My Cornish sanctuary: artist, Jane Powell
Interview with Jane Powell, a painter and textile artist living and working in Cornwall.
How long have you been an artist?
I moved permanently from Windsor to Cornwall in 2005 to look after my father, while my poor husband commuted at the weekends for a further three years, before moving down permanently himself. I started to rekindle my creative work almost immediately, but it is really only in the last five years that I have been seriously concentrating on, and developing, my work. Actually, what really kicked everything off was a friend in our village suggesting that I might like to join the Helston Branch of the West Country Embroiderers. I was highly sceptical because of my preconceptions of stitching groups and I hadn’t done any embroidery since school (back in the 1980s). However, I decided to go for a trial day – and what a day to pick! The group had a visiting tutor, Beppy Berlin, whose work is exquisite and teaching is truly inspiring. We spent the day creating Heirloom Pincushions – and from that time I was hooked on embroidery again.
How did you discover your individual style?
The Helston Group are a fantastic gang of immensely skilled ladies who are very generous in sharing their knowledge. I went on a steep refresher course with them kindly helping me to re-learn embroidery techniques that I used to do in my school days. I basically re-learnt my craft. However, it wasn’t long before I was finding it frustrating to work on such a small scale. I really appreciate classic embroidery – often tiny, single strands of thread skillfully worked to produce beautiful, jewel-like pieces of work – but it’s not my bag. Bearing in mind that my college work was large scale steel sculptures and larger than life-sized drawings of the human form, I was way out of my comfort zone with this stitching. I was discussing this quandary with my husband, who, ever the pragmatic architect that he is, suggested that I should try ramping-up the scale of the embroidery. That is precisely what I did – I spent a good three years experimenting with bigger, heavier, more textured threads and yarns and developed a number of techniques to enable me to create large-scale three-dimensional embroideries. Eureka! I had found my path.
What do you love about living and working in Cornwall?
Cornwall is my sanctuary. The sea and landscape feed my soul. The ever-talked about ‘light’ is wonderful. The pace of life suits me. People living in Cornwall have time for others. I spent over 30 years living ‘up-country’ and working in London – and I just do not want to be there any more. Of course, because of the nature of my work, I am living in the epicentre of wildflowers. Cornwall’s magnificent hedgerows are, as far as I have seen, the best in the world.
You weren't always working as an artist, previously you were a consultant – what inspired the change?
When I left Art School I was very disillusioned with the ‘Art Society’. Sadly the disillusionment also meant that I turned my back on my own creative work. So, what to do. I ended up running my own design agency in London. I worked as a consultant managing other people to be creative. After 25 years, I got to the point whereby my fingers were itching and I desperately wanted to reignite my own creative work.
The work that goes into your artwork is incredibly intricate – the embroidery detailing for example – why did you choose to use different layers in your work?
My Iconic Botanic pictures are really my homage to the plants and wildflowers found in the Cornish landscape. The trouble with Cornwall’s magnificent hedgerows is that individual plants are often overlooked when you are faced with a glorious mass of flowers. That is why my background canvases which serve to provide the context for the plant forms are quite abstract and impressionistic and all the attention and detail is on the individual plants. I hope that my plants encourage people to really look at the individual plants and appreciate their form, structure, texture and colour. The three-dimensional aspect of my work obviously harks-back to my sculpture days at college. I am a very physical maker. For me, the whole thing is a very physical process: I manipulate and apply the paint using unconventional tools such as bottle brushes, toilet brushes and scrubbing brushes. I build armatures out of wire and household items. I stitch in layers to create contours and texture.
The Cornish landscape clearly inspires your work – what do you love about nature and really living and experiencing the seasons? What else inspires you?
Yes, it does totally inspire me. I am very lucky to be able to live in Cornwall and immerse myself every day in this glorious landscape. I know it is a cliché, but I am totally in awe of nature. When you really scrutinise individual plants, they are absolutely fantastic. And you are right – it’s fascinating to take one individual plant and watch it change through the seasons. It amazes me that plants that are seemingly so fragile, survive our torrential rain and gales. Nature is truly remarkable. I’m also inspired by photography, today’s macro lenses allow photographers to take absolutely jaw-dropping close-up photographs of nature, which often inform my work. Good design, structure, construction and manufacturing materials all provide inspiration for my 3D techniques.
How does your life differ now from those days in publishing?
The charging around the City, attending high-powered meetings, working with immensely creative talent, moving mountains to fulfil deadlines, juggling budgets, earning big bucks – sounds very glamorous; and it was at times. However, it was incredibly stressful and although I was quite good at it, it nearly killed me. Today, I am no longer a square peg in a round hole. I am much more ‘centred’. Whereas when I was a consultant, I had to get up at 6am and get on the road, today I wake up at 6am wanting to stitch! 5am is the most perfect time of the day for me – when everything is still and silent as the light begins to fill the sky.
What's next on the agenda?
My priority is to continue to work on my Iconic Botanics series and push it as far as I possibly can. I have been gobsmacked by the reaction to my pictures. I regularly exhibit in Cornwall at the Fairs held at Trereife House near Penzance and as a result of last year’s Cornwall Design Fair held there, I was invited to exhibit at the Contemporary Textiles Fair at the Landmark Centre in Teddington in March and I shall be at Kew Gardens in October as part of the ‘Handmade at Kew’ exhibition. What a perfect venue for me! Hopefully, next year, I will be able to start building my profile in the local and London markets. I am now also running Creative Workshops on a regular basis. People seem to want to learn my big-scale, 3D embroidery techniques and we have cracking fun in these very experimental sessions held at my studio near Praa Sands. To be honest, I can see myself focusing on Iconic Botanics for the rest of my days, but I am also mindful of the scope and opportunity that the sea provides – so a series of Iconic Aquatics is simmering away in the background. Coincidentally, someone walked onto my Design Fair stand last year and said: “I’d love to get you underwater!”. He was a man involved in marine conservation and immediately recognised that a series of Iconic Aquatic images could help foster a better awareness and appreciation of what’s lies under the waves. Who knows – in a couple of years!
What advice would you give to someone considering art/illustration as their path?
I know you should never live your life with regrets – but the one regret I have is that I stopped doing any creative work for myself for nearly 30 years. If you are a creative, keep making and creating even if you have to pursue a different career to earn a living. Apart from anything else, it will keep you ‘sane’ in today’s crazy, fast-paced life.