Jette Clover, a well-known, award winning European fiber artist, has just won a major prize: Quilt Japan! Her edgy and contemporary work cites graffiti and urban landscapes. Clairan Ferrono interviewed her for this blog.
Ferrono: Have you always been an artist? What was your education? When did you begin to use fabric?
Clover: During my childhood I was always writing – stories, plays, diaries, letters (I had pen pals in several countries), and I would sometimes make illustrations, but I wasn’t encouraged to pursue my art making, since my drawings weren’t ‘nice’, not very realistic renderings – so I became a journalist and was quite happy with my writing life.
I saw my first (Amish) quilt in 1966 when visiting my husband’s hometown in Indiana. And later when we lived in California in the 1970’s, I was introduced to the monumental fiber art of Magdalena Abokanowizc, Jagoda Buic, Sheila Hicks and Leonore Tawney, and I started to spin, dye and weave. But I still felt that my drawing was inadequate, so I got a degree in art history. At my university the art history department was in the same building as the art department, and we were encouraged to take studio classes in painting, sculpture and printmaking, which made me more and more interested in surface design and fabric. After we moved back to Europe I got a job at the national Dutch Textile Museum, where I was able to combine my love of writing with art history and textile. However, after more than ten years of curating exhibitions I decided to leave my job in 1998. I had just organized the very first European Art Quilt exhibition in 1997, and I realized how much I was missing the making of art. The beginning of a European art quilt community gave me the extra push I needed to switch from making art part time to ‘finally’ becoming a full time artist.
I was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark, and after many years in the US and the Netherlands I now live in Antwerp, Belgium. I love living in the city; and, above all, I am drawn to the walls with their haphazard display of fragmented and ghostly lettering from tattered posters, faded advertisements, notes about missing pets and sprawling graffiti. These collages of partially eroded words and half hidden messages are a constant source of inspiration to me. Even though much of the text in the urban landscape is cryptic and illegible from exposure to the elements, it involves you in a form of social communication, and it makes me wonder about the traces we leave behind. I still feel a little like a journalist, but instead of chasing the daily news, I now primarily gather information and material from the street and at flea markets, looking for stories from the past – maybe more like an archeologist.
Ferrono: What or who are you inspired by?
Clover: Almost all of my work refers to writing – big letter forms in the streets as well as printed book pages, intimate handwritten letters and newspapers in languages I don’t understand. Because of my journalist background I have always been interested in writing: both the graphic forms and the ability of those forms to convey meaning.
I like simplicity and subtle colors. Being from Northern Europe I am very fond of misty, grey winter light. Having studied art history there are so many artists through the centuries that I admire. Currently I am very inspired by the 19th century Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi. He paints interior settings in very subtle colors of white, grey, black and brown. His paintings evoke a sense of contemplation and quiet serenity. Very little happens in his paintings, but you feel a great deal, when you are in front of them. A sense of closeness and intimacy and the magic effect of light keeping the world at large at a distance.
I am always striving to express ‘less is more’ – it is not always evident in my pieces, but I keep striving – and Hammershoi’s paintings help me remember.
Ferrono: How does your art reflect your philosophy, your aesthetic?
Making art to me is having a dialogue with materials, and found materials with holes and stains make me feel invited to participate in an exchange of mark making. We all know how initimidating it can be to start on a clean white piece of paper or fabric, and how liberating it can be if you have an accident and spill something. You no longer have to be perfect. Just a little spot – and you have something to relate to, something to respond to.I love surfaces with a history, things that are peeling, rusted, scratched, torn, stained, mended. . . .
I am influenced by the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, the idea of finding beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. I have always wanted to visit Japan, and I just got the Quilt Japan prize, so I’ll be traveling to Japan in 2016.
Ferrono: What techniques and methods do you use?
Clover: I construct my quilts like a collage with many layers of cotton, linen, cheese cloth and paper, which I paint, print, screen, rust and bleach. I am always working in series, and I always have at least one series of small pieces and one series of big pieces going. Working small is very freeing – it is definitely not as intimidating to work on a piece 6” x 6” as a 6’ x 6’ piece. My longest running series is my small portrait collages based on postage stamps of famous people. I started this series in 2001, and I just finished # 313, and I’ll keep making them as long as I find stamps of people that speak to me.
For my ‘White Wall’ series I print letters and text in black and then ‘erase’ them again by over-painting many times with white acrylic paint and sanding certain areas to reveal what is beneath the surface and thereby simulating the effects of time and the elements on the distressed walls. Afterwards I apply other pieces of text like a collage, mimicking the glueing of new posters on top of the old ones and the over-painting, the tagging of fresh graffiti over older statements. The original meaning of the words is less important than their ability to show how the imprints left by humans on the urban environment connects the past and the present.
My series ‘Words’ on the other hand deals with private communication through handwriting. Borrowing from the Japanese culture where white symbolizes sorrow, the white paint covering much of the (printed) handwriting in these pieces expresses my sadness about the disappearance of handwritten letters and penmanship.
Ferrono: What about the business side? Do you teach?
Clover: I teach workshops and master classes. I find teaching very inspiring. You are always alone in the studio, and teaching offers a stimulating exchange of thoughts and ideas.
Ferrono: Where do you see your work heading?
Clover: I continue to explore a very limited color range of white, grey and black with an accent of red or yellow. My pieces are becoming simpler. I am more and more interested in handwriting and hand stitching, so instead of printing text on fabric, I have started stitching text by hand, a much slower process, but a rhythm closer to the writing with pen on paper.