Textile Art and the Land

by Cas Holmes

Imperfect Plant

I have a love–hate relationship with nature. I spend time outdoors as part of necessity as I do not drive. You experience the pull of the land in a very different way when walking on a cold winter's day to a sunny afternoon. It is quite different to viewing it through a car window. The land is very much part of all of us, no matter how much we try to suppress it with our needs for living and building with bricks, concrete and motorways. Things return to the wild if we leave well alone and suppress our need to tame and control. I like to think my work, as an expression of my current interest, serves as a reminder of this connection to nature. The 'landscape' is the great subject matter of the painter or photographer. Textile artists don't do land, or do they?

As I become more aware of conservation issues I record the changes and their impact on the flora and landscape. The South East of England is witnessing political and social as well as climatic change. And this is reflected globally. Recent flooding, as witnessed in the American South and its impressive physical changes to the landscape, raises issues about our fragile relationship with the local and national environment. No one who has grown up in the flat Norfolk landscape can fail to make connections between change and man's impact on the land through farming and building.

I am first and foremost a textile artist, but I have also been called a textile archaeologist, a term which aptly describes my approach to my work. Not just because of the way I build up layers to create pieces and then 'dig' my way through to the hidden strata, but also because themes of geography, sustainability and ecology inform my work.

Cas at work
Cas in studio

All of my materials are gathered from within my footsteps. Found objects and materials from the streets, vintage and old fabrics given to me and salvaged from family and friends, discarded fabrics not worthy of giving to charity shops. I never start with a blank canvas - I stress it further by burying and tearing it, paint and dye it, cut it up, stitch it - or some combination thereof. Once I have altered the fabric and built up a layered surface, the real work begins: I scrape back through the layers to reveal what lies beneath.

Everything I do has that deconstruction process. I'm always looking for a physical response to the material and a reflection of its previous history and ownership. It is no surprise that so many of the traditional textiles found within the home reflected the patterns and images we saw in the land around us. Embroidered flowers from the Victorian era, printed floral dress patterns of the fifties, William Morris interior fabrics. We have always had a creative relationship with the 'Land'. I draw upon this to make comment on how we relate to the land today.

I create installations which people can walk around, and smaller objects such as books which you can hold in the palm of your hand. One of these works, entitled "Fen", evokes the east coast of England where the land is flat and marshy, the lighting is soft. I remember my Romany grandmother warning me not to get lost in the marshes as they can be dangerous.

Fen, at 30 Tower View

book - Marshlands

This connection to the land, how we use it, how we relate to it and how we change it, is a personal response. I like to use mostly low-tech techniques and combine the use of natural materials and objects with my found fabrics. Fabric coated and printed with household emulsion paint reminds me of the weathered work gear of my father who was a house painter. Burying fabrics stains and ages them, tying in to my grandmother who worked the hop fields and on farms. I use old silk dyes for sun prints of plants. A reflection of time passing, I refuse to speed up the process with heat lamps, but wait patiently instead for a hot, sunny day. Photographic references are altered by transferring them onto fabric with acrylic paint rather than editing them with computer software and using transfer papers. I'm not interested in the perfect print.

buried fabric

buried fabric

The human connection to the land and place is important. Many of the materials I use are written accounts of family memories, cast-off sheets and household materials and clothing. A couple of elderly women who live along my road regularly stop by to drop off fabric and clothing they know I will recycle! I'm interested in the history of these fabrics, what we do with them. Sheets, clothing - the familiarity and connection they have in our own life.

I attended a fine arts college and studied painting, but my textile training is all self-taught. I hit on my method of working from desperation when painting over a previously painted canvas at art college (I had no money for new). The original image kept coming through, and in frustration I ripped up the canvas. I looked at it and said, 'Oh, this is more exciting'. I thought the substance of the canvas was more important than what was on it.

sketchbook page

I keep sketchbooks to record experiments and also make small art books out of natural and found materials - another connection to the land and conservation. Books using marine ply found on a beach along the Norfolk coastline contain photographs recording change in the constantly changing coastline where sea and land shift.

Slate Leaf Book

Beyond my own work I work in the community with children and adults as well an individuals whom a close friend calls "differently abled" (adults with learning difficulties). Together they make art projects using recycled and natural materials, often creating outdoor installations. This work challenges me and keeps me grounded. Everything I do in my community has another reference - to be more resourceful. Knitting with plastic bags is fun, but also causes you to think about it. I have global concerns about the environment, but have to start locally.

community work
newspaper sculpture

My art, my life, my responsibility as a global citizen - it all goes back to the land. We are what we are because of where we grew up and the people we grew up with. What sustains us is the land around us.


Cas Holmes offers workshops in paper, textiles, mixed media, drawing and the use of found materials.