Meeting Betchworth-based artist Claire Benn
PUBLISHED: 10:42 30 July 2019
Copyright Katie Vandyck 2019 no reproduction without credit
Claire Benn recreates the landscapes around her Betchworth studio with a creative combination of textures
There is surely no textile artist closer to the Surrey soil than Claire Benn, who works from her home studio in Betchworth. From her converted 17th century barn, Claire recreates her vision of wilderness and landscapes through cloth, thread and pigments and the resulting textiles have a wonderfully natural and earthy feel. Claire abandoned the corporate world many years ago to follow a more creative path. "Around 25 years ago I began to feel disillusioned with corporate life and felt a need to balance it out with something that engaged my hands and my head, not to mention my soul. I turned to textiles as a result of seeing a Mennonite quilt in Canada, a beautiful combination of form and function," she says. "I began by learning the basics of quilt-making but soon realised I wanted to work with cloth that I could colour and design myself."
Over the next 10 years Claire studied various ways to use dyes and surface design processes, but found herself frustrated by the tradition of the 'straight line stitch'. She discovered that random rows, lines or scatterings of stitched thread offered a visual trace of time and loved the literal surface texture that fingertips could physically feel.
Claire also established a more emotional response to the cloth and was inspired by the work and words of artists such as Agnes Martin and Anna Albers. "I give thanks to Agnes Martin. The stillness, emptiness and simplicity of her work resonated inside my chest," she explains. "I also agree with Anna Albers sentiment that something in a fabric speaks to us, and asks to be formed."
Claire began to find inspiration in the landscape and switched from fibre-reactive dyes to acrylics, experimenting by mixing earth pigments with acrylic medium and water. "By earth pigments I mean 'posh dirt," she says. "Yellow ochre and other pigments found in the earth or rocks. I love to visit the ochre pits in the Roussillon area of France, and seeing the quarries with their rich colours re-connects me. I usually sneak some back in my luggage, and having the actual earth really inspires my work. Using earth pigment connects me back to the land and binding them in acrylic medium allows me to make washes that soak through the cloth or build up crusty layers to communicate the texture of earth, rock and snow."
Claire is naturally drawn to the colours of the desert, but fully appreciates the beauty of the Surrey landscape. Based at the foot of the North Downs, she has an enviable view from her studio.
"I live and work from a very open spot, and I love the big sky outside my back door," she says. "The sunsets are incredible here, and in spring the hills are striated with vivid greens which contrast against the white cliffs. I have travelled a lot in recent years to some amazing desert locations, but I feel very lucky to also have inspiration right here on my doorstep."
Claire is currently working towards a solo exhibition in early 2020. She teaches at Committed to Cloth, in Oxted, where she runs Wet n' Wild textile courses. More details at clairebenn.com and committedtocloth.uk
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