“Although I never envisaged being an artist (and I think it’s a rather grand thing to call myself in some ways) I have to believe that that’s what I am now and I feel really positive about it.”
Since retiring Sue Spence picked up a classic and time-honoured pastime for ladies in cross-stitch and embroidery. Inspiration from social media has brought her to a new path – creating innovative, organic art on fabric and paper – and seeing her unveiling work in exhibitions across the country whilst creating nature-inspired commissions.
“Having retired I am really pleased to have found a new identity,” she said. “It took me quite a long time to think of myself as an artist. I started off on Instagram using “Frog Stitch” because that’s what I called myself back in the day. About a year, 18 months ago I changed that to Sue Spence textile artist – because having worked at my craft for a little while and feeling as though I was moving into a place where I felt a bit more confident about what I was creating, I thought I’m going to just call myself an artist and own that and allow myself to be that rather than suffering from imposter syndrome somewhere.”
Stitching has been a pleasurable occupation throughout her life, learning as a tiny child at her grandmother’s knee. As she grew into adulthood and became a mother, in the early 1980s, Sue took a six-year career break, from her job teaching English, to raise her children. It was then Sue first turned her hand to making money from her craft. Without the advantages of social media promotion, her “little venture” involved appearances at a variety of craft fairs and became an enjoyable way of making a little pin money.
But on returning to education, creativity fell at the wayside.
“I really didn’t have time for it,” she explained. “In fact increasingly, as I got successful at work and became a head of Department, I didn’t have time for any stitching at all… I just had to give it all up. I didn’t have time.”
In 2014, retirement from teaching proved an opportunity to return to her craft but, when she got out all her old cross-stitch and embroidery kits, she felt uninspired by doing things from premade patterns.
She said: “I started, basically, playing with materials and I was following lots of people on social media to get ideas. I always credit Viv Sliwka (@viv_hensteeth on Instagram) – her work really inspired me – it was such a lovely use of vintage paper and patterns and she often embroidered on envelopes.
“I was staying with my daughter and we were in the market in St Ives in Cambridgeshire, where she lives, and there was an antique stall that had a box of old first day cover envelopes on with beautiful stamps. I’d collected stamps when I was a youngster and I recognised some of these gorgeous stamps, beautiful designs, and I thought about Viv’s beautiful envelopes with stitching on. I thought: I wonder what would happen if I started to stitch on some of these lovely envelopes?
“I bought a few and took them back to my daughter’s, I really didn’t know what to do with them but I set them up on an embroidery frame. She’d had a parcel delivered and it was tied together with twine and I was looking around for things I could use and I started playing with this twine-string from the parcel and basically created the first tree that was growing around this envelope, which was a design which included British birds and the first thing I stitched grew out of that.”
Sue posted that first work on Facebook and shortly after made her first sale to a family member. The quick success provided a springboard for her work. Trees became a subject of obsession for Sue, developing designs with garden twines and other fibres.
With the #oneyearofstitches challenge in 2015, Sue began styling a yet bigger tree which has since become her logo. This, in turn, led to a large number of commissions for trees, initially trees from her imagination before developing into representations of real trees.
Drawing further inspiration from materials such as vintage paper, book plates, old sylko reels and threads, and vintage silks, Sue’s work is very much linked to recycling.
She added: “I’m increasingly feeling that I don’t want to be buying new stuff, I’d rather be using pre-existing stuff. I suppose that’s in tune with what a lot of people are doing recycling and reusing rather than buying new.”
Much of Sue’s work has family and memory at the heart – whether it be pieces reflecting her interpretation of coastal memories or collaborations. A recent project has seen her interpret the written words of her daughter, novelist Bex Hogan, and the descriptions of the landscapes of her fantasy novel Viper, which follows adventures around 12 different isles with a crew of pirate assassins.
“On the third isle there are these trees that are black and glistening, like they’ve been dipped in tar. I thought it would be quite a challenge to embroider a copse of black trees,” said Sue, who now hopes to create further works based on her daughter’s books.
This month Sue’s work features in a new exhibition – Fifty Bees at Black Swan Arts in Frome, Somerset. The exhibition is the brainchild of Somerset-based artist Lydia Needle, and is the fourth annual show of her works depicting fifty native bees, surrounded by connected works by other artists and aims to highlight the plight of bees in the ever-changing world of humans.
Sue was allocated the Large Meadow Mining Bee and her research into the insect’s life cycle led her to the bee’s natural habitat and the flowers it visited.
She said: “I was reading a lot on Plant Life’s website on the horrific loss of our native meadows – 97 per cent of meadows had vanished in the UK since the end of the Second World War and that was what really struck me.
“So the piece that I have created is called Where have all the meadows gone? The idea behind it is that on one side of the piece you see something like an idyllic flower meadow full of blooms and blossoms and gradually over the piece as you read it from left to right the meadow is disappearing into the brownfield-sites that the meadow mining bee now visits having been pushed out of its environment.”
“Before I embarked on my textile art journey, 4 years ago – I was most inspired by the beautiful hand embroidery of Christine Kelly and the ways that Viv Sliwka combined handstitch with vintage envelopes and other ephemera.
“These days I have discovered so many more textile artists and embroiderers to admire through books and social media – most recently through my membership of the Society for Embroidered Work (founded in 2018 by Cat Frampton and Emily Tull).
Many of those I admire are skilful machine embroiderers: Janine Heschl (incredibly lifelike portraits of animals) Rachel Wright, Haf Weighton, (who create very different but wonderfully evocative landscapes), Kenris MacLeod (magnificent trees), but others work with handstitch like me: Linda Lasson (a Swedish artist who embroiders haunting scenes on lining paper), Jessica Grimm (technical mastery, harking back to medieval embroidery), Jenni Dutton (huge, stunning portraits), Laura Edgar, Mary Moorkens. I’m also very interested in the more conceptual, abstract experiments in textiles and stitch of artists such as Vanessa Barragão, Violet Shirran, Hannah Lamb, Ruth Singer and Claire Wellesley-Smith.”