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Cecilia Charlton: Memory Garden

Ahead of her installation Memory Garden opening at the Garden Museum for London Craft Week 8-14 May, we asked textile artist Cecilia Charlton a few questions to learn more about the ancient practice of weaving:

How did you come to weaving, when did you realise you wanted to use it as your artistic medium?

It is hard to pin down an exact moment when weaving captivated me — all I know is that all of a sudden I was completely obsessed. Every morning watching weaving videos on YouTube, ordering weaving books on eBay to learn techniques. Embroidery is such a rich practice, but you really can’t study the history of textiles without having a relationship with weaving. If there was no weaving, there would not be anything to embroider upon — to create paintings upon, for that matter. Weaving is so fundamental to our everyday life — through its success as a technology it has been rendered invisible by the modern eye. We are smothered in it, yet we completely take it for granted. I was completely fascinated by the incredible richness of weaving and the dynamic capabilities of historical techniques.

Photo by Felix Speller

What’s a typical day in your life as a textile artist?

I usually get up early, and because my studio is in my house I can get there without too much delay! So, from around 8am I am in the studio. I spend the first few hours doing quiet and low-impact work — responding to emails, writing, reading, drawing. Then from around 11am I move into a more active phase of my day. This is often weaving, stretching artworks, setting up a new warp. I then finish actively making around 5pm, at which time I sit and look and think — assessing what has been created this day, and planning my next moves for tomorrow.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

This really depends on the project. For example, the artworks that I have made for Memory Garden were completely inspired by the exhibition space. Both their formal qualities as well as the content was driven by the opportunity to make work for the Garden Museum.

Other times, inspiration can come from anywhere — a science program I’ve watched on television, a memory that I have had that I am trying to process, artworks can even be inspired simply by the materials that I have to hand. Sometimes, a composition will just arrive into my brain as if it was a communication being received from a far-off place.

What has been one of your favourite or most challenging pieces to make?

I think my favorite and my most challenging was Eternal myth and the poetry of the cosmos [fate, future, suture] which was created for the Jerwood Art Fund Makers Open. It was my largest embroidery to date, so there was a lot of trouble-shooting to get the piece working. I was also really happy to have the opportunity to create three different wall paintings to go along with the embroidery, as the exhibition toured from London to Cornwall and Scotland. With the amazing support of Jerwood, it was unique to trial different approaches to installation – each method presenting the artwork in a different way and highlighting different aspects of the work.

Cecilia Charlton, Eternal myth and the poetry of the cosmos, photo by Anna Arca

Can you tell us about the works you are creating for our London Craft Week exhibition?

For the exhibition at the Garden Museum, I am creating an installation called Memory Garden. Something I have noticed about textiles is their potency — it seems that we have an uncanny ability to recognize specific textiles, almost the way we can recognize faces. I wonder how we may have developed this ability throughout the thousands of years of civilization where textiles have been used to represent habitation groups, to celebrate important events, to demonstrate encoded meanings. Perhaps recognizing textiles have been part of our survival to a certain degree?

Whatever the cause, I find specific patterns lodge in the deep recesses of my brain – much like what I have read about scent. Odours take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory. So could this subconscious association be something shared by gardens and textiles? The artworks that I have created are all inspired by flowers that have personal relevance to me, primarily flowers that have distinctive aromas, so within each artwork is the memory of the flower as well as the memories that were imbued into the textile during the act of making. With this exhibition, I invite viewers to contemplate the role of both of these forms of growth – gardening and weaving – and their relationship to our human lives.

Are you working on any other exciting projects you’d like to mention?

The rest of the year is still very much in development. So, please follow me on social media (@ceciliacharlton) to find out about upcoming projects or events.

Finally, as we are the Garden Museum, can you tell us about your relationship with plants, gardening and nature?

This is an interesting question – the last 10 years have been spent living in NYC and then in London. So I often consider myself to be thoroughly urbanized and part of me cannot imagine moving back into a rural environment. But I find that when I have opportunities to reconnect with nature I am surprised by how much it moves me.

For example, last year I was on an artist residency at Villa Lena in Tuscany. The residency takes place on 500 hectares of land, mostly untouched woods, that is on the top of a hill. You can see for miles in every direction, and I found myself getting up early to watch the sunrise, and completely bowled over catching a glimpse of the stars while strolling around after dark. I ended up creating a wall painting and textile piece about celestial transits, about these powerful bodies that go largely unseen in an urban life. Without even a garden at my flat in London, I often arrive at the conclusion that my requirements for nature are low, but then whenever I have exposure to nature I am reminded of how refreshing and vital the natural world is. At Villa Lena I really gave myself over to nature’s embrace.

I aspire to someday have a garden where I can grow lots of lovely-smelling flowers like peony, jasmine, and wisteria, and a herb garden. At the moment, house plants are crucial to my life and I enjoy caring for them. I love watching thing grow, in particular slow-growing things.

Cecilia Charlton: Memory Garden is open 8-14 May

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