Ideas Processes and Technique


As an introduction, I will use a quote from Scottish/Australian textile artist, Jill Kinnear:

“Valerie Kirk, respected contemporary textile artist, is a Scottish-born emigrant to Australia whose migratory experience provides an essential focus for her work. Kirk, a resident of Canberra, and Head of Textiles at ANU School of Art, is a consumate tapestry weaver. She traces memories, complexities, losses,adaptive challengesand rewards inherent in migration and the construction of self identity. The journey of acculturation into Australian society creatively addressing the hybrid state, a double vision looking forward and looking back is explored in woven tapestry, digital prints and drawings on slate.” Jill Kinnear.

The story of non-indigenous settlement in Australia is shaped by two centuries of global emigration, with emigrants bringing with them memories of their place of departure and their diverse cultural backgrounds. In the 19th and 20th centuries, four million people left Scotland; 24% in the 19th century came south, dispersing their names, cultural heritage and skills throughout Australia and New Zealand.

Scottish emigration is particularly relevant in Canberra. Of the 132 named suburbs in the Canberra-Queanbeyan area, 20% of suburbs appear to be uniquely Scottish named. This reflects the settlement of the area by Scottish families, and the important roles of their descendents in Australian culture, government and society. In my suburb of O’Connor I am surrounded by Scots, neighbours who are original residents who migrated to Australia to work in the trades.

It was only when I had my own family that I really began to think about the issues of emigration. I had chosen to travel and take up opportunities to work in Australia, coming the first time to work in the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, then at TAFE in Warrnambool, Victoria and from there to Canberra in 1990 to take up the position, Head of Textiles. Within a year I had married and given birth to my first child. Two years later my second daughter was born. These events changed my life from being single and only responsible for myself – carefree and itinerant, to being the breadwinner for my family, mother of two girls and fully engaged in a demanding full time job. Having my own children made me think more about my own family and the distance that seperates us.

I travelled back to Scotland several times when the girls were young and this gave me a chance to reflect on ideas about family, culture and traditions. While there I would research and draw textiles, details of buildings, sandstone, salmon, heather, wildflowers…… looking at the things familiar with fresh eyes. My family expected that I would have my girls christened, but as a non-churchgoer I could not carry on this tradition. Never-the-less my parents arranged a large extended family party and my daughter was dressed up and displayed to welcome her into her Scottish family and community. At this time we talked about christening robes, of which there are two in our family and I regretted the fact that the girls would not get to wear the precious garments of soft white, embroidered, cotton. This started me on a trail of research into Ayrshire Needlework and the resulting tapestries and drawings using the whitework to describe the preciousness of small children and my place in relation to family and Scottish traditions.

Watercolour leaves - light, mid and dark as in medieval tapestries.

Watercolour leaves - light, mid and dark as in medieval tapestries.

Drawing lets me observe and engage with a subject in an intense and focussed way. It gives me a space for contemplation which is conducive to developing ideas for artworks. The ideas can be further explored in designs for tapestry or in some instances I develop and refine the drawings to produce finished works, as in the series of white gouache on slate. Anne Brennan stated that: erhaps the best way to think of these drawings is as a kind of portrait, not of a specific person in a specific place, but of generations of people over centuries of time.”

Woven tapestry is my continuing passion, learned while studying at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1970s and practised as an exhibiting artist, working on community tapestries, teaching at all levels from school age through to tertiary and in arranging group exhibitions, publications and events such as “TAPESTRY 2008” with its workshops, exhibitions and symposium. Tapestry suits my artistic personality, combining a love of image making and the tactility of textiles. There is also the thrill of the unknown as each tapestry starts with a blank frame and is carefully constructed from bottom to top. The whole tapestry is brought into being through a magical combination of sparks of imagination in the brain, concrete technical problem solving and intuitive selection of colours and textures.

Ideas, processes and technique come together in the tapestries. “Elements of each experience are acknowledged and valued, and placed alongside the other. Then new meanings can be found in the tensions between them.” Grace Cochrane.

Valerie Kirk 2009


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