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Claire Wellesley-Smith: Making art meaningful

Claire Wellesley-Smith focuses on long term, community-based work. Find out about her practice and her journey as a textile artist.

Claire’s Friday Feature Artist Interview can be found at the bottom of this page.

Claire Wellesley-Smith’s practice is focused on long term, community-based work, often spanning several years and overlapping multiple projects at one time, the effects of which can be life changing for the participants. 

Living in Bradford, West Yorkshire, surrounded by a rich heritage of the textile, trade and manufacturing era of the 19th century, particularly wool and cotton, offers an abundance of inspiration for Claire’s archival research and textile based projects, including planting dye gardens and teaching students how to create their own colour. 

Claire’s project work and wonderful books offer the opportunity to ask questions and consider the implications of our modern relationship with textiles. Fibre Arts Take Two was lucky enough to talk with Claire and discover more about her passions.

Textile people

Textiles were part of Claire’s life from the very beginning, “I grew up in a household where my mother and grandmother were extremely skilled textile people. My mother can make clothes; she knits, crochets, she embroiders. She’s very, very skilled, as well as my grandmother. I grew up in an environment where people were always making things, always mending.” 

Despite her early involvement with textiles, Claire says her journey to fibre arts was anything but straightforward, “I went to university and studied politics but I lived in a house full of fine art students, so we had a communal rag back for making clothes and mending things. There was always a kind of making element to everyday life for me. But in terms of how I got into textile practice, that happened after a brief period of working in community engagement around higher education. I was facilitating people who have barriers to participating in education, back into education and doing a lot of textile work in my spare time. I eventually went to night school to do some creative textile courses. That work led into volunteering, which then led into more formal project-based stuff.”

The urban environment

Over the last 12 years, a lot of Claire’s projects have been based in urban environments, 

“They’ve been developed in non-garden spaces and they’ve spoken to things around mental health and also connections to heritage. They’ve popped up at community centres… we had a garden in a car park. We were not working with big formal spaces, we borrowed bits of community allotments and things like that. I love these projects because there’s this whole process of growing something, nurturing it, working together to achieve, and then being able to work in a really seasonal way.” 

In Northern England, the seasons have a way of dictating life. “Autumn and winter are quite cold and it’s definitely not the growing season. During those months, we work with the materials that we’ve dyed and work together on collected projects and create the space for people to have conversations while they’re making things.”

Worn Stories

Claire’s collaboration, Worn Stories, is a perfect example of the way her collaborations embrace community and history.  

Bradford, where Claire practices, has a textile industry dating back hundreds of years. “The project really addressed the history of textile recycling, reuse and repair in the community from the 1880s onwards. We offered an opportunity to think about contemporary textile practices and how we consume textiles by looking at the histories of businesses and workers who were engaged in textile recycling. It involved archived research, participants learned research skills, they accessed archives. They were able to tell the stories of some of the women in that industry.”

Fast fashion

Being based in a textile town and working with fibre materials has Claire thinking about the state of the fashion and textile industry and the danger of fast fashions, “I think that a huge thing in terms of how people consume stuff is they don’t think about how things are made. They don’t think about who’s making them, because you have to look a bit further to actually see it. I think making those kinds of supply chains more visible could be really, really important and make people think about the reality of a T-shirt that costs two pounds or two dollars. What is that actually saying about the people who were making this and where it’s coming from?”

Claire sees hope though, in the form of individuality and creativity, “I’ve got four daughters and I’ve noticed they’re consuming habits starting to change, actually. They’ve had part-time jobs, and they’ve had a bit of spending power for the first time in their lives. To begin with there were parcels arriving all the time from some really dubious manufacturers, and I had to hold my tongue a little bit, but one of the things definitely emerged is that they’re starting to think about how they can look, you know, like themselves, and that they have some sort of individuality. One of the things about these collections of very fast fashion is the uniformity and the fact that everybody is wearing very similar things. My 19 year old just got a sewing machine now in her room. She’s chopping up and altering things and making new things out of old things and she buys second hand, and then alters it. I think more examples of that do make a big difference. I like the fact that you can make things that are just really for you.”

Transitions

Being a community-based artist has had its challenges over the past 12 months or so, 

“Those sorts of community projects, just in terms of face to face work, were just not possible at all. I mean, we have had breaks in the lockdown, but actually here in the north of England, we had very, very few periods where we weren’t in some sort of lockdown, either national or local restrictions. 

A lot of my work is with organisations that work with adults who might be experiencing some sort of social isolation. That could be due to long term health conditions, it could be due to bereavement, it could be due to issues around substance abuse, there’s lots and lots of things. That actually means that a lot of the people who participate in my projects would be a vulnerable group anyway. The kind of opportunity for them to come out to meet up would have been very difficult anyway, so there’s been a big kind of pivot to online work.”

While online work has been essential, Claire remains keenly aware of some of its shortcomings, “You have to appreciate that digital exclusion is something that also exists. Not everybody has the skills, not everybody has access to high-quality broadband or any broadband in some cases. So there most definitely is a group of people who have been completely excluded despite the best efforts of community organisations to get them online and get that access going. 

It’s been really interesting as somebody who’s worked with people in a face to face way, for so long. It’s challenged me. I’ve had to really think about how I do things. I’ve had to skill myself up in various different ways, in terms of technology, and I’ve had to recognise that online spaces are brilliant.”

Make it meaningful

“Make it meaningful for you. I think that’s that’s the thing,” says Claire as her parting advice to aspiring artists, “That could be through the colours that you stitch with, it could be through the fabrics you choose to use, but make that connection and make it for you. And I think that that’s a really nice way to work because it doesn’t have to be for anyone else and you will understand why it’s important to you.”

About the artist

Claire Wellesley-Smith is an artist, writer and researcher based in Bradford, West Yorkshire. She studied politics as an undergraduate at Newcastle University and has a Masters degree in Visual Arts from Bradford School of Art. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the Open University researching slow craft practices and engagement with personal and community heritage. She specialises in projects that use local, natural colour, created from home-grown and locally foraged plants. Dyes and stitches on reclaimed cloth are used in slow processes that allow time for consideration of methods of production and narratives of use. Claire uses archival research as the starting point for her work, looking at locations and community stories. Cloth, dye and stitch are then used as carriers of the natural and social history of place. 

Socially-engaged arts projects are a key part of Claire’s practice. Her projects are often long-term community-based engagements and explore the ways that place, heritage and memory can connect people to their surrounding environment.

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