Art at Liberty…Kate Keara Pelen
Think embroidery is simply twee samplers and conservative cross-stitch? Think again. A new crop of artists are using this sewing skill in alternative ways, proving that embroidery can be edgy. And you can see the work of one of them at Liberty - artist Kate Keara Pelen is currently exhibiting her work on our 4th floor. We spoke to Kate about getting crafty, her plans for 2011, and what inspires her stitches…
How did your exhibition at Liberty come about?
I was approached by Emily Simpson, an Assistant Buyer in the Home department. Emily has followed my work for a while and come to some of my exhibitions in the past.
Tell us a little bit about this collection of work – what was the inspiration behind it?
Most of the works in the Liberty collection were made specifically for this display. They have come out of a period of about 3 years when I have focused quite heavily on the embroidered object – not an area I had ever explored before!
The interest came from looking at the furniture and furnishings of Church interiors – traditionally fairly humble forms of decoration. There’s a beautiful poem by Sylvia Plath – Mushrooms – which is about small, underestimated things, gathering momentum and taking over. I feel a bit like that about these works.
Why did you choose to work in embroidery?
I love the slowed down process of stitching, which forces you to put the brakes on and calm down. Also its tactile, down-to-earth quality, and its status hovering between decoration and functional object, artwork and furnishing.
I’ve always wanted my work to be something that was ‘lived with’ – like Matisse, who wanted his work to be experienced in the same way as ‘a comfortable chair’. I want my work to lure you in with simple beauty, and then take you by surprise!
Most people think of embroidery as quite quaint and twee – do you think contemporary artists are challenging this assumption, and making it modern?
Absolutely – in a similar way to knitting and other crafts traditionally practised by women. I was recently in a show called ‘Beware of Embroidery’ at the PM House and Gallery, which went to great lengths to counter the opinion of needlework as ‘hobbyist’, ‘outmoded’ or ‘pretty’.
We’ve had an incredible response to our Sewing and Knitting classes at Liberty. Do you think there’s been a renewed interest in all things crafty?
Yes, definitely. From organisations like Fine Cell Work, who work with prison inmates, to the Stitch n Bitch groups, there’s been a huge resurgence. It seems to me it runs parallel to the virtual nature of much of our work and social interactions.
Do you plan to keep using embroidery, and challenge the medium even further?
Watch this space! My next piece will be a departure from an ephemeral painting project ‘JC52′, which will be shown as part of a Minimalism show in May.
You’re an artist, curator, AND director of a gallery – how did you get here, and how do you juggle everything at once?
Hard work, support from friends and family, perseverance, and seizing opportunities! My day job is in design and communications for a new mobile cinema, on top of everything else!
You also run the Intervention Gallery in Kensal Green Cemetery…
Yes, it’s a contemporary art gallery and artists’ project space in a Grade I listed chapel, in the middle of one of the biggest and most beautiful cemeteries I have ever seen!
When I moved to Kensal Green during my MA, I had been working for large public galleries and museums for several years and wanted to set up something of my own, more local, more grass roots. So it is run on a voluntary basis by a group of artists and arts sector professionals on top of our day jobs. During the summer we hold exhibitions which change on a monthly basis and during the winter we hold special events including concerts, artist development workshops, family drop-ins, performances and so on. It keeps us busy!
What are you plans for the New Year? Any more exciting projects or exhibitions coming up?
I will hopefully be starting a big project with members of homeless shelters across South London on a vast collective piece of embroidery. I’ve also started etching into copper discs, and if I get any studio time at all I’m aiming to explore that too…
And finally…what do you love about Liberty?
What’s not to love? The fact that someone like me can be displayed alongside Eames and Prouvé… that’s got to be a good thing!