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Flying high: Nancy Rose Taplin, Artist and Designer

12 August 2013 by

Artist and textile designer Nancy Taplin won the Interiors prize at Texprint in 2009. She was selected, and her prize presented by the artist Grayson Perry, an experience that Nancy describes as “one of the happiest of my life.” Our interview with Nancy illustrates how much the Texprint showcase contributes to launching creative careers and how the paths alumni follow are increasingly rich and diverse.

Creativity is in Nancy’s DNA; her father is the sculptor, Guy Taplin, and her mother is the ceramicist Robina Jack. An exciting showcase of the work of all three will be revealed through a family show at renowned gallery Messum’s, in London, which opens on 29th October 2013. Nancy will be showing a new collection of her startlingly beautiful and detailed bird paintings.

Nancy loves living and working in London - she shares a studio with eight other people, almost all of who are working in fashion and textiles. A typical day for her would include around six hours painting – but she told us, “The way in which I paint is detailed and intense and I can only really paint in short bursts, so I take lots of breaks and chat with people. When I first started painting, I was living in Essex and working on my own. I would dream about a space in a big, busy London studio; I feel so blessed now that it’s become a reality.”

How many new works are you creating for the forthcoming Taplin family show at Messum’s?

There will be ten new pieces. It’s really exciting to see the work come together - in some ways it feels a lot like planning and creating a fabric collection. Even though I’m working with unique, stand-alone pieces, I can’t help but think about how they’ll fit together as a group, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them in a gallery context.

How did this opportunity come about?

My family are all artists and it was suggested that we have a family show. I started painting by accident in 2010. I was working as a freelance textile designer at the time, primarily for Issa, having been approached by them at Texprint’s London show. I was quite reluctant to suddenly start producing fine art pieces because I couldn’t see myself working in that way, but thought I may as well give it a go. I’d intended to do a small series of prints, but my father saw the sketchbook I was drawing in – an old ledger onto which I’d painted a bird – and immediately saw that it worked as a piece in itself. I sold all the book paintings I did for that show, and after that it just took on a momentum of its own. I’ve since had a couple more group shows and a solo show and I still haven’t managed to hang on to a painting for myself!

It’s funny, because when I was at Indigo Paris with Texprint, I was approached by a man who bluntly told me my fabrics were beautiful but I’d never make any money as a textile designer because they were fine art, and although it did trouble me at the time, I often think how it was a strangely prescient comment.

After winning the 2009 Texprint Interiors Prize you went on to work as print and embellishment designer for Issa. How was this experience?

It was a massive learning curve.  I was so grateful for the opportunity and working with such a glamorous label was exciting. Seeing print and embroidery designs I’d worked on featured on Style.com having being shown at London Fashion Week was a great experience. However, looking back, it wasn’t a great fit for me. Their aesthetic is completely different to my own and whilst I’m happy working to a brief, I found having to completely remould my style to fit with the sleekness and femininity that is Issa’s trademark a bit of an uphill struggle. If I had the confidence and perspective I have now, I might have refused the role and pursued more suitable freelance work. However, I’m really relieved I didn’t: not only was working with them a wonderful thing to have done, but because I found it so challenging I learned an enormous amount about myself and about the way in which I’m happiest working.

Obviously birds, and your father’s work, inspire you. Has this always been the case?

I spent my childhood surrounded by birds – stuffed, wooden, painted, living – they were everywhere. I’ve grown up with the East End’s answer to David Attenborough for a dad: when you’re with him he keeps up a continual commentary on the natural world and it’s blessed me with an awareness of nature and wildlife that I haven’t really had to work for. Wherever I go I’m conscious of the birds, insects and plants around me, whether it’s seagulls and starlings on the Ridley Road Market or shorebirds along the River Colne.

Other inspirations?

My background is in art history, and I guess my painting style is inspired in equal measure by fourteenth-century egg tempera painting – I can spend hours in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing – and more contemporary painters like Andrew Wyeth. I’m definitely quite traditional in my approach though, and spend a lot of time apologising for being a bit passé!

Your work is incredibly detailed – do you work mainly from photographs?

Funnily enough, the less closely I work from photographs, the more detailed my work gets. When I first started painting, I used to rely on photos a lot more heavily; my paintings were much more realistic, though somehow also much sketchier. Since I’ve become more confident, I’ve also become more immersed in surface pattern and less concerned with realism. I often find myself working on a decorative passage of feathers and thinking, ‘all I’d need to do is blow this up and put it into repeat and it’d make such a great digital print!’

What drew you to working with/on old books? They are things of beauty in themselves – where do you find them all?

I first started working with old books when I was studying fashion and textiles at university.  My mother and aunt were clearing out old stationary from my grandparent’s farm office. I salvaged it all and started to incorporate it into my work. My final collection sketchbook was an old family ledger, which I thought was empty. The whole collection was based on the First World War and its aftermath, and when I was in the final stages of the collection I realised that a few pages right at the back of the ledger had been used, and were dated 1917-18; it was a really affirming moment and felt a bit like someone from my family was sending me a message.  I love the battered aesthetic of old books, there’s something so tactile and appealing about them. I get a lot of them sent over from America now, but when I can, I love to hunt round car boots and flea markets.

Regarding your working process – do the backgrounds inspire the particular bird?

The books themselves have a huge influence on what I paint on them. I think the process of deciding what to paint on a particular book is the point at which my textile training has the biggest impact. Each painting has a colour story, and the books become like fabrics, they have their own personalities and it’s really important to work intuitively with their individual characteristics.

I love painting the birds’ heads – for me it’s where all the personality lies. I’ve done a series of “portrait close ups” for the new show and I’m really pleased with them. That first bit, when you’ve done maybe just the beak and the eye, is when you’ve got the most energy and excitement for a painting and you’re making all the big decisions about colour and form. It’s a great place to be. The worst bit of any painting is “the ugly phase”… I usually paint onto dark surfaces, and have to create a white base first, in the silhouette of the bird. There’s always a brief period before the painting’s started to take shape when it looks absolutely dreadful!

You are concentrating now on your career as a painter, but do you feel you may return to textiles in the future?

I’m definitely planning on working with fabrics again. I’m also fired up about learning to make shoes, and want to produce a collection of small-scale prints that would work in this format. It’s got to the point where I literally go to bed and dream about printed leather – I’ve got so much raw visual material buzzing round my head, so much inspiration from my paintings, that I can’t wait until I have time to start designing. It’s going to be exciting to take the paintings that have been the focus of my life for such a long time and do something completely different with them.

Are there any other projects that you are currently working on?

I’m writing a lot, which is something I’ve always done, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this develops. Perhaps most excitingly of all though, I’m at the very early stages of realising a long-held dream, and I’m learning how to make shoes. I’ve wanted to do it for so long that I’m bubbling over with excitement about it.

What are your plans for the future?  

I’m looking forward to the point when things have settled down and I’m still painting enough to make a living, but also have more freedom to do other things, like write and get back into textile design. I’m really starting to crave a bit of variety now.

Looking back – is there a significant moment in your career development that stands out?

Other than my solo show selling out at the private view, which was a bit surreal, I think Texprint really was the major highlight of my career development so far. I was at New Designers when I got the phone call saying I’d been selected and I honestly nearly fell down the stairs with excitement. I think the best thing for me about Texprint was that Grayson Perry, who is one of my absolute heroes, was a judge. As someone who’s work traverses fine art and textiles, he was heaven sent, and finding out he’d selected me as the winner of the Interior Textiles prize was one of the happiest moments of my life.  I gained so much confidence and self-awareness from Texprint, and I’m hugely grateful for that experience.

Advice for those about to graduate this year?

Don’t worry if your work seems different from other graduates– my portfolio stuck out like a sore thumb and I felt like a rackety art student compared to the professionalism of everyone else, but I think that actually stood me in good stead in the end. If you get negative feedback, like I did from the man who told me I’d never make any money because I was an artist not a designer, don’t be disheartened: hidden in that feedback there might be a really good bit of advice.  Don’t be rigid, and be prepared to do stuff that wasn’t quite what you had in mind; you honestly never know where it’s going to end up.

The most important thing though is to enjoy the whole process of graduating – New Designers, Graduate Fashion Week, job interviews – talk to people and have fun; people respond really well to enthusiasm, and I really believe that conveying your love of what you do is almost as important as the work itself.

2009:  Nancy with Interiors prize judge Grayson Perry


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