Spotlight: Sue Burley, Textile Artist
Finding her creative path with a focus on issues that affect people’s everyday lives, Sue Burley uses textiles to give form to her ideas. One piece inspires the next – and the next and the next – while she builds a provocative body of work. Working with fiber leaves Sue open to new directions as her work and life around her spark new explorations.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I think I have always been on the artist’s path, but there have been a few twists and turns along the way. I did a year’s art foundation course after leaving school and loved it, but at that time there was an expectation that you would get a “proper” job, so after a short period in retail, I trained as a PA. Then I spent 20 years working at Sheffield Theatres, so I was in a creative environment but mostly on the admin side. After I was made redundant I decided to go back to art. I did an Access course and then went on to Sheffield Hallam University, graduating with a degree in a Creative Art Practice. I have given myself a few years to try working as a professional artist.
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What inspires you?
Everything and anything can be an inspiration but I am mainly inspired by social, political and environmental issues. Once I start working on an idea I often finds that one work inspires the next.
Are there recurring themes or stories in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
One recurring theme in my work is portraying aspects of how women feel about their appearance and how others’ attitudes to their appearance might affect them. I have so many ideas that I often produce more than one piece on a theme. The works “Decadent Bodies” and “Beware I Am Ugly” both consist of several individual pieces on a theme. “Decadent Bodies” is a series of soft textile sculptures exploring the way women’s bodies are portrayed in the media. “Beware I Am Ugly” is a series of textile-based heads investigating issues around the way we feel we look.
How does working with textiles help you convey your message?
I enjoy using paint and print, but textiles are very tactile and can be sculpted to create contours which add to the work. Textiles also invoke memories. The material might be from a favourite old dress or quilt, so it can inspire emotions. I also feel that the connection between textiles and women in history can bring a different dimension to art.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I don’t think I have a signature yet. I still feel very new to this and experiment with many different materials and techniques.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
Once I get an idea I do lots of research. So I look at pictures, newspaper stories and read books that might offer something new or of interest on the area I am working in. Then I consider what materials and techniques would best convey my message. I tend to use my phone as a sketchbook these days. Once I start creating, I might have several attempts until I get something I am relatively happy with.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
I am very lucky at the moment to have a studio at Exchange Place, part of Yorkshire Artspace. This means I can go there to work on bigger or messy pieces, then do stitching and embroidery on my sofa at home.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I use a lot of tools and materials, but fabric, scissors and thread are probably the main ones. For the soft sculptures, nylon tights work best at creating skin tones, and they can be stitched and stuffed to create contours.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
When I’m working at home I tend to have old black and white movies on the TV in the background. While I’m in the studio I listen to audio books, usually biographies or crime novels.
When you travel, do you create on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I always take some project to work on, but if it’s a holiday I might take some crochet or sock knitting.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
One of my latest works is “Lockdown”. This is a series of 49 fabric masks, one for each of the days in the first period of the COVID-19 lockdown. At the start of the pandemic, the pictures of NHS staff caring for patients in full PPE were both frightening and inspiring. There was a shortage of masks, then people stepped up to create them. The mask almost became a symbol of the disease and of hope of protection. I wanted a way to record the progress of the disease along with the mood of the nation. The masks are embroidered with the number of UK deaths on that day and appliquéd with a phrase that reflects the mood. The masks are hand stitched, which in itself was a way of marking time.
Tell us about your blog and website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I still feel new to my new career and don’t have my own blog or website, but people can see my work on other platforms, and I am always happy to answer questions.
Where can people see your work?
I have an Instagram page sue_burley_art_and_things. People can find me in the artists profiles on
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think everyone is creative in some way, whether it be writing, making, baking, etc.
You can learn skills and techniques to help the creative process, but it is in everyone.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
Just have a go. We are our own harshest critic. Not everyone will like what you do, but if you make them think, that is a result. Keep going and enjoy the process.
Interview posted September 2020
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