Chairs, they’re just ‘part of the furniture’ aren’t they?
Sarah Skinner is an artist and creative upholsterer developing an art practice around old chair frames and the skills and materials involved in traditional reupholstery.
Her work is informed by a serpentine path through life that has included a degree in Art History, an MA in Heritage Studies, an extensive period of time as a Curator of Fine Art and then, alongside developing upholstery skills, care work in a residential home for the elderly.
‘As a curator I couldn’t help but start to examine what I was doing as an upholsterer, interpret it, recognise its potential as an art-form as well as a craft. I was really drawn to hidden layers and hidden strengths as a concept and felt there was a strong resonance between all the work that was hidden under the top fabric and the work, still most often carried out by women, in creating and maintaining a home and all those pressures to conform to some kind of ideal interior, the ‘ideal home’ (in fact I have made some work that attempts to critique the cushion…!)’.
While studying upholstery, Skinner worked part-time in a care home noting there how ageing in humans, in our culture, is often represented as something to fear, to shy away from, whereas the marks of age, a life lived, ‘patina’, is something that has a high value in furniture, it’s a marker of authenticity.
Skinner’s work and the ideas behind it continue to develop. She has created functional chairs with upholstery webbing used as an unexpected decorative feature. Bespoke fabric designs emphasise how the form of a chair echoes the human body: the arms, legs, back, seat, sparking thoughts about what is concealed underneath. There are chairs with a tale or a tail to tell, weird footstools and a set of cushions offered for interactive scattering.
A chair is always going to be something destined to find its place in the home isn’t it? But probably because of Skinner’s background as a curator she has always created her work with an art gallery setting in mind. It began when she displayed a footstool on a wall, upholstered with her first attempt at exposing layers of textiles using the ‘slash and stitch’ technique: ‘To me it looked really interesting, unexpected: it was a transformative act!’
Skinner asserts that a chair on a plinth in a white-walled space is something different to a chair in a home, by the window, by a fireplace … That how you view a chair, a footstool, a cushion is actually an assumption, that there’s an ingrained association with the domestic but in fact it is about context, about function or lack of function and there is a resulting question about value, worth.
As for inspiration and future directions Skinner has always admired the serious wit of Surrealist assemblage, the humour and politics of Dada photomontage. Photography: cutting into it, stitching onto it, is offering one promising way forwards while product versus art, art as product, commissions, providing a service ... these continue to both perplex and inspire her.
CV & Education
My work with old chairs and re-upholstery has developed after an initial period of formal and hands-on learning. At first I worked on straightforward re-cover commissions for clients but when I chose to rent a studio within the creative business community at Banks Mill Studios, Derby, it was with the intention of exploring art-informed approaches to my craft. Now I create a bespoke fabric approach for each chair I work on. Probably because of my background in art history and as a former curator of art, I have always been conscious of the sculptural aspects of upholstery, for example the skeletal form of the exposed chair frame and the creation of firm shape and edges through the manipulation of horsehair, scrim stitched with linen twine.
I have built on (and deconstructed) traditional upholstery methods and materials to develop an art practice. I now use old chair frames, textiles, thread and photography in my work to reveal hidden layers of material and work, those hidden strengths. I work to transform an everyday, overlooked object such as a chair, a footstool or a cushion, into something sculptural, that commands its space, something with a tale to tell, a meaning to uncover: an artwork.
Exhibitions and Events:
December 2023: Dubrek Gallery Open, Dubrek Gallery Studios, Derby
September 2023: Wirksworth Festival
May 2023: Belper Arts Trail
May 2023: Derbyshire Open Arts, collaboration with C T Thomas ‘Sorry It’s a Mess’
Oct 2022-April 2023: Curiosity: Group Show: Air Arts, Royal Derby Hospital.
November 2022: Banks Mill Open Studios
August - September 2021: Hidden Strengths, Solo Exhibition, Banks Mill Studios, Derby
Oct 2021 - Mar 2022: Solace: Group Show: Air Arts, Royal Derby Hospital
Second Sitters exhibition at the National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford: https://www.secondsitters.co.uk/https-www-secondsitters-co-uk-exhib
Surrealism, particularly Women Surrealists such as Dorothea Tanning, Dora Maar, Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Eileen Agar …
Artists who have created chairs and/or use textiles in their work: Tracey Emin, Yayoi Kusama, Eileen Gray, Carin Bryggman, Alvar and Aino Aalto, Anni Albers, Sonia Delaunay etc. etc. …
January 2022 - date: Studio/Workspace at Hopkinson’s House, Wirksworth, Derbyshire
June 2018 - January 2022: Studio space at Banks Mill Studios Creative Business Incubation Studios (part of University of Derby)
3/2013- date: Artist, Creative Upholsterer, Upholstery work including training and hands-on experience, Freelance Curatorial work for Nottingham City Museums and Galleries.
8/2019 - 6/21: Day Care Assistant, Ashbourne then redeployed during Covid to Ada Belfield Centre, Belper and Morewood Centre, Alfreton
2/2017-8/2019: Relief Care Assistant, Derbyshire County Council
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:
2023: The Language of Photography, Open College of the Arts/Royal Photographic Society short course
2022: An Introduction to Photography (TG089) Open University/Royal Photographic Society short course
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