Stewart Kelly studied textiles at Liverpool John Moores University and Manchester Metropolitan University. Over the past fifteen years, he has worked primarily with drawing, printing processes, and stitched textiles. Alongside his creative practice, Stewart works in health and education as an artist and tutor.
Stewart’s work observes and documents the human form, recording its contours and expressions; the drawn and stitched lines are an accumulation of observations and experiences. Occasionally figures are visible, but more often a line may represent a gesture or brief moment in time.
Stewart talks influences
I recall having an interest in drawing and making from an early age. As a child, art and history books appealed to my imagination, and I frequently made drawings of the characters featured in historical paintings.
When I was older I began to visit galleries and view artists’ work. I knew at that point I wanted to be an artist and create artworks to exhibit in galleries, museums and public spaces.
Throughout my life, several experiences have impacted my creative practice. The opportunity to travel to many cities in Europe and the USA during my twenties had a positive impact on my creative thinking. I was fortunate to visit many galleries and view artworks that had been influential during my earlier life.
In addition, the chance to collaborate with other artists has taken my work in new and unexpected directions.
It feels pertinent that the human form is the subject of my art, as, in my role as a creative facilitator, I have encountered people of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds in most educational and community settings. I have been commissioned to facilitate projects
in association with schools, colleges, galleries, museums, hospitals and community arts organisations nationwide. In particular, I have worked extensively as an artist in the field of mental health. I have a continuing professional interest in studying how the visual arts can be utilised to enhance an individual’s mental well-being.
Stewart talks training
I maintained an interest in the visual arts throughout my primary and secondary education. After school, motivated by my interest in figure drawing, I decided to enrol in an Art Foundation course. During the course, I was able to develop my drawing skills alongside my interest in textiles and surface design.
I went on to complete a BA (Hons) Fashion and Textiles course at Liverpool John Moores University with a view to pursuing the textiles pathway on the programme. I selected this course as it allowed a considerable amount of creative freedom. Throughout the course I was able to explore different aspects of art and design including life drawing, computer aided design, weaving, dyeing, screen printing, embroidery, and fabric manipulation techniques.
During my BA, I exhibited woven and embroidered textile samples with Indigo Salon at Premiere Vision in Paris. This opportunity allowed me to sell textile samples to designers looking to source fabrics for their forthcoming collections. My clients included Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Lauren Vidal, Sahco Hesslien and Ralph Lauren Home Collection.
During the final year of the course, I focused mainly on producing a series of woven and embroidered sculptural textiles. This body of work was influenced by my figure drawings and allowed me to hone my skill in creating fine art textiles.
After graduating, I received an AHRC bursary to study an MA in Textiles at Manchester Metropolitan University. The course offered me the opportunity to study the correlation between theory and process resulting in my fine art practice. My research involved contemporary theory in relation to my creative work. In addition, the course allowed me to experiment further with drawing, sculpture, and photography in conjunction with my textile practice.
I have continued to exhibit my work in galleries and museums nationwide since 2000.
“The course allowed me to experiment further with drawing, sculpture and photography in conjunction with my textile practice.”
Stewart talks inspiration
Many figurative artists have influenced my work through the years including: David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Henry Moore, Frank Auerbach, Vincent Van Gogh, Paula Rego, Frida Kahlo, Willem de Kooning, Euan Uglow, Richard Diebenkorn, Jenny Saville, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Bill Viola… to name but a few.
Stewart talks process and technique
My current practice is inspired by observing and drawing the human form. I use the drawings as a basis to construct layered surfaces which are created using a range
of media. In particular, I am interested in exploring the effects of layering drawing and stitching. The accumulation of lines results in abstract images which are open to interpretation from the viewer.
Initially, I make observational drawings in response to the figure. I work intuitively to create expressive drawings which aim to capture the subtleties found in both gesture and movement. I record my responses spontaneously, focusing almost entirely on the subject, unaware of the image evolving on the paper. As the lines accumulate and overlap, the image becomes abstracted. The figures become less recognizable, almost camouflaged amongst the multitude of lines. Each mark is unique and documents a moment in time.
I then transform and develop the drawings by cutting, re-assembling and stitching. Existing drawn lines are emphasised with stitch whilst additional lines derived from separate studies are imposed over the surface.
The layers of drawn and stitched lines record an accumulation of observations, mapping encounters and experiences.
The diversity of drawn and stitched marks create unique textures and quality of lines throughout the work. The drawn line is immediate whilst stitching is slower and more reflective.
The pieces are complex and intense in their construction and this process is often a test of physical endurance. The layers of different materials and processes create images which seek to achieve a deliberate ambiguity giving rise to the many possibilities of interpretation. The viewer is encouraged to consider where one process ends and another begins.
The work demands the viewer’s time to understand and interpret the different lines and shadows and make sense of their meaning based upon their own multi-layered experiences. The quality and range of marks encourages the viewer to reflect upon the complexities and expressions found within the spectrum of human nature.
Stewart talks gender
I have always been interested in the ambiguity of textiles, the potential for working in this medium and its ability to transcend the boundaries between fine art, craft, and design.
During my studies, I was influenced by the artists exhibiting in two exhibitions in the USA entitled Boys Who Sew and Men of Cloth. There have subsequently been similar exhibitions in the UK and Europe. The exhibitions consisted of male artists whose work explored cloth and stitch as a means for personal expression.
Motivated by my interest in locating my own practice, I established a correspondence with a couple of the artists featured in these exhibitions. The discussions mainly focused on the implications of male artists using textiles and stitch in a contemporary context.
It highlighted the significance of these exhibitions and how they have contributed towards dissolving the boundaries between gender and creative discipline.
Stewart talks collaboration
Alongside my studio practice, I am occasionally asked to participate in projects and collaborate with other artists.
Re-View Textile is a contemporary artists network based in the North West of England. Members were invited to produce a new series of works in response to the theme Hospitality for the Liverpool Independents Biennial in 2012.
21 members of the group and two invited artists from abroad created work that was wall mounted, free-standing and installation based. It was a collaborative project that linked three or four individuals working together to produce a series of works that were displayed in an exhibition called Hospitality Re-Viewed at the Baltic Creative in Liverpool during the festival. I collaborated with artists Sue Beck and Diana Heredia on three works.
“Alongside my studio, practice I am occasionally asked to participate in projects and collaborate with other artists.”
Between the Sheets was the second of the three works I collaborated on. Initially, Diana created a large cushion out of vintage linen. Secondly, I hand and machine embroidered a quilted cover for the cushion utilising text composed by Diana. Finally, Sue created the figure which lay across the piece.
We decided not to communicate during the process of making the works; however, I later documented my experience of receiving and developing the piece for the exhibition catalogue:
I inherited a huge round white cushion which resided in the centre of my studio floor. Despite its presence, it remained anonymous to me. A poem composed by the artist accompanied the object and offered an insight into its identity. The text recalled childhood memories and described an intimate space which offered comfort and reassurance. The re-appropriation of bed linen inherited from childhood was symbolic and the object became the embodiment of precious memories.
I produced a quilt, a comfort blanket to envelop and protect this sacred object. Intimate words were transcribed through stitch over the surface. They spiral in repetition as though experienced in a dream.