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I’m an Artisan Nomad: an in-depth interview with the artist behind the Decorated exhibition

Artist and designer Nigel Cheney says “ ‘Decorated’ is an ongoing research project that explores the relationship between commemoration and memory through textiles.” The exhibition is at The National Centre for Craft & Design until 5 November.

Design-Nation: When did you start this project? Has it changed at all over the time you’ve been working on it?

Nigel Cheney: Memory and narrative are the corner stones of my practice. This project started four years ago, as the result of many different factors that seemed to find synergy under this one theme, fuelled by my twin passions of process and story-telling. In the summer of 2013 my practice was rather limbo. I was exhausted after the year’s teaching and didn’t feel I had an idea in my head, but my hands were restless: I felt I had become overly reliant on digital imagery and longed to get back to a more tactile approach, beginning with colour and simple hand stitch.

I am always humbled by the restorative effect of stitch: the simple pleasure of threading a needle; the joy in selecting coloured thread and sense of satisfaction as stitches cover a ground, creating a field of texture and colour. I recently looked at canvas work in a book I wrote with my colleague and best friend Helen, relishing the chance to produce samples for techniques and ideas that I’ve always talked about with students. In this case it was a relief to just be sewing with absolutely no idea why, or what it was for. I enjoy order and the colour very quickly became stripes and soon what I was sewing happened to resemble medal ribbons. I wondered what the colours in medals symbolised, and how this closed language can only be read and understood by a select group.

DN: The story behind the content is personal to your family. Can you tell us more about it? Was it a challenging project to delve this way?

NC: Back in 2013 I hadn’t anticipated the impact and diversity of artwork that would be created to commemorate the centenary of the start of World War I. For me it was always the year 2017 that held a specific significance, as this is the 100th anniversary of the death of my paternal great grandfather Corporal William Holman, on April 11th 1917. My interest in history and narrative came into play, as the theme of poppies had such great potential, as well as the significance of the three war memorials in Market Harborough listing the names of the local men who never came home. Although I had always known the photograph of my father’s grandfather, apart from his name I knew next to nothing about him. A subsequent conversation with my cousin then identified that we had attributed his death to the wrong battle, in the wrong country.

My father shared his memories with me of his childhood, much of which was spent with his grandmother the widow Nellie Holman. Times were different and children did not speak unless they were spoken to, but it amazed me how something so important as her husband’s death was never talked about. I had been brought up with the line ‘lest we forget’ and the more I have researched this project I am convinced their sacrifice was so we wouldn’t remember the horrors and tragedy they had endured. These reflections led me to produce the work about my family: my father did his national service in the navy, my uncle John in the army, whilst their father had been a driver for the RAF in WWII. Along with both my father’s grandfathers (one who survived, one who didn’t) it began to feel like we were a very military family. Photographs of my relatives in their uniforms always fascinated me: alluding to a whole other aspect of their lives so far removed from my own memories of them.

At this point I was given a copy of ‘The Naseby Lion’ written by my uncle Michael Westaway about the eleven soldiers commemorated on the war memorial in the small Northamptonshire village of Naseby. One line in the introduction resonated with me as my uncle hoped that by researching and writing the book people would think of those names as real people and of the impact of their loss on their family, friends and indeed the village community. My uncle writes about each soldier in alphabetical order, but I was more interested in the order in which they died. I tried to imagine what it must have been like in a village to learn of the death of one name, then another and another, as each soldier passed. My ambition throughout this project has been to trying to turn uniforms into individual human beings with rich and varied lives.

DN: Did this project follow on from previous work or is it totally new?

NC: I feel that although the projects I have embarked upon can vary enormously in scale, technique and mode of output, they do form a continuum, as I couldn’t have produced each work without the experiences that came before it. This project had an initial testing with a solo exhibition at the Knitting and Stitching Show Dublin in 2014, showing half a dozen of the uniform pieces. This earlier presentation successfully highlighted several aspects of the hanging forms, and alerted me to what I wanted to develop further.

Another recent project about Shakespeare and narratives around Richard III made me think more about the proportion of the final sculptures and involved much experimental work with surface techniques now incorporated into the new works. Thematically the complexity of Richard’s character and the fact that he was born in Northamptonshire and died in Leicestershire also made me consider what I had to say about how we remember people.

The exhibition has two major focuses. The first is the Naseby Eleven, their names and the impressive research that my uncle meticulously undertook over several years as a starting point. Each soldier is memorialised as a sentinel.

The second piece is entitled ‘Family Portrait’ and looks at three generations of my family who have served in the armed forces: exploring a parallel narrative about my great-grandfather Corporal William Holman, his son in law and my grand-dad William Cheney, my uncle John and my father.

DN: Were there any stories of the eleven Naseby servicemen that you found particularly interesting or remarkable?

NC: While there were Cheneys in Naseby in the 19th century, none of the eleven men of Naseby are directly related to me. However Harry Westaway was the uncle of my aunt’s husband, so not a blood relative by connected by marriage. My uncle’s research brought all of these men to life. Timothy Ashley is the one who really gets to me. My uncle never found a single photo of him. As someone coming from a family with lots and lots of photos (even of those who are camera shy) this is tough to comprehend. I reflect too on the Martin brothers, what must it have been like for a family to sustain multiple losses.

DN: Can you tell us a about the artistic processes? What techniques and materials did you chose to employ, and why?

NC: I really began by gathering materials. There was a huge amount of spending involved. My mother has developed a very interesting relationship with the postman and different couriers, each looking in bewilderment at each other as the constant array of strange shaped packages arrive. Most of the fabrics and all of the uniforms are second hand. Sourced online and arriving in any manner of packaging. One box contained a parachute, which although it hasn’t made it into the exhibition, definitely provided great entertainment when we tried to get it back into the tiny box it arrived in!

It wasn’t until I had the uniforms and dissected them (ripping out linings and taking apart seams) that I began to really see their potential. The three-dimensional textile sculptures combine khaki uniforms and kit bags as a starting point. These are then covered in an array of textile decorations. I tried to echo the activity of “make do and mend”, using scraps of vintage textiles, authentic replica medal ribbon and a variety of digitally printed imagery and digital stitch contrast with simple hand stitches. I took the uniforms apart and reassembled then to echo the imperfections of our memories. Exaggerations, mistruths, ‘alternative facts’, and wilful reimagining blend in with accurate historical research. The work has layers of surfaces and has undergone many manifestations whilst being cut up, patched, pieced and reassembled.  Some of the limbs trail onto the ground, whilst the bottom of every ‘body bag’ has a tribute to a specific soldier and the date of his death. The crisp brutality of the image of their military numbers is in contrast to the glitter of decorations.

Digital print has been invaluable in being able to play with imagery on cloth and really explore scale. These fragments have been worked through both hand and digital machine processes to make patches to apply to the reconstructed forms.

DN: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

NC: Without doubt Mrs. Vanessa Edison-Giles, my art teacher at secondary school. Every day I say a little thank you to her for her guidance and support.

In recent years I have been fortunate to have several amazing friends. I have no interest in people saying nice things. I want people to help me work out what is wrong, or definitely what can be made better! Dr. Helen McAllister is simply brilliant. Her textile work is astounding. She never ever tells you what you would like to hear, and that honesty is the best gift friendship can bestow when it comes to your practice. I am honoured that she beaded the two finials for the ends of the flagpoles. Alex Scott is a ceramicist and his view is always politely devastating. Uninformed by any detailed textile knowledge (his brain is completely full of things to do with clay) he has an excellent sensitivity to all art and design forms and for me he is the litmus test of whether something works or not.

DN: If you weren’t a textile artist what would you be?

NC: I think my main occupation for the last 23 years has been as a university lecturer in textiles. Being an artist? More like stealing precious moments here and there to make anything at all. Having ‘retired’ from that role I relish the chance to be able to make things full time. I think if I had my time over I would have liked to focus on textiles for film and TV costume. That is the only place where there is money for luxury and magnificence these days.

DN:  Do you work hard on your PR or do you work with others on marketing?

NC: PR is a tough question. I enjoy social media, though it’s hard to separate my family and personal life from artistic works. It’s a way I try and keep in touch with my amazing grads and talented and inspirational friends and acquaintances. I’m not that sure about marketing myself to date. The Stone boys at have been incredibly kind. (What could you expect with such amazing parents? Sue Stone is LEGEND!) I have spent much of time promoting my students and graduates, so it’s hard doing it for myself.

My website is out of date and for the last few years I have focused more on my blog as a means of just keeping track of what I did and when. Looking forward I can see there needs to be a ‘brand’ as what I do is perhaps too diverse to really allow me to make a living from it.

DN: What are the main challenges in your practice?

NC: They are endless! It ranges from simply having the faith to get up in the morning and start, through to the telling yourself you have to go to bed and STOP. Confidence I suppose is the main challenge. It is so easy to lose the faith that it will all be ok and someone will appreciate it. To just trust the process and keep going when things really don’t look the way you envisaged them.

Space is something that other people tell me I need. I don’t see that as a challenge myself. ‘Where is your studio?’… it’s a lot of stuff in bags and plastic boxes, and is basically me on the sofa with a box set on the TV. I’m an artisan nomad. Taking my work around the house – in front of the TV, sitting at the computer or even in the conservatory for better light, and to be able to blast the stereo without annoying everyone else. Making work is expensive. Selling it is a challenge, especially at a price that my sound business sense feels is justified. That is my main challenge going forward. I have plans. In fact I have a vision. It is more of an interior focus that recent years but I think its time to focus on me and what I really want to make that is also a design based business.

DN. Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?

NC: Once this exhibition is over I will embark on my year of ‘finding myself’. I have set myself the challenge of developing my ideas into wall based interior art pieces. Researching, developing, producing and marketing them at a profit is my aspiration. I have the seeds of what they will look like and a bit of a map as to where to go.

In ten years? I’d like to think I had made work that was featured in World of Interiors magazine and was shown at international interior design trade fairs. I’d like everything I make to be unique. That is the challenge of recouping development time with a single product. Of making things that I am proud of and that people want to buy. Being able to live from what I can make and not need a proper job. That’s what I tell my parents. They do worry and who can blame them.

Nigel Cheney: Decorated 9 September – 5 November 2017, Roof Gallery, The National Centre for Craft & Design, Sleaford

Further reading: Nigel Cheney & Dr. Helen McAllister, ‘Textile Surface Manipulation’, published by Bloomsbury.

Interview by Laura Jacometti.

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Laura Jacometti



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