Emily Jo Gibbs is a textile artist, who has established an international reputation for highly detailed and exquisite portraits and still lifes. Her work has received critical acclaim, and is in several museum collections including the V&A. Between 1993 and 2006 Emily was the Creative Director of Emily Jo Gibbs, luxury handbags. While still using many of the skills honed from making handbags, Emily has firmly established herself as an artist, creating embroidered portraits and drawings of everyday items.
How much did your childhood play a part in your choice of career?
My parents are both designers and being creative as a child was really valued. I was always making things and was really encouraged to do so. My mum taught me to sew and was a big influence on me. She had studied fashion tailoring at the Royal College in the 60s so she is skilled at sewing. As children, we were always surrounded by making. I used to come up with lots of projects. She would encourage me to find the fabrics and make the things. If there was a party, we’d make the clothes; if there was a pyjama party, we’d make the pyjamas. We would see things in the shops and we would come home and make those things. When I was about 11 or 12, I saw this little hedgehog, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, made out of a stuffed fabric body with a teasel head wearing a mop hat. I went into production and made loads of these and got them put in a shop in Forest Hill. I was quite entrepreneurial. My granny used to save her puff powder boxes for me and I used to cover them in fabric and give them to people as Christmas presents.
What were your early artistic influences?
I grew up in the house I live in now. We moved here when I was 6. My parents are passionate about modern design – clean lines, pure forms, white walls – and this had a big influence on me. Crafts were also held in high regard by my parents and grandparents, and everyone was always making things really beautifully.
What drew you to textile art?
I didn’t study textiles at school or university but instead took wood, metal and plastics at Wolverhampton. However, textiles is the language I speak and through textiles I have been drawn to art.
Your first career was in handbag design. How did you make the move from working commercially into creating your own personal work?
I loved making handbags and I’m very proud of the business I built. I have two bags and a tiny purse in the V&A collection and my horse chestnut bag and heart purse featured in the V&A exhibition ‘The Cutting Edge’ in 1997.
However, after I had my two children I found it really difficult keeping up the momentum. I was also keen for my work to have more longevity. In 2006 I won an award to make a new body of work that was all about nature tables, which in turn led to my still lives. Making the first portraits of my boys really rejuvenated my passion for making. I put aside any consideration of being commercial and made them for me. I had to stop thinking of making functional objects. They took a really long time to make and I came out the other end of the process with new ideas and a new way forward creatively. Somewhere along the line I joined the 62 Group of Textile Artists, from whom I have learnt a lot.
Describe your process of making work?
My portraits are made from photographs. I like the person to be relaxed and straight-faced so I try to put the sitter at ease and to take the shot quickly so the person doesn’t get bored or stiff. When I have the right shot I make a collage from silk organza, layering the pieces to create colours and shapes. I then hand stitch the detail and trap the edges and pieces as I go. I change my thread colour often and really refer to the photograph or the object if I’m stitching a still life to get the right colours and tones. I often draw my still lives first and then stitch, referencing the actual objects.
What kind of materials do you use?
Primarily I use layers and pieces of silk organza hand stitched on to a linen ground. I use ordinary sewing thread as opposed to embroidery silk; I like the fineness and matte quality it gives you.
Are there any artists who have particularly influenced you?
I can remember coming across Sarah Ball’s work when I was first making my portraits and being so struck by how powerful and brilliant her portraits are.
How important is drawing to you and does it play a part in your work?
I aspire to draw beautifully with effortless ease and fluidity of line! In the mean time I draw as part of the process of recording the shape of things or mapping out a composition.
What are you currently working on?
Last year I collaborated on a project with Bridget Bailey that resulted in a pair of pincushion portraits, looking at depicting a person through their workspace and tools. The pincushion is a vital tool if you are working in textiles, they are often beautifully made in tiny needle point. I was interested in how I would represent stitch with stitch, but also how in doing so I imbued the already lovely object with greater reverence. I am now taking this idea forward and making more still lifes like this.
How long have you been involved in the Dulwich Festival Artists’ Open House and what do you enjoy about doing it?
Maybe five or six years? It is so lovely to meet so many really warm and friendly people who make the effort to come and see what you’ve been up to. When I first took part with my then-new portraits and still lifes, a few people who I’d never met before gave me such lovely generous feedback it gave me real confidence that I was headed in the right direction.
What are you going to be showing at the Artists’ Open House?
I’ll have a selection of portraits that I have made of my family. I’ll also show a series of little portraits, which came out of a project called ‘Kids Today’. I was really interested in stitching other people, not just my family. Loads of kids play in our street, which is quite unusual. I asked the parents if they would mind if I stitched their kids and they all came and sat around the kitchen table and I photographed them and I made their portraits. There was a really big age range, from little children to big, grizzly teenagers. I do a lot of commissions in this kind of format so people will be able to see those.
As well as my portraits I do a line of still lifes. The still lifes of sticks in jam jars grew out of my nature table work, which came in between the bags and the flat work, when I was making vessels based on trees with peeling bark. I like making these sticks in jam jars still lifes, really enjoying the simplicity and ordinariness of the subjects and then making it special by making a stitched picture of it. My work has now developed. I’m interested in looking at other makers and making portraits of people through objects. I want to celebrate other makers. I’m a big fan of people who make things.