Exmoor based textile artist Gabriella Falk talks to Somerset Life's Robert Hesketh

PUBLISHED: 20:07 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013

'A Mirror Up to Nature' - tapestry inspired by Gabriella's garden

'A Mirror Up to Nature' - tapestry inspired by Gabriella's garden

Exmoor-based textile artist Gabriella Falk has enjoyed a richly varied career. She began as a theatre designer in London, working on a wide range of productions. Designing costumes fostered her interest in textiles. Moving to Exmoor,...

Exmoor based textile artist Gabriella Falk talks to Somerset Life's Robert Hesketh

"I was always interested in textures and colours, making things and general creativity," explains Gabriella when we talk in her studio home, the Hare and Hounds in Exton, the village pub until the 1920s and a building of considerable character and history.

"My family assumed I would go to university, but this determined me to do something different and go to art school instead. A wonderful teacher there, one of those people you're fortunate to meet even once in your education, suggested I design for the theatre as it included a huge range of disciplines. So I went on to study theatre design. It was a really good background for life in the arts, studying theatre history, designing and making props and costumes too.

"I had a very interesting career in the theatre, but it was difficult too because I'm not one of nature's 'luvvies'. The most satisfying work then was in fringe theatre, but I couldn't make a living from that alone so I had to compromise with commercial theatre and films. The height of my commercial career was designing the costumes for 'Jesus Christ Superstar'."

Designing costumes for the theatre naturally developed Gabriella's interest in textiles. Fortunately, she lived near an excellent adult education institute that taught weaving.

"I spent a lot of time there and got completely hooked on weaving. My partner made me a loom on the kitchen floor and I carried on weaving at home. When we moved to Exton in '78, I set up a weaving workshop and ran courses. We wove cloth and made garments - all a bit rustic and hairy - but I got fed up with that after a few years, because I'm not, at heart, a technician.

"A bit of money from part-time teaching and arts education projects enabled me to switch to fine art tapestry weaving. I gave myself two years to make a success of it. Once I'd started, I was engrossed and never went back.

"You don't need an elaborate loom for tapestry weaving. I use a proper six-foot-wide, upright, two-shaft loom, but you could weave on a simple frame. For very big pieces I've done just that, with scaffolding poles. I used to use a lot of machine-dyed carpet wools. These were excellent, but in some ways too consistent. I took to dyeing my own materials as the slight irregularities added extra life and texture to my tapestries.

"Tapestry weaving is very slow and I felt the need to do something quicker. These days, I don't work so much in tapestry as in layers of fabric that give a subtle range of colours. I use a lot of silk and use those wonderful new synthetic glittery fabrics often made for the Asian market. They're light and transparent, with all sorts of different sheens and colours. I find I can layer these and use them to create interesting effects, combined with silk that I've dyed and painted. I use a big, specially adapted industrial sewing machine - drawing with the sewing machine, making them more like stitched paintings."

Somerset clearly inspires Gabriella's work. "I consider myself very much influenced by the natural world, the world around me. I went through a phase of using muted natural hues that were directly related to the Exmoor environment, but for the moment I've returned to vivid colours."

Much of Gabriella's commissioned work in recent years has been landscape- and history-based, which suits her perfectly as she likes researching history and archaeology. She's fascinated by maps and mapping too, which is also reflected strongly in some of her work.

"I made a series of three large pieces for a hospital in Wrexham recently, which were based on a local river, the Gwenfro. I walked the entire length of it to get a feel for my source. The River Branwyn inspired another work for a Welsh hospital. I wove in the story of Branwyn, who was a Welsh heroine.

"I also did a piece inspired by a valley near Weacombe on the Quantocks , based very directly on what I had seen. It was a brilliant autumn day and the bracken was fantastic, a glowing tawny colour, and the grass a vivid green. It was sunset and the sky was completely golden."

Unexpected places have also fired Gabriella's imagination. The old quarry and stone-crushing plant just over the Devon border in Bampton led to a striking series of tapestries, which sold very readily.

"The buildings were an amazing conglomeration of rusty corrugated iron, stacked one on top of another, contrasting with a cobalt-blue sky. Visually, it was stunning, but the caretaker just couldn't understand why I found what he considered a wreck inspiring!"

Inspiration can take unexpected turns, but with such varied experience and skills, in which direction does Gabriella see her career developing?

"I'd like to work in other media, including more glass work, and widen the scope of my techniques. You can see that my designs would translate very easily into glass and I love glass as a medium, the translucency, colours and light." BY ROBERT HESKETH

Gabriella is always happy to discuss ideas for commissions of whatever scale, public or private. For more information call 01643 851266 or visit www.gabriellafalk.co.uk.

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