Shelley Rhodes has always found joy in making art. Inspired by her world at hand, Shelley’s contemporary mixed media art includes fragments, scraps and objects observed in her environment that she translates into her own interpretation of the shapes and lines she sees. Drawn, painted, printed or stitched, everyday materials – with lots of practice and experimentation – become Shelley’s cohesive body of work.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I was discouraged from taking art qualifications at school, as I was deemed ‘bright enough’ to take academic subjects, so I was encouraged to study science and mathematics. It suddenly hit me while I was studying for Advanced Level qualifications that what I really wanted to do was art. I switched subjects in 6th Form and crammed 4 years of exams into 2 years and applied to go to Art College. This was to the dismay of my teachers, but my parents were really supportive, particularly my mum who had always loved art but ‘not been allowed’ to follow her dreams and was told to ‘get a proper job’.
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I have loved every minute of my artistic career and have never regretted that decision. Follow your dreams, do what you love and it will never feel like work!
What inspires you to create? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
I just love making and creating, so I do it every day, whether it is for an exhibition, publication, making workshop samples or purely for the joy of making art every day.
I am often inspired by nature and the environment but also things that I find while walking and exploring. These could be tiny fragments, scraps, inconsequential mundane objects that may have interesting colours or marks. I record what I see but interpret it in my own way, often simplifying or extracting repetitive shapes and lines. This could be through drawing, printmaking, creating small assemblages or stitched marks.
I return time and time again to the concept of repair – joining small fragments and mending, inspired by Japanese Boro and kantha making.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I think for me it is always attention to detail. I like to curate my found objects, carefully selecting, dismissing and arranging; and I suppose I do the same with my artwork. If I make a drawing or sketch and I am not happy with the balance or colours, I rework it. I may fragment and re-join, add collage or work over the top with paints or pastels.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
I belong to a group called The Textile Study Group www.textilestudygroup.co.uk – a group of 25 artists. We meet twice a year and invite highly acclaimed artists to work with us. These meetings are sometimes challenging and often help me to look at my work from a new perspective. I am always willing to learn and listen to talks and attend workshops, but I like to pick out and extract the things that work for my practice and direction as an artist.
It is important as you explore new ideas and techniques to find your own way and ultimately develop your own style and way of working. I also meet with a couple of artist friends about once a month and we show and discuss our work. Sometimes just that act of talking about your own work can help with moving it forward, or there may be a suggestion that sparks an idea that you hadn’t thought of.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your book, Sketchbook Explorations for Mixed Media and Textile Artists? How do you use sketchbooks in your own practice?
I really want readers of my book to feel encouraged to work in sketchbooks. Some people are fearful of starting, but I show that there are many different forms that a ‘sketchbook’ can take. If readers feel that their drawing skills are not good enough, I suggest arranging collections, using collage, simple printmaking or text as well as working on separate sheets of paper or in small notebooks.
Just getting started is sometimes the hardest thing, then it is just a matter of practice which helps you to grow in confidence. Like anything you do in life, the more you do it the better you get at it, decisions about what material to use become easier. You understand more how media work and how they react on different surfaces. You discover what colour combinations and palettes work for you and make your heart sing.
My small daily creative act could be a drawing, print, collage, sketch, arrangement of a collection, small stitch samples or simple mark-making. I love working in sketchbooks and usually work in several simultaneously.
I like to work quite small, so I have a small square book [15 x 15cm] that I use for my daily artwork. This small size make the task achievable and not too daunting. I also always keep a ‘workbook’ – a larger A3 book which I think of a place to keep all my ongoing ideas, notes, sketches, diagrams, photographs of ongoing samples and development as well as little tests and sampling of materials. A few of those are on the go with different themes, such as Landscape, Wear and Tear, as well as my most recent one which is full of ideas about coral bleaching and ocean plastic. I always take a small book when I travel – usually a small handmade concertina style.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I usually have a plan but am always very willing to deviate from it. I often get side tracked off onto other things completely but will usually come back to the original idea and finish that off eventually. Some ideas seem to take me years to complete and some are never completed but amended.
My work does not seem to follow a linear path, but can sometimes go round in circles and sometimes there are offshoots. I never seem stuck for the next project of piece of work as ideas are constantly evolving from my ongoing work.
How do you prepare yourself for a session of creative work?
I gather together all the materials I think I will need but really, I try to just get started. Making work leads to other ideas and when procrastination strikes, I find it best to just start some drawing, mark-making or printing. Sometimes I make a list of words or start playing with small scraps of fabric – stitching, pinning or manipulating in some way.
There is a great quote by artist Chuck Close that says, “If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens.”
So, I just start making and see what emerges. Quite often one thing leads to another: the act of creating sparks new ideas and may lead to something unexpected and rewarding.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have a lovely studio converted from an old stone stable block at the back of my house. That is where I do some of my teaching. I can accommodate 8 students, but this means I have to keep it relatively clutter free. So, I also have a dedicated room in my house which is crammed full of materials, inspiration and where I have my sewing and embellisher machines. It looks very chaotic but I pretty much know where everything is! Also, I always keep a few art materials to hand in a small box in the corner of the kitchen, so I can work during snatched moments of time.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I am quite flexible in term of the materials I use. I like to try to use what I have or what is to hand. Recycling paper and fabric – chopping up and reusing old clothes, bed sheets, envelopes and packaging and more recently recycling and reworking old work.
I have a lot of stuff! Drawing materials, paper, fabric and threads, and I keep vowing not to buy any more but to use what I have! In my drawings and sketches I often use a fine line pen, ink and watercolour paint. I always have a bag of small scraps to hand, left over from previous projects. The scraps often get incorporated in new work.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
It very much depends on my mood and what I am working on. It’s quite rare for me to work in silence unless I am doing written work. Sometimes, I’ll have old re-runs on television in the background, sometimes the radio and more recently I have started listening to audio books.
When you travel, do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I always have something to work on while travelling. Usually I have some small fragments arranged on a background pinned or tacked and ready to stitch.
I love stitching on aeroplanes – it really helps to pass the time and I find it very soothing and calming. I take a few reels of thread, a couple of fine needles and a needle threader that has a tiny blade for cutting. Airport security has never stopped me with these.
I always keep a sketchbook while travelling so have a little kit that goes with me. It includes fine line pens, mechanical pencil, coloured pencils, tiny set of watercolour paints, bottle of ink, wax crayon, a few chalks or pastels, adhesive, washi tape and a selection of pins, brads and paperclips for joining.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
As an artist I think it is important to have a website – a place where anyone interested can find out a bit more about my background, qualifications, my practice, work, teaching, publications and events. However, more and more artists including myself share day to day things via social media. Keeping a website updated and current can be time consuming and costly. I am aware that mine is ready for an update – another job on my current to do list!
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I teach workshops from my studio as well as visiting other venues.
I particularly enjoy residential events where everyone stays on site; students can work long into the night if they wish or just get something finished for the next day. A place when everyone can eat together and enjoy a glass of wine and stimulating conversations.
Teaching is such a sharing two-way experience. I always learn something when I teach, whether that is discovering a new artist, book or new art materials. Everyone is very willing to share, which is lovely. I choose to limit the number of workshops that I teach each year, so that I allow myself time to make new work, develop my own practice and recently write a new book [due to be published in August 2021].
In addition, I deliver talks about my work and the approaches I take. I like to do this in person, so I can take along work and sketchbooks to share. However, due to the pandemic travel restrictions, I am shortly going to be delivering my first on-line talk. While there are some negatives in giving talks and lectures this way, it also means I can talk to groups from around the world – without travel costs. So, I am looking forward to doing some more of that.
Any groups who are interested can email me via my website. I am also currently working towards delivering some online workshops. I am particularly excited about a big online project that I have recently signed up. That will happen later this year or early 2022. I can’t say much about it in these very early stages but keep watch my Facebook page for details.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?
I feel like my work is constantly evolving. Recently I have created 3-D little models and assemblages, but I feel ready to go back to some more stitch. I am also working on a project using collage.
Often it is only when you look back at old work you can see how much you have moved on. My work has definitely evolved and moved on over the last 10 years, but there are still underlying themes or ways of working that continually still come through. Sometimes working towards a specific exhibition theme moves me in a new direction to explore new media and materials.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
There are many, many artists whose work I admire and often for different reasons. Here are a few of my favourites: Robert Rauschenberg, Barbara Rae, Kurt Jackson, Hannelore Baron, Gillian Lowndes, Rosalie Gascoigne. I am also always looking and researching and continually jot down names of people to investigate further.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think some people have a natural ability but everyone can be creative and learn skills. Being creative is so rewarding and everyone should take enjoyment from it, whatever level they are at.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
I think if you love creating you will just do it anyway. If you feel held back by time constraints, set yourself a target of 20 minutes a day. If art materials are too expensive, make do with what you have. You can recycle packaging to draw on or reuse old garments to stitch. Practice. Not everything will work and you don’t have to share everything you do. Don’t let anything hold you back – find a way.
What advice would you give to emerging artists?
I think now with social media it is much easier to get your work seen by a wider audience. Get your work out there; you never know what this will lead to. I was first invited to teach in Australia after the organiser had seen my work on Pinterest. Similarly, I have invited artists to participate in my book after seeing their work online.
Learn more about Shelley:
Interview posted April 2021
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