Textile artist Karina Thompson, the fabric slasher of Selly Park, tells Richard McComb about her fascination with “controlled savagery”.
Woods and forests exert a contradictory pull on the human imagination, firing emotions of excitement and fear in equal measure.
Sherwood Forest served as a place of sanctuary and adventure for Robin Hood and his Merry Men while the darkness of dense woodland provided an altogether more sinister backdrop for the trials of Hansel and Gretel, the woodcutter’s children.
Birmingham textile artist Karina Thompson is drawn towards this duality, the contrast between the light and dark spaces of consciousness, and on the day I visit her studio the ideas are played out in dramatic style courtesy of a large work hanging on a wall.
The piece, titled Where The Wild Things Are, is inspired by Maurice Sendak’s endearing and wickedly mischievous children’s book of the same name. In the fantasy romp, Max, wearing a wolf-suit, is sent to bed early without his tea and watches in wonder as his bedroom is transformed into a magic forest populated by scary monsters that really are rather sweet. Like Max, the reader doesn’t know whether to laugh or scream.
Thompson’s stunning work, 1.75m by 1m, is more meditative in scope (although you can scream if you like) and is made from sections of textured, layered fabrics that have been slashed with a blade at 45-degrees to the grain. The Birmingham-trained artist says she developed her technique of slashing, or chenilling, through a process of “speculative play,” moving on to the larger scale pieces she tackles today after a period working on smaller machine embroidery.
The artist is intrigued by the paradox of creating an object of beauty with “the controlled savagery of working materials to nearly the point of destruction.” The resulting works exert a mesmerising pull, inviting the viewer to be drawn in, in the case of Where The Wild Things Are like an inquisitive child being tempted into a mystical wood.
“It can be quite sinister. I like that. At the same time, it is quite a cuddly, comforting piece,” says Thompson, 43, who works from a small studio at her home in Selly Park.
“With slashing, I am abstracting the imagery down so it says what I want it to say but it also allows the viewer to take what they want to take.”
She adds: “A lot of my work ends up in people’s bedrooms. I have been told that people say they see a lot of tranquillity in the work. I once had a very interesting conversation with a nun who came to a show and said, ‘I want to sit and pray in front of your work. There is a sense of calm about it.’ I was very touched by that.
“If you think about the word embroider, particularly if it relates to a story, it is about embellishing, decorating, building, in many ways making a lot of fuss and nonsense.”
The colour range of The Wild Things ... is dark and moody, with browns bordering on blacks, subdued greens hinting at shadows and lush, vegetative growth, muted purples and pinks. The different colours are revealed in the slashes to the textiles. Some of the edges and surfaces are then brushed, with a builders’ wire brush, to achieve contrasts of texture.
The piece, like all of Thompson’s work, has a strong tactile quality, almost inviting itself to be touched, which can be a double-edged sword when she exhibits. She claims to be more chilled out these days, but would much rather people just stood, or sat, and admired her work. It’s tough, though.
“The textiles are crying out to be touched. I try to use that as a positive rather than a negative thing. I try not to get too hung up about it,” says Thompson, although she admits she wasn’t overly impressed when an inquisitive hand unravelled some intricate stitch work at a show.
The Wild Things ... and a second work, Frost At Midnight, are being shown at Origin, a major craft fair at Somerset House, London, from October 14-19.
These are exciting times for Thompson, who exhibits internationally as part of the artists’ group Quilt Art. She learned last weekend that one of her pieces, Cold Comfort, has been shortlisted for the most prestigious quilt art competition in the world, Quilt National. The show, which opens in Ohio on the spring before touring the US for 18 months, features the highest-profile quilters and work of exceptional technical quality.
So is Thompson happy to be known as a quilt artist, or does she prefer the title textile artist? It’s a controversial subject.
Quilting has an iffy reputation in the UK, kittens stitched on to fabric, hexagons on bedspreads, that sort of thing. “People can be quiet dismissive about quilt art in this country but in the United States that is not the case,” says Thompson. Misconceptions also mean it is difficult to get gallery space for such art, which seems ridiculous. “People just want paintings,” adds Thompson, who likes to describe herself as a “textile artist working in fabric wall hangings.”
She moved to Birmingham, from Portsmouth, in 1984 to take a fashion and textiles degree at the then Birmingham Polytechnic, now Birmingham City University. She stayed on to take an MA, specialising in embroidery, and then taught textiles at Coventry University for 12 years, bowing out of teaching in 2002. Thompson won’t be returning to the lecture hall in a hurry. “I don’t know anyone who enjoys working in higher education,” she says.
It was during a research fellowship at Winchester School of Art, part of Southampton University, during 2002-04, that Thompson first experimented widely with the slashing technique and explored its potential. She went on to complete a body of work inspired, perhaps incongruously, by the A34 between Winchester and Oxford.
“The works were about what you see out of the corner of your eye when you are driving quite fast,” explains Thompson. “Sometimes if you are driving in low light levels you see these bands of colours and you don’t know if it is landscape, or cloud. You don’t know where the horizon is. It is about paring down the imagery.
“The A34 works were portraits of a feeling rather than a specific place. In many ways, that is what I have returned to with this series [The Wild Things ...]. Rather than being a very specific portrait of trees or a part of a wood, it is about a feeling.”
Thompson, who supplements her income working with schoolchildren and community-based groups, is entering an exciting phase of her career having undertaken a commission for the Centre for Clinical Haematology at University Hospital Birmingham.
The project, funded by Arts Council England, Cure Leukaemia and Pfaff sewing machines, whose UK distributors, VSM (UK), are based locally in Redditch, comprises a series of 12 panels for the research centre’s medical treatment rooms. The work is at an early stage and is based on the patterns produced by platelets in blood. During a previous commission for Salisbury District Hospital, Thompson replicated microscopic images of tooth enamel.
She says the new project for the Centre for Clinical Haematology is likely to be an emotional one, as she will be working using images of blood samples taken from seriously ill patients. In a sense, however, it will be work as normal because emotion is stitched, and slashed, into the very fabric of Thompson’s work.