Regular readers of this blog will know that an important aspect of membership of Textile Study Group are the twice yearly meetings we have that include CPD workshops with some of the leading contemporary artists. Our recent weekend with Michael Brennand Wood, internationally known visual artist, proved to be every bit as inspiring as anticipated. Since graduating Michael has built an international reputation as one of the most inspiring and innovative artists working in textiles. His work has always reflected his belief that the most innovative contemporary textiles emanate from an understanding of both textile technique and history. Throughout his career Michael has continually explored new and imaginative techniques, integrating textiles with non traditional materials. Examples of Michael’s work can be found in corporate and private collections around the world including the Victoria & Albert Museum, and he has been the recipient of prizes both at home and abroad. Michael has curated many exhibitions and until 1989 was a senior lecturer in the department of visual art at Goldsmith’s College. He has taught extensively in colleges and universities in the UK and overseas and undertaken residencies in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Belgium. He was appointed Visiting Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2005 and a Research Fellow at the University of Ulster.
I was able to spend a few minutes with Michael over coffee at our Textile Study Group CPD weekend and commented to him that he was spending a great deal of time talking to everyone and discussing their projects. How important is teaching and mentoring to you, Michael?
- Teaching and the discussion of ideas has always been an important part of my life. I’ve always maintained that you learn as much during a workshop, from the other participants as you do from the tutor. Watching other people problem solve, is both a privilege and an education. You very quickly learn, to never say, that something won’t work. People’s ability to take the most bizarre and seemingly disconnected subject matter and evolve a new line of inquiry is a constant surprise. From my perspective it’s a form of continuous education, dipping into other worlds, sharing ideas and exchanging war stories of difficult processes and frustrating results. Plus, you rarely have to explain yourself; if you spend a lot of time alone, a weekend course is a fantastic opportunity to see if your visual language is working. Do other people understand what you’re trying to do, are they excited, interested? We all need positive, critical feedback to move forwards.
Your CV is extensive and you have done a wide variety of things including curating and teaching. How important has been your teaching in the context of your work and do you enjoy the challenges of curating?
- Teaching was always important, it provided a chance to meet and problem solve. Goldsmiths was my second education, I gained a great deal from my interaction with both the students and staff. In the early days I really missed it when I wasn’t there. I only ever taught up to 3 days a week, the ideal is probably 2 days. Beyond a certain point it became less interesting, more and more students, less staff, a reduction of part-time staff and loss of technicians. As workshops closed the culture moved towards an academic non-making, almost part time drop in for a tutorial or seminar mode. Studio culture disappeared, as students increasingly didn’t have a permanent workstation. The rise of corporate culture, endless meetings and the demise of the Art School ethos contributed to my own departure, it ceased to be interesting. Curating is another aspect of my creative life, The Makers Eye, Restless Shadows and Fabric And Form etc. all changed my life. If you accept that a large part of my creativity is the collation of material and ideas, it’s not surprising that I’d be interested in assembling and selecting artworks also. As with most things I do, I like to keep ideas fresh, so curating is very important but I don’t want it to become a job. It’s another creative outlet that allows me to explore ideas and question hierarchies.
What are the main influences currently on your work?
- Music, history of textiles, travel, physical geography, structure, I’m constantly comparing and seeking to understand how the material, subject matter I collate, connects. That’s the adventure, the older I get, the less interest I have in planned thought. The studio is a place where things evolve; I don’t wish to know what is going to happen next. If I did then I’ve probably already been there conceptually. People always seem so anxious about making mistakes, if something doesn’t work it’s a useful building block, evidence of a process that needs to change or evolve. I view myself as an independent, so inevitably I’m drawn to that quality of thought in other art forms. I have no interest in corporate thinking or making artworks that fulfil other people’s criteria.
Do you prefer to work in a studio at home or do you adapt easily to the physical space in which you find yourself?
- I’ve worked all over the world, in temporary studios during residences. In general I can be up and running creatively, in a few days. New spaces exert their own influences on work and that can be just as exciting as the locality. People often assume that if you work in another country then your work will reflect that particular place. The studio invariably, is what changes the work; a bigger space might well enable you to create in a different way. Even the fixture and fittings in a room can provoke new thoughts. I prefer to work at or near home; I like to re-visit the work at different times during the day, sneak up unexpectedly to catch it unawares. Artists have always sought to look at what they are doing from unusual angles or via a mirror, first thing in the morning or last thing at night. They are all variants or trying to see a work clearly again, as if for the first time, without any accumulative considerations. If the works close physically then it’s an easier process, plus you get more done, if you loose the travel time back & forth to an outside studio.
You are well known for the use of non-traditional materials in your work, do you have a favourite and would you advise textile artists to experiment?
- Not particularly, wood was always an important material alongside textiles, the feel of the two materials together just works. If you looked at my work over the years, you can see a very deliberate use of alternative materials and approaches in conjunction with traditional textiles materials and processes. I’ve always said, that I’m not interested in ossifying traditions, drawing a line around an area and keeping everything the same. Creativity is replaced by policing and that is of no interest to me. Part of my role has always been advocacy, promoting new textiles and fusions of materials that are reflective of the times we live in. The majority of my creative work is based on an extension of traditions, not a rejection. The past therefore, will inevitably be part of the present and each generation should ask questions as to what the future might become. It’s probably also worth pointing out, that culture only really changes through the process of doing something. If I create a series of Corten Metal Screens, for a building that have within their design sensibility, a reference to Lace and Pattern, I’d like to think that hopefully I’m quietly questioning, the prejudice that those two areas of image making invariably incur.
You have completed several large pieces for hospitals and at our recent weekend you showed us photographs of a design that has been commissioned for metal panels at the entrance to a hospital. Would it be fair to assume that one of the reasons you are attracted to these projects is your belief in the benefits of the arts for wellbeing or is it just that the scale of these projects act as a balance for other work?
- It’s well understood that Art is an aid to healing, if you spend time around a Hospital anything that positively distracts or engages a patient or visitor is to be welcomed. I complete a large Public Art work around every 2-3 years, I’ve also worked a lot with music venues, libraries and museum collections, so Hospitals are part of that portfolio, of non-gallery outcomes. I made 3 pieces in 2016 for Standfast & Barracks, a textile printing company in Lancaster, the works are permanently installed in a working dye room in the factory. I really enjoyed placing work in a non-white gallery, perfect box. I am drawn to commission opportunities that give me a chance to experiment with scale and material choices. All projects feed back, into the Studio Works which are the most important and central aspect of my work.
We are almost at the end of 2018, what plans can you tell us about for the coming year?
- 2018 will see exhibitions in Amsterdam, Munich and workshops in Canada, USA and UK, including 2 at West Dean. I’ve a residency at Broadgreen Hospital, Liverpool working with patients on the stroke and rehabilitation wards. I’m also changing studios from a domestic to a factory location, which I’m very excited about, a proper honest working space. It used to be a braid factory, dance hall, sign company and cinema, so very appropriate vibes, for future works.
Thank you, Michael, for these insights into your practice and for your input this weekend. If you would like to see more information about Michael’s work it can be found at his website here.
As the festivities approach our Seasons’ Greetings to everyone, but for now, until the next time..