This weeks muse, Johanna Flanagan of The Pale Rook is a very special textile artist whose work I discovered via Mister Finch. He shared a delicious photograph of one of Johannas unique doll creations.
Ever since I have been utterly hypnotised by her exquisite, magical, soulful creatures – truly unlike anything you have ever seen and I really wanted to share her work and story here.
Enjoy discovering the world of The Pale Rook!
The first piece of textile that made her heart soar….
“The first piece of fabric that I remember being fascinated by was a small, woven indigo bag, no bigger than a coin purse that my aunt gave me to hold one day at an auction house. I couldn’t have been more than four or maybe five years old. I traced the threads with my fingers, trying to follow a single one up and down and over and under the warp. I wasn’t happy just to use it or look at it, I wanted to know how it had become what it was. I held it all the way home in the car and I remember someone laughing at me for staring so hard at that little blue bag. I remember that same fascination with threads and patterns throughout my childhood. I would stare at the swirls and dashes on my duvet cover and matching curtains, working out the pattern repeat. Lace socks and tights were a whole world of twists and tucks and spaces that could hold my attention for hours. I don’t remember being attracted to the colours and patterns as such, it was always the story behind the cloth. I needed to work out how it had been constructed. When I was seven I found a ball of dark red yarn and worked out a way to loop and hook it around my fingers to make chains. It turns out what I was actually doing was crochet, but it took another twenty years for me to realise it. I covered the house and garden in crochet chains until I ran out of yarn, again it wasn’t the end result that I was interested in, I just wanted to keep transforming the yarn into something else.”
“I find it easier to part with my work than a lot of people expect, because I am still more attached to the process of making the work than the work itself. Again, it’s the construction, the creation of something from nothing that fascinates me rather than having something to keep. I own just a few pieces of my work and all of them were firsts of some kind of another. There are very few things I could not imagine being parted from. I almost always wear a silver ankh necklace that I was given for my nineteenth birthday. I couldn’t imagine ever parting with that. It’s battered and scratched but it’s so precious to me. In fact, most of things I could not let go of are pieces of jewellery that have a connection to someone important to me. I love my home made quilts, because each one has been made from old clothes and fabrics that have their own story. Apart from these though, I don’t think there is anything I couldn’t part with for the right reason at the right time. That said, I do hold on to fabrics and threads for a very long time, some have been on my shelves for close to twenty years, but there are none that I could never part with, just some that will not be parted with until absolutely the right project comes to mind.”
On her creative process:
“I honestly can’t remember the last time I went out specifically to buy threads or fabrics, they tend to just show up in charity shops or markets or other peoples’ attics. The base of my work is usually very plain cotton, linen and silk. I do buy unused calico and white thread from regular fabric stores but the rest all just turn up in one way or another or have been given to me. When I do come across fabrics and threads at markets or in charity shops I only buy very specific things. I have a deep aversion to all things synthetic. The texture of polyester and nylon really bothers me, and I find that the colours just don’t have the same quality as natural fibres. I’m very sensitive to the feel of fabric and yarn on my skin and I just can’t stand sewing unnatural fabrics so I only usually work with natural fibres and dyes. I am particularly drawn to fabrics and trims from the 18th Century and the 1930s, although the 18th Century ones are pretty much impossible to get hold of! Most of my textile supplies are from the 1880s to the 1930s. I think what fascinates me now is what fascinated me as a child – the process of construction, how each thread weaves or wraps around another, and I love to look at the back of the work, where you can see the knots and tucks and all the signs that this was really made by a human being who lived in another time and place.”
“My colour palette tends to come from the colours I can make from plants, nuts and berries – greens, oranges, pinks and browns with the odd sky blue. Very occasionally I get a real hankering for red silk. I don’t know where it comes from or what triggers it, but I swing from natural, muted colours to scarlet every so often.”
“My alpaca fleece comes from my friend’s farm in Sigdal in Norway. She has a flock of around fifty animals, all of them have names and I even have my own little alpaca god daughter called Caroline, she’s black with little white toes. I love knowing where the fleece has come from and that the animals are so well taken care of.”
“The same applies to my dyes. I love to know what part of the forest they came from or what tree they fell off of. Each dye batch is different so the result can be unpredictable. That’s a really important part of my process though as I am so so precise with so much of my work, I need an element of it that I don’t have full control over. My favourite dye is nettle. There are so many beautiful shades of green and nettles from different parts of the forest have different shades. Some are almost blue while others are warm and golden. I love that once I have dipped a doll in the dye bath, the dye takes over some of the design decisions for me.”
I find that I am most inspired by the forest – the colours, changes, textures, sounds. I’m always collecting nuts and leaves and twigs and things and they tend to build up to a colour and texture palette that will then appear in a doll. I am happiest when I’m near trees and water. I never feel alone in a forest, there is always so much life around. I used to be terrified of snakes and then just a few months ago, I was walking along a trail with my greyhound and this huge long black snake crossed the path in front of me, right in front of my feet. She was so languid and beautiful and so much a part of the place that I completely lost my life long fear of snakes. I’m using black silk a lot more in my work now and I think it’s probably because of seeing that snake in the woods.
“My studio wall is covered in bits of fabric, fleece, yarn, twigs, lichen and moss rather than images. I rarely plan a colour or texture palette, they tend to evolve as I sew. The fact that the dolls are characters who develop as they are made is a real motivator to keep working on them until they are finished. Just the slightest change in the shape of a doll’s nose or hands can alter her whole look, which then changes the colours and textures I’m drawn to for the rest of her. One of the things I love about hand sewing is how slow and steady it can be, you have so much time to get to know the piece you’re working on that you can steadily work out where it wants to go. It’s usually only when a piece of work is finished that I can follow the thread back to what inspired it in the first place.”
“I tend to become completely engrossed in a piece then there is usually a day or two after it’s finished when I decide that there is no way at all that this one is going to be sold, then very quickly it stops being mine and it comes time for it to move on to somewhere else. I love that once my work goes to it’s new home, it begins a whole new story that has nothing whatsoever to do with me. There is always a moment when I wrap the work in tissue before packing it to send it off to it’s new home where I think about how much work and time and dedication has been put into making it, but by that point it really doesn’t feel like it belongs to me anymore.”
“My favourite place in the house is usually the staircase. I tend to plonk myself down on the stairs when I need to think. I’ve always been a fan of in-between places that are neither one place or the other. I kind of feel the same way about airports. I also love museums. I work with Glasgow’s museums as a costume designer and textile tutor. All of my work with the museums has to connect with something within their collections, the costumes are maybe a recreation of an outfit in a painting or a replica of a piece in the collection, once I even had the unbelievable privilege of working directly from five thousand year old Egyptian artefacts from the British Museum! I felt like Indiana Jones, although I had a massive security guard with me the whole time, just in case. I teach museum visitors the techniques that have been used to create some of the textile pieces within the collections – embroidery, sewing, toy making, and it is incredibly rewarding. The visitors don’t just view at a piece in the collection – they leave the museum knowing how to make it themselves. It gives them a direct connection to the piece and the people who made it. Every time I go to work at the museums I have to pinch myself. I suppose a museum is an in-between place too.”
“I am incredibly lucky to have a dedicated work room. It’s tiny but has lots of cupboards and a window looking out on to the garden. In the past my work space has sometimes been nothing more than a box, a note book, or a chair or a corner. As long as it is kept specifically and solely for the purpose of making your work, then I think it can do the job just as well as anywhere else. I prefer to work in small places with lots of shelves and drawers to keep things in. I don’t think my desk has ever been tidy, it’s buried in about 10 centimetres of fabric, thread, fleece and who knows what else. I have to keep other artist’s work to a minimum on my walls as it just takes over my thinking and without knowing it I end up absorbing it and copying it, but I do have a couple of pieces of work that have been given to me and a few antique postcards. There are stacks of seashells and jars of acorns and all sorts of bits that I’ve picked up. It’s hard to tell if my desk looks the way it does because of the work I make on it or if its’ the other way around. Sometimes I’ll see a bit of something sitting on top of a piece of something else and decide that it needs to become a bird or a doll or a fish. ”
“I am very fussy about the music I play in my little studio, I love listening to movie soundtracks, my two favourites are Labyrinth and Twin Peaks. Kate Bush, David Bowie, The Cocteau Twins, Anthony and Johnsons all get played regularly too. I get a bit lost in what I’m doing if I don’t have music playing and have a habit of losing track of time, then realising that it’s two hours after I said I’d be somewhere else. If things ever start to feel stale or dull, I listen to some Amanda Palmer or Har Mar Superstar to wake me up a bit.”
“The only solution I have for creative block is to keep a space and keep showing up. Even if you end up sitting in your chair screwing up crappy drawings and tearing your hair out, keep showing up. I used to get crippling creative block, which, in my experience is usually the result of two things – focusing too much on what other people are doing and achieving, or worrying too much about other peoples expectations of you. I find that creative block has little to do with a lack of ideas and more to do with too much noise and clutter in your head. The great thing about craft is that if you’re blocked creatively, you can spend your time learning something practical and technical. Get online, find a tutorial on youtube or where ever and just show up and do something. Get into the habit of showing up and eventually you’ll realise that you’re doing it for yourself and the ideas that need to come to you will. It might take weeks, months or even years, but if you continue to set aside time and space for yourself, you tend to find out what you need.
I don’t suffer from creative block so much anymore, but I do sometimes feel like I’m bored with what I’m doing . I find the solution to that is to either do some grunt work – cut out some fabric, mix some dye, card some wool OR to completely step out of your field of interest entirely and do something you’ve never done before. I took up playing the ukulele last year and it was changed my whole life for the better! I used to think it was a little hobby that had nothing to do with my textile work, but it’s become a really important part of how I work now. If sewing is driving me mad, or I’m not sure what direction to take it in next, I just go play my uke for a couple of hours and it all just seems to work itself out.”
On creating and selling online:
“I had a real fear of putting my work online to begin with. The internet can be brutal and I didn’t expect to have such a warm response. The textile artist Mr Finch shared just a few images of my work and suddenly I had thousands of people, literally thousands of people following what I do and contacting me. I could never have reached that number of people just ten years ago when I graduated from Art School.”
“I think the danger for a lot of artists is that the aim of social media is to keep you using their service. The more you use it, the more you’re rewarded with “likes”, a greater “reach” and more “shares” and some people get caught up in achieving that as an end in itself. Some fall into the trap of making work specifically to get a reaction on social media, which can be damaging and reductive. I think there needs to be a balance between being savvy enough to know how to get noticed and to create work that would be precious to you regardless of who gets to see it.”
“When I think about when I graduated, I would have had no idea how to start a shop online or how to reach a worldwide audience. Websites like Facebook and Etsy have been able to take out the middle man, take out the large commissions and connect artists directly with their buyers.”
“I’ve also met some incredible artists that I would have missed completely if I wasn’t part of an online community, because this time last year I didn’t even know that art dolls were a genre. The big wide world of the internet has given me a way of indulging in my own little world of threads and scraps and twigs and stitches because it’s connected me with people who appreciate what I do.”