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Editorial blog

Tackling difficult subjects with needle and thread

03 Oct 2018

Caren Garfen, an embroidery artist from London, talks to us about her work examining women’s social and political issues as well as her upcoming exhibition at the Knitting and Stitching Show

Caren Garfen’s exhibition at October’s Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace -What’s Going on Upstairs - explores the devastating world of eating disorders, an issue rarely tackled by artists.

She has created a bedroom installation, furnished with hospital and domestic furniture and featuring a quilt made using a pattern designed by a talented young woman who passed away after suffering from a complex eating disorder.

The exhibition includes a dolls house furnished with miniature furniture, textiles and objects. All deal with scale as those suffering from eating disorders believe themselves to be much larger than they actually are.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you became a textile artist?

I began studying as a mature student after being guided towards university by a City & Guilds embroidery tutor. The degree was a catalyst in my path towards becoming an artist utilising textiles.

Your work never shies away from tackling difficult subjects. Eating disorders and their devastating impact on sufferers and their families are a particular focus. Why is this subject so important to you?

Since graduating in 2007, the subject areas that I have pursued have mainly related to women’s issues. I have a real fascination in understanding other people’s feelings and attitudes towards work, domestic life, dieting, how they are affected by social media, and such like. Maybe I am trying to make sense of the complex world we live in today.

I spent four years researching women and dieting and realised how much pressure women were under to conform to media stereotypes surrounding their bodies. I created many works which were exhibited separately but eventually they all came together under one roof at The Knitting & Stitching Show in London and Harrogate in 2014. I was unprepared for the candour of many of the visitors as they made themselves comfortable at my ‘kitchen table’ in the gallery.

Confessions of body dysmorphia, dieting and eating disorders became the norm …. women stood silently and cried.

One young student with anorexia nervosa contacted me after the show to state that seeing the work made her want to get better. Her message led me onto this new journey of researching eating disorders.

As a subject area, eating disorders are difficult to tackle, as there is still a lot of stigma attached, and most artists would shy away from it. However, the schoolgirl suffering from anorexia was very open about her condition and was happy to send me copies of her diaries. Having primary research to work with is really important as it gives any work created authenticity.

Do you consider yourself to be a craft activist?

I do not see myself as a craft activist, but perhaps an observer and recorder of social and political issues relating mainly to the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Your art involves extremely intricate, often miniature scale, hand stitching and embroidery. What challenges does working at such a tiny scale present and what are its rewards?

The main challenge in creating such tiny stitches is the time it takes. With my current work, ‘Media Meddles’, I soon realised that it would take a whole day to stitch the text of just two medals, this would mean a minimum of 50 days to complete the piece. As I was working on my major installation for this year’s The Knitting & Stitching Show as well, I actually spent a night tossing and turning wondering whether to carry on with the medals. I just loved the subject area so decided to continue with it, but this meant taking the stitching with me on holiday! The rewards are manifold; the joy of a completed artwork, seeing that it has turned out how you wanted it to, exhibiting it and enjoying people’s reactions to it.

What kind of reaction does your work get from those who have experienced eating disorders?

The reaction has been profound from those suffering from this disease, as well as from their overwhelmed parents and from the specialist medical professionals. The sufferer looks at the work, and says “This is me”. The mother opens up about her daughter and states: “She was doing so well last week, and now she won’t get out of bed.” The professionals nod their heads in understanding. A young boy viewer says “this work makes me very sad because I think of all the sad people”.

Before becoming an artist, you ran a business making handstitched miniature samplers for dolls houses which you sold to collector clients. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Whilst visiting a prestigious dolls house exhibition in London, I noticed that there was a gap in the market for finely sewn miniature embroideries. I went home and started experimenting with threads and designs, creating samplers of one-twelfth scale. Once I was happy with the result, I made an appointment to see the organiser of that particular show and she invited me to have a stand.

Later on I had an American agent who sold my samplers in the USA, Japan and Europe, while I concentrated on the UK market. It was a wonderful period in my life as I could fit it in with bringing up my two daughters while still being able to have my own creative outlet.

Do you sew for pleasure outside of your art work?

I haven’t sewn for pleasure for over 20 years! I definitely do not like stitching repairs, such as holes in socks, or sewing on buttons – my husband apologises before he hands them over!

What projects are you working on currently and what’s next for you after The Knitting & Stitching Shows this autumn?

I have been working on ‘Media Meddles’ as previously mentioned, this being a project for Llantarnam Grange Art Centre, South Wales. The group exhibition is called ‘Suffrage’ and marks the centenary of women’s suffrage and brings together the visual arts and political discourse. The artwork consists of 100 medals silkscreen printed onto cotton. They are each filled with hand stitched text which acknowledges the hard won successes of women who became the first females, in a given year, to gain status in politics, in sport, in the arts, in business, in space, and in other areas. I have also stitched quotes which highlight where the media have often focussed more on these women’s appearance, domestic life, gender etc, than on their achievements.

However, the major installation for The Knitting & Stitching Shows, What’s Going On Upstairs, is now taking full priority. I am creating a bedroom installation, furnishing my gallery with hospital and domestic furniture and setting the scene of an adolescent’s bedroom/ hospital room. The main feature of this work is a quilt, ‘Pharmaceutical Security Blanket’, which has been made using a pattern designed by a talented and creative young woman who passed away after suffering from a complex eating disorder.

I am now in the construction mode of this bedcover. I still have stitch work to do on a hospital wristband, and a doctor’s weighing scales. I hope to create a moving and accessible artwork dealing with the devastating world of eating disorders.

Once The Knitting & Stitching Shows are over, I will be looking into where What’s Going On Upstairs could be exhibited in the future….and having a rest!

To learn more about Caren and her work visit www.carengarfen.com

Caren Garfen’s exhibition, What’s Going On Upstairs, is at the Textile Galleries at The Knitting & Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace from October 11-14, 2018. It will also be at The Knitting & Stitching Show in Harrogate from November 22-25.

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