Determined to widen fine art circles to accept felted paintings in gallery and exhibition settings, fiber artist Moy Mackay blended her training as an artist with her love of creating original textile pieces. With color, texture and detail, Moy’s landscapes, still lifes and more truly capture her subjects in a painterly way. But she does it all with wool fibers, needle and thread. Generous with her knowledge, Moy teaches aspiring felting artists how to paint with fiber.
How did you start creating with textiles? Always an artist, or was there a “moment”?
Born into a very creative family, I was tutored in all things art and craft from a very young age. My mother was, and at 84 still is, a keen crafter. She has possibly tried all crafts known to man, so therefore I too have a knowledge of many. My father was, and at 91 still is, a creative soul with a keen interest for interior design and carpentry. So I grew up watching him design and build all sorts of innovative interiors.
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Though possibly my biggest influence on a practical level was my late uncle John Prentice who was an artist. He taught me how to paint from in his rural studios in the West of Scotland to the great outdoors. It was he who gave me a passion for skies and texture.
When and why did your work shift from printed textiles to felting as fine art?
With a good grounding in drawing and painting, I studied something new at art school, a trade as it were. I applied for printed textiles as my specialist subject within the Design department at Glasgow School of Art. (Although, as a lover of all art forms, I think I would have happily done any of the courses offered.) Here I learned textile design and various forms of printing. Textile design and repeat screen printing was the main part which was a great thing to learn. However, it’s not the easiest thing to do after art school without access to a fully equipped print studio.
During my time at art school my work developed more towards hand painting onto fabric. I was trying to combine my love of painting with my love of colour and texture. During that time, I also travelled to India and Nepal where I learned hand and block printing techniques. That furthered my desire to create more one-off textile pieces rather than repeated patterns.
There was a divide in the art school and beyond between what was and was not fine art. To me all art forms have always been equally worthy. So maybe I subconsciously set out to create an art form that married the two.
How does your formal art education help your work develop? Does it ever get in the way?
Whilst a formal education is not essential to be a successful artist, I do appreciate my years at art school. I was introduced to many mediums and techniques which I would have never otherwise known about. In addition, I had time to develop as an artist without worrying about making a living at the same time.
Glasgow School of Art was an amazing place to study. The school had a great work ethic that it instilled in students from the word go. I think having studied there certainly has helped me rather than ever getting in the way. A mention of it, with its worldwide reputation, certainly is a plus and may well have opened a few doors for me along the way.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
Currently my main inspiration is the landscapes that surround me. Landscapes have been my main interest from my early painting years. They continue to be so, although I do enjoy creating still life, floral and the odd animal piece as well. A beautiful vista, sky, sunset or simply an uplifting composition inspire me greatly..
Usually where I find beauty and a sense of peace are the places I want to recreate for others to enjoy. Scotland is an amazing and constant source of inspiration with the ever-changing seasons, often 4 in one day! The further north you go into the Highlands of Scotland the more stunning and extreme it gets.
What inspires you to create? What role do your surroundings play in your work?
My surroundings are my inspiration. Currently, with the lack of travel I have looked to my surroundings more here at home in the Scottish Borders which is another exquisite part of this country. Not as mountainous as the Highlands, but certainly as inspirational. You do not have to travel far around here to find a new equally stunning location, so I am confident that I will never exhaust, lack or tire of inspiration on my own doorstep.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Over thirty years ago I started to develop what I call felted paintings, or feltings (for want of a better word). I wanted to create paintings that looked like paintings, but were in fact not made with any paint. I have been developing these feltings for a long time and they are still developing. My work may stand out as mine as it was something new; certainly the way I presented the work was new. My goal was to have galleries accept my work as a credible art form. In the past, anything textile or craft was not taken seriously. So in a way it was trying to “pull the wool over the eyes” of those who had that that pre-conception. It worked, and many established galleries who had historically never given non-paint paintings the time of day welcomed my work.
When you incorporate embroidery into your felt paintings, do you know from the beginning what direction stitching will take? Or does the felted work inform your stitch decisions? Are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I think I can safely say I am not a planner. I have an idea of course, generally from a photo, sketch or memory. Other than that, I just let the feeling take me and go with the flow. I think this medium, whilst forgiving, certainly has a mind of its own. So taming or pre-empting any end result is a big no-no. I like the unknown part of the wet felting process. When it comes to adding fine line detail with stitch, I let the existing fibres inform pretty much where the detail will go.
Having taught many people this art over the years I have learned that those who come with definite ideas of an end result are the ones who are going to have the toughest journey. It is a bit like magic I believe. If you trust in the process and let it flow then all works out well. Well, that is certainly my experience.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, including The Art of Moy Mackay: An Inspirational Guide to Painting with Felted Fibres and Stitch?
I would say the most important thing to take from my books, or any such books is, once you have mastered the techniques, continue to develop what you have learned. Then make it into a style that is truly unique to yourself. How-to books are great to start people off, for sure. However, that is only the beginning. Once you are on the path, and confident with the techniques and processes, then it is about taking what you have learned and developing it further. The most rewarding feeling, as an artist, is to know you have created something unique and personal to you. In time a signature style will develop which is always a treat to see in students work.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I am very fortunate to have two studio spaces at the moment. One is a studio joined to my house and that I have been working from for a few years. The other is a new smaller garden studio that I had built during lockdown. The intention was to have a studio for non-work work. I have great mosaic projects in mind and I want to paint for pleasure when I find time. I figured these do not go hand in hand with my nice clean felting materials. As my new space is so light and airy I seem to have moved my sewing machine up there so for now it has become a work space.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
A set of carders are possibly the most important tools for me as I use them to mix and blend colours. Without them it would be a bit like a painter without a palette. Another must for me and for the sake of my body is my own felting tool which I call the Mool. I have been developing it over the years and found time to produce some during lockdown. I have used other felting tools, but recognised what was missing for my own felting method. So I am finally using something that ticks all the boxes. Most importantly, it takes the hard work out of the felting process. By using my Mool it has cut down the time I spend rubbing and rolling to virtually minutes. That leaves me more time to spend on the actual creating, which is what I enjoy doing most.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
Sketchbooks, or visual diaries as I like to call them are a must. Having a sketchbook with you to document ideas, colours, compositions and notes can be a handy resource to refer to when you are starting a new piece of work. Photos are good but not photos alone as there is so much more information to consider when you are gathering inspiration. Even if you do not work from them directly in the end, the very nature of documenting more details gives you a better sense of place and understanding of the environment you plan to work from.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I am a bit of an audiobook junkie at the moment. Seems like I signed up twice by mistake so have double the monthly allowance of book credits to get through. I love reading but never seem to find time to pick up a book. If I read in bed I generally read just a chapter before I fall asleep, so audiobooks are a brilliant way to experience books whilst creating at the same time. I also listen to music at times, and sometime just the birdsong from my garden.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website has been a bit of a labour of love that I add to over the years as work develops and I add new aspects of my business. I have a gallery where I exhibit work from a large collection of other artist and makers, so these are all included in the online gallery. Online tutorials, projects and workshops are all there too, along with anything else I may be involved in, be that tutoring in other parts of the world or retreats hosted by myself at my studio. Updating new work is a constant and I look forward to the day I find someone that will take over that role from me.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Again, a positive of lockdown was that I was able to finally find the time to be in one place for long enough to work on a series of online courses which I had been planning for some time. I was extremely fortunate to have someone locked down with us who could film and edit, so we managed to film my first 6-week course which was a great success. I had students from all over the world who, along with becoming masters of this art, also created an international friend group who continue to offer each other support within their creative journey. It has been a real privilege to be part of this journey.
I am often invited to lead workshops around the world and, as a keen traveler, am generally keen to accept if I can. Details of all my online courses, projects, studio workshops and retreats are on my website along with information on hosting a workshop.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
To start, I have the idea, usually derived from a place I have been, something that has inspired or excited me. Colours usually play an important role here. Often it will be the colours that speak to me first.
The actual composition can be secondary. I will select my colour palette from my fibres so everything is at hand before I start. I work directly onto my base building up layers of blended fibres to create my painting. Just as a painter would apply paint to a canvas, I apply the fibres to my base. Not really much difference in my mind.
Once I am happy with the composition, I cover it with mesh and then apply soap and hot water. That is where the magic happens. By means of rubbing and a bit of rolling the fibres join to make the piece come together. The spontaneity of this process is what I particularly enjoy as every piece carries an element of surprise. The rubbing of the fibres brings a movement that paint would be hard pressed to match.
After I wash out the soap and the now-durable piece is dry, I continue to add detail using needle felting. This is where I add shading and finer detail using barbed needles that attach fibres where the design requires them.
I add further fine lines and embellishment using free motion stitching which is where I basically am drawing freehand with a sewing machine and thread instead of a pen or pencil.
Finally, I add finer texture and embellishment using hand stitching. Four different process are involved in creating my felted paintings. Each is building onto the previous, resulting in a textured painting of extreme depth and warmth.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
Frida Kahlo. She has always intrigued me on so many levels (long before this current Fridamania) from her uniquely colourful uncompromising style, her paintings, especially her self-portraits and her marvelous spirit.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I strongly believe everyone has creativity within them. Some, it comes more naturally to admittedly, but, like everything it required hard work and a self-belief to make it happen. I have taught way too many people who have been told they are no good at art at school and have gone through life believing it and therefore not doing it. That is so sad, a life without creativity in it. It’s like playing an instrument. We do not just pick up an instrument and can play a tune. It requires practise so, why should art be any different? I often find it funny when people say how lucky I am. I answer how funny it is that the harder I work the luckier I get.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
Firstly, to believe we are all capable of anything we want to be. Some may think it a bit mad but I truly believe that anyone can achieve anything if the intent, trust and belief is there. In my experience, having gone through most of my life with this belief has made everything a whole lot easier. It feels a bit like magic. Just by believing. Same goes when some of my fibres get washed away down the plughole at the rinsing stage. Instead of getting upset I tell myself these bits were not meant to be there, and then all is well.
Teaching can be a real insight to how we can be our biggest worst enemies. Some students can stop their own progression and enjoyment of the process by setting themselves unrealistic goals or by just not trusting in themselves. Some students complain because their results are not exactly like mine. Pointing out that I have actually been practising, almost daily, for over 50 years can get my point over. These things are not instant, thank goodness.
The enjoyment is in learning and being aware of personal development along the way. The rewards of hard work, commitment and self-belief are there for everyone who chooses to have faith in themselves.
One of the most rewarding parts of sharing this art with others (I never really intended to be teaching) is being able to help others tap into their own creativity, especially if they were convinced they were devoid of it. Having taught possibly thousands of students I can honestly say I have never met anyone that has not responded well to this medium with a bit of encouragement. I feel so privileged to be part of bringing creativity to those who had given up on it.
Online courses and workshops
Products, felting tools, kits, books etc.
Learn more about my forthcoming Trees in Felt & Stitch online course
Learn more information on my forthcoming Winter Landscapes in Felt & Stitch online course
Facebook: Moy Mackay Artist
Interview posted August 2021
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