Our featured artist for August is UK-based artist Debbie Smyth, a textile artist most identifiable by her statement “pin and thread” drawings. Her pieces are created by stretching a network of threads between precisely plotted pins. Her work beautifully blurs the line between illustration and embroidery. Her work has garnered her attention from some of the biggest companies in the world, including Adidas, Mercedes Benz, Hermes, and various hospitality and multi-family ownership groups.
We recently worked with Debbie Smyth on a commission for Philadelphia’s The Harper. Inspired by the namesake of the building, Debbie created a pin and thread portrait of James Harper, former U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. Her dimensional artwork grounds the viewer in the history of the city of Philadelphia and is an eye-catching element of the multi-family property’s art collection.
In addition to the Q & A below, you can see her new featured artist page now live on our website.
Q: Your technique of creating “pin and thread” artwork is so specific and unique to you; it’s easy to spot a piece of yours in a crowd. How did you come to develop this technique of art making and how would you say it has developed over the years?
Debbie Smyth: Textiles have always been a passion— a second nature, I suppose. I don’t ever remember not being able to sew; it was something I learnt at a very young age. I initially developed this style of working whilst studying for my Contemporary Textiles degree at West Wales School of the Arts.
I feel I’m still fueled by the momentum of my graduate project today; granted it has developed a lot over the years however the initial theory remains integral; transforming 2d into 3d. I lift the drawn line off the page. Using thread allows me to draw in space; transforming 2d lines and planes into 3d shapes and spaces, giving me the ability to create floating linear structures and tactile surfaces not achievable with 2d materials Having specialized in textiles, I like the concept of using the integral materials of that discipline yet in an unorthodox way.
My partner Zac has come onboard in more recent years due to the scale and magnitude of some of the projects we have taken on across the globe. As his background is photography, he brings a completely different skillset to the fold which has developed and pushed our practice. We like to blur the boundaries between disciplines as we feel exciting things happen when one pushes the limits of a material.
Our process is very material led. We look at thread as a drawing medium; how the thread falls or knots, often dictates my next step. Achieving complex shading and tactile surface patterns by pushing the expected scope and application of our chosen materials.
Q: KBFA recently worked with you on a commission for The Harper Apartments in Philadelphia, PA. Could you share a bit about the process behind your creation of the portrait of James Harper?
Debbie Smyth: I was inspired by an old painting of James Harper, which we defragmented the portrait and simplified it into basic colorways using both hand drawing skills and computerized drawing techniques. Then each area was matched with a corresponding thread color. Using this plan, I plotted the pins, hammered them in place and then warped the thread around them to create different areas of color. Further shading is achieved by eye when completing the piece in thread; a bit like creating any large artwork. We would work on an area and then stand back to get a different perspective than continue to work on that area, until the piece feels complete.
Q: You do a lot of commissioned work working off a wide variety of creative concepts. What kinds of commissions are you most drawn to and are there any subjects that you find particularly challenging?
Debbie Smyth: What I enjoy most about commissions is having a starting point. I struggle most with a blank canvas.
I love collaborating with an array of clients, working on projects from hotel interior schemes to event artworks, from advertising graphics to gallery installations. We have many stylists, environment designers, and arts agencies approach us time after time as they know we specialize in working with these materials.
Some know exactly what they want— they present final sketches or graphics and all they want us to do is make them in thread, string, rope or wire. The creativity in these jobs lies in the collaboration, communication and being able to work with other creative folk to produce something beautiful and fulfil their vision. Other clients give us more free reign; they may just provide a starting point. In these instances, our drawing and design skills come into the fore as well as our knowledge of our materials and what it can do as a drawing medium that nothing else can.
Certain commissions we have undertaken have pushed us out of our comfort zone and thus influenced our style going forward, opening our eyes to different approaches and in a lot of case new materials. A massive development is the introduction of a vast array of different types of tacks, nails, beads etc.
I love the breadth of commissioned projects that these materials and techniques has allowed me to work on, that’s what I find most rewarding.
Q: You play a lot with scale in your artwork. We have seen pieces of yours that are on the smaller side as well as some huge, installation-sized pieces. What is it like adapting your artwork from the small and intricate to large scale?
Debbie Smyth: The very first pin and thread artwork I created back in 2008 was a large scaled installation. A lot of my early work was large in scale. I scaled down to sell artworks through galleries and make my pieces more accessible to homeowners, however I’ve never let go of my roots. I love how the technique can work well as various scales and adapts very easily.
The greatest challenge to working on some of the very large scale pieces we have completed in more recent years is how physically demanding they are on site to install due to their intricacy. Fleeting; A 25 square meter piece we completed last year took a month to install on site and had to be completed in two phases.
A fine example of how an awkward space, scale and location of a site can inspire yet not limit a piece is A string of thoughts; a permanent piece installed in the grand stairwell on The Great Northern Hotel in Kings Cross, London. The piece was designed to guide your ascent on the staircase by using wayfinding color and shimmering metallics to draw you up step by step. As you walk through the piece rather than being able to stand back and appreciate it as a whole, we designed it in pockets and patches of small scale intricacy that are all stitched and connected together into a huge undulating cartography of string, pins and tacks.
Q: You have said before that your artwork is often inspired by memories. Can you tell us a little more about that and share with us an example of an inspiring memory that has recently resulted in a piece of art?
Debbie Smyth: I love searching out imagery and recording events, be it by drawing or photographing situations. I can bring this memory back to life in a piece of art. I like to give a new lease of life to fleeting forgotten moments.
I do feel like this statement is more relevant to my older work rather than recent pieces as our focus in more recent years has been on commissioned work and we have not had a huge amount of time to develop our own work. However, a recent project where we documented moments rather than let the memories dwindle was an art residency we completed in Taipei. Over the course of 3 months, we worked at a much slower pace allowing ourselves to be completely immersed in the Taiwanese culture and documenting our journey through the people we met. Each character in the FOLIO X FUBON series represents a significant aspect of our Taipei impression. From the language barrier and what we learned, to the everyday customs and weather. Expressing how we adapted to a new culture, and absorbed the environment. These three works are now permanently installed at Folio Daan Hotel, Taipei.
Q: Do you have any pieces that you’re currently working on that you are particularly excited about?
Debbie Smyth: COVID 19 has brought a lot of our current projects to a halt however we did recently complete, ADRIFT; a new body of work created to harmoniously sit in the Britannia Lounge onboard the new Saga Cruises ship, the Spirit of Adventure. A journey of discovery designed to guide you through Saga’s rich heritage, embracing it’s flotilla of ships, navigation charts, shipping forecasts, & the British Isles. The cruise ship is due to launch later this year and I can’t wait to see the Britannia Lounge adorned with our new pieces.
In addition to that, we are developing personal work with a focus on portraiture that sheds a light on topics that have dominated news around the globe recently.
Q: This month we’re thinking a lot about artwork for the home and residential spaces. How would you describe your home art collection and tell us about a favorite piece of yours, where it came from and why you love it?
Debbie Smyth: Coming from a family of artists our home art collection features various pieces from different family members, from large scale abstract paintings to graphic prints. We collect items and treasures from our travels forming an eclectic mix, ranging from vintage toys to political posters. We have some small simple early pin and thread pieces on display, some of Zac’s photography as well as other photographers work. A prized piece in our home is from a dear friend of ours, the very talented fine artist Michael J. Deas from New Orleans; it is a dedicated signed print of his painting of the iconic Columbia Pictures logo.