Spotlight: Claire B. Jones, Fiber Artist
At first glance, Claire B. Jones’ sculptural embroidery looks like it must be built on some kind of armature. But Claire engineers her pieces so that they are built entirely of fabric and thread, magically supporting themselves to be viewed from any angle.
Tell us a bit about you and what you do.
I learned to hand sew as a child growing up just outside Paisley in Scotland. Later I trained as a software engineer and now I explore the impact of applying engineering skills to machine stitching. Melding the two, I create forms that are both interesting and a curiosity. The result is self-supporting sculptures created with cotton canvas, thread and a sewing machine.
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How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Starting from my childhood, I have always wanted to be an artist. Considering career choices growing up, artist morphed into wanting to be a draughtsman, cartographer and architect. But life took a different path and I ended up as a software engineer.
Ultimately my interest in sewing resurfaced and on moving to the Pacific Northwest I learned of the Gail Harker Creative Studies Center where I studied Art and Design along with Machine Embroidery. After studying part time for about 8 years, I found that I wanted to create sculptures with a sewing machine. It took me several years to figure out how to do this successfully. But once I did, I was captivated. This became my calling as a full time artist.
Does your background in technology inform your art? Or are they separate compartments of your life?
My background in technology very much informs my artistic process. The methods I learned as an engineer to break down and tackle what can seem an insurmountable problem have enabled me to create self-supporting sculptures with soft materials. I have a very logical bent and spent a few years as a researcher. That helped me be able to tackle the problems on my own and to learn to look at them from different angles when hitting a roadblock. Of course, I did get disheartened numerous times and would have to walk away often for several months at a time. But the problems would always be percolating in the back of my mind until I came up with other possibilities to try.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
Illusion. What happens when we blur the boundaries between the 2-D world of drawing and the 3-D world of sculpture fascinates me. It raises so many questions about the interplay of real shadows along with the drawn shadows. Not knowing where the viewer will be standing, how the piece will be lit, or even what orientation the piece will be placed in, as most of my work has no fixed orientation, is an aspect that I am continuously exploring.
Do you do series work and if so, how does it affect your approach?
Yes. Much of my process is iterative and builds on previous ideas. The results are series of designs that stem from an original idea, but each which has gone on a slightly different path. The iterative approach allows me to focus on one core aspect in a series and explore variations and sometimes subtle changes to see their impact. No series ever seems finished to me; I sometimes return to old ideas with a new viewpoint.
How did you come to use thread as your “paint” on canvas?
I first saw free motion embroidery in a book and the idea of an entire surface created from the simplicity of a stitch blew me away. It was a technique I decided there and then to learn and master, though it took years to achieve. I have always been more drawn to machine sewing over hand stitching. Hand stitching was too tedious for me, but the embroidery aspect was interesting. I might also have a mechanical bent – I find machines interesting, especially old sewing machines which I think can be quite beautiful.
Fiber is typically a two-dimensional art medium. How did sculptural fiber work come about for you?
When studying with Gail Harker, I did a sculptural body of work using paper clay and I found working in 3 dimensions fun and intensely interesting. I started to look for ways to combine this interest in 3-D space with machine stitch. I spent the next several years figuring out how to build a self-supporting sculpture – a fundamental aspect of my artwork.
Why do you want the artwork to be ‘self-supporting’? Why is it important to not use other materials for structural support?
I want it to be about the stitch, not about some other material like wire. The technical challenge for me would be diminished and the curiosity of the viewer would be focused on other aspects. The artwork has a lightness and fragility that it would not have if I included non-fiber materials.
Do you focus on one piece from start to finish or work actively on more than one project at a time?
I have a rule that I am not allowed more than 3 projects on the go at one time. This stops me getting into the land of unfinished objects, although a piece can sit untouched for months at a time taking up 1 of my 3 in progress projects. I like to have more than one project on the go at any one time as some of the work such as applying a pattern or joining an unwilling seam can be tedious and challenging and I find I can only concentrate on it for short periods of time. Having another project on the go means I am never blocked. I can focus on the intricate aspects of one piece in small spurts and interleave it with work on other pieces.
Introvert or extrovert? What was it like for you to show your work for the first time?
I am an introvert, a complete nervous wreck the first time I had to show my work. As part of my studies at the Gail Harker Creative Studies Center we showed our artwork as a requirement at the end of each 2 year class. Not only did we have to show the finished pieces, but we showed our process and sketchbooks to the viewer and had to stand next to our work and interact with the public. This was pretty much my worst nightmare, but over time I started to enjoy it. It also opened me up to being willing to show my sketchbook and samples that are part of my process and often not pretty and neat.
I like showing that art doesn’t just magically happen, it is work, and for me, there are lots of missteps along the path to making a successful piece. I have explored this concept more in the last couple of years by revealing some of the flaws in my artwork in my exhibitions entitled “A Perception of Failure”. Here I invite the viewer to explore and examine their ideas and experiences of failure along with me.
Tell us about your creative space. Do you have a dedicated studio?
I have the most amazing studio space in the attic of my house. Sometimes you need to be able to step away from your art. The attic is the best of all worlds, easily accessible at any time of the day or night and yet I can shut the door on it and forget that it is there when necessary.
What are the most essential things in your studio space?
There are a few essential things in my studio I couldn’t live without. A large supply of tag board and tape to create paper mockups. My two trusted sewing machines, an old Bernina 830 Record that is extremely versatile, and a specialized, fast stitching Juki ZX-271 which is solely for free motion embroidery as it has no feed dogs or presser foot. A sharp pair of scissors, a set of tweezers; thread and cotton canvas and I pretty much have everything I need. I find the simplicity freeing.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
A friend once told me the useful tip – tables are not for storage. I have a large table in my studio and when I find myself fighting to find an inch of it to work on, I know I need to tidy up. This doesn’t come easy to me as I create lots of 3D paper mockups which can cover every part of the table and even the floor space at times. But I have discovered that when my table is clear I am far more inclined to enter my studio and I find it liberating when I can reach for anything and plop it down on the table to work on it. Physical space seems to connect with the mental space in my head and clear out the cobwebs.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I need silence when I am focusing and being creative. However, when I am executing a resolved idea, I enjoy listening to audio books and podcasts. I strive to learn so I seem to only listen to non-fiction in my studio. I was fortunate enough to receive the gift of a speaker which sits on my shoulders; the sound is closer to my ears than the noise of the sewing machine. Now I would be lost without them.
Does your creative work come easily or do you struggle with your ideas? What obstacles (if any) do you experience when you are creating? If you do face obstacles, how do you get past them?
It ebbs and flows. Although I do not lack for ideas and have sketchbooks full of different things I have thought of, sometimes I am unable to choose and focus on just one. This usually results in me jumping around between ideas in a highly unproductive manner.
When I am in this state I just have to work through it. I have no magic bullet to get past it, although I have found tidying my studio can help. The main thing I try to do is just go to my studio, even if I have no idea what I will do when I get there.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce? Do you visualize the completed piece from the start, or does it evolve?
Play and sample. I draw and sketch along with building mockups in paper to try and get the ideas in my head out into something more tangible. So I often play with paper to create sculptural effects. I bend and twist in different ways to see how it impacts the piece. When completely blocked, I sometimes just pick up paper and scissors and see what happens. I was taught to sample in paper along with the rule that it needs to look interesting as a plain white paper mockup. Color and pattern should enhance the piece, not rectify a problem.
How do you make time for creating? Do you try to create daily?
I try to spend between 4-6 hours 5 days a week in my studio at a minimum. When I am doing more challenging design work, I allow myself to do fewer hours than when I am working on producing a resolved piece. I gave up being an engineer about 4 years ago so I could pursue my art full time and I try to hold myself accountable to that.
Where can people see your work?
Currently my work is on display in Museo Gallery in Langley, WA as well as the show North x Northwest at Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, WY. I will also be showing work in Burien, WA later in the year as part of the City of Burien Exhibition Program. Find out more about Claire B Jones and her work on Facebook and her website.
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