An Interview with Gladys Paulus by Vanessa Scott-Hayward
I have followed the work of Gladys Paulus for many years now, I was first introduced to her when I picked up an Issue of the magazine Crafty. I was just setting out on my own handmade journey and I had recently started felting as a hobby. Seeing the work of Gladys inspired me and struck a cord.
Just last year I rediscovered her through her facebook page where you can see a snapshot of all the amazing things that she is up to. Her work is theatrical and inspirational. Gladys was incredibly generous with her time in answering my questions and I think you will agree it is a wonderful insight into her inspiration and how she works. Enjoy!
Where do you find your inspiration?
I come from a fine art (painting) background so textiles were an entirely new world for me that I stumbled across almost by accident. When I first started making felt I had all sorts of big conceptual ideas, without having the actual feltmaking skills necessary to achieve them. Over the past 10 years or so I have been experimenting and working out methods and techniques to start translating some of my ideas.
So in some ways you could say I am being led by the materials. I am now at the stage where I have caught up with myself and feel able and ready to get back in touch with some of my original concepts, which are to do with identity, family and ceremony. I am a daughter in a mixed race family, granddaughter of migrants, and a migrant myself (I was born and raised in the Netherlands before moving to the UK in 1995), and I carry many personal questions about identity that have a wider relevance too.
Funnily enough, the animal masks for which I have become known were never really intended as a product in their own right, but part of a developmental stage from which I am now ready to move on.
How does your process start?
For 3-dimensional work such as masks I start out doing some sketches beforehand to help me work out the size and shape of the resist I need to create (hollow, 3-dimensional felt is generally created by laying out wool around a impenetrable resist created from a sheet of rubber, foam or plastic. The resist prevents the two sides of the felt from merging together). This can be quite a precise process involving tape measure and calculations, as the shrinkage of the wool has to be taken into account and the template needs to be upsized. I often make a small felt sample of my chosen combination of wool beforehand to help me work out the shrinkage for this reason.
Once the resist has been created, the laying out of wool fibres tend to be much more intuitive. The way the colours and different fibres merge during the feltmaking process is very reminiscent of painting, so I play a lot with building up layers of colour. It’s a process I really enjoy. Once the felt is firm enough to come off the resist, I spend a lot of time shrinking, stretching and sculpting the felt into the desired shape and until it has the required firmness.
For smaller, experimental pieces I often just start making some felt. I let the process of making guide me and this generally is enough to generate lots of ideas, both in terms of content and technique. For me the making process is like dream time. My hands are working and moving over the material, and my mind is free to let images and sentences emerge. I always have a sketchbook or notebook right next to me, so that I can take a note or a quick sketch of an idea for future reference. I go over those ideas from time to time and often find overlaps, or old ideas that I had forgotten about which immediately spark a new image in my head.
What is your favourite medium to work in and why?
My first love in life was painting and drawing, and I suspect that one day I will go back to that, but right now wool is the material I chose to work with. There is a painterliness in the feltmaking process that appeals to the painter in me, and a freedom that comes from working in 3 dimensions. I never showed much interest in sculpture when I was at art college, so it has come as a bit of a surprise to me to find myself working in 3-D textiles.
What attracted me to feltmaking, after my initial experimentation, was the alchemic, transformational quality of the feltmaking process. I was just amazed that a pile of sheep’s wool could be transformed by adding nothing more than a bit of water and soap. I became interested in how far the material can be pushed. But I am not wedded to one material, and I am slowly introducing other materials such a copper, wood and clay into the felt. I guess what these all have in common is an earthiness, but ultimately to me it’s about telling a story with whatever materials tell it best.
What advice would you give those starting out on a career in the art world?
Believe in yourself and follow your heart but combine this with a lot of hard graft. You have to be self disciplined and show up for the work, even (or especially) when you don’t feel like it.
What are you currently working on?
Through the latter half of 2016 and most of 2017 I will be working towards a solo exhibition (to be held in a confirmed venue in October 2017). I don’t want to say too much about it yet but in a nutshell, the exhibition will consist of an installation of ancestral costumes and masks, exploring a range of deeply personal yet universal concepts, including grief, identity, culture, family and attitudes towards gender. These costumes are a gesture of remembrance, a way to honour my ancestors, to symbolically heal some deep ancestral trauma and ceremonially clear the way forward for future generations.
Part of this project is about processing my grief at recently losing both my father and last remaining grandparent, through the creation of a memorial costume. The other part of it is about making visible the unspoken and often traumatic stories that silently bind generations in so many families. In preparation I have been delving into the wider picture of my family constellations and dynamics, and their political, historical and cultural context.
Felt is the ideal medium for this project. It is soft and associated with warmth and protection. It is organic in nature and as much subject to the ravages of time as we are. In all these ways the medium fits my theme perfectly. Although I may well incorporate other materials, such as wood, metal, glass and other fabrics, felt will be the binding factor, much like blood and accumulated experiences bind families.
Wool’s capacity for holding shape is due to its ability to ‘remember’. As the wool shrinks during the feltmaking process and then dries, the shape is stored in the fibres. This idea of the wool ‘remembering’ adds another layer of meaning, as well as linking my work to a long and ancient lineage of felt making that started at the dawn of human civilization.
Finally, textiles and textile art in particular tends to be a feminine domain, and with that I feel I will be following in the footsteps of many generations of women all over the world, who have cut, stitched, sewn and darned to keep their families clothed, safe and protected.
In order to be able to focus on this work I am taking a break from teaching workshops and working to commission throughout 2017, and I will be announcing a crowd funding site for this project in the next few months.
Where can people find you?
OWL gallery, 33 Catherine Hill, Frome, Somerset BA11 3HG
For current and forthcoming exhibitions, please refer to my website.