In our latest insight into a specific area of maker practice we talk to texile artist and print expert Michelle House about life and work in lockdown, and how she approached the creation of a filmed virtual tour for this year’s Dulwich Festival Artists’ Open House.
Our interviewer was Laura Jacometti of Design-Nation, who began: Please tell us about your practice and how your business began.
Michelle House: I originally studied for my textiles degree at Goldsmiths college; it was there that I discovered my love of printing onto fabrics, which I combined with my photography.
After graduating I was determined to carry on printing and shared a studio with another artist whilst working part-time. I received a Crafts Council Setting Up grant and then soon became a member of CAA (Contemporary Applied Arts, London) and a couple of years later a member of Design-Nation. I mainly created large artworks in the form of long thin hangings, often in groups of three, and rapidly introduced differently textured fabrics into my work by piecing sections together, a technique I still use today.
Later on I studied digital fine art where I was introduced to Adobe software as well as 3D, animation and sound. It was a really enjoyable and busy year learning and exploring new skills and culminated in students creating an end of year animation. It was wonderful to see my prints moving and the skills that I learnt have really helped me since when designing for textile commissions and creating my limited edition prints. During the same year, I was also a resident artist in a primary school and created work for a solo show at Bankfield Museum in Halifax.
DN: What inspires you?
MH: I suppose top of the list has to be colour, I do get a thrill seeing different colour combinations revealed when printing and on lifting the screen.
My mother inspired me early on and I remember sitting by her side as she would sew us clothes or curtains and even ballet tutus. She made a fantastic Henry VIII outfit for my brother when he was at primary school. The fabric combinations I remember vividly, purple corduroy for the hat and a mix of brightly coloured striped satins and cream fleece for the jacket and collar. I certainly found my love of textiles through her.
Architecture is another inspiration and something that had a big impact on me when I moved to London. Docklands was under construction and I would sit on the edge of the building sites drawing the structures. It wasn’t the detail that I was interested in, but the layers of buildings and geometric forms within them and the negative spaces between that inspired me.
Now it’s a combination of all those things along with found patterns and shadows.
DN: What changed for you when lockdown was announced and how have you navigated through these unprecedented times?
MH: I actually felt slightly relieved for a while as I could postpone life and hunker down at home with my family. I was already taking time off due to a family bereavement, so at the beginning, the lockdown gave me a bit of a breather. I then started to sign up for online courses and webinars and committed myself to creating a virtual exhibition tour. I thought the lockdown would be a good time to tackle areas of my business that I knew needed work and to try to learn new skills.
Exercise and meditation (which I have been practising since I was 17) has also really helped me to cope with the stress of the pandemic.
I had a couple of exhibitions cancelled and a regular local event too which was disappointing and meant fewer sales.
DN: This work in lockdown led to your virtual open house in May. What were the challenges in organising this?
MH: Yes, my initial thought was, ‘well just because the event has been cancelled, doesn’t mean I have to’. I have been hosting an Artists’ Open House as part of the Dulwich Festival for about six years now, so I didn’t want to miss it, especially as I had new prints to show. I invited two designers who usually show with me, Mandie Beuzeval (a furniture designer) and fellow DN member Snowden Flood. They agreed to take part, so I went about planning a video tour of our exhibition.
I really hadn’t thought about how much work it was going to be, in effect hanging and curating the whole thing as well as the normal tidying and cleaning. It was a bit stressful especially as the planned camera didn’t work out. Speaking on camera was also a challenge for me, but by the sixth take I became more at ease with it.
I’d also committed to showing it on Facebook and had only just joined Facebook for the first time a month before. So it was quite a lot to learn and do in a short space of time.
It was a learning experience and it did bring me some sales and a lot more visitors to my website which was great. I also know now what I would do differently.
DN: Would you do more virtual events or exhibitions?
MH: Yes, certainly. I am actually taking part in the virtual Urban Art Fair this weekend (4-5 July 2020), an annual street art fair in Brixton.
I’m also planning on creating more videos and will buy some new equipment for my phone to aid filming.
DN: Do you think your practice will change in any significant way as lockdown eases and things begin to return to a version of normal?
MH: I will be spending more time on marketing and PR and also ensuring my website is up to scratch, although I can’t wait to get my hands inky again in the studio and to film my printing processes.
I would like to try my hand at animation again if I have time, which would mean re-learning the software. It would be exciting to combine that with my hand-printed textiles.
DN: Why did you join Design-Nation? What is helpful about being a member?
MH: I was originally invited to apply by Peta Levi back in 2003. I thought that it would be really nice to be part of an organisation where I could meet other creatives, somewhere to share the ups and downs, and swap experiences. The Design Trust was part of the offer then [when Peta ran both organisations] and the training sessions were really helpful, as they still are.
I love the sense of community that we have, DN have been so supportive over these last few months of lockdown. The organisation has gone from strength to strength and I’m really happy to be part of it.
DN: Do you have any advice or learnings from lockdown for other makers?
MH: I don’t really have any specific advice, as everyone’s practice is different, although I would say that finding something that enables you to switch off from work is important. Those un-productive gaps are necessary and allow space for new ideas to form. Meditation is my switching off and tuning in time.
Michelle House and fellow DN member Snowden Flood are both part of Urban Art 2020 on 4-5 July. The virtual tour of Michelle’s house for Dulwich Festival Artists’ Open House, which also includes work by Snowden, and furniture maker Mandie Beuzeval, can still be viewed on Michelle’s Facebook page.
Images courtesy of Michelle House, taken by the artist and Yeshen Venema.