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Interview with Janet Whittaker

Can you tell me about your background and when your interest in art began?

I always loved messing around with paper, paints and any material I could find but at nine years old I recall vividly the news of Picasso dying, aged 91. The BBC news showed his amazing and happy life full of painting and sculpting and I thought, wow, if you can do this all your life that’s what I want to do.

I went to a fantastic foundation college at Blackpool and then on to Canterbury College of Art to study Fine Art, specialising in painting. Later I worked at the Tate Gallery and after completing an MA dip. I went on to work at the art gallery in Warwick Arts Centre, at Warwick University. However, it wasn’t until after I had my children that my love of making things was rekindled. Junk modelling with cardboard and fancy dress costumes for the kids brought me round to a new appreciation and interest in working with different materials and in disciplines I had previously not tried.

What have been your artistic influences?

Recently, I have been inspired by the artist Barbara Keal a felt maker who creates amazing animal-like headdresses, collage artist and printmaker Mark Herald, painter Ivon Hitchens, printmaker Victor Pasmore, author and illustrator Cressida Cowell, textile artist Abigail Brown and the hugely creative Gifford’s Circus… my list could go on and on. 

Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from?

For my dog sculptures, that’s easy – I love the enormous variety of dogs you see around Dulwich, and my own black Labrador Holly. Essentially all breeds have a common core, they maybe squat or skinny, long nosed or curly haired, but they share many basic traits. I use photographs and drawings when I first start. I like to use raw wool where possible which hasn’t been dyed. The coarser the wool the better, as it moulds and holds together more easily than silky soft strands.

Can you describe your artistic process?

To make a needle felted animal I use a barbed needle and stab into raw wool repeatedly, gradually making the wool structure compress and become more and more dense. When adding legs and tail to the body, there are similarities to clay construction, but needle felting takes a lot longer. When the model looks right from every angle, the joy of laying different coloured wool on to the surface can begin; it’s quite like painting with wool. I use wool from a variety of sheep including Blue Face Leicester, Herdwick, Jacob, Shetland, Manx Loaghtan, Kent Romney and Suffolk. All have varying fibre lengths, levels of coarseness and colours from bitter chocolate brown to creamy whites. Wool is a lovely material to work with, it has an inherent warmth and comforting connection to animals.

Is needle felt your only medium?

No, I like to etch and lino print, and recently I’ve learnt to free machine embroider from a lesson with local artist Lisa Vaughan Thomas. Broadening your skills through short courses and using Youtube tutorials I find very useful. I’ve wanted to illustrate the beauty of old gnarled oak trees for ages and have tried different media, and I think embroidery might be the most satisfying way to explore the tree’s textures and patterns, to date. In the future I’d like to try some animation. 

Animals feature heavily in your work – have you always been drawn to them?

Yes, especially wild animals. Sometimes my partner Tom and I travel to Richmond Park to watch and photograph the deer. Last autumn we went to Horsey, Norfolk, to see the grey seals with their pups, and in the local park and woods we’ve seen little owls and tawny owls. 

Where do you exhibit your work?

I show my work at the Dulwich Open House and at Jane Newbery’s shop and gallery in Dulwich Village.

What do you like about living in Dulwich?

Green spaces, a great local book shop that brings fantastic authors to Dulwich, a supportive artistic community, closeness to theatre and museums and most importantly, friends who live nearby.

You have been involved in the Artists’ Open House for many years – as the organiser in 2005 – what do you like about being part of it?

It’s a wonderful opportunity for the public to see a huge variety of art work made by amateurs and professionals in relaxed domestic settings where they can talk to the makers. For the artists it’s great to have a platform to show current work, try out new things and be able to talk to people and get feed back. 

What are you going to be showing for this year’s Artists’ Open House?

I’ll be showing needle-felted stags, does, dogs and other animals and an experimental embroidered tree. Also at my house there will be other artists showing photography, paintings, prints and etchings and knitted textiles.

For more information visit:

Instagram @janetwhittakercrafts

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