Using vintage oddments of textile, artist Louise O’Hara constructs images that evoke the traditional British countryside scenes she visited as a chile
The purples and greens of a moorland landscape start to come alive in a patchwork of lace, silk and paper shapes. Artist Louise O’Hara reaches for a pencil to outline the position of a ramshackle gate before threading a needle
and starting to sew. She works quickly, the stitches adding another dimension to her design.
Colour and texture abound in Louise’s small but fascinating studio in the heart of a Cheshire village. Vintage fabrics spill out
of boxes, acrylic inks and reels of thread cluster on wooden workbenches among pots of paint, glue and brushes. Lengths of cloth hang off chairs and bales of coloured paper are stacked under tables. Embossed black-and-white walls are lined with books, cabinets and tinted glass. An iron and crystal chandelier draped with ribboned hearts dangles from the ceiling.
Here Louise uses mixed-media art to portray the light and textures of the world around her. She crafts paintings and collages that capture the spirit of countryside and seascape. Her work is often in bright, uplifting tones but also reflects darker, moodier days.
The majority of her pictures are based on places she has visited, often as a child. “We spent many family holidays in the Lake District and Yorkshire, and that archetypal cottage scene features in a lot of my work,” she says. “My pictures tend to be constructed of a collection of memories I have of different places I may have visited many times.”
Concepts of the flow of time and continuity of human relationships are the centrepiece of her work. This is captured in the way she builds layers of paint and in her use of vintage fabrics. “I don’t like using new materials. I want to use old,” she says. “Because they have been used, there is a history there, a trace of all the people, all the conversations that have gone by. I find that exciting.”
Louise is always on the lookout for materials to use in her pictures. The studio is home to a vast collection of period clothes, fabric, beads, quilts and crochet at the studio. Some she may cut up or re-dye to achieve a particular colour or effect. She often produces
a collection of pictures with similar themes and colours. To do this, she may spend two days dyeing fabrics and paper with a combination of ink and paints.
Many of her vintage textiles come from secondhand shops. Friends and clients, aware of her fascination, also send her items. “People having a clear-out send me their granny’s old scarves, gloves and cardigans,” she says. “I think it’s important that these things aren’t just thrown away but can live on, reclaimed, in a new guise.
I got a parcel the other day from America and I cried when I opened it. It was full of buttons, Victorian ones, glass ones… It was absolutely wonderful.”
Building up layers
Louise uses a camera to record the landscapes and buildings she visits. If there is time she may even make rough sketches. “A piece will develop from a photograph, or sections of a photograph, and sections of memories,” she says. “I might see a photo and think, I like the colour of that field. I then seek to re-create it. And that willdictate the materials I use, the paint and possible fabric, the size and shape of the finished design.”
For a painting, she starts by applying modelling paste or paint to a canvas, creating a rich, uneven substrate. Then layer upon layer of paints, inks or oil pastels are added. This creates an undulating, tactile surface out of which a landscape gradually emerges. Next, she builds up the body of the drawing. White cottages are clustered against beguiling seas and fresh blue skies. Streams wind their way across mist-wreathed moors. Always there is a sense that home is waiting.
Textile pieces begin with Louise lightly glueing then machine stitching her carefully chosen fabrics to sheets of watercolour paper. Different materials are added to create further ideas of form and flow. Pieces of paper, wax, wool, buttons and beads create flower-filled meadows, boulder-strewn fells, the shifting waves and eddies of sullen grey seas. Scenes may be embellished with rows of stitching to emphasise detail. A soldering iron creates burns or a leaden effect. Stencilled text from songs or poems relevant to the landscape or seascape adds to the storyline imbued in a picture. She may include scraps of handwritten letters found in charity shops, bus tickets or other ephemera. As she works, the picture becomes three-dimensional and tactile.
“The sense of being able to reach out and touch the scene is an important part of my work,” she says. “But the textiles are delicate and to protect them I always frame the pictures under glass. My framer makes double-mounted frames for me to accommodate the thickness and layers.”
Beauty in imperfection
It can take several weeks to finish a picture, not least because she usually works on two or three at the same time. “I’ll go into the studio and one piece will grab at me, and I’ll work on that particular one for a while,” she says. “Then I’ll leave it. I like to reflect on a piece and give it time to settle in between sittings. This is usually up to two weeks.
“If a picture doesn’t work well for some reason, I may cut it up and then use the canvas pieces in another. It makes me see things in a different way. I am also a great believer in serendipity. If some ink gets spilled on a picture accidentally I’ll go with it and see where it takes me.”
Another defining feature of Louise’s work is the philosophy of ‘beauty in imperfection’. This was an idea
she first encountered when doing her MA at Manchester University. “I photograph battered walls and threadbare fabrics,” she says. “I love the layers and depth they lend to a piece of work. All have a story to tell. There are marks and qualities in worn-out things you cannot reproduce.”
As part of her course, Louise took photographs of paint peeling from a door. These then created a pattern more reminiscent of falling leaves, which were incorporated in a collection of scarves, cuffs and collars.
The finished piece
Confessing to a tendency towards obsession, Louise often pores over one little part of a picture until it is right. “I know when something else is needed in a picture,” she says. “It will pull at me until I’ve fixed it. Over the years I have developed my techniques and now know how to effect a change.”
Finishing a piece of work always brings great satisfaction, but there is the immediate impulse to start another. “I love what I do but I’m very driven,” she says. “There’s so much to explore.”
She believes her work appeals to a human sense of place. “People seem to like the sense of nostalgia. My pictures are reminiscent of places they have been, or perhaps would like to go. My paintings are not harsh. Although they can be moody, they are gentle to look at. And there’s so much in there, you always see something else.”
People do ask her to do pictures of specific places they know, or to use fabrics that were part of their lives. “I’m happy to do that, but I prefer it if the viewer sees a picture and thinks ‘oh gosh, that looks like such and such a place’. That means my memories are triggering their memories. I’d like them to have that sort of relationship with a piece.”
With major exhibitions on the horizon, Louise has never been busier. “I suppose I’m outgrowing this studio. I have so much stuff now,” she says. “But I can’t imagine moving; this house has so many memories for me. I’m a collector – of memories and of time and of objects. I’ll always be this way.”
A life in art
Louise has always painted. At a young age she felt a connection to the work of artists such as Kurt Schwitters, an early 20th century artist, typographer and writer. Another influence was Joseph Cornell, an artist and sculptor who was an exponent of assemblage. She was inspired by the way they gave new life to discarded and broken objects.
After school she did a degree in fashion and textiles at Liverpool John Moores University.
“I loved it,” she says. “But afterwards I was totally burned out and decided I needed to step away.” She became an art teacher and had two children but all the while found the time to paint. “In 2014 I decided I was split in too many directions. I took the plunge and became an artist full time. I wanted to show my girls they could carve their own path in life and that sometimes it is worth taking a risk.”
Words: Diane Wardle Photography: Clive Doyle