Working in concert with her surroundings and reflecting her passion for global warming and environmental issues, Hannah Streefkerk uses crochet and embroidery to create unique textile installations. Starting with the small details that most of us would overlook, Hannah painstakingly builds her pieces bit-by-bit until they fulfill her creative vision.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I grew up in a big family where both my parents always stimulated us to play with paper, textiles and other materials. We did not have a television, so I kept myself busy with craft, reading and playing outside.
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In school my favorite subjects were drawing and craft, and in some way I always have known that I want to do something more with that. A teacher once said to my parents that if Hannah could not be an artist she would be unhappy. This teacher was right. When I am not working as an artist, I am not that happy. After high school I applied for art academy and got accepted. Since then I can hardly remember days not working with art.
Have you always worked with textiles?
No, not at all.
My mother taught me some textile techniques and as a child I liked it, but not more than paper or wood or any other material. In the art academy I studied interdisciplinary art and worked a lot with sculpture and installations with digital “materials”.
In 2002 I had an exhibition in the Art Centre of Groningen in The Netherlands. I created an interactive installation about love with a lot of computers and other “cold” materials.
To make this installation a little bit more “warm” I embroidered some pillows to sit on. I embroidered with cross stitches some love scenes. While embroidering this I realized that I missed feeling real materials in my hand, and after this exhibition embroidery came into my work and the computer almost left. Since that time I use more and more textiles and it feels almost of coming home.
Textiles feel so natural to work with for me.
How does your study of sculpture connect with your textile work?
The world around me is 3-D.
I like to be part of a room, a landscape or other environment. It is for me quite difficult to translate ideas in my head to 2-D work; I simply prefer 3-D. I like to understand depth, backsides, shadows, etc.
Most people will think about 2-D when talking about embroidery: maybe a nice picture for on the wall. I like to explore the more sculptural aspects of these kinds of techniques. It is also a kind of looking where the limits of a material and technique are.
How does your thought process differ when creating 2-dimensional work versus installations?
I don’t think there is much difference there. Mostly an idea grows in my head and forms a kind of picture of the finished work.
When I have the picture of a piece in my head I will do some testing. My head is not always able to figure out how things work in reality so the testing is necessary.
This process is almost always the same for all the work I make. I don’t think I think so much like; let’s create a 2-D work, or let’s make an installation. The idea comes first and the idea then decides the final form.
What do you notice first when you come to a new place?
A few years ago I could not have answered this question, but now I know it.
At that time I had an exhibition together with my husband. He is a sculptor and often makes huge works in wood. His theme looks a lot like mine and when we were walking around in our exhibition and reflected about it, I got this clear thought.
At that moment I realized that I always start with the small details, mostly on the ground. My head cannot take the complete picture at once so I start safely with small details. My husband is the opposite; he takes the big patterns around him in first.
I also realized that I feel it is almost impossible to get the entire surroundings in me. Maybe I never really pass the small details part.
Is there a time of day when you are most inspired?
I am a real morning person, so that is the part of the day when my head is most clear.
The feeling of having just woken up immediately gives me this itchy feeling that I want to start working. I feel always curious what today’s work will bring me.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Does your work have stories to tell? How does that affect your approach?
The most recurring theme in my work is our environment. I am really concerned about global warming and other environmental issues, and in one way or another they come back in my work.
Slow techniques like embroidery and crocheting help me feel a project is worthwhile to spend time on. I like when people almost feel a kind of shame when they look at my work and understand that it costs a lot of time. I hope they feel that they have to invest time in what is important. It is a bit difficult to express exactly in English what I mean but I hope you understand it.
When I get new ideas they can come from newspapers. When I read for example that the amount of plankton is decreasing, I start reading about plankton and this can result in a new work.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Ah, tricky question. I hope that people recognize my work because of the message in it. I am not sure I do so much that is different. When I look around and look at work of others I can be “jealous” of their skills or that they create huge works.
Maybe a part of my signature is my love for nature.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Both, I guess. Most works start as a kind of picture in my head, but this picture can only grow because I also try a lot of things. I can work very structured, but at the same time I can get very tired of myself while doing it, so then I throw the organized part away and start playing.
I love to play with materials and ideas.
Maybe it is a bit 50/50%, depending on my mood, on the work, on the location. For outside works I need to do a lot of improvising because my plans never really work, but that makes it exiting to do. I need the challenge.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
As soon as there is an idea in my head I can let it grow for a while and when I have a quite clear image of it, I start testing. The testing helps the idea in my head get sharper.
I continue this process until I am about 80% sure, and then I start working on it for real. During this last stage, works usually change a lot anyway. A work is never 100% clear until it is ready, and sometimes not even then. I have a few works which I still don’t understand myself, but I had to make them.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
I once applied for the Environmental Art Biennial in I-park, East Haddam, CT, USA. It was a bit in the beginning of my career of working outside, and I applied quite quickly with the idea that I wanted to mend trees. Until then I only had done some mending on photos of damaged nature.
When I applied with this idea I had no idea how I should mend trees. I got accepted and visited the USA for the first time in my life. To find a tree which needed some mending was the easy part, but then…I really had no idea how to make stitches in a tree.
After some thinking I figured out that I could drill small holes and press the yarn into these holes. This worked after a few trials. The feeling of drilling in a tree was not so good so I talked to a lot of tree-knowing people and they told me drilling just in the bark does not harm the tree.
Another problem I got with that work was that the local yarn shop had only brown acrylic yarn. Acrylic’s tension when the yarn gets wet was not as tight as I wanted it, so I really had to gave the stitches a lot of tension while pressing them in the holes. Afterwards I learned that a woolen yarn does not give this problem.
I worked two weeks on my first tree, and afterwards I wanted to mend another tree in the area of I-park. I found another tree which could use some mending and started again with making stitches. This time I felt that it did not look good at all. The stitches used on the first tree were perfect for mending that specific tree, but on the second tree they looked wrong.
After some trying I decided to crochet a kind of band aid for this tree with a yarn that had texture that looked a bit like the texture of the tree. This band aid I attached with small nails. Finally the result was good.
Normally when I have enough time I don’t feel so much pressure, but these works gave me a lot of stress. I had only 3 weeks to finish an artwork. Since that work I have worked many times in this kind of symposium and it always gives a kick and at the same time it is stressful. You come into a new situation, have no clue how the landscape looks and you only have a certain amount of time.
How do you seek out opportunities?
I am a member of Ainin, an organization of artists working in nature. In their newsletter there are opportunities. I also google a lot for options. In the beginning of my career I was happy for everything; now I am more picky. I want a good payment and good conditions, otherwise it is impossible for me to travel, etc.
One of the boring aspects of being an artist is to apply. I prefer when organizations ask directly (but that does not happen that often). Sending in applications costs a lot of time and most times you get a no.
Are you able to work full-time at your art, or does your art share time with a day job?
Although I earn with my art, I do still need another job, so I work 60% as a craft teacher in a primary school. Maybe some months I would manage to survive on art, but it is so uncertain that the teaching work is needed.
In some ways it is okay; I don’t have to stress about making a living of art. I am afraid that that pressure would block my creativity. On the other hand, I can be frustrated at working in school. I am so tired after a working day that I can forget my own work — at least I am too tired to come up with new ideas. I can do some crocheting and embroidery when an idea is already in mind.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have a studio about 20 km from my house. It is in a very small old industrial place next to a small river. I like biking so I like to bike to my “work” so I have my training done before I start working.
The complete studio has several rooms. One room is the wood studio with machines and a bigger open place. A smaller room is my textile room. This room has a big table and a sofa. This room has also a small stairs to the split level part where all my yarns are stored.
The last room in this studio is the storage room. Here all the earlier made works are stored. I share this studio with my husband but he is almost never there as he is writing a book at the moment. I like the studio to be clean and a bit organized.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
The open spaces on the walls and in the room invite me to try new things. Sometimes I can think there are too many things on the wall, so then I clean up.
Usually I want the studio quite clean and organized. I cannot work in chaos, so I clean up afterwards. The bigger the open spaces are, the bigger my work gets.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I am in love with my box with needles and my thin crochet hooks. I feel very rich when I look at these tools. The crochet hooks I bought once in Australia when I was there for participating at Sculpture By the Sea. They cost a fortune, but it is a souvenir in my style.
I also like my boxes with yarn. These boxes are very organized and I am almost embarrassed to show this to people. I sort them by material and color. I found it helpful with this way to organize yarns. It makes the selection easier.
I always buy my materials second-hand and I really have a lot of yarns. When they are not organized, it is impossible to find what I need. The last thing you want when you are working is to look for materials too long.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
When I don’t have to think, just produce, I always listen to audiobooks. The audiobooks can be all kind of books; I am not so picky as long as I like the voice. When I have to think, I prefer silence. Music makes me very tired in my head so I hardly listen to music.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Yes, and I like it. I teach and give lectures; just email me and propose something. You can find my contact details on my website www.hannahstreefkerk.viewbook.com
Interview posted January 2021
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