Connected Threads: an exhibition celebrating the importance and reward of teaching and learning.
‘Connected Threads’ brings together five mixed media textile artists connected through education, whose practice is all rooted in the principle of manipulating threads to diverse outcomes. Laura Thomas, a woven textile designer and artist, also co-leads the BA Textiles: knit, weave & mixed media degree programme in Carmarthen School of Art, Coleg Sir Gar. Having been invited to exhibit at TenbyMuseum & Art Gallery, Laura decided to take the opportunity to invite two of her former tutors Julia Griffiths Jones and Ann Sutton, and two of her former students Sian O’Doherty and Debbie Smyth to exhibit alongside her.
Teaching is a common accompaniment to the professional life of an artist or designer-maker. An otherwise often solitary practice is greatly enriched by the joy of sharing expertise and inspiring keen learners. Laura is particularly passionate about passing on the skill of weaving in a country where the manufacture of cloth is so fundamental. Carmarthen School of Art offers the only remaining degree programme in Wales with the option to specialise in weave.
Having always known that a career in art and design was where her future lay, Laura was still uncertain about what to specialise in when she began her Foundation Diploma in Art and Design in Carmarthen School of Art in 1995. Typography had been an obsession throughout school, so graphic design seemed inevitable. However textiles tutor Julia Griffiths Jones introduced the idea that textiles could be something quite unexpected and truly exciting and so the path shifted. Working with wire and other untypical materials and processes were a revelation, and so a degree specialising in mixed media textiles was selected in Birmingham City University (formally University of Central England). However, here once again the path changed. The four week introductory taster to weaving was a life changing ‘light-bulb’ moment. Having never given a second thought to the construction of cloth, the weave room, with its floor-to-ceiling shelves full of yarn, encasing rows of table looms was a welcome onslaught to the senses. The opportunity to explore the key passions of colour, composition and line, and fundamentally, to make cloth proved irresistible and thus became Laura’s chosen specialism.
One the foremost draws to subsequently undertake an MA in Woven Textiles at the RoyalCollege of Art, was that Ann Sutton was one of the visiting tutors. Prolific artist, designer, maker, curator, speaker and writer, Ann Sutton’s energetic, rule-breaking and pioneering approach to weave was inspirational. Treasured tutorials challenged Laura to see the ingenuity in overlooked structures and to recognise that weaving is ‘soft engineering’. The possibilities for woven textile application in unexpected arenas, such as public art set the die for Laura’s future career. Good fortune also meant that Laura was due to graduate in 2001, the year that Ann Sutton was recruiting for her first tranche of three Weave Design Research Fellows for The Ann Sutton Foundation in Arundel, West Sussex. Thrilled to be awarded one of the Fellowships, the two years spent at the Foundation were entirely fundamental in Laura developing the confidence to establish her multifaceted studio practice in Cardiff in early 2004.
Soon after arriving back in Wales, Laura wrote to the textile department in Carmarthen School of Art to introduce herself and offer her services as a visiting speaker. An informal meeting and talk to the students led to a one-day a week appointment as weave tutor. Laura has taught there ever since, and has been co-leading the course since January 2013.
Carmarthen School of Art is a joy to be a part of. It is a true art college, in that it’s purely art and design courses undertaken on the campus. It’s uniquely small, meaning that class sizes are a fraction of those in the ‘big’ universities and so has a nurturing, family atmosphere, where tutors really get to know their students. Its size also means there is plenty of scope for inter-departmental working, something that both Sian O’Doherty and Debbie Smyth embraced throughout their studies.
The biggest reward in teaching, is to watch already talented students develop over their three years of study into something exceptional; to observe their ‘light-bulb’ moments; to suggest a creative direction that proves to be their personal revelation; to celebrate their recognition in the wider world of art and design. Both Sian and Debbie were outstanding students from the outset, but what set them apart was their unstinting work ethic, creative risk taking and thirst for experimentation. Both students were multi-talented and could have easily specialised in any textiles discipline, but both took a mixed media approach comfortably exploring different techniques and processes as per aesthetic and practical demands. Underpinning their work throughout was their high level of drawing ability, comfortably taken into cloth, paper or thread manipulation.
Debbie graduated in 2008 and achieved instant recognition at New Designers, the annual graduate showcase exhibition in London. Work was sold, exhibitions arranged and commissions won. Debbie has worked consistently since graduation for a stellar list of clients achieving international recognition for her trademark ‘pins and threads’ drawings and large scale installations. Recent commissions have taken her to Shanghai and Las Vegas to create spectacular installations.
Sian graduated in 2012 and likewise achieved immediate success at New Designers winning the prestigious Lucienne Day Award for her final collection of woven quadruple cloth and digitally printed textiles. Throughout her studies Sian demonstrated an exceptional technical ability for making fabric in all disciplines, so the final degree exhibition showcased only a fraction of her talents. Subsequently the focus of Sian flourishing practice based here in Tenby, has primarily been knit for both fashion accessories and homewares, but she also makes mixed media artworks as showcased here in this exhibition. Sian is also now the knit tutor and co course leader for the BA Textiles course in Carmarthen School of Art.