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Susan Holmes: Fabric Artist

Over four decades award-winning Auckland fabric artist Susan Holmes established a broad repertoire of fabric art skills. From an unassuming start of creating potato printed silk scarves, her practice has spanned the worlds of craft, fashion and fabric art, culminating in a significant contribution to the field of wearable art. 

Susan is a thoroughly tactile and largely self-taught artist whose intuitive engagement with fabrics is the cornerstone of her creativity. The magic and artistry of her craft lies in the techniques and processes she has developed in the surface modification of cloth.

Magic Feather Dress (and detail), Susan Holmes, 1995

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira 1997.54.1

The following extract is taken from the publication Susan Holmes: Fabric Artist, which has been created in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at Objectspace Gallery in Ponsonby, Auckland (19 November 2016 - 04 February 2017).

Written by Cerys Dallaway-Davidson, Collection Manager at Auckland War Memorial Museum, the final chapter is a glossary of kind, exploring the techniques Susan developed across her career. Here Dallaway-Davidson examines stencilling, which is arguably Susan's signature and the most well recognised part of her practice.

Chapter Three: ‘Fabric Explorations: mastering the craft – Stencilling’

Stencilling is a signature technique of Susan’s, which developed out of block printing. She now jokes that she initially thought she invented the technique simply because she had no knowledge of anyone doing it previously. She quickly realised it was a printing method harking back to ancient Egyptian times. It is a natural technique for her though, and her mastery of this skill is clear when one watches her create a stencil and print its design onto fabric with her deft touch. With a few quick cuts on acetate a motif appears; with a sure, steady hand it is held aloft over the slippery silk; with a few quick flutters of a barely damp, rounded piece of mattress sponge colour is applied over the stencil, working from the acetate into the centre of the print; then the stencil is whipped off with a flourish, and a clear delicate motif is formed. New life created from the world of fantasy is now imprinted on a silky world.

Two piece outfit, Susan Holmes, 1970s

Gift of Mary-Louise Brown, 1996Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira 1996.14.2

Stencilling is a free-form design process where Susan has the liberty to create as she goes, which is not possible with techniques like screen-printing. Symmetry and repeat patterns are only applied if desired; more commonly a motif floats and flutters around a garment, enhanced by the movement of the wearer – a living print on an inanimate object. With complex designs, however, particularly wearable art creations, a bit more planning goes into the design of the pattern. Either way, these living prints work with the weight and drape of the fabric chosen, its two-dimensional surface transformed into a floating skirt or three-dimensional form with the aid of bamboo or Perspex rods.

Stencilling gave me huge freedom to put bigger prints wherever I wanted to on the garment, in much the same way as my block printing.

I can recall a moment when I think Annie Bonza might have given me a bit of satin and asked me to print something, and I did a water pattern, or there were clouds in the air … And I just grabbed some brown paper, cut it into a watery shape or a cloudy shape … And got a sponge … I cut it into a round shape because I thought that was what I would need. I was just in a frenzy of let’s try this, this will make a mark … I can remember putting the material down, putting the stencil down and wiping off the edge. And even to this day people are amazed by such a simple technique. But you can imagine I was over the moon as it came out at me and suddenly this bit of white satin that Annie Bonza had given me was covered all over with a watery design, so quickly and easily…"

Susan also created a unique stencilling tool, called her cloud technique, which she cleverly used to cover up any printing mishaps. A simple method in theory, her mastery of it is seen in the subtlety of the outcome. Neither the printing errors nor the clouds stand out in the finished garment, they simply float over and around the original print in a natural whimsical manner.

One day when I was mucking around, making a mess with something, I had a mark that I wanted to disguise, so I discovered my little printing technique of how to make clouds, which was the wiping of the stencil with a sponge. It was the most simple thing … If I want to make a quick fix of a design, put a motif on or cover a mark, it was with the clouds that I did it.

Buy the book

The full publication Susan Holmes: Fabric Artist can be purchased for $59.99 at the Auckland Museum Store and all good book stores.

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