The Light Fantastic

Frances Noble asks artist and maker Karen Whiterod to retrace the steps which have led her from her signature jewellery to bigger things.

It seems a giant leap from jewellery to the installations and public art which you are making today. How did you come to change direction come about?

I always wanted to be creative but I didn't think of myself as an artist and the work I'm doing now certainly wasn't in my mind when I first thought of a creative career. Though I have to say neither did I think of making jewellery. I thought I had found a direction for my creativity when I worked for a while as an au pair in Toronto, which is a very arts oriented city. I went to the theatre quite often; they have a lot of ‘pay what you can’ theatre, and. I was so inspired by the plays I saw that I decided I wanted to be a set designer and I did voluntary backstage work. When I came back to Norfolk I studied for a BTEC Diploma in General Art and Design at Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design with that as a very firm career choice in my mind. I think what appealed to me was the idea of using light to make two-dimensional scenery appear three-dimensional. However when I came to choose my degree course, I realised that I wasn't really a team-worker (I have changed since then - it was 16 and a half years ago!) and that's what theatre work demands of you, so I went to Birmingham Institute of Art and Design and studied Jewellery and Silversmithing, which also related two-dimensional pattern to three-dimensional objects. So at that early stage of my career I had changed my ideas from large objects (stage sets) to small (jewellery).

How did a course in jewellery and silversmithing lead you to work with nylon?

I wasn't totally happy in Birmingham, but I'd already dropped out of one degree course (teacher training) so I really had to stick with the course this time. The Birmingham course was very formal and old-fashioned (that's not the way it is today) and I found it quite limiting. It probably inhibited my creativity, but it did mean that I had to do a lot of developing on my own and I became very self-reliant. Although the department had big power hammers for be9ting and forming metal, much of the work was done with hand hammers, so I went to an Artist Blacksmith convention in Cardiff. It didn't take me long to discover that I wasn't as fit as I thought - working on larger pieces is physically demanding. One of our projects was to make something using a particular weight of gold. I wanted to use a material that I could colour and one of my tutors suggested nylon. That was the breakthrough and making this piece became a very personal experiment for me, discovering the properties of nylon and a style of my own for myself, rather than because I had been taught how to do it.

Your jewellery is very recognisable - what are the elements which you feel make your distinctive style?

I left College with only my hand tools and using nylon sheet meant I could carry on working in my flat. As I was the only person using nylon to make jewellery in 1990 I suppose that it was the character of the medium itself which led me to my signature style. I applied gold and silver leaf dots to my first range of work and created colour by resist-dyeing, which is the way I still work today. I like to think that it's the recognition of the quality of the material - the way I make it grip and stretch at the same time, so that it can follow the contours of the body while containing its own hinges and linkages - which gives it the character which people recognise so easily. I think nylon is the only material where I could make the flexible links, which have become an integral part of my jewellery.
You often printed words on your jewellery. How did you choose your texts?
I haven't always used words, before I worked out a technique to transfer words to the nylon I worked with block patterns of colour or graduated colours. I enjoyed printing with words and used text and newsprint in my jewellery; but I used not to be concerned with the meaning. It was more the patterns the words made that interested me. People started asking why I missed out the power of the words, when they could have added to the total effect of the piece. I thought about that a lot and of course it did make sense. I find 19th century romantic poetry very powerful and descriptive so I started making some jewellery using quotations about the body; at that time my necklaces might have verses about ‘long elegant necks', or bracelets might carry words about hands and arms. I also used that lovely quotation from a 17th century madrigal.
‘My love in her attire doth show her wit,
It doth so well become her.’
Once I had started thinking about it, using appropriate texts became very interesting and I came across a quotation from Oscar Wilde which seemed to me perfectly to describe the creative process
‘I played with an idea and grew wilful;
Tossed it in the air and transformed it;
Let it escape and recaptured it;
Made it iridescant with fancy and winged it with paradox.'
How easy was it to find a market for the pieces you made?

It was hard to find galleries that would buy my pieces in the beginning. They would take things on sale or return; but it wasn't until the Crafts Council provided the opportunity for me to show at the Chelsea Crafts Fair, at the end of my first year of self-employment, that buyers seemed to feel the confidence they needed to stock my work. The Crafts Council really does help to support innovative work. When I started to try and market my own work made of nylon it was hard to fix a realistic market price that took account of the design time not just the material cost. Unlike most jewellery, which is made of intrinsically precious materials, in my pieces the ideas are intrinsically much more valuable than the material itself, and I never felt comfortable charging anything like a realistic price. The Crafts Council support showed me that there was a market, and that it could provide a proper return for me. Even so sales were very dependent on the area, the pieces sold well in London, but Norfolk was never a good market for me even though it was home territory.

You are making much less jewellery now. Why is that?

My work had become very successful, with museums collecting pieces and orders from galleries all over the world. People wanted the same things from me over and over again, mainly small earrings and I was so bored, Because of the way I worked I had made myself completely independent and the techniques involved me at all stages of design and making. I couldn't hand anything on to an assistant. So although I needed to earn money I began to feel trapped in my studio and didn't know where to go next. Then I came across an MA course ‘Design by Independent Project' in Brighton and I saw a way out. It seemed wonderful at the time, I applied but I had to defer for a year and by the time I started my studies, the whole tenor of the course had changed and it wasn't what I had hoped for.

How did you come across the course?

It was when I was interviewed for the Artists Newsletter (about my jewellery) and spoke about how stuck I felt - everyone just wanting more of the same things and having no time to develop anything new. The interviewer, who was a tutor at Brighton, suggested that I put together my own project proposal and that was the challenge I needed to move myself on. I had always liked the way light was transmitted and transmuted by my jewellery and I had just made a floor lamp that had won a prize at the British Trade Craft Fair for ‘the most innovative new product'. Those two things together really excited me and were just what I needed to reinforce my decision to change direction.

The new forms must have demanded new techniques?

Absolutely, a whole new range of techniques was necessary to make larger pieces - water-jet and laser cutting for example - and, after I had finished the MA course (where there were people who could do it for me) I had to send nylon to companies who had the right equipment. I went on to study welding at City College for a year, because I needed that skill for my bigger pieces. I wanted to be self-reliant as I constructed the piece - I would have hated to have to rely on someone else to do the welding.

Was that one successful competition piece enough for you to move forward?

Yes and no, is the answer I suppose. I had become really interested in public and community art and was sure that was the direction I wanted to go, but I needed to find sponsorship, and funding too, so it was never going to be an easy transition. My MA project demanded that I create an artwork using lighting for a public space and I decided to find somewhere in Norwich where I could create a theoretical commission. I went to the John Innes Centre, which has wonderful exhibition spaces. Eventually I was able to overcome the constraints of their space (no suspensions, nothing interfering with the stairways and so on) and exhibit Lighting Stabile there. Sadly, I had to dismantled it as I needed the space in my studio, and I damaged one section, so although I had planned to look for a permanent site, other work came along, and I haven't found time to repair it and find another site.

You make the changes in your working practice sound very logical and straightforward but you have taken a huge risk.

I wasn't at all sure of myself at the time that I began these changes but now that I have had more time to develop the skills and knowledge that I need I'm really glad I made that break. I would love a commission for a large public artwork, but that may be some way off. Everyone wants to see evidence that you have worked on that scale elsewhere, before they will commission you. It is risky financially and leaving something behind when it's working well is scary. I'm still using nylon even though the pieces themselves are much bigger. I discovered new and exciting techniques for colouring nylon, while on the Artists Access to Art Colleges scheme at Norwich School of Art and Design. Perhaps the greatest change has been that when I was making jewellery I was completely independent, now I have to rely on other people in lots of ways, to help me; people to move things, to commission or to agree to exhibit work and I need a large vehicle - I can't just load stuff into the back of my car any more!
Tell me about one recent piece of your work which has meant a lot to you.

I made a terrible mistake with a piece I made recently. I had suffered two bereavements within a week while I was on the Artists Access to Art Colleges scheme. Losing a very close friend and a relative made it a very difficult time for me, and another friend was dying of cancer. I wanted to commemorate them somehow, but I wasn't ready and I was spending a lot of time on my own walking and thinking. One day I was in the Rosary Road Cemetery, it's such a tranquil place. I saw an image there, which though very obvious was also truthful and seemed personal to me at that time - the figure of an angel on a grave. It was an inspirational moment for me. So I photographed the angel and taught myself to use Photoshop. I layered and printed the images of the angel onto nylon panels, playing with the colour combinations to create 3D effects and a sense of the angels fading in and out of the sky. I had the opportunity to display the ten panels within an arch in Salthouse Church as part of the Down to Earth exhibition. They were intended to be hung in a spiral, one beneath the other. But I made a very silly error in planning the piece. I thought that I had a height of five metres to use, but when I got to the church with the finished panels I found that there was only two metres. I was shattered. I had to find a solution and so I ended up with the panels - which I called Ascending - hung side by side. On the final day, as everyone was dismantling and taking away their work I was able to hang the panels the way I had planned - one beneath the other. I took photographs - but I was so anxious to make the record that I forgot to do the light compensations, and the pictures didn't come out. I was absolutely desperate about that. My partner says that all my work has been part of my learning process and that I have developed because of disasters like this!
I did get chance to exhibit Ascending again as part of the Fringe at the Factory exhibition at the old Bally shoe factory in Norwich. But it still wasn't ideal and I thought that the panels looked totally inappropriate hanging over a carpeted floor. My solution was to tear obituaries from pages of the EDP and spread them on the floor under the panels. The problem was that the air movement in the exhibition space kept turning over the pages and visitors must have wondered what on earth the significance of all these scraps of newspaper with crossword puzzles could possibly be. It was quite funny really! I did get some good photographs though.

Your working practice has developed so far, what have been the influences which led you to make the choices and changes you have talked about?

Well in the early days when I first went to Great Yarmouth Art College I was inspired by the transmission of light through Renee Lalique's glass and I suppose that glass would have been a good choice of material for my work. The transmission of light through the things I make has been central to most of my work and nylon is an ideal material for that. More recently, while I was completing my MA course, I came across the German lighting designer and artist Ingo Maurer, and was really impressed with his inventiveness and the way he used light. I visited an exhibition in Milan and saw how he had worked with a Japanese artist using traditional paper folding technique designers to perfect lamps using specialist papers. I admire his inventiveness and the way he works on a variety of scales in his one-off artwork and batch production, using light and incorporating movement. He crosses those boundaries which excite me too - between the applied and visual arts. Movement is a really important element in the work of Alexander Calder and I am looking at his work with my latest experiments.

You have already spoken about the difficulties in finding sponsorship for your MA degree costs and getting commissions, and it can't be easy to earn your living from the sort of work you are doing now, however rewarding it is to achieve the finished pieces. How do you earn a living?

I still receive regular orders from the Crafts Council Gallery Shop at the V & A museum which is good, but I have been mainly experimenting rather than making finished pieces so I have had to look for other ways to earn my living. I have worked as a community artist on various projects, an intergenerational project in Lakenham, museum education workshops linked to exhibitions and some teaching, for example, I have also had commissions for working with recycled materials, which is another interest of mine which we haven't really spoken about. I was born in Hingham which is why I am still drawn to that part of Norfolk, so I was delighted to find a part-time job as a community education worker (a nice link with my work as a community artist) at the local high school which brings me into contact with lots of people, especially young people, while still allowing me time for my own making. I'm very lucky that the steps I've taken with my work have kept me here in Norfolk.


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