I’m planning a move to Norfolk in the near future and one of the many things I’ll miss about my home town of Gravesend, in Kent, is the cultural centre and local landmark that is LV21. I’ve exhibited and run workshops there as have many of the artists that have featured in this blog.
This month, LV21 is featuring new work, The Shipping Forecast, by Maidstone-based textile artist Cas Holmes, whose work is often inspired by her life, the journeys she makes, the places she visits and people she meets. She describes it as ‘painting with cloth’.
Origins and influences
Cas came to Kent from Norfolk in the mid-80s to study fine art and photography. It was the same journey that her Gypsy Roma grandparents would have made each year to pick hops.
Heritage is key to Cas’s identity, as a person and as an artist, and explicit and derived references to her family’s history continue to influence her life and her art.
Her father studied at the former Norwich Technical College (now Norwich University for the Arts) and became a sign-writer.
‘I think my attention to detail comes from him and from my Roma grandmother,’ Cas reflects. ‘That’s something that they both told me – look up, look down, look around you, pay attention to the world. And from my Norfolk grandmother I’ve taken to heart the Norfolk philosophy and expression “Do different”.’
Those two, combined with a third expression from a medal presented to Cas when she became a Winston Churchill Fellow, “with opportunities comes responsibilities”, have become the mantras that guide her life and work. In recent years she has recognised how, in some ways, she is continuing the tradition of her Roma forebears.
‘It’s taken me 40 years to realise that my life as an artist who has travelled throughout the world, upped sticks carrying all my bits with me, worked on the hop and the hoof, is not too dissimilar to the way my grandmother and my great-grandmother would have lived, taking their things to wherever they needed to work.
A growing interest in textiles
Cas gained a degree in fine art (painting and photography) at Maidstone Art College. Her prior experience with textiles gave no indication of the direction her work was to take.
‘My grandmother hated stitch so she never taught me and I found out a few years ago that my mother could knit, though I never saw her do it,’ Cas remembers. ‘I hated that cross stitch apron we all had to make at primary school. Mine was so grubby. I hated doing it because it was so formulaic.’
Then, as part of her studies at art college, Cas made paper and, as a result, became rather more interested in what she was painting on (the substrate) that what she was applying to it.
‘I think that’s the paying attention bit – finding out what your materials can do,’ Cas says. ‘Learning about western-style paper led to me researching Japanese paper making and I put in an application to study in Japan.’
It was while she was in Japan, studying papermaking under a Churchill Fellowship, that Cas’s interest in textiles developed.
‘That’s when I began to understand what materials could do, because in Japan cloth and paper are equally valued as substrates,’ Cas explains. ‘And that’s where, for me, the world of the fine artist – someone who paints on canvas or paper – and that of the textile artist began to merge. It was the beginning of my understanding of what materials mean to me. Studying the links between paper and textiles built my confidence with handling materials, and from very early on, my materials of choice became “found materials”.’
The making process
Cas now works mainly on textiles that she collects on her travels or (mostly) old and worn fabric donated by friends. These are then coloured, painted, layered, collaged and stitched to form the final piece.
For the last ten years, the focus of her work has been on the everyday relationship that people have with the world. She is particularly interested in the connection between the urban and natural world and in ‘liminal’ spaces – those spaces in-between, such as verges, field edges and the boundaries where gardens meet the landscape.
‘I’ve always worked in these sort of in-between places – I think it’s part of my psyche,’ she reflects. ‘It’s become an evaluation on how I see myself positioned, because my wok is neither placed strongly in the world of painting nor the world of textiles. It is in-between them and I’m quite comfortable there.’
Cas doesn’t drive and spends a lot of time walking, cycling , or on trains where she can see the world passing. As she travels, she sketches.
‘I’ve always sought to get enjoyment out of the places I’m in rather than the places I’m going to,’ she says. ‘And I want to give people a way in to my particular take on the world. What I see will be familiar to other people so I’m just saying, “Look have you paid attention to this? Do you not see how beautiful, or strange, or beguiling our world can be if you just paid attention to it”.’
There are two elements to Cas’s work – the idea and the materials – and, as she puts it, they ‘satellite around each other’.
‘The interplay between idea and making is very important to me,’ Cas explains. ‘I think that is what art is about – the artist being involved with the materials to create their own particular take on the world. The materials I use will be chosen because they have a connection with the idea that I want to communicate. You need to listen to your materials to push your idea along. The tangibility of touching a soft cloth or the harshness of a piece of paper that you have picked up on your travels, is very important to me.
The process of making a completed work can be lengthy and complex but it always falls into three key processes, not always worked on in sequence:
Mark-making on the chosen material – this might be with paint, dye or other media
Layering pieces of cloth, paper or found materials, constantly referring to her sketchbook to make adjustments, and
Stitching, which holds the work together.
Cas says that her drawings ‘infuse’ her work. They are not intended to be copied but rather act to stimulate and engage her as she works. She might also include photographic elements or text in the final piece.
‘Once I have worked on a basic composition for a piece, I ‘audition’ it by pinning it to a large piece of canvas hanging on a wall, or lay smaller pieces on clean paper, often overnight so I can look at it with fresh eyes,’ Cas explains. ‘After I’ve made any adjustments – fine tuning it like a piece of music – I’ll add the stitching. The form and texture of that is informed by the marks made in my sketchbook.’
Once the piece us complete, interaction with the audience completes the process for Cas.
‘Any successful art work is a meeting point between the artist and the audience,’ she says. ‘You need to ask questions. To leave space for other people to bring their own thoughts and stories to the work. What you’ve done should intrigue them, perhaps trigger memories. Textile art, like any good painting can work at two levels. It might capture your attention as you walk by and you think, “What is that?” and then it might draw you in so you want to look at it in more detail to see what’s happening, or how it is made, or because the subject matter is intriguing. And through that interaction, other things will be revealed.’
Over the last few years, Cas has used this process to create works for a number of major projects .
Cas’s ’40 yards’ project started more than 10 years ago, when after returning from work in Australia, she found a piece of cloth outside her house with the words ’40 yards’ on it. It triggered an idea for an exhibition for the 20th European patchwork meeting. She decided to create a body of work using only found materials, from her travels, and to include only images of seasonal changes and daily observations from the street, gardens and park within 40 yards of her home.
‘It was that idea of paying attention to the world again and it was an exploration of the ways in which travel and home, intersect for me,’ she explains.
You can read more about the creation of one particular piece, Cup and Dandelion, here.
What we value -What we miss
What we value – What we miss also looked at how people travel through the world. Focusing on migration and identity, Cas posed the question: What would you put in a small bag, that is of value to you, if you had to up and leave at a moments’ notice, and what would you miss that you couldn’t take with you?
For two years as she travelled the world, Cas stitched her reflections on the question to include in the piece. But as the COVID-19 lockdown was enforced, she decided to ask the global community to send her their words, or stitched pieces, reflecting on the effect of lockdown on human connections, that she could include in the piece.
‘The pandemic reversed the original question for many of us,’ Cas comments. ‘Now we had our lives restricted like many migrants may have, in terms of where they can go, what they can do, where they can work and how they can live.’
Spaces, Places and Traces
The Spaces, Places and Traces exhibition in 2020, for the Romani Cultural and Arts Company gave Cas the chance to reflect on her own identity. Three larger wall hangings and a series of smaller pieces used fabrics with cultural significance, figurative elements from memories and images from photographs, to explore Cas’s Romany heritage and how it has shaped the person she has become.
Since that exhibition, the project has developed, picking up on the ideas explored in What we value – What we miss but focusing more explicitly on the human cost of migration to Europe from troubled regions across the world. The exhibition will be shown in Antwerp and Northern Ireland in 2022.
You can watch Cas talking about this body of work in this You Tube video.
The Shipping Forecast
The Shipping Forecast installation, which you can see on LV21 now (see dates and times below) is part of the ongoing Spaces, Places and Traces project. It is created out of printed and painted cloth, paper and lace and contains stitched words relating to the themes of migration and the movement of people.
The text stitched on the piece was triggered by a shocking sound bite from the BBC news, which Cas overheard in 2018, reporting that, since 2014, 17,700 people had drowned in the waters around Europe .
Since then, while travelling, Cas has been stitching into linen or other pieces of cloth gathered while travelling, snatches of broadcasts or overheard conversations about migration – many of them negative or inflammatory.
For The Shipping Forecast installation, this text has been incorporated into larger panels, which have images of the shipping forecast overlaid, along with bits of clothing and other flotsam and jetsam, some of which Cas picked up on the beaches of Folkestone or Dover. She chose the shipping forecast as an organising theme because of its significance to her when she is away from home.
‘When I’m travelling, I often tune in to the shipping forecast on BBC radio,’ Cas says. ‘The rhythms and its mantra of words to help keep those at sea safe reassure me during the times I struggle to sleep. They make me feel secure and safe. But however useful and comforting the shipping forecast is, it does nothing to keep migrants safe at sea in their fragile boats.’
The Shipping Forecast installation also refers back, once more, to Cas’s immediate and more recent heritage.
‘My great aunts and uncles would have been related to some of those who fled Europe, from the end of the 19th century right through to the second world war, and who have continued to need to move because of their status in society ‘ she says.
Those viewing the installation approach it from the back, where the text appears asemic. From this perspective, they will appreciate that it is about the shipping forecast, but it is only when they return and pass the installation from the front, that the text, and the full message of the piece, is revealed.
‘I feel moved to use my voice as an artist to echo what is happening,’ Cas says. ‘I don’t think I have any answers but I want to make it feel very present. I want to create a visual voice for migrants so that they are not unseen. So they can’t be forgotten. And they should never be forgotten.’
You can hear Cas speaking about The Shipping Forecast project in this You Tube video.
The Shipping Forecast
You can view the installation on LV21 on the following dates. Admission is free.
Thursday 25 Nov 12:30-15:30
Friday 26 Nov 12:30-15:30 – if you would like to meet Cas, she plans to be there between 1-2pm
Saturday 27 Nov 12:00-16:00
Sunday 28 Nov 12:00-16:00
Tuesday 30 Nov 12:00-16:00
Thursday 2 Dec 12:30-16:00
Friday 3 Dec 14:00-18:30
Saturday 4 Dec 14:00-17:00
Sunday 5 Dec 10:30-12:30
Cas has published 5 books featuring her work: