Spotlight: Jilli Blackwood, Textile Artist and Designer
Jilli Blackwood’s story offers a glimpse into her determination to make a successful go of life as a textile artist. From her art school work in embroidery and weaving, Jilli has gone on to create for private and corporate clients, including dressing a 350-person cast as Director of Costume for the Commonwealth Games Flag Handover Ceremony.
Has the Covid-19 health pandemic played a role in your creative life?
I have tried on a number of occasions since lockdown commenced here in Scotland on the 23rd March 2020 to answer Create Whimsy’s questions about my creative life. Each time I sat at the computer, I felt my energy drain completely. I have been struggling with thoughts such as, “what is the point in what I am doing?” My work felt it had lost relevance and I was experiencing a creative block for the first time in my life.
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Let’s go back to the beginning. Why do you create with textiles? How did you get started?
I really want to tell you everything about myself but as my career now spans 34 years it will not be possible to do this in one interview. I hope, however, I can bring you a flavour of how I think and create. In 1986, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts first class honours degree from the world renowned ‘The Glasgow School of Art’ where I specialised in embroidery and weave.
I left Art School with a great body of work, immense enthusiasm, energy, totally ignorant and completely naive. These are perfect qualities to possess when starting out. I got out there and with luck, persistence and dogged determination, I have exhibited my work across the globe in the USA, Canada, UK, Italy and Japan. I have been commissioned by both individuals and organisations, and my work is held in numerous private client, corporate and Government collections.
My background played a part in choosing the medium of fibre. I grew up in a house surrounded by textiles and pattern. The Italian mosaic floors had a different mosaic design, colour and pattern in each room. Persian rugs clothed the floors, and an old tapestry from our family hung in the drawing room. Colour and texture surrounded me. This must have been one of the reasons why I had such an affinity with fibre from a formative age.
I was drawn towards the embroidered and woven textile department because of the variety of creative output being produced by the students at their end of year degree show. I could see how versatile textile as a medium could be. My varied career dipping in and out of fine art textiles, the craft market and the design worlds is illustrated in my resume which you can find on my website.
I have worked on projects with Heathrow Airport, the World Anti Doping Agency and I dressed Team Scotland for the 2014 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony (the second most major sporting event after the Olympics).
One of my favourite design projects happened in 2010. I was invited to be the Director of Costume for the Commonwealth Games Flag Handover ceremony in Delhi, where the flag was being passed from Delhi to Glasgow to mark the next big event.
I dressed 350 cast members for an 8 minute performance in front of 60,000 people present in the stadium and watched on television by one billion people around the world. I dressed the cast in a red embroidered contemporary digitally printed Scottish tartan. The performance was a huge success. The Delhi papers stated, ‘We stole the show.’ We also stole all the front pages in Delhi and back home. I was so proud that an embroiderer had played a big part in making this a Scottish success.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
Where do my ideas and inspiration come from? This is something I don’t analyse. But for me it always starts with a feeling. It can feel like an itch I need to scratch but just can’t reach it at first. Then one day, I know how to begin and what to do. I used to describe when ideas came to me it felt like a bolt of lightning – it came from above. It is divine inspiration! Perhaps that is how I do it and how the ideas come to me, but I also think working continuously informs new work.
How do you leap from from an idea in your head to the art you produce? Does inspiration appear suddenly, or does it sneak up on you?
I rarely use sketching for inspiration but there are times where there is a need to pick up a pencil and mark make, be free, move away from fibre and let the mind wander in another medium and direction. I quickly put the drawings into a folder and forget them. But I think the memory of the action of drawing lives on in the mind and unconsciously the drawing can appear in a section of a fibre work of art.
Writing down how I find inspiration is very hard as I don’t think I am good at expressing myself on paper. I much prefer to explain in person in front of an audience. I think that’s when people get me. They see me talking about my work, so they see the whole me. They see the energy, the action, the fun that I have and the frustration that comes along with being creative and maintaining it.
At the beginning of lockdown, I lost energy and enthusiasm for my practice but I found myself turning to more practical matters in my home which also houses my studio. I knew that painting my windows, my hall, organising every fabric and fibre I possess into organised sized pieces was my way back into creating work again. It was the itch that I felt.
I have been working on a hexagon piece for 7 or 8 months now. This wall hanging has changed so many times during this period, stopping and starting but a thought crossed my mind. I knew I needed a particular colour of blue silk in a particular weight and lustre and it was in one of those boxes in two rooms which are full of fabric. It took me two weeks kneeling in my hall going through the fabric, collecting odd bits, big bits, medium sized bits until I began to unearth the blue I needed. I am one of these people, I finish what I start. It was boring at times but I knew if I could achieve and complete this job I would be mentally stronger for starting work again.
There are lots of layers and raw edges in your work. What led you to adding texture in that way?
To what led me to add texture in this way, well it all began for me in 1985 when I had the opportunity to meet with the iconic fashion designer Miss Jean Muir in her London showroom in Bruton Street, in London’ s Mayfair. Miss Muir looked at my small collection of rather scrappy samples I had brought with me and she honed in on a 3 inch square texture at the bottom of one of my designs and clearly said to me, “I would like to see this in a metre square, emmhh!”
I remember feeling rather surprised at the manner in which she delivered this information but I also wanted to know what was wrong with the rest of it? I couldn’t get back to Glasgow fast enough to collect the fabrics, go to the dye area, then begin working on this texture so I could see exactly what Miss Muir’s vision had been.
Meeting Miss Muir was a pivotal moment in my life. I believe she set me on my path. After the creation of that first work, the 39 inch square of wool crepe and linen scrim embroidered fabric, I couldn’t stop as more and more ideas poured out of me.
My creative process is very physical. It’s not about sitting still and working at a table. I like to work on the floor spreading everything out before me. Then I reach a point and the work must go up on the wall. I need to step back and evaluate what I am doing from a distance.
The movement of the work from floor to wall happens time and time again. Usually my palette of hand dyed fabrics are mixed up in bundles around the studio. I pull out all sorts of different coloured silks, cotton, linen, wools and sometimes leather. My eye is running across the surface of the fabrics as I look around the studio and a thought pops into my head. “That’s the piece I am looking for,” I think, and off I go.
You combine hand and machine stitch. What determines which you will use at any particular time?
Another very important part of my process is the ‘unembroidering’ stage. (Unembroidering is one of my made-up words). This stage is the removal of surface texture and stitch. I can’t emphasize enough how significant a role this form of embroidering plays in the execution of my work and forms part of my signature style.
As frightening as undoing hard work is, there is a little voice inside my head willing me on, telling me to risk it in order to lift the piece to greater heights so it will be more impactful and speak to the viewer. The work always leads the way. I have a vision and I know within myself when a fibre piece is working.
I could carry on and on about my creative process but the thing is, I don’t have a set way of working. Instead, how I feel drives me. “What exactly do I want to achieve today?” is the question I ask of myself. Some days the answer is nothing and I choose to embrace this as I know not to force creativity and instead let it come to me. The days when it comes, it is all consuming, and I am in a flow state of creativity.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
Which artists do I admire? I don’t trawl social media and websites looking at what my contemporaries are up to because I don’t want their work to influence mine. But what I do like to do is read and watch videos about artists from the past, people like Matisse, Picasso, Rothko and others to hear about their lives and how they made work, coped with frustration and creativity blocks. Reading and learning about others really helps me to understand myself and why I do what I do.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
This is my fourth website and the first one that has a news page. I am afraid I have not written a post since last May. I find writing such an enormous effort in comparison to creating a work of embroidered art.
Social media… well, I have been dragged kicking and screaming into this. I am a very private person really, but realise that one must have a presence on some of the platforms at least. So you can find me on Instagram @jilliblackwood.art and Facebook Jilli Blackwood Textiles. I do love when someone decides to follow me. I am still finding my social media voice and this has been quite a learning curve.
My website is www.jilliblackwood.com. I am very proud of it and I hope visitors to the site will see how different all my pieces are and how I am working to help raise the profile of the medium of embroidery, textiles and fibre and leave my mark on this world.
Interview posted June 2020
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