Multidisciplinary artist and Drake's collaborator Jane Wilbraham talks with us about the democracy of textiles, the appeal of folk art, and the inspiration to be found in the natural world.
I’m not from a family of artists or any kind of artistic background at all, but I do have craft and trade tradition in carpentry. My father was a butcher, but never really wanted to be a butcher, I think - he would have preferred to be an engineer. He was always making things, and always helping me make things, which I loved from a very early age. I always just really loved art, and was always drawing or writing or doing something that was creative in that way. It was very apparent that my parents would have preferred me to do something a lot ‘safer’ in terms of income. Understandably, coming from a working-class background, going into art at that time was like, ‘Well, what is it? What do you do as an artist? How do you make a living?’ Still questions I ask myself quite regularly!
I did a foundation year locally in Shropshire where I’m from. From the foundation year, it was suggested to me that I might try to apply to Oxford, which at the time seemed quite appealing, and quite a different cultural experience from the one I’d had up until then. I applied to study fine arts at The Ruskin [School of Art], and I passed the exam, so I went there for three years.
I came out of Oxford and then went to The Slade [School of Fine Art] for two years to do my post-grad. That was the point at which I’d started to realise that making the choice between sculpture and painting was a bit of a false one. I didn’t really feel that I naturally wanted to be pigeonholed into being one or the other. I don’t describe myself as a painter or a sculptor, I describe myself as an artist.
During the mid-90s I started to decide that the things I was most interested in were things that come from what you might call a ‘folk art’ vernacular. I’d started to think about using materials that were a bit less 'fine art' as well, and I was especially drawn to using cardboard boxes - vegetable and fruit boxes. I used to go down to Deptford Market and Lewisham Market and pick up all this stuff, that had these incredible graphics and patterns and text on them. It was wonderful, and it felt like quite a vibrant, joyous thing. I would trail around cutting up cardboard boxes, stuff them into a trolley, come back to my studio and make these big great collages and massive constructions out of it all. They were very ballsy things to make and they were very much the antithesis of a lot of art that was around at the time. I certainly did well with it and I enjoyed making all of it. It felt like it was connecting me up, in a way, to the real world. My husband used to joke at the time that all my best friends were the bin men. I used to chat to them and have conversations with these people who probably normally never step foot inside a gallery. That felt to me to be very much part of the work.
I’m an enthusiast for things and when I find something I’m enthusiastic about I tend to get very involved and immersed in it. It’s like a love affair really, and it tends to have its course and come to its end. But while I’m working with a material, it’s that and nothing else. I felt that I’d reached that point with the cardboard work where I did a couple of big public commissions. I did one big project in a supermarket, which was ideal because a lot of the work was about this idea of the movement of food, goods and people. It wasn’t a very literal commentary; there were all of these ideas in it, but it was quite a joyous way of looking at this stuff, even though there were critical elements in it. It seemed to be the perfect public commission really, to be asked to do something in a big hypermarket. I did this small corner shop built entirely out of cardboard boxes, rolled into this huge hypermarket in Milton Keynes. We sort of sat it there for a week, and it attracted a lot of people - as it would. You don’t expect to see a cardboard shop-in-shop. It was a great thing to do. It was kind of the ultimate full stop. It was going out with a bang with regard to working with the cardboard. I really felt that after that piece there was nothing much more I could say with the material that felt additive. Unlike a lot of artists who feel like they’re onto something good and just keep banging it out, I decided to stop. So I did.
After this I moved to where I have my studio now, and also lost my father and uncle as well, in pretty close succession. I inherited some woodworking tools; I’d kind of known that back in the family there was woodworking and carpentry and cabinet-making. I’d moved to an area where I was living in a wood practically, and there seemed to be quite a lot of stuff out there that I could use. I’ve got a good relationship with the people who look after the trees in the Dulwich Estate, and I said 'would you mind if I just take some sycamore,' and they said 'take what you want and use it.' I thought to myself: I don’t know what it is but this sort of feels quite right. I’m not going to worry too much about not being trained in woodwork, I’m just going to build up a little workshop and buy myself some more tools. I bought a lot of stuff second-hand and it’s kind of gone from there. Really the watercolours came alongside that. I was cutting the wood at a time of the year where I could use it green and obviously I’d like to sit outside, but then the winter would come and I’d think, well, better go in. When I realised that the seasonal element of the work was linking up to other areas of my life, like having the allotment and growing a lot of my own food, I thought well it sort of makes sense that if I’m doing that, whilst I’m here, I can also see the changes in how insects appear throughout the year. So when I’d go to the allotment I’d sit outside and do half a dozen drawings of insects. Not making them as etymological studies or in a strict botanical sense; they’re impressions of things. They’re moments of insects, if you like. They’re as insects are, doing what insects do
Michael [Hill] bought a couple of watercolours in the past and has always been very supportive. I’ve also done some work with Drake’s in the past about sourcing hanks, as patterns and textiles are other things that I love, I’ve advised and done things on that basis. We were having a conversation about it one day and Michael said “I don’t know why we’re not using some of your drawings for the design for a hank.” We’d obviously talked a lot about the artist hanks and I thought it was such a lovely idea for artists to designs textiles. There’s a noble tradition of artists designing textiles. I’m very drawn to the period after the war where all sorts of people like Henry Moore were involved in textile design. It was partly a morale-boosting exercise, but it was also a way to reinvigorate industry and give artists an income. It’s a tradition that we collect as well. It’s wonderful to see how artists approach textile design in relation to their work. Not everybody could afford a Henry Moore, but somebody could afford to do something with the fabric in their house. I’m a great believer in it; I think it’s a democratising way of allowing people to access art.