Exploring Creativity: The textile artist

Portrait of Anna Piaggi by Jess de WahlsI don’t think it’s possible to run a series on creative careers without looking at the work of an artist, and one I particularly admire is Jess de Wahls. Her portraits are especially fascinating because they are of influential (but not just famous) women, and they are all made by hand from recycled textiles. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask about her creative journey and her inspirations.

Lori: When did you first become interested in art as a form of self-expression?
Jess: From a very early age, I have been drawn to anything tactile – anything to do with making, shaping and creating – though I haven’t actually explored the possibility of being an artist until much later. Having moved from Berlin to London made a huge impact on my first real steps towards my artistic career since my then full-time job as a hairstylist payed me well enough to actually take some time to explore my creative drive. My pursuit to become an artist, albeit untrained, became a lot more focused when I decided to decrease my working hours at the salon to make more space for art.

Channeling The Great, by Jess de WahlsIn return, the more time I spent creating, the more ideas and concepts started to form in my mind, much like a muscle that gets stronger when you exercise it. Expressing myself visually has become my strongest form of communication. As much as I love a good debate, there is something to be said for a statement made through art, as it is what it is; imperturbable.

Lori: How did you develop your Retex Sculpture technique?
Jess: As most of the best things come about, Retex sculpting happened more or less by chance. I wasn’t trying to create a new chapter of textile art but, the more I developed my technique, the more I realised that there was nobody doing what I am doing, so I needed a name and Retex Sculpture was born. At the beginning of my artistic journey I mainly stuck to drawing, painting with acrylics and a bit of paper mâché sculpting and, then as much as now, people have been my main source of inspiration. The first time I picked up needle and thread is now roughly 5 years ago, when my little god daughter Clara was born and I wanted to make something for her that would be unique, hand-made and something a baby could actually play with. That was the birth of Monsters and Ink, a project that grew quite organically into a full-blown exhibition at the Resistance Gallery-London, a couple of years later.

I had grown to love working with recycled textiles so much at this point, that I hardly did anything else. After a successful sell-out show, I continued to work on commission for Monsters, and again they somewhat re-shaped into more intricate versions of themselves and the clients I created them for. Monsters had developed into mini-me’s and the leap from those to the portraits I create to date, was a rather small one.

Portrait of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by Jess de WahlsLori: What inspired you to produce art works with a feminist theme?
Jess: Retex Sculpture and feminism somewhat entered my life simultaneously. The first two Retex portraits I created were of Vivienne Westwood and Frida Kahlo, two women I hugely admire for their creativity, single mindedness and success and, the more I worked on them, the more an idea started to develop in my mind. I was going to create a serious of portraits of women that had inspired me in the past and present. At that point, feminism wasn’t actually something I had explored or even identified with and, curiously, it was a man and his thoughtless sexist comments on what was merely a concept so far that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and triggered the path I have since chosen. Where at the start the idea was merely to portrait inspirational women, I had suddenly found something worth integrating and communicating through my artistic practice.

Portrait of Beyonce by Jess de WahlsThe more I learned about feminism, the more I identified with it and recognised just how brainwashed and asleep our, and many other, societies really are. I learned how there is to this date still great confusion about what feminism is, even within feminist groups, and that in order to change that, conversation is needed. My part in this is what I convey within my art. Since my #bigswingingovaries exhibition, quite a few new pieces have come to life, celebrating and remembering great female minds and achievers of history and today and, the more I explore the theme, the more I feel it’s inexhaustible, as there were and are so many of them. With each piece I create, my technique refines and evolves more and more, and hopefully one day I will be able to teach it to others. In some way, using needlework feels quite appropriate in the fight for women’s justice and equality.

Lori: Have you got anything exciting planned for 2015 and beyond?
Jess: I am currently working on a piece I am submitting to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, so fingers crossed for that. There will be plenty of group shows this year that I will participate in, so I can concentrate on creating more work to put on another solo show at some point. Dates are yet to be confirmed but if you would like to keep up to date with what’s coming up, it’s best to subscribe to my newsletter through my website jessdewahls.com. If you would like to check out some of my work up close and personal, it can be seen at my friend’s tailor studio; Maurice Tailoring, 71 Endell Street, London WC2H 9AJ.