Grant Gibson meets Make:Shift speaker Rhian Solomon
‘I’ve got different hats on,’ Rhian Solomon tells me as we sit down to talk. It helps explain why she arrives at our meeting carrying a large wheely suitcase, because life is currently peripatetic. She’s teaching at the London Design Museum, has a residency at Morriston Hospital in Swansea, and is co-curating an exhibition entitled Crafting Anatomies at the Bonington Gallery in Nottingham, where she has recently moved. Added to this is her on-going sKINship project, which encourages collaboration between different practices – primarily plastic surgery and pattern-cutters. Oh, and there’s the PhD she’s just started at London College of Fashion.
Here is a maker whose practice straddles disciplines, encompassing art, craft, design and medicine, generally centring around her fascination with skin. Having studied at Brighton University’s Wood, Metals, Plastics and Ceramics course, she graduated in 2005 knowing that she wasn’t destined to take a conventional career path. ‘I struggled with the commercialising of my practice,’ she confesses. ‘I really struggled with trying to make work to sell. I never felt that I fitted in a fine art gallery, and then I didn’t know if I sat right in more of a craft making, product end of things. Maybe I was naive but I felt that if I did something I really enjoyed I’d sustain myself because I was passionate about what I was doing.’
This led her to a residency at the London Printworks Trust under the mentorship of Clare Twomey and Susie MacMurray, where she started experimenting with post-operative compression garments as part of her fascination with plastic surgery. ‘I was really interested in people wanting to be something that they are not. Compression garments were literally a second skin,’ she explains. ‘I’ve always wanted to work with people and track their stories and see how they feel about themselves.’ For the Printworks project she interviewed cosmetic and reconstructive surgery patients, as well as plastic surgeons, taking excerpts of their conversations and etching them into the compression garments. Looking back she says: ‘That collection for me was a platform. I connected with plastic surgeons then.’
It was during a commission for the Wellcome Trust that she started to see parallels between reconstructive surgery and pattern-cutting. ‘I started to look at the skin more as a material. It pushed me in a different direction away from making work to something else I love doing – bringing people together.’ In 2011 she founded sKINship, where she acts as a bridge between surgeons and textile artists. ‘I guess my role in the project has been to facilitate collaboration. So I bring these groups together in different ways. It could be workshops, it could be observations, it could be just conversations between the two. But the starting point is always finding a common language and that common language is making and materials.’ It’s through these meetings that a series of questions have been posed which are beginning to attract the attention of some major sports brands. ‘The design of plastic surgery procedures: how can that inform the design of garment construction techniques? How can you find new ways of cutting and moving cloth? Can you inform the fit of the garment using surgical reconstruction techniques? And can you inform the performance of a cloth by mimicking stretch qualities of skin? Can you take the planning of garments into surgical procedures?’ They also give surgeons time to experiment and play away from the operating table.
More recently Solomon has been making again, during the residency at Morriston Hospital, where she and an anthropologist have been following women who are going through breast reconstructions. ‘We’re looking at reforming patient consultation,’ she says. ‘In plastic surgery a big challenge is marrying the expectation of the surgeon and the patient. I’m there as an artist documenting the stories of these women, and I’m making work based around them.’
Despite all the different hats, there is one over-arching goal. ‘I’m passionate about raising the profile of creative practice in scientific fields,’ she says. It’s an aim that makes her a perfect speaker for Make:Shift.
Rhian Solomon will be in conversation with others in the Corner Space 5.10 - 5.40pm, Thursday 20 November