If you believe embroidery is something only your grandma likes, forget it; Julie Cockburn’s unique approach to stitching will make you fall in love with it too. Even though she started as a sculptor – she still thinks of her work “as very sculptural” –, it’s the thread and needle that have taken over her artistic practice. Finding old photographs on eBay, second-hand shops, and car boot fairs, she turns them into intricately beautiful and colourful pieces. On March 17, you can catch her at Hopstreet Gallery in Brussels, where she’s opening a solo show, but in the meantime, you can get to know her better with this interview.
Julie, when you were studying at Central Saint Martins in the 1990s, you specialized in sculpture. Nevertheless, your current artistic practice has more to do with embroidery, collage and photography. When did your interest shift? How did you go from sculpting to stitching?
Even while I was studying at Central Saint Martins, I was exploring the space between two and three dimensions. Using found images, catalogues, postcards and photography, I constructed objects out of two-dimensional images and gave them three-dimensional form. We were encouraged to use anything and everything in our practice – a lack of funds made skip diving and scouring charity shops an everyday pastime. It was there that my love of the found image really developed.
My degree show was all wall hung, so, again, my work traversed that boundary between two and three dimensions. I have always been interested in embroidery since my grandmother taught me how to do it, and over time, I began to combine the two. I see my embroidery works as very sculptural. The physical transgression of the picture plane and the trompe l’oeil effects of my interventions emphasize the material nature of a photograph.
You’ve posted some of your early childhood work on your Instagram account. Did you start making art as a hobby or did you always know it was your calling as a profession?
I suppose I have always been creative, though I applied relatively late to art college (I was 25 when I started my foundation at Chelsea College of Art) having tried a couple of different career paths after leaving school. I knew the minute I arrived at art school that it was the right thing to do and had incredible support from the tutors. My external assessor for my degree show was Phyllida Barlow, who said something so inspiring that has kept me going: “You have an artistic spirit, never give up”.
I am always amazed at children’s drawings. I love the unselfconscious freedom that they so often invoke. Working with my own drawings that I made when I was 4 or 5 years old is poignant and touching. It’s like reaching back in time and talking to my younger self.
You mostly use embroidery on found photographs, adding a layer of uniqueness to your work and the photos themselves. But as I’ve read, you first do some digital sketches on Photoshop to visualize the final result. Could you please walk us through your creative process?
When I find a photograph that I want to work on, I scan it and make a digital copy. I can then print it out to sketch onto a hard copy or work on the digital file in Photoshop, trying out different designs without ruining the original. It can take me anywhere from a few hours to many months to decide on the final design I will stitch.
Over the years, I have added new works to the different series I continue to explore – for instance, my Harlequins, Doodle Faces or Dots – and, over time, have developed a personal visual language, getting to know intimately the physical qualities of different photographic papers. I think people are amazed that I stitch it all by hand, and it has taken a long time to learn the parameters of the materials and to what extremes I can take them.
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Finding old photographs in markets and second-hand shops must be interesting. How do you choose the material you’ll work with?
Car boot fairs and second-hand shops are a great way to find interesting and new materials to work with. I buy a lot of the photos I use on eBay nowadays – I know what I am looking for and the search engines make this easier than, say, ten years ago. But the serendipity of going with an open mind to a car boot fair is part of the creative process. I only ever regret not having bought things that have caught my eye. I kick myself for years sometimes! That’s something you learn the hard way.
What draws you to a certain picture, or what are you looking for when scouting photos to manipulate?
I tend to work with photos that I consider to be archetypal with generic formats of house, landscape or still life, and the portraits are reminiscent of eighteenth and nineteenth-century oil portraits in their composition. That way, I can add something odd or out of place with better effect. I love the photos when they have a crease, a stain or patination that accentuates their age and disconnect from their original ‘place’. My neat, poppy, graphic additions are therefore more of a juxtaposition.
Nevertheless, your work hasn’t always been as it is now. Now that time has passed by, how do you view your artistic evolution? What have been some of the most challenging moments of your career when experimenting with new formats and techniques?
There are two sides to this, I guess. As a younger, less established artist, one has the freedom to experiment, make mistakes and develop one’s practice. As I have been given more exhibitions and my profile has grown, there is now an expectation that the galleries and visitors have, and veering from that can be counterproductive. Because of my exhibition schedule, I have less time to try out new ideas and methods. However, with these constraints, there is the opportunity to really hone an idea – to really explore a technique, form or series.
In a world dominated by throwaway culture, machine-made things, never-ending copies and reproductions, and some artists working more as factories than artisans, your work seems like a breath of fresh air. Craftsmanship, delicacy, and uniqueness. Do you feel like a ‘rara avis’? What do you do to keep on working manually?
I see myself as a craft person with a fine art training. I was given a Crafts Council grant when I left college and was told in the interview that the divide between craft and art could not be straddled. Since then (and I think Grayson Perry winning the Turner Prize in 2003 was hugely influential), craftsmanship has become more acceptable in the art world. It’s difficult to work on large-scale works with hand embroidery, and I have looked into machine working the designs, but there is something about the hand-made quality of my work that makes them unique, flawed and human. I can only stitch for about five hours a day, so I am a disciplined worker – I am in my studio pretty much every day putting in the time that my work demands.
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By using simple, everyday materials (photos, thread), your work resonates on a personal level. It feels familiar, even welcoming. But at the same time, you sometimes cover the character’s faces, making the images uncanny, mysterious. Why do you wish to convey this contradicting, dichotomic feeling to the audience?
Possibly the generic images in the photos I use make my work accessible. There is a long tradition of stitching into paper, (First World War and mid-1970s tourist postcards spring to mind), so the method itself is not new. My interventions are contrary, enigmatic and poetic. By masking the faces, I feel freer to evoke the everyman/woman. It’s an invitation to the viewer to join me on an inquisitive and imaginative journey.
Who are your main inspirations in the art world? And outside of it?
I tend to find inspiration in my everyday and in the materials I use. I often go to the cinema for the total immersive experience and I love the films of Wes Anderson. Aside from that, I am influenced by Japanese craftsmanship and visual culture, the surreal jewellery of Salvador Dali, mid-century Danish designer Finn Juhl, and pretty much everything Picasso made.
And last but not least, what are your plans for the months to come? Any exhibition we should know about?
I have just completed work for my first solo exhibition at Hopstreet Gallery in Brussels, which opens in the middle of March. After that, my next exhibition is at Flowers Gallery in London in September, where I will be showing new large-scale screen prints alongside the embroideries. I am also excited about making a book in October with the French publisher Chose Commune. It’s going to be a busy year.
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