This post blog is written by Dovecot’s Curatorial Programme Coordinator, Rachael Simpson on her experience curating her first exhibition as part of the team, The Art of Being an Apprentice.
In October 2020, I joined the Dovecot team as Curatorial Programme Coordinator. One of the first projects I took on in my new role was the Dovecot weaving apprenticeship exhibition which celebrates the journey and achievements of contemporary painter Elaine Wilson, who was at that point on the cusp of completing her three-year Dovecot Weaving Apprenticeship. The exhibition showcases the development of Elaine’s skills, as well as her own individual style as a practicing contemporary artist.
Before joining the Dovecot, my short career has traced a path exploring and creating different contexts for artistic practice through teaching and programming. My approach to the curation and coordination of this project was very much informed by my background in curating and programming within Scottish Contemporary Art organisations and in coordinating and supporting educational programmes.
I have always been interested in the way that the field of education and the field of art overlapped. This has always been a peripheral art historical question. It feels, that recently the dynamic between the two fields has shifted; from galleries prioritising educational programmes, to artists and curators borrowing from the classroom. Working on this project allowed me to think about these familiar questions even though the medium of tapestry was entirely new to me.
The weaving apprenticeship has been at the core of the Dovecot programme since 1912, inspired by the founding master weavers who came from the workshops of William Morris. It attracts applicants who have their own creative identity, practice and aesthetic vocabulary informed by historical, cultural and technical knowledge – though not necessarily in weaving. The apprenticeship provides apprentice weavers with the practical experience of making tapestry in collaboration with leading contemporary artists and master weavers.
In order to curate this project, I felt it was important to gain an understanding of how Elaine’s ideas were translated through the different materials she worked with, so that the final exhibition could capture a meaningful glimpse into the labour she has put into the finished tapestries. Through conversations in the studio with Elaine, I began to learn about her artistic practice and approach to visual research.
As an abstract painter, Elaine approaches weaving with an interest in creating varied surfaces and experimenting with different mark-making techniques, as well as looking at the use and interaction of colour in order to create interesting and dynamic images. She begins this process by drawing. She shared an extensive drawing series with me; a fundamental part of her process, which allowed her to explore and become acquainted with the interior of the Dovecot building and use this as a starting point for tapestry. Framed by the original vaulted ceiling of a Victorian Swimming Baths and Viewing Balcony, Elaine built up a comprehensive set of sketches, drawings and visual research that she used to inform the use of materials, composition, colour and tone. This informed the making of her work, 2 Monochrome Beams, 29x29.5cm which can be viewed as part of the exhibition. Interestingly, this set of tapestries both take the same drawing as their starting point, however one is woven upright, the other on its side. This study allowed Elaine to recognise why some tapestries are woven on their side, and the effect that this decision has on the completed tapestry. All apprentice weavers are set an exercise to explore this decision as it is a critical part of the weaving process, and for Elaine it resulted in the development of a satisfying set of art works which are unique to her practice and interpretation.
The exhibition is divided into four parts; ‘Samples and Technical Exercises’, ‘Painter to Weaver’, ‘Interpretation*’ and then ‘Satellite activity: resources and events’. It was important to draw distinctions between finished works and briefs, exercises or samples - these are the start of an apprentice weaver’s journey into making tapestry and each exercise focuses on a different technique.
Weavers usually engage in collaborative making, working on a tapestry together in close quarters in the Dovecot Studio. This requires a consistency of technique and skill set, which is learned and practiced throughout the apprenticeship. Elaine will graduate as a new member of the Dovecot weaving team, where she will continue to develop her skills.
The autonomy of the artist and the individuality of the artistic practice has always been a much-vaunted quality of arts education however this collaborative approach to making art may offer an alternative framework through which to view artistic practice.
Elaine now has the skills, experience and knowledge to play and explore with these collaborations within her own practice. It will be interesting to observe how Elaine’s style develops and changes throughout her career at Dovecot. This development educational programme represents an open and experimental attitude to a traditional apprenticeship. It employs a new and challenging understanding of what tapestry can be.