Use Your Brain: Become an Art Quilt Scientist

What's the oddest thing you ever used to create a piece of fiber art? You know, something you just happened to have around that you were suddenly inspired to create with.

One artist who constantly amazes me with her ability to create original pieces with commonplace materials and techniques is U.K. mixed-media and textile artist Cas Holmes.

I first became aware of Cas in 2006 and was blown away by her exciting take on texture and ability to reuse materials in inventive ways. One of the most important elements in Cas' art–and her life–is her conscious connection to the physical world around her.

We profiled Cas and her work in the Fall 2006 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, where she revealed her philosophy and process. With the release of her book, The Found Object in Textile Art, in the U.S. this month, we took the opportunity to catch up with her.

Q. A lot of artists work with found objects, but you seem to see objects and their potential in a way that others don't.

A. I come from the County of Norfolk, where there's a saying that people who live in Norfolk do things different. And the local college, the University of East Anglia, has adopted the motto, "Do different." So perhaps it's in-bred for me to look at things with different eyes!

Q. Do you consider your artwork to be recycling?

A. It's not just about recycling, which is transforming, but about re-using found objects and textiles so that they are still recognizable, but used in a different way. We are surrounded by things that are carelessly disposed of and overlooked, such as paper and other things we can gather at our footsteps. I like the idea that 'greatness exists in overlooked details', which relates to the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi.

Q. I understand you don't drive. Does that help you discover overlooked items?
A. A connection to the environment is imperative for me. It's a strong part of my practice. When you walk, cycle, and use public transportation, you aren't isolated. You make direct contact with the physical world. You have to dress appropriately for the weather!

I'm inspired by objects and the physical world, materials gathered around my footsteps, working with what's in front of me and my relationship to space. I live in an urban environment that overlaps a park. Because those two kinds of physical spaces interrelate–and I interrelate with them–it gives me a lot of interesting materials to work with.

Q. What are some of your most interesting found objects?

A. Clothing, plant materials, printed paper, wallpaper, pieces of string, doilies, cardboard containers…whatever I find. I make monoprints from clothing. And I love old sheets. They've been washed so many times the fibers become very receptive to dyes. I have a whole loft full of sheets people have given me.

But I translate the "found" as not just physical objects but as what I call the magpie of the mind: keeping your mind open for inspiration in mundane circumstances. The items themselves may not be that interesting–it's the combination of different types of materials; manipulating them brings them together.

Q. What are some of the ways you manipulate these objects?

A. I like to destroy and remake things. This can be done by cutting and reassembling, folding, and stitching. I also like to use the momigami method to alter paper, which consists of kneading crumpled paper with a little oil or acrylic wax.

Then there's dyeing and painting with traditional artist materials as well as plants or even food coloring. I combine these processes to make layers and then peel away the layers in interesting ways.

You need to go beyond the materials and almost become an alchemist or a scientist with your materials, building up surfaces and going back through them.

Q. Do you use found objects as tools, too?

A. I like to use anything that connects the hand to the process and has an interesting shape, like sticks and feathers. My favorite found tool has to be a basic Bernina sewing machine I recovered from a skip (Dumpster). It's mechanical vs. digital, so it responds to my movements. If I ever lost it, it would be very hard to replace. But I'd have to say the mind is the greatest tool; you shouldn't overlook its potential.

Wise words from Cas. We often forget that it's not the materials we work with but the imagination and innovation we bring them that makes our art unique and satisfying. The Found Object in Textile Art is the perfect book for lessons in inventive artistic discovery.

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