Here is the full interview.
- What was your journey towards becoming a textile artist like? I was lucky enough to have an amazing art teacher at school (Mrs. Edison Giles) who tended the initial seeds of an interest in textiles until they blossomed. After ‘A’ levels I embraced the diversity of the art foundation course in Cambridge but knew that the Embroidery degree course at Manchester Poly was the place for me. It was a tough course with a huge emphasis on self discovery alongside a panoply of technical possibilities. I explored various outputs for textiles through wall based artworks, interior objects, upcycled artefacts, clothing forms and fabric design. These have formed the backbone of my practice. The Masters I went onto straight after undergraduate focused on menswear with printed and embroidered waistcoats. There was never a doubt that the common threads of imagery and surface were the cornerstones of my practice. I enjoyed embracing the fledgling digital stitch of 30 years ago where there was little or no editing on green and black monitors! After college I worked in industry on digital embroidery with far more sophisticated software and enjoyed a different pace and set of challenges from the elitism of art college making sweatshirts for the high street leisurewear industry. At the tender age of 25 I took up a full time lecturer position at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. I adored teaching and was blessed with some incredible students and colleagues. In the 24 years I spent in Dublin I was fortunate enough to be able to tackle a huge breadth of projects from commissions to themed exhibitions. I hope that my practice constantly shifted and evolved through these experiences. In 2016 I fulfilled a lifelong ambition and was accepted as a member of the 62 group. As a journey it has been relatively straightforward with great public response and much media coverage. I have been very lucky, but I do believe you have to work hard to position yourself where good fortune can find you.
- Could you tell me about the story behind your latest exhibition? ‘Decorated- Tour of Duty’ is a development form a solo show ‘Decorated’ that took place in 2017 in the NCCD, Sleaford. I have been working on this project for over 5 years and it began from the junction of 3 elements. There are always undercurrents of interests and their intersection is the place where I make work. The first was physical. There was a time in the summer of 2012 when I was simply creatively exhausted. I picked up some simple Aida canvas and just started sewing. Playing with colour relationships; trying not to over think, just enjoying stitching. Very quickly they started to look like medal ribbons and I began to consider the language and codification of these. History always fascinates me, especially how it relates to memory and narrative. My late Uncle Michael Westaway had spent many years researching the war memorial of his village Naseby, Northamptonshire. The incredible book that resulted from this was a treasure trove of information. By looking at the loss from one small country village was an easier way of understanding the loss and tragedy of WW1 rather than the vast cemeteries and state monuments. The third strand was concerning my paternal grandfather, Corporal William Holman. It was pointed out by my cousin that I actually had his death in the wrong country, after the wrong battle of the First World War. I was reared with the Kipling ‘Lest we forget’ motto but the more I researched the survivors of WW1 it appeared that it was never spoken of. In a time where every breath appears to be shared on social media with an infinite digital footprint the uncovering of family history was mesmerising. There were so many small facts that came as revelations and I had endless questions. For me making is my way of processing those concerns. How such important facts become confused after a relatively short period of time was something that formed the vein of this work. To what extent can we rely on facts and how much is interpretation or corrupted memory? I have not been overly interested in completely accurate costume and military references, allowing a more intuitive response to materials and imagery. Where there are anachronisms I enjoy when people find them as it proves they understand how the uniform of WW1 and 2 differ, how deals come with a codification and how the past is constantly remade by the present. I began by shopping. I avidly acquired uniforms, military and imagery. This collecting led me to the juxtaposition of the kit bag and the uniform; resulting in a hybrid form which after much experimentation resulted in the main pieces in the exhibition. These are representations of the 11 names on the Naseby memorial and a single uniform for my great grandfather. In Sleaford the exhibition had a fantastic response form the public and became a portal for the viewers to bring their own memories. The challenge to take it on tour made me rethink and develop a dozen identical banners that are personalised for each name. The anonymity of a uniform and a grave stone are in stark contrast to the personal memories that infuse the loss of a loved one. I am very nervous about the exhibition. It is a highly emotive subject and I would have to think anyone would find it offensive. I know the sight of me hacking up uniforms, ripping them apart, reassembling and then decorating was disturbing for anyone who saw the work in progress. The uniforms have been in storage for a while since their last display and will no doubt be tweaked before the show. The banners are completely new and each has a very special tassel made by incredible friend and ex-colleague Dr. Helen McAllister. This collaboration was very rewarding and I am humbled by her creative generosity. When I started this project I had no idea how many artists would respond to the Great War and how impactful much of that work would be. The Sleaford show was timed to be in the 100th year of death of my Great Grandfather in Arras. There is no body in a grave and very little detail regarding his death. His name is on the memorial in Arras and on 3 memorials in Market Harborough, but that is all that remains. I am far more interested in family remembrance of these soldiers than a state monument. Using the language of public memorials contrasted with the personalising of the uniforms I hope that I allow the viewer to see past the carved name in stone to uncover a real individual and their traces on many lives. I have used the research by my uncle (made more poignant by the recent passing of his wife my wonderful Aunty Pauline) as a starting point but the uniform/kitbags are responses rather than accurate illustrations of any individual.
- What was your favourite part of the process of creating your pieces? Once the works are finished it is hard to remember all the frustrations and anxiety that are always part of the creative process. I have come to realise that it is the hands on ‘making and doing’ that stimulate me. Once the work is complete I have to wrap it up and put it away from me in the loft. Otherwise it will probably end up dissected and discarded or transformed into something else. Each stage has its own rhythm; the research stage has a particular fascination, the sampling is possibly the most exciting but also the most worrying. Once I am committed to the final resolution it is often a case of gritting my teeth and carrying on. The work often represents hundreds of hours of hand or machine stitch. The temptation to deviate form the vision is strong, but I have learnt that it is important to stick it out, and then reflect and reject or alter, rather than doubting whilst making. I do love making, but it has a different physical demand than the mental anguish. I know many embroiderers with bad backs, stiff wrists and other hazards of repetitive work.
- What other projects have you been working on? As I write this it is the last few days of the ‘Ctrl/Shift’ exhibition by the 62 group at the MAC Birmingham. This finishes on the 9th September but there are plans for it to tour next year. The piece ‘Lights out’ that I made for that was the bridge between Dublin with digital stitch and back home in Market Harborough with simple hand stitch. It is a 3m wide wall quilt that continues the ideas of the lives of a lost soldier and is inspired by the Edward Thomas poem. Currently I am in the process of launching a brand ‘DROOL’ (Deliberately Random Objects of Loveliness) of unique interior and body accessories. These are very different in feel and imagery and take the more textile art pieces into more designed artefacts. There is a more expensive line; ‘Kingdom’ that consists of art wall quilts that aim to replicate the decorative quality of a strip of wall paper with a beautiful textile artwork. These are modular in nature so you can fill an entire wall with a series of them or enjoy a single one. With the ‘DROOL’ products the cushions, scarves and throws are almost all made but there is a huge job in updating my existing website and turning it into a shop. I hope to launch this by the Knitting and Stitching show in early October. www.nigelcheney.com
- What is your most important artist tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio? I am afraid when it comes to tools I am a huge disappointment. I spent many years working with digital stitch on a Brother machine. Currently I enjoy simple hand stitch with some free machine embroidery. My process often involves a pencil. Developing my drawings though digital software ( I couldn’t live without Adobe Photoshop on my Mac) and outputting by a digital print bureau ( I use Prinfab for pigment and CATDIGITAL for reactive). Then there are days of hand stitch. No fancy stitches, simply in and out as expressive marks that reinforce or respond to the print. My 50th birthday present was a classic 1008 Bernina. Having taught on Berninas forever it is the first I have ever owned, and I love him.