INTERVIEW WITH ROBERTTA McPHERSON

Some of our members are just too modest to write a blog about themselves so Maria Walker decided that she would just have to interview them instead and
Robertta McPherson offered to go first.

Maria:  Can you tell me what initially captured your imagination about textile art and who were your early influences?

Robertta:  My passion for embroidery started in childhood. My grandmother and aunts were skilled at sewing, knitting and crochet and produced beautiful work.  They were amazingly patient with my attempts to learn from them. Later, I was fascinated by the historical embroidery found in museums, which illustrated the variety of techniques and textures found in examples of early Opus Anglicanum work, Tudor embroidery to Ayrshire whitework. My love of history continues to influence my work today.

Maria:  What was your route to becoming the artist you are today?

Robertta:  Seeking a creative balance whilst working in a male dominated environment led me to develop my knowledge. Courses at the Royal School of Needlework, City & Guilds Parts 1 & 2 and other part time courses gave me a sound grounding in design and techniques. (In those days the City & Guilds requirements included a thesis).

My love of history was combined with embroidery and research into Icelandic Embroidery.  Unfortunately it is lost now but my memories of a fascinating research project remain. The Icelandic Embassy and the facilities of the Victoria & Albert Museum library provided me with a wealth of material and I was able to view examples of Icelandic embroidery brought back by William Morris, now in the V&A collection.  In later years I visited the National Museum of Iceland and viewed further pieces of historic embroidery, and the church at H`olar.

An example of Icelandic embroidery – Detail of an Altar Frontal from the cathedral church of H`olar now on display in the National Museum of Iceland. The frontal was worked mid 16 th century in laid and couched work
in wool, linen and metal thread. The image is taken from a book on Traditional Embroidery.
by Elsa Gudj`onsson

It was during this time that I joined the Embroiderers’ Guild, and enrolled on some evening courses run by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA).  After a teacher training course with the ILEA I taught a leisure class for adults for a short time.

On my retirement I renewed my teaching qualification for adult leisure classes. I enjoyed passing on my love of embroidery, covering a variety of traditional techniques and also a knowledge of historical embroideries, to my students.  Retirement also gave me the opportunity to undertake the Embroiderers’ Guild Development Scheme exploring fabric dyeing with the subject of ‘Arches and
Beyond’.

Batik Arches on felt and organdie dyed with indigo

Regular part time courses and Summer Schools at Missenden Abbey with Hilary Bower encouraged me to develop a more contemporary approach. The interaction with other textile artists stimulated exploration of other materials and methods used to translate a design. My delight in the tactile quality of hand embroidery was enhanced with the use of paint, monoprinting, applied papers and sheer fabrics. Athough I renewed my practice of machine embroidery it did not diminish my preference for hand stitching.

Maria:  Where does your inspiration for your art come from and do you use a sketchbook?

Robertta:  Throughout my journey a constant source of inspiration has been the natural world and the built environment.  Increasingly the exploration of history and the human footprint is a major focus in my work. I use a sketchbook to research and develop a theme with on-site sketching and photography a starting point.  Colour and texture are important elements in my work.

Drawing with a pipette

Maria:  What is your chosen technique and your favourite resources?

Robertta:  I generally work with a plain background, often of calico, with my design drawn and painted on with watercolour or inks. Layers of sheer materials or paper might be added with hand, and, occasional machine stitching. My favourite resources are needle and thread.

Fragment: A Medieval Missive 1 (Swan)

Fragment:  A Medieval Missive 2 (lion)

Maria:  Apart from Phoenix are you a member of any other groups?

Robertta:  I am a long term life member of the Embroiderers’ Guild, and I was a founder member and chairman of the Ealing Branch.  On it’s demise some years later I joined the London Branch.  Roles of chairman and committee member for the London Branch brought unexpected pleasure and increased contact with like-minded embroiderers.

When I left London, last year, I joined the Galloway Branch of the Embroiderer’s Guild. However Lockdown happened and the group held its meetings on zoom. Now, sadly, with the changes at the Embroiderers’ Guild it will no longer be a branch of the guild, but the plan is to continue as a Stitch Group.

My membership of Phoenix Contemporary Textiles is a constant source of pleasure. Despite moving from London I have been able to maintain my membership and plan to travel to meetings regularly.  It has expanded my knowledge of new materials, printing methods and kept me abreast of current thinking, taking my work in new directions.  I still use traditional techniques and perhaps I am too representational in my work.  However interaction with more contemporary artists is encouraging me to develop further.  Working to themed exhibitions has widened my interest in unexpected topics and fed into my love of research.  A past exhibition theme of “Women by Women” led me to research the artist, Winifred Nicholson. Her still-life paintings frequently featured domestic
objects and flowers. Thus my own work involved objects I had inherited from my grandmother and father – teapot and ginger jar etc.

The Ginger Jar


Freesias with my Grandmother’s teapot

Maria:  Do you have a website and Social media accounts?

Robertta:  I do not have a personal website.  However as a member of Phoenix my background and work can be seen in their website.  During Lockdown my knowledge and use of social media has increased. I have found WhatsApp and Zoom a lifeline during this last year. I now post some work on Instagram and have found it a useful source of contact with other textile artists.

@roberttamcpherson

Maria:  What do you think is your most successful piece of work?

Robertta:  I find this a very difficult question to answer. My most successful piece of work is always the one which I have just finished and feel completely happy with.

Maria:  What are you currently working on?

Robertta:  Currently I am working on pieces for the SeenUnseen exhibition. I have started with the human footprint during Neolithic times and the feature of stone circles in this area, developing the circle motif forward to tree circles, natural and manmade, in modern times.

Maria:  How have you found life in Lockdown ?

Robertta:  I have struggled throughout the past year of the pandemic.  Creativity and motivation have been in short supply. With the encouragement and support of Phoenix members I did have occasional bursts of interest in sketching.  The group projects also helped and, at last, I have started stitching again.

Experimenting with markmaking using seaweed