very positive influence on her pursuing a career in textiles – he is an artist, who was able to make a living from his art and, as a result, has made that career choice seem a real option for both Ruth and James.
The first textile artist that Ruth mentioned was Cas Holmes. She particularly likes her use of patched pieces, machine stitching, sketches and her interest in urban decay.
The next textile artist was Rozanne Hawksley. Rozanne provokes a strong reaction in anyone who views her work. She has been creating, teaching, exhibiting since 1947 and is still exhibiting today over 70 years on, a remarkable achievement by any standards. Ruth first encountered Rozanne’s work by seeing a picture in Embroidery Magazine of one of her bird pieces. Ruth then went to the Rozanne retrospective at the Mission Gallery at Swansea. I asked Ruth what it was that resonated so strongly with Rozanne’s work. She commented that, “She is not afraid to explore the dark themes of life and to use found objects that others might balk at.” We had a long conversation about Rozanne as she is the textile artist who showed me that textile art could provide an intelligent response to some of the biggest and deepest issues of man and his effect on this world.
Ruth then went on to mention two painters/artists whose work she particularly admired. The first was Christian Hetzel, a German painter, who creates large abstract paintings. The second artist is Christopher Shy, I didn’t recognise the name but when I found his work I knew it immediately. Christopher is a freelance fantasy and science fiction artist, who has worked with many of the leading film production companies on artwork for their films.
What would you like to be remembered for? Ruth admitted that there had been many crossings out for this question! In the end she felt that she would like people to have a positive opinion of her. She then added with a big grin,” But then I would be dead, so it doesn’t really matter what people thought of me!” Quite right, you go Ruth!
What’s the best thing about living in South West Wales? In asking this question Ruth was able to tell me a little bit about her travels throughout the UK. Ruth moved to Ireland after being at Swansea University. She set up home in a tiny village on the Cork/Limerick border and she stayed for 3 years. She was literally out in the middle of nowhere. There was no countryside as such, just farmland and forest. She felt very isolated in this location.
Ruth and James also had a period of living on a canal boat. They thought they would find like-minded people and a close community amongst the canal boat dwellers, but it wasn’t that way at all. At times they felt very isolated and vulnerable as they were often staying in parts of towns/cities which were run-down and could be quite scary at night-time.
As you can imagine they were very pleased to come home to Swansea. Ruth and James really appreciate the simple things like a flushing toilet and a washing machine. Ruth said, “Moving to Uplands in Swansea felt right, it’s a very cross-cultural area, with lots going on, places to eat, drink and hang out, and everything you need is within walking distance.”
So, the best thing about living in South West Wales – being back home!
Describe Swansea Bay in 3 words: “Shipwrecks, Landscape and Nature”
Ruth has very fond memories of walks round the Gower with her Mum. She said, “Mum was always pointing out ‘that’s where that happened, that’s a stone chat, and that is this particular flower’” She can remember being told all about the Helvetia shipwreck on Rhossili Bay.
Ruth’s family has long ties to Swansea. She proudly told me that one of her ancestors was a postmaster in Swansea. Once again there is a historic link to the navy, her great, great aunt was going to marry Petty Officer Evans of the Scott expedition, unfortunately he didn’t return home.
And this is where we loop back to Ruth’s work on the Franklin Expedition. She studied the expedition at school and saw pictures of the bodies of the crew members. This sparked an interest in forensic science which Ruth wanted to study at University. At that time there were very few courses on the subject, where now it’s a very popular degree choice. Ruth wasn’t sure about what to study at University, and commented, “I really didn’t make the best of the opportunity I had. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right time for me to study.”
What I think interesting is how this historical event has continued to influence Ruth but in a different way each time. In its current incarnation it has moved Ruth forward in her textile art and is perhaps providing the bridge between her previous traditional work and a more experimental, multi-media approach.
I gave this interview the title of ‘The Quest’ as it appears that Ruth has been on a ‘Quest’ from a very young age. Finding her place in the world, both creatively, spiritually and literally in coming back to Swansea. Often there is a ‘leit-motif’ which accompanies us on our journey throughout this world, whether it be a special song, a special place, a special scent and sometimes a moment in time which may have not been in our own life-time but resonates with us such as Ruth and the Franklin Expedition.
To finish off - The fun stuff:
At school Ruth had a mix tape of Nirvana and White Zombie, but her tastes have now moved to the heavier end of heavy metal. She particularly likes the German industrial band, Rammstein. Well at least I was well versed with Nirvana and their music! Does Ruth have music on while she is working? “Yes! James is the MC/DJ for our work sessions”
Cymru am Byth:
Welsh cakes/Bara Brith served with butter or not? Ruth admitted to never having tried Bara Brith! Her Gran used to make Welsh cakes on the griddle, with just a little bit of sugar sprinkled on the top. Ruth wouldn’t have them with butter as she is a very committed vegan.
Welsh comics, Rhod Gilbert or Rob Brydon? Ruth admitted to not really knowing either comic, so we moved on to her favourite comic. Ruth quickly answered, “Bill Bailey”. We then had a great time reminiscing about his Part Troll show, (worth seeing if its on YouTube, for its creativity and hilarity). Bill is appearing in Cardiff on the 1st June and I’ve already got my ticket!
And Finally: On behalf of Swansea Festival of Stitch, I would like to thank Ruth and James for their hospitality and special thanks to Ruth for her honesty in our interview. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this interview I so admire this young couple for their determination to live their life in the most sustainable way possible. I also admire Ruth in her determination to make a living from her creative work and to find her own voice and unique approach to textile art.
Ruth will be having an exhibition of her work at Swansea Festival of Stitch. She will be exhibiting with Haf Weighton at The Environment Centre in Swansea. In the run up to the Festival Ruth will also be holding free workshops at The Environment Centre.
Thanks once again Ruth for your time and hospitality. I forgot to take the name down of the tea you gave me – a Thai tea? Anyway, it was lovely, and many thanks to Squig for the cwtches! I do hope the experience of being interviewed wasn’t too traumatic for you!