Working with unexpected materials and processes is what keeps contemporary embroidery artist Jessica Grady endlessly curious. What about this? What if that? Working largely with discarded and after-market materials, she lets serendipity take over as she layers fibers, threads, hardware, ribbon, handmade sequins and imagination to create tactile gardens of color.
How did you get started making art? Why do you do it? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
I have always enjoyed making and creating things. For me it feels that even if I didn’t do it in a professional capacity I would still be making. So I never intended to become an artist. But after working in textile design for a while, I decided to leave the circle of creating work for others. Instead, I wanted to create work that I loved and enjoyed creating.
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Why textiles? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
The thing that initially made me gravitate towards textiles as a medium is its tactility. I don’t like flat things! Textiles gives that sense of wanting to touch something. So it’s one reason I bring samples to any class I teach or show I exhibit at; sometimes the only way to understand something is to have that connection of touch.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
My recurring theme is always materials and pattern. I work with simple shapes and stitches but enjoy adding small contrasting elements to create a sense of curiosity. My work is generally abstract in nature with some suggestions of more organic forms. So anyone who looks at my pieces can decide what it looks like and represents to them.
Why is it important to you to use recycled materials in your work? Most people would describe embroidery as a traditional art. How do you make traditional embroidery stitches work with unexpected materials? What are some of the most surprising elements you use?
The textile industry in general is highly polluting and has a huge negative impact on the environment. So using waste and recycled materials is the small bit that I can do to ensure I minimise my impact and create work with a sustainable ethos.
Traditional embroidery and unusual materials pair really well together. It’s all about the unexpected and simplifying an idea to try it with something out of the ordinary. My favourite materials include recycled wetsuits, expired oxygen tubing, fire engine vinyl as well as bouncy castle and trampoline offcuts.
How did you learn to embroider? What were the ups and downs of that process?
I learnt as a child but did not do anything significant with textiles until I went to university to study a textiles degree. It was there that I learnt properly taught stitch ideas as well as the other disciplines within textiles. Those include print design, weave, knit and stitch. I am left-handed, so it was a struggle to create an embroidery stitch from a pattern made for someone right-handed. It is probably one of the reasons I am ambidextrous – because I had to learn to use both of my hands.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
My work uses strong colour and pattern, as well as unusual and recycled materials that I create for embellishments. I call myself an embroidery artist but am a very untraditional one. I enjoy that juxtaposition of working with a historical skill but twisting it into a contemporary fashion through material use and application.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I am in the middle of a studio build in the garden of my new house. One reason we bought our house was the lovely garden and outbuilding that could become a great work space. I like having that slight separation between home and work because otherwise the work never stops! When my space is completed, it will have lovely natural light, lots of storage and a long desk and work space so I can have in-progress pieces as well as a spot for workshop prep and filming.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My cutter for creating sequins is my most used piece of equipment. It helps me cut and shape the sequins that I use for all pieces of work and workshops I teach. Before I discovered it, I used to hand cut or punch shapes with large paper punches. The cutter speeds up my prep time so I have more stitching time, and it prevents finger blisters caused by using scissors for hours on end.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I often work on loose leaf papers and bundle sheets into sketchbook ideas as well as loose fabric samples. I am not a planner in any way and instead like to evolve ideas naturally through experimentation and process.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Generally speaking, I like to work without any background noise. Sometimes having any sort of music, etc., can just pull me from my train of thought. I like to be hyper-focused when I work. The only occasional noise will be from from cats, most likely snoring on the floor next to my desk!
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
A absolute anti-planner! The idea of planning to me creates that preconceived notion of what something is going to look like in your head. This throws me off and stops me from changing elements as I stitch a piece of work together. So I work in layers and samples – trying out ideas is the only way I can see them coming together.
What are your goals for your art?
I would like to continue to grow and expand my business, reaching more people and being able to travel and teach more workshops as well as exhibit my work across the world. I would also like to create larger works that are more interactive and immersive pieces.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think everyone can be creative, but creativity is a huge spectrum and some elements of it are more naturally occurring and intuitive than others. Working hard at anything will create improvement over time, and recognising within yourself what sort of creativity you enjoy is a great first step. A lot of time I think people who are afraid of making mistakes are the ones that will find the freeing aspects of creativity more difficult. It’s one of the reasons I really enjoy working with small children, because they are absolutely fearless in this respect and will give anything a go which is amazing to watch!
How do you get unstuck creatively?
With difficultly! I have several methods I try to use if I have a block. First is always to have a break, some fresh air – a cup of Earl Grey tea and a chocolate biscuit! If that doesn’t work I often reorganise or tidy my work space. This means I pull out materials and samples I may have not seen for a while which can also help get gears turning again. Lastly, I push through and make myself sit and work at something until I break through the discomfort of the block. I always find starting something new an awful process and I will have to keep going. It could take me 3 days to stitch a quarter section of a piece and then 2 hours to stitch the remaining three quarters after everything clicks and slides together in my head.
Tell us about your biggest artistic challenge. What was it, and how did you accomplish it?
As an embroidery artist my personal challenge has always been becoming accepted in the art world. Textiles is seen as the underdog and a lot of galleries and shows won’t even look at an application if you mention the T word! I have learnt that I can challenge these perceptions and showcase how beautiful an art form textiles is – and the amount of skill and hard work that goes into it. This is an ongoing challenge, but I am getting better at selling myself as an artist in general – and researching and knowing the best places for my work to be accepted and appreciated.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
I’d be very interested in interviewing some of the creatives involved in the stitching of historical garments. I am always intrigued when visiting museums to see the intricate stitches and the fact a lot of works were made without electric lights! Vintage embellishments and sequins are stunning and I would love to know some tips and tricks about how these used to be applied and used with fabric.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website lists examples of my collections and community work, as well as links to my shop and current workshop dates. You can view it at: www.jessicagrady.co.uk
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Yes, I do both! I work with education, charities, corporate groups and private organisations to teach workshops around a whole range of transferable skills within stitch, textiles and creativity. You can get in touch with me via email for info and enquiries about any project or idea – [email protected]
Learn more about Jessica and her work:
Email: [email protected]
Interview posted April 2022
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