I use upholstery skills and the materials of the traditional upholsterer to make my artworks. Reupholstery is largely a sustainable practice and wherever possible I use natural materials for each stage. My practice has developed over a number of years from the usual business of carrying out commissions in fabric selected by a client to where it is now, lying somewhere between art, craft, sculpture, installation and conceptual art.
I select and rejuvenate old pieces of furniture, usually chairs and footstools, to create a piece of furniture that is well-upholstered and comfortable yet engages or puzzles the viewer, they may love it, it may stir memories or it may strike them as impractical or ridiculous. I’m interested in stimulating any of these responses.
I find the hidden layers of the upholstery process fascinating: webbing for example is a very simple herringbone strip made of jute or cotton yet when it is tensioned across a chair frame it has the strength to support a human body. Like many functional materials it has a stripped-back aesthetic appeal. So some of my work puts a spotlight on webbing and I’ll use it in a purely decorative way, creating ripples and ruffles across upholstery fabric. I’ll use webbing as an applied feature on stools or the back of chairs, it is quite soft so can be sat on or leaned against though over time this will change the form, eventually flattening it. I’m interested in that element of wear and tear, of change and the interaction between seating and the sitter.
The stitch and slash fabric technique has developed as another way of exploring the idea of hidden layers, hidden strengths in the work I produce. This is a historic fabric technique, seen for example in the fine costume of sitters in Tudor portraits. Fabric is layered together, stitched in channels and then each layer of fabric, apart from the base, is slashed through using a cutting wheel or slashing tool. The really interesting part is deciding how to expose the different layers and where to hold them. I find there is an almost surrealist-automatic element to this as cuts and layers form their own patterns and geometries while fraying threads separate and begin to draw themselves.
When a textile technique like this is applied to a chair back I welcome the inevitable question it raises about function.
I have created slash and stitch chair backs in melton wool felt where there is no fraying but the relief effect will eventually be pressed in to the chair back if it is leaned against time after time. Another work used layered linen, cotton and recycled kimono fabric. These fray and the decorative effect will change each time the chair is sat upon. In fact threads from the chair may attach themselves to the sitter, a nice reversal of the traces we leave upon furniture over time.
The third strand I’m exploring is the overt connection between seating and the human body: a chair has arms, legs, a seat and a back. These mirror the way our body rests upon it. A chair has a top fabric on show to the world but underneath is a whole support structure of webbing, springs, padding, fibre, hair, scrim, calico, and cotton wadding, all held together with stitching and secured with tacks. And every old chair has a history, a story, who has it held in its arms? Similarly, the human body is covered, with clothes and beneath this, skin. But underneath this is a whole working structure of muscle, bone, arteries and organs, supporting action, thought and emotion.
The Welcome Trust Collection of medical imagery has been a great source of inspiring images for this line of thought. I’m currently commissioning printed fabric, at a bespoke size for each chair and I’m working towards printing fabric myself that I can cover with and layer up to develop this idea.
Rather than being a commissioned upholsterer, I want to create artworks, whether functional as furniture or not, that have meaning, stimulate thought, intrigue and give pleasure to the people who see them. I am not unique in seeing the potential of furniture and upholstery as media for creating artworks but it is a rich field to explore and develop in my own way.
Rescue-Recycling-Ripping it Up-Revitalising-Reimagining Reupholstery
CV & Education
Artistic Career and Practice:
Sarah Skinner Art Chairs
June 2018 - date: Studio space at Banks Mill Studios Creative Business Incubation Studios (part of University of Derby)
My work has developed from straightforward upholstery commissions to producing my own work to sell and from there using traditional upholstery methods and materials to develop an art practice.
I’ve benefitted from many creative business workshops run by The Big House, Creative Quarter and Marketing Peak District and Derbyshire for example creative coaching, social media training, marketing to print and online media, pricing your work …
Events: I’ve taken part in the annual Banks Mill Open Studios events and showed work for Derbyshire Open Arts 2019
Exhibition: My exhibition with Alex Pain, FiRewood was due to open in the Banks Mill foyer space 3 April 2020 but will not go ahead due to Covid 19 regulations. This was a collaborative sculptural project with Alex Pain who creates in a range of media as an artist and art technician, see my blog page on www.artchairs.co.uk for details of the project. We intend to develop and expand the project anyway, creating more pieces, and will find an appropriate space to exhibit them in the future.
8/2019 - date: Alongside my creative upholstery work, I work part-time in Adult Care for Derbyshire County Council. Until Covid 19 I was a Day Service Worker, programming and delivering creative activities for Learning Disabled adults, older adults, including those living with a dementia. I have just been redeployed to residential care for older adults .
I find this work feeds into my art practice, particularly my thinking about hidden stories and histories and how as a society with view and value/devalue old age. I’m also really interested in how my work might relate to health and wellbeing agendas.
2/2017-8/2019: Relief Care Assistant, Derbyshire County Council
3/2013- date: Self-employed: Upholstery work and training, freelance Curatorial work
5/2013 – 6/2014: Belper North Mill Trust, Derbyshire: Manager
2/2012 – 4/2013: Unemployed to self-employed via training and educational courses
4/2011 – 1/2012: University of Glasgow, Hunterian Art Gallery: Curator (fixed term contract)
2/2004 – 4/2011: Nottingham City Museums and Galleries: Keeper of Art
1/2000 – 2/2004: Manchester City Galleries: Curatorial Assistant (Fine Art)
Although I left curatorial museum and gallery work some years ago, I still draw on my experience and knowledge when creating my art work. I’ve always been interested in interpretation and in contemporising historic art and creating visual dialogues.
Educational Qualifications and Training:
2017-date: Care Certificate plus updates and refresher courses
2013: Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector certificate Level 4
2013: City and Guilds Creative Arts: Upholstery Level 2
2013: AIM Award in Soft Furnishings, Level 2
1997-8: University of Salford: MA Heritage Management Studies: Distinction
1994-7: University of Manchester: BA History of Art: First Class Honours
1993-4: Brunel University: Access to Higher Education: Humanities