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Posted 04.09.20

Living and working in London, Richard McVetis is an artist/maker using a range of media, including drawing, installation, and textiles, to record time by way of labour-intensive, hand embroidery. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, Richard was a finalist in the 2018 Loewe Craft Prize and has exhibited work all over the world. Introduced to Turnbull through Cockpit Arts, where his studio is situated, we caught up with Richard to unpick his practice, and discuss embroidery, craft, and his love of a warming knitted jumper.

Turnbull: The works you produce resonate strongly with us as they involve such high levels of detail and use a textile medium – two things we value greatly here at Turnbull. The process you use elevates textiles as an art form. How did you first discover your practice?

the intersection of art and craft was the most exciting and provides constant inspiration

Richard: My introduction to embroidery was a chance encounter as I do not have a history with textiles or any other craft process, for that matter. It was, in fact, a visit to the open day of an embroidery degree at Manchester Metropolitan (which sadly, no longer exists as its original form) that opened my mind to the broad sense of the word ‘embroidery.’ What attracted me to that course, was the chance to learn one of the world’s oldest crafts whilst exploiting the contemporary possibilities of this medium at the same time – without a doubt this period of my life is one that I regard with great fondness. The diversity and exploration of the medium were liberating. Under great tutelage, we were encouraged to use anything and everything as materials in our work. There was always a sense of everything being well-made and always well thought out, whether it was a design or a work of art. For me, the intersection of art and craft was the most exciting and provides constant inspiration.

You chart time and capture moments in your art, please tell us a little more about how important these themes are to you? Has your experience of lockdown affected the perspective of time in your work?

The inscribed stitches mark the rhythms of the hand, delicate performance of obsessive intricacy, refinement, and physical activity. Each stitch is a marker of lived time, like a comma or a full stop.

My practice is deeply rooted in process and hand embroidery. I record time and space through multiples of dots, lines, and crosses. These meticulously rendered stitches reflect a preoccupation with the repetitive nature of a process, exploring the subtle differences that emerge through ritualistic and habitual making. The inscribed stitches mark the rhythms of the hand, delicate performance of obsessive intricacy, refinement, and physical activity. Each stitch is a marker of lived time, like a comma or a full stop.

Embroidery and art have enabled me to make sense of the world, and it has helped me to put into material form, things that I could only imagine. The process of embroidery, slow, methodical, restores a sense of order and informs a more profound comprehension and connection to the world. There is a wonderful intimacy in this labour-intensive way of making; the ritual and repetition allow you to create space, both physical and mental. The slowness is crucial here, I like how I am limited by the speed of my body. During COVID lockdown, being able to make has certainly helped to alleviate some of my anxiety.

You work with wool to create architectural objects. How does the textural and tactile nature of wool complement and inform the pieces you create? And where does your inspiration come from?

As a child, the medium I had the most access to was pen and paper. I would create entire worlds on the back pages of my school exercise books, building and destroying futuristic cities with a black ballpoint pen. The miniature scale of these worlds I created, played a key part in my understanding and organising of space but it also enabled me to express the material world around me. When I was at school I came across a very inspiring book, ‘Rendering With Pen and Ink’ by Robert W. Gill, it illustrated perfectly how one might describe the material world with pen and ink and how, through the process of drawing, you could explore and create different subtleties of texture and materials. Hand embroidery is an extension of this exploration of surface and texture through rendering. Substituting the ink for thread and the paper for fabric, the subtly and the dimension of stitch continues to fascinate me. When I stitch, I am endeavouring to recreate the flatness of pen on paper and graphic qualities of texture.

Inspiration takes many forms: a memory, an artist, the urban environment, the process of making itself, as well as something I might imagine. I read a lot and I am drawn to the ideas of time and physics discussed in Carlo Rovelli’s books. I take immense joy and solace in the work of Agnes Martin, Rachael Whiteread, Edmund De Waal, and I am currently very seriously obsessed with Vija Celmins and Berenice Abbott.

There is a beautiful depth in the deliberate intricacy of your work. It allows for perspectives and focuses to shift and the scale to alter, depending on where you are experiencing a piece. What is the intention and motivation behind the level of detail you use?

I am very much interested in perspective. I am drawn to the micro and macro views of the world around us. I am always looking down at the ground or out to space. In the work I create, I am trying to articulate and describe my experience of this, whether it might be an image I have seen or something I have read.

The scale of the work and marks I create is an invitation for the viewer to take a closer look, to look harder and experience the time it took for me to make the work. The surface of the works then comes alive with micro variations. I am pushing the potential of the process to its physical limits as well as my own. The reason is my obsession.

With such intricacy, inevitably, comes long stretches of time to complete works. How long can a piece take to make? Do you have any choice music or podcasts which help you work away?

Many of the works have the premise of being created during a predetermined or durational period. My first series of cubes, ‘Units of Time’, was in response to this idea of quantifying my time in material form. I keep very detailed diaries of stitching activities. Timings vary from 10hrs to 160hrs. My work ‘Variations of A Stitched Cube’ took over 2,000hrs to complete.

This episode of How to Fail featuring Mo Gawdat was the perfect medicine, but the entire series is pretty damn good.

Some more podcasts, Adam BuxtonTable MannersRadio LabThis American LifeDolly Parton’s AmericaThe Art NewspaperTalkart.

There is also a whole series of True Crime stories on BBC Sounds, really good! My music taste is very eclectic, from Roisin Murphy, to Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Max Richter, and a whole heap of Pop music as well.

Have you found solace in your creative community during lockdown? Are there any artists you work closely with at Cockpit Arts and would recommend we look up?

Yes, having the studio and being near other makers throughout this challenging time has been a real comfort. We have been lucky to have the support of the team at Cockpit Arts, their knowledge and dedication to us all has been truly inspiring.

There are too many to mention, but do check out painter Maria Hatling whom I share my studio with, and next door to us are ceramicists Vanessa Hogge and Helen Johannessen. There is also an artist and maker Eleanor Lakelin, whose work is endlessly inspiring.


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Daniel Challis

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