Joan Baxter Weaving
So who is Joan Baxter?
I was born in Edinburgh and went to Edinburgh College of Art in 1972. I discovered tapestry weaving there and gained my Diploma and Post Diploma qualifications in tapestry. Having seen tapestries from Eastern Europe that were completely different from what was being made in Scotland, I decided to try to do some further post-graduate study there. I got a scholarship from the British Council to study at Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts for two years...it was a fantastic opportunity to see a completely different world - Poland was still an unknown place to the 'west', still firmly behind the Iron Curtain when I was there in the late '70s. Returning to the UK, still feeling ill-equipped to survive as a maker, I was very fortunate to get a job as a weaver at West Dean Tapestry Studio, where they were weaving a series of large tapestries from drawings by Henry Moore. While I was there I also made work by Hodgkin and Piper. In 1984 I was invited to work for a year at the much larger and more commercial Victorian Tapestry Studio in Melbourne, Australia. I view the eight years I spent as a studio weaver as an indispensable part of my training. I not only honed my technical and interpretive skills but learned all aspects of working to commission, dyeing and good studio and professional practice. Most importantly it gave me confidence in my own abilities. The only problem was I wasn't doing much of my own work. In 1987 I was offered a rent free studio in rural Nottinghamshire by a charitable foundation and since this co-coincided with a commission to weave a very large tapestry for tapestry designer Marta Rogoyska, it seemed a suitable time to set up as an independent maker. Over the next few years I worked incredibly hard establishing myself as a designer, weaver, teacher and bespoke dyer. In a modest way I was successful, selling most of what I made, gaining some prestigious commissions and at one time in the mid 90s employing 4 weavers. I exhibited work widely both in the UK, in Denmark and in North America and was active in promoting and teaching tapestry wherever I could. In 2000 I inherited a tiny house and 7 acres of land in the far north of Scotland. I had been longing to return home to Scotland for many years so was very happy to move back to the landscapes that have inspired my work throughout my career. I have continued to weave tapestries to commission and for sale as well as teaching master classes and short courses, writing and giving occasional lectures.
Where in the world are you?
I live near the village of Brora in the far north of Scotland....its about an hours drive north of Inverness, half way to John'o Groats and the Orkney ferry. My home and studio lie on the edge of the crofting township of Doll, just where the farmland turns to woodland then the heather-clad hills and secret upland lochs of the interior. Mine is the last house before the old droving ford over the River Brora, about one and a half miles inland from the main A9 and the sea.
When did you decide to become a maker?
My dad was a very talented landscape painter so I was exposed to the visual arts from birth and drew all the time as a child. I was also exposed to textiles early, my grandmother was a tailoress and I loved playing with the fabrics, threads and buttons of her trade. As a teenager I made all my own clothes from remodelled jumble sale finds chosen for their interesting fabrics. I went to art school not really knowing what I wanted to specialise in, except I knew I didn't want to be a painter. During my first year I was introduced to tapestry and I knew immediately that this was going to be my medium and my destiny and I have never deviated from this decision. Tapestry combined the best bits of painting...narrative, colour and scale with the tactile, experimental and seductive nature of the materials. It also had the added allure of rarity and subversion.....the tapestry department at Edinburgh College of Art was the only place in the UK you could study tapestry as a subject in its own right and at the time - the mid 70s - it was very cutting edge and very cool. We felt we were part of the bough wave of something very exciting.
What made you choose the materials that you work with?
For those who don't know what tapestry is, it is a very ancient weaving process, to this day carried out entirely by hand with the processes and tools largely unchanged for millennia. We can see beautiful ancient tapestries made in Coptic Egypt and pre-Columbian South America in museum collections, and we have many large scale tapestries made in Europe from the middle ages onwards in collections like the Burrell in Glasgow and the V and A as well as in stately homes around the country. A tapestry is basically a woven picture, a decorative wall hanging, constructed entirely by hand, with no function other than to adorn ( and in the past draught proof) and to show status and wealth. In Europe since the middle ages wool has been the material of choice for making tapestries for both warp and weft. It is readily available, very durable, takes dyes better than most other fibres and holds its colour well over long periods. It is firm enough to create a strong surface yet soft and pliable enough to be easily worked. It is the most stable fibre in a damp European climate and probably still the most suitable for tapestry. Until recently I used wool exclusively in my work - maybe with a very small amount of silk, linen and cotton...but I always used a cotton warp as I couldn't find wool warp at the thickness I wanted. Many of the high quality materials once commonly available before the industrial revolution and the advent of man-made fibres are now rare or unobtainable - really good quality woollen warp and high quality, high lustre, tightly spun worsted woollen weft are difficult to source. If you want yarns that are of anything like the quality of those used in historic tapestries, they have to be specially commissioned from the 'last spinner who still has the old fashioned machinery and still knows how to use it' or imported at vast expense from Scandinavia where they understand the need for high quality materials. Fortunately I have recently found a good wool warp and it has changed the way I work. Given that it is so hard to get the quality of wool weft that I want, I have embarked on a period of experimentation with materials new to me...hemp, linen, cotton rags, twigs, cut up digital photos...after 20 years of a very traditional approach to materials. Its liberating and exciting but nothing so far approaches the beauty and durability of wool.
What other materials would you like to work in?
Tapestry is such a labour intensive medium that I feel I don't want to make time to work in other media. Also because I am skilled in my own medium, I find it frustrating to work in areas where my ambitions outstrip my technical abilities. Having said that, I'm starting to want to collaborate with artists in other media on specific projects - marrying my strengths and knowledge with other skilled people, so this might be the answer to broadening the scope of my work.. I'm in the middle of a project with a choreographer, projecting dance videos onto textured woven panels. I'm drawn to video as an addition to my textile work but although I have recently bought a video camera, I find my computer is too old to support the editing - so I will have to wait until I can afford to upgrade before I can start to work seriously with it.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My primary source is landscape and the stories, myths and histories that spring from landscape. The landscapes of the far north have a particular minimal beauty and are strongly atmospheric. The inspiration spark can come form anywhere - rarely simply from a pretty view, much more often something complex and nebulous, more of an emotion or a feeling than a visual idea. If I am making a piece about a particular place, then it could be about the archaeological layers present in the place ( see Sheneval). Sometimes I try to capture a moment in a landscape (October Clothscape), the quality of the light, the textures of the land. In other pieces I am inspired by more general themes to do with belonging to a landscape (Migdale Kilt) or the ghosts of people who once lived in landscapes that are now empty of them (Hallaig, Midwinter Naver). Most recently I have been inspired by the past two exceptional winters - the sheer, stunning beauty, the quality of the light, purity of the colours and the otherworldliness of it all as well as the reminder of how vulnerable we are (Winter Skyline).
What motivates you?
This is a hard one to answer. I have persisted to weave what I need to weave for almost a quarter of a century, with little hope of recognition beyond my own small tapestry pond and with very little financial reward. I have designed my life in order that I can continue to weave more or less full time. I live from my work but its not what most people would call a living. Before I moved north, I was certainly a workaholic, spending up to 60 hours a week working with no outside interests except my visits to Sutherland for inspiration. Now I live a more rounded life and weave for fewer hours but I can't imagine ever not weaving - its what defines me, I see my life through it and my life is dedicated to it because that is where my talent and fulfilment lies.
Do you create your work in a studio base or a home base?
I work from a studio I built onto my house about eight years ago. It is 7m x 5m, with a tall pitched roof to accommodate my largest loom. It faces south and looks out onto a sweep of grass, a small loch fringed by birch and willow with pine-clad rising ground beyond. The studio, as well as having passive solar heating from large south facing windows, has a third of its north facing roof glazed so the light is fantastic and I rarely need to use artificial light during daylight hours. You can see a 360 view of my studio with some audio clips at: www.vasutrail.com and click through to studios then Joan Baxter.
House and Studio
Crafts in the 21st Century – what does this mean to you?
I think there are encouraging stirrings of a re-awakening of interest in quality, skills and experience (over youth and novelty and those who can draw the most attention to themselves). Collectors of craft are quite rare and critical appreciation of craft beyond an obsession with how things are made is also unusual. The recent exhibition 'The Age of Experience' was exactly the kind of educational exhibition that we need to see more of. It featured work by mature craft makers, most of them approaching or over 60, with a whole lifetime of making behind them. It was a great way of demonstrating that quality materials, great design, technical skill and experience are what makes beautiful and highly collectable craft objects. In the long run I think this is what people crave - something that finds the balance between concept, function and execution. This is all encouraging as I have felt like a lone voice crying in the wilderness about the joy of making and materials and the need for skill and beauty, all the way through post-modernism and the YBA movements that have valued and celebrated other qualities. I'm concerned about the lack of technical knowledge and practical craft skills in those who are teaching the younger generation in schools and universities and the difficulties facing craft makers - usually sole traders with precarious and fluctuating incomes - in being able to take on and train apprentices. These two things combined make it very difficult for anyone setting out on a career in crafts to acquire the whole range of skills needed to practice successfully.
How do you sell and promote your work?
I promote my work mostly through exhibitions and my website. The UK is not a particularly good environment for exhibiting tapestry so I have always needed to exhibit much more widely, in North America and mainland Europe, particularly Scandinavia. I have had three solo exhibitions, two in England and one in Denmark, a number of small group exhibitions with other tapestry weavers in the UK, Japan and Denmark and have been juried into quite a large number of big touring tapestry exhibitions in North America and Europe. It is quite hard to exhibit in mixed exhibitions although I have recently participated in craftscotland's Meet Your Maker and will be part of their UNITE exhibition in the Collins gallery in Glasgow in April/May so that is a hopeful sign. I do not tend to sell much work from exhibitions. My sales come about mostly through personal contact, through my lectures, my teaching, via my website, via local or regional promotions like Open Studios. I could spend loads more time than I do on promotion and still not get any sales, so I decided long ago to just keep on exhibiting, talking, writing and teaching in the hope that the person who doesn't know they want that tapestry yet, will find it. I long to be represented by a gallery or an agent but this will never happen in the UK, I am too old, the wrong gender, too rural and working in the wrong medium to ever be cool enough to earn them their commission. Website: www.joanbaxter.com
What is your typical working day look like?
Working for myself and from home means that work and life have a habit of blending into each other. This is especially true in my situation as my husband and I do a lot of time-consuming self sufficiency stuff on our land as well as both being creative makers. We grow and process our own timber for heating and grow most of our own vegetables and soft fruit. I spend some time every day weaving or designing in the studio which will add up to around 35 hours a week. What I do each day is dependent on factors like the weather, the time of year, what stage in the making process I am at and whether or not I have students or Open Studio days. Except in the depths of winter, I usually get up very early. Sometimes I go straight into the studio and weave for a few hours, sometimes I fire up the laptop and do emails and sometimes I go for a walk or a bike ride. After breakfast and a few domestic chores I go into the studio and weave through until around 5pm. If the weather is good I might take breaks outside during the day...maybe a half hour of weeding in the veggie garden with a cup of coffee or a walk in our woodland with a saw. If I am designing or working out ideas then most of that is done in my head and with the help of my camera on long walks or cycles in the surrounding countryside. I don't usually weave in the evenings unless I have a deadline or I have been out during the day. Often I'll work on the computer for an hour or two and in the long light of summer I'm often out walking or cycling, looking at things.
What is your working style?
My own ....I have no idea what that is!
3 words of advice for an aspiring Craft artist/maker
Just do it!
14 Who is/are your favourite artist(s)/maker(s)?
I'm interested in what other makers are doing but I'm rarely as moved by what they do as I am by music, film and writing. I admire the films of Tarkovsky...his ability with layers is stupendous, likewise the many-layered short stories and poems of George Mackay Brown. If I had to choose a favourite maker it would be ceramicist Lucie Rie. She managed to combine function with art in her work and I admire her modesty. Several painters were influential in my early work - Chagall for his magical narratives, Turner for his abstractions and his atmospheres and Mark Rothko for the stillness he creates with violent colour. My favourite tapestry weaver is still my teacher, Maureen Hodge - dark, passionate and mysterious work that always moves me..
What music do you listen to?
I tend to listen to the same two or three pieces of music for a month or two then move on to something else. The music informs the work to some extent, I can always remember what I was listening to when I was weaving a piece. I can't really generalise about my musical tastes they are pretty eclectic. In the last couple of years my significant music has been Martyn Bennett, Jan Garbarek, Aarvo Paart, Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawney, Thomas Tallis, Brian Eno, Faithless, Joni Mitchell and the Afro Celt Sound System
3 likes and dislikes?
Like cats, chocolate, walking. Dislike ugly modern houses in the landscape, mobile phones and marmite
What do you do to relax?
I spend time exploring my local landscapes in great detail on foot and by bike. I'm very interested in archaeology, especially the remains that surround me in the landscape I live in. I like nothing better that to be walking in my local hills in search of iron age settlements or bronze age burials. I find it all endlessly fascinating and inspiring. I like the practical aspects of it all - seeing how iron age people took advantage of shelter and damper or dryer areas of land in their farming by observing the faint remains of their field boundaries or seeing how pre Clearance communities interacted by finding the remains of their track ways and river crossings between the ruins of their settlements. I like working my land - I especially like clearing scrub and having fires. Otherwise I spend time with friends, read or watch television. I like C4s Unreported World, music and travel programmes, anything sumptuously visual and I'm really enjoying 'The Killing' the Danish detective story currently being serialised on BBC4 on Saturdays ...the most intelligent drama on telly for decades.