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Maker of the month: Anna Ray’s textile evolution

Textile artist Anna Ray is far from the “shy and timid” young girl she once was…

With a string of residencies, collaborations and major exhibitions under her belt, her work – and her confidence – is constantly evolving.

Like many a maker, Anna’s innate creative energy appeared young. “I took some consolation from my toys like all children, but I remember being very interested in the feeling of the materials and wanting to manipulate things.” And so she did… Growing up with parents who were keen on art (namely the Post-Impressionists) and craft (Anna’s mother made appliquéd and quilted jackets, and a patchwork ball that would inspire her first padded work ‘Bad Blood’), Anna was never far from that “feeling of enjoyment and comfort from being surrounded by texture and colour”. At the age of four she created her first repeat pattern and later began to transform vintage 60s dresses.


Anna with friends at the Junior Headingley Craftworkers, and her very first embroidery

Evidently, Anna was (and is) constantly absorbing – not just the world around her, but the nuances of her personal, emotional and physical development. “Early embroideries deal with childhood and becoming a woman” whilst later work like ‘Milk’ speaks to the “changes that occur when you become a mum – the fears and anxieties, the joy and empowerment”. Her work has become an extension of her subconscious, and materials - be it yarn, paper or enormous, sculptural padded forms – lend themselves as the bearers of projection. “It's not that I make work that I overwhelmingly like, I make work that I find interesting. Sometimes I make work thinking aesthetically 'this is a bit strange' but I'll tend to go down that road rather than do something that I recognise as my own.”

"In a Way", hand embroidery, 1997


Detail from 'Milk', 2011. Made with sugar dissolved in boiling water, poured into deep cloth pockets, inspired by the strangeness and difficulties of establishing breastfeeding

Who she is, her womanhood and her life experiences are crucial to the work, and for those reasons there’s often a performative aspect. This is typified in her recent work for The National Festival of Making, where she spent twenty minutes undoing ‘Offcut-cord’, as if “releasing the tension… my life energy goes into the work. I’m trying to engage the viewer’s body, their sensibilities, their eyes, their skin, their desire to touch and ask questions about what they’re seeing.” For Anna, the Tapestry Department at Edinburgh College of Art was central to this way of working. Here, the notion that textiles could be seen “as art, as mural, as projection, as installation, as performance” was indisputable, and was “just so in tune with me, my upbringing and my feelings about art”. Under the guidance of Maureen Hodge (the first female weaver at Dovecot Studios) Anna was able to hone her craft and push the boundaries of textile art. This seminal experience led her to stay on as a lecturer of BA and MFA Tapestry for six years....

Whilst it is very much “in vogue”, textile art wasn’t always taken so seriously… Shortly after graduating Anna took part in a fine art show, and was busy subverting the medium of embroidery with work about her innermost feelings when a man belittlingly said, “why don’t you just embroider flowers?” This spurred Anna to do a residency at a botanical garden funded by the Scottish Arts Council, where she produced a series of hand-embroideries. “Why? Because I’m a fine artist!” A vehement optimist she’s “always been good at taking rejection. If someone doesn’t get something, it doesn’t mean you should stop. Hear it, but don’t listen to it.”

Anna undoing 'Offcut-cord' at the National Festival of Making, with Forbo Flooring Systems, 2019

She continued to persevere, and in 2017 she was asked to take part in the “game-changing” exhibition ‘Entangled: Threads and Making’, featuring over 40 female artists at Turner Contemporary. “I was so delighted to be able to show with all of these people I've admired for years: Louise Bourgeois, Susan Hiller, Mona Hatoum, Maureen Hodge.” Since then, textile exhibitions have become the norm, much to Anna’s relief: “I feel so happy that I was part of that transition, having been working with textiles for so long in the country and not really finding a home in the gallery system.”

This kind of exposure “changes things” and in the last ten years Anna has been able to pursue several exciting commissions, exhibitions (including Collect Project Space 2012) and residencies. In 2018, she was picked for the ‘Home’ project in Ashford, Kent, where she worked with Syrian refugees and long-term residents to consider the notion of home, how we establish and re-establish it. “Week by week the ladies made drawings about home. Using their forms and images I produced handmade rubber stamps, and we developed this alphabet of motifs that became ours.” This culminated in cloths adorned with 32 repeat patterns, using each woman’s imagery miniaturised or expanded on. “I like to work collaboratively and support people in opening up what I know can be found by almost having a conversation with yourself – about feelings, colour, fears or joy… I know the value of that in my own work.” 

Two Syrian women contributing to the 'Home' project, 2018, in collaboration with People United, Diocese of Canterbury and Ashford Borough Council in Ashford, Kent
'Flowers Gather Hearts', The 'Home' project, 2018 

Now, there's “lots and lots” coming up for Anna including ‘Home’ on tour, The British Textile Biennial in Lancashire, A-level teaching and a research project at Leeds University on 3D weaving technology, following a residency in Bristol with Dash & Miller. She’s also looking into the connection between her Huguenot ancestors, who were silk-weavers, and her grandfather’s work with one of the first computers in Walthamstow, based on the punch card system of the Jacquard loom.

Advice for textile graduates? “If you want to do something, you do it. If you have a fallow period, then just carry on making, use that quiet space to push your ideas and try something new.” And if you ever feel like giving up, heed these words: “just when I was thinking that this life of an artist was too hard, especially with a baby, I saw my work in this church, and thought, instead of scaling down it's time to go further and be more ambitious.”  

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