Profiles in Art: Meredith Woolnough

Meredith Woolnough is a visual artist and embroiderer. Based in Newcastle, Australia she takes what has traditionally been thought of as a two dimensional medium and brings natural forms to life in skeletal three dimensions. You can find more of her work on her Instagram and in her portfolio.

Interview conducted by: Tiffany Chan

Edited by: Morgan Moore & Tiffany Chan

Cover image by Joerg Lehmann

Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with the visual arts and why specifically embroidery?
I have always loved making and creating things. Art was always my favourite subject at school, so I went straight from high school to study Fine Arts at University. There was never really any other path for me, now that I think about it.

Once I got to art school, I discovered the world of textile arts and was enticed by the huge diversity within this area. I then spent three years studying the many disciplines that fall under the umbrella of ‘textile arts’. I had a great time, but I really didn’t feel that I had found my specific medium,and I felt quite lost towards the end of my degree. As a result I decided to go on to do an honours year, so that I could focus on one project. It was during this year that I discovered and developed the embroidery technique that I still work with today.

The technique that I use to create my artworks is a unique form of embroidery. Using a domestic sewing machine, I draw with threads onto water-soluble fabric. This fabric acts as a temporary surface for my stitched drawing, and once the drawing is complete this base fabric is washed away, leaving the skeletal stitched drawing behind. I was drawn to this type of embroidery, because I saw it as an exciting way to draw. I was further inspired by the sculptural possibilities of the technique. The fact that I could do a drawing with stitches and then liberate it from its base cloth to create a free-standing sculpture or a delicate, lace-like object had me hooked. I have now been working with this technique for over ten years and I still love it.

Embroidery in progress

Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?
Following my fine art studies, I didn’t have the confidence to throw  myself into full-time work as an artist. I doubted myself and my work too much to see that as a realistic career. I decided instead to go down the path of teaching. This may sound like a bit of a fallback option, but I really love teaching so it was a great move for me. I worked at high schools in Sydney for 3-4 years, teaching Visual Arts, Photography, Textiles, and Design. While I was teaching I still tried to maintain an artist’s practice on the side. I would be involved in a few group exhibitions each year, and my school holidays became hard core stitch-a-thons as I tried to create art alongside the requirements of my full-time teaching job. My artwork was well received at these exhibitions, often selling out, which gave me a big confidence boost. I began to see a possible future as an artist. There were parts of teaching that I loved, and other aspects that I found very challenging, so after a few years of the teaching/artist juggle game I quit my job, moved to an entirely new city, and threw myself into work as an artist. It was a very confronting and scary transition at the time, but also one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.

I am now based in Newcastle, which is a city that I love. When I moved here, I decided I would take up some more formal art training. As a big fan of lifelong learning, I wanted to challenge and refresh myself by exploring new artforms. Through a series of rather serendipitous encounters with Newcastle locals, I learnt about a unique course that is run out of the University of Newcastle, the Bachelor of Natural History Illustration. I never intended to take on another degree, but this course was just the perfect match for me so I threw myself into it. It combined elements of art, nature and science; which were all areas that my embroidered artworks centered around. So I found myself back at uni again, but this time I was doing field work and scientific study alongside the traditional drawing, painting, and sculpting skills required for scientific applications. I loved it, and the fieldwork and research I was doing crept over into my art practice and helped inform my embroidered artwork.

Now I am creating and selling my embroidered artworks full time. The bulk of my work lies in private commissions, which I send all over the world. I am involved in several exhibitions each year and have my work stocked in a handful of galleries. I also teach workshops, so I get to stretch those teaching muscles from time to time, which I really enjoy.

Photograph by Gez Xavier Photography
Q: How and when did you know that you were a capital-A Artist?
When I left my teaching job completely. Even after that it still took me a long time to feel comfortable introducing myself as an artist, like I was ashamed of the title or not worthy of it for some reason, which I know is ridiculous.
Meredith installing Typologies photo by Joerg Lehmann
Photographer: Joerg Lehmann
Q: What does a normal day look like for you?
My mornings are usually filled with sewing. This is the most labour intensive part of the process, so I like to get stuck into it straight away and put in a few good solid hours of stitching before lunch. My afternoons are usually spent with all of the other aspects of creating the work (designing new works, dissolving, mounting, photographing etc.) as well as the admin stuff, which takes up more time than I would like.

But those standard work days are very rare now,since I became a mum 6 months ago. Since the birth of my beautiful daughter, my regular studio schedule has gone out the window. Now my days are filled with mum duties, and I sneak into my studio work where I can (usually during nap times). It is a big juggle trying to figure out my new role as a mum while still maintaining my art business. But I am doing what I can, and so far I am keeping all of the balls up in the air.

Q: What was it like to start your own studio? What were some unexpected challenges/lessons?
Moving into a studio that was out of my home was a huge step for me personally and professionally. Personally it was a huge step, as it verified to me that my art practice was a true and worthy job. Professionally it was great to have a space where potential clients could come and meet me and discuss commissions, that wasn’t in my spare room with my cat on their lap. I learnt that I work best when I ‘go to work’ and that I need that separate creative space away from the other elements of my life.

My first rented studio space was huge, so it allowed me to create without restrictions. It was a part of a larger studio complex, so I was surrounded by other working artists. An unexpected benefit of this was that it had a great sense of collegial support in what is otherwise a rather lonely profession.

Ginkgo Florette (detail) 2014 in the morning light
Ginkgo Florette, Meredith Woolnough (2014).
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?
The best thing about my job is that I am able to create beautiful things that I am proud of every day. What more could you ask for in a job?
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?
The financial inconsistencies of the job are a real challenge at times. Moving from a reliable, consistent salary to a rollercoaster of income is a bit of a shock. I will spend months at a time making work before I have the opportunity to show, and hopefully sell the work. And there is never a guarantee that the work will sell. I try to balance the unpredictable income aspects of this line of work with more consistent elements – such as my workshops and commissions so that I can at least plan and budget a few months ahead.
Meredith Woolnough in her studio, photo by Stephanie Owen.jpg
Photograph by Stephanie Owen
Q: What is one essential/unexpected skill that you have had to learn “on the job”?
Good bookkeeping. I never knew how much of a job it was to stay on top of the paperwork side of the business. Developing a kickass spreadsheet for my finances was the best thing I ever did.
Q: What is the quirkiest side job you have ever had?
While I was studying art at uni, I had a summer job working at Australia’s Wonderland. I was employed to play Princess Fiona from Shrek for staged photo opps. In 30+ degree heat, I would put on a green velvet dress and a red wig and stand alongside my suited sidekicks, Shrek, Donkey and Lord Farquaad while streams of kids had their photos taken with us. It was the weirdest but most fun job I have ever had.
Q: Were there ever moments throughout your career when you doubted yourself/what you were doing? How did those moments resolve?
When I first left teaching to jump into work as an artist, I really struggled with that choice. I had a lot of guilt about having to rely upon my partner financially while I found my feet. I felt like I was putting in a lot of time, money and work into the business but not really getting a return. It was very easy to slip into a state of self-doubt and question the choices I had made. There were times when I thought I was crazy for doing this and should go back to a ‘real job’.

My solution was to throw myself deeper into work. I booked several exhibitions in and tried to build up a strong social media presence. I work best when I am juggling many things, and when I have deadlines I don’t have time to worry about my doubts, I just have to work. So that is what I do. You just have to ride out the highs and lows of this kind of job by keeping your head down and working hard. Luckily for me it has paid off.

Maple branch detail (2015)
Maple Branch, Meredith Woolnough (2015).
Q: What inspires you? What motivates you? What are the strategies you use to work yourself out of a creative rut?
If I am ever in a bit of a rut, I always try to take time out to get out into nature. Something as simple as walk along the beach or through the bush. These experiences that help me connect with nature are always very humbling and centring for me.
Q: In your opinion, what are the most important considerations that make up good design?
I think good design comes from trial and error and learning from your mistakes.
Petal bowl on the studio shelf
Petal bowl, Meredith Woolnough.
Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?
I think it’s completely natural for a parent to worry about their children and try to steer them towards success in life. But success is not always measured with financial stability, and I think  it is important to let people follow their own paths and do what they love. If you have great satisfaction in your work, I think that is the greatest success.

Just for fun…

Q: What is your favorite drink/drunk food combination (or comfort food/drink)?
Tea and scones (with lots of jam and cream of course).
Q: What do you do for self-care?
Sleep in.

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