It’s always a privilege to meet an artist in their own studio, to see and experience the place where they work and have their materials, their tools, their books and inspirational objects. Fiona Rutherford welcomed me in her light-filled, colourful studio in Edinburgh. She is a tapestry artist, with artworks in collections all over the world, most notably including the London’s V&A. Fiona’s tapestries are often bursting with colour, while introducing and developing a motif, an abstract shape which leads you in. Other works are minimalist and they seem more reserved and contemplative. A thread seems to connect the works with each other, forming a personal mythology, a woven narrative.
We talked about the practice of weaving as a form of meditation, about her love of colours and textures, her sources of inspiration, and the events in her life which influenced her artistic choices.
How did you become interested in weaving, how has tapestry weaving entered your life?
In the early 70’s I was a student on holiday in Crete. At that time weaving was still being done by the women in their village homes. I watched fascinated as a black clad woman sat at her simple wooden loom weaving a length of brightly coloured cloth. The wool yarn was rough and tightly spun and was being woven into the traditional Cretan bag used by the islanders. We had no common language but there was a communion in her weaving. I went back the next day and she had finished the cloth and made me a bag that is used and treasured to this day. Weaving was to be my future from that day.
In the 90’s I was looking for a new direction and that is when I changed my technique to tapestry weaving. I was helping as part of a team of weavers on a year long community tapestry project and during that time everything changed in my own creative practice. I found a freedom in tapestry weaving and all the drawings and patterns in my sketchbooks became liberated and I started to work with colour. Until then I had been afraid of how to use colour. Now colour is fundamental to my work.
What inspires you in your works? Which artists do you appreciate or find interesting?
I’m quite eclectic in my sources for inspiration. There is a story to each of my tapestries. I love the intimacy between weaving and story telling so music and words are an important part of my design process.
I went to Japan in 2001 with the Crafts Council and have returned several times both to exhibit my work and for research. The culture, landscape and people have been a major influence on my work. It made me start looking in different ways. In particular the concept of “ma” or the space in between things.
Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois are big influences. They have both led me to thinking about my work in a more sculptural way. I love how Bourgeois incorporates textiles and art in an autobiographical form. I have a photograph of her, an old lady, standing with a large phallus tucked under her arm and a wicked grin on her face. It lifts my spirits every time I look at it!
I have just been to see the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at Tate Modern. I love how she mixes painting, design and textiles so freely. Her approach to creativity is liberating and her use of colour is stunning. I am about to start a new body of work for an exhibition next year and she is my source.
As a practice, what would you compare weaving to?
Sometimes it is like meditation when the mind and body relax into a rhythm and time is forgotten. Like meditation it is a discipline that is learned with practice. Weaving is an extension of your body and if you are tense and upset it will show up as tightness. It is a repetitive action and requires concentration so a large tapestry is physically demanding on the mind and body and can feel like a marathon. That is when you need to think like an athlete as well as an artist and keep fit.
Colour and texture are very important in this practice and in your work. Is there something in the natural world which inspires you in particular?
Interestingly all my commissioned tapestries draw on the landscape for their imagery and inspiration. The colours, shapes, lines, patterns of plants and flowers are a continual source of delight. I like to go into the detail and break them down into more simple abstract forms. The seed pod is a recurring theme. There is something hopeful in that continual cycle of life. I usually draw plants with just a fine black pen.
Can we see a page or two from your sketchbook?
Yes. These pages are just about the pleasure of playing with lines and ideas taken from plants. I quite often write words that may be in my head at the time or catch what is happening outside as I’m drawing. Like a fragment of time captured.
We would like to know more about the reflection and process behind your work. Could you please choose one of your works and share with us how it came about, what inspired you specifically, how you worked on it?
Haiku 1-2-3 were created as part of a body of new work for the Blue exhibition at Flow Gallery, London. There is a rigour to how you use colour and for this exhibition I put aside my familiar vivid colour palate and concentrated on just blue and white. It is my most minimal work and it took a period of months, thinking and drawing, before it felt right. It was a major change for me.
As the title suggests I drew on Japan for my inspiration. The Haiku is a Japanese poem often drawn from nature and is usually only made up from three lines and seventeen syllables that contain an expression of thought or feeling in its simplest form. Poetry and music often inspire my work and help me understand what I’m trying to express.
I only worked with white and four shades of blue cotton and linen yarns. The warp set of 12epi was finer than I normally weave with. I wanted to create a feeling of delicacy like paper or porcelain. It was winter when I started weaving. The white frozen landscape outside suggested fragility and strength at the same time and a stripping away of everything. The colour blue has associations with melancholy and loss but this is not what I was looking for. The tapestries are about vulnerability and uncertainty but never without hope. They balance darkness and light, separation and connection.
These were the most minimal tapestries I had made and they contained my memories of Japan.
An inspirational quote or a personal motto that has guided you in your artistic practice?
Never give up.
You can see more of Fiona’s work at: www.rutherfordtextileart.com