Interview With . . . Rebecca Fisher
by Alyssa Laube
A Quick Autobiography
“Throughout my life I have been many things – a daughter, wife, mother, llama farmer, business owner, teacher and now student. And now, as a recent breast cancer survivor, I find the experience of mastectomy, chemo and radiation to be a catalyst to many life changes. Now I am enjoying, with renewed excitement and appreciation, the preciousness of life. Divorced and with a decidedly different external landscape, I find myself drawing on my creative side with much more intensity, truly believing in the power of healing through art. I am recent graduate Capilano University Textile Arts Program where I spent two blissful intense years honing the skills I have garnered over a lifetime. My current work involves explorations in millinery and accessories finding these small canvasses the perfect venue for my creative energies.”
When and how did you first get started in textiles?
I remember using my mother’s sewing machine when I was 5. I also remember taking my sister’s clothes and cutting them up to sew into Barbie clothes. I’ve been doing it since then.
Did you know you would want to do it as a profession?
My grandma came to Vancouver from London, England in 1905. She supported her family by sewing and selling smocked dresses out of her children’s clothing store on Robson. When I was 9, she taught me to smock. It was a very serious endeavor for her and she made me swear on a bible never to tell anyone how to do it ,as one day I would make my living smocking. When I had completed a baby dress, I went back to see her and she went over every stitch, folded the dress in her lap, and said, “It is saleable.” That was the hardest jury I have ever passed! I knew at that point that I had an aptitude for textiles and it was a natural progression.
What about working in the field do you like/dislike?
I love the alchemy of marking and colouring cloth – of taking something plain and giving it life. It’s a celebration of colour. I create these textiles with the intention that they will be worn and lived in. The only thing I really dislike is that there aren’t more hours in a day!
You use both natural and unnatural dyes. What is the reason for this, and how are they different?
I am by no means a purist as far as attachment to a specific technique goes. Having said that, I love each for their own unique vocabulary. The natural dyes only work on natural fibres and that brings a richness that is unrivalled by anything manmade. I love the smell of the silk and wool in a dye pot of onion skin tied with rose leaves and eucalyptus. The colour palette is soft and deep and reminiscent of an old secret garden hidden away for centuries. I also feel an attachment to the many generations of natural dyers and artists before me when I work in this medium, as if my hands are not the only ones placing and wrapping leaves and flowers against cloth. It’s like a collaboration with the earth and my ancestors.
The manmade dyes have a vibrancy and colourfastness not achievable with natural dyes. There is an immediacy in their usage that appeals to my magpie-like attention span. There is also an element of repeatability and reliability that is missing in natural dyes. The dyes that I use on the printed hosiery are polyester-specific and can only be used on manmade fibres. They are particularly successful on hosiery and poly satins, hence the development of the line of printed panty hose and scarves.
How did your family influence you as an artist?
As a child, I spent a great deal of time with my grandfather. He taught me about the colour wheel using tempura paints mixed by my mother on a wooden easel built by my father. I guess you could say that my artistic side was recognized and supported. I also spent a great deal of time in my grandparent’s antique store which may account for my obsession with textiles. I remember the thick velvets and laces and today, lace images still find their way into my work. My father was an amazing gardener and I think that influenced my colour sense as well as a love for the intricacies of different leaves and flowers. My great grandmother and great aunt lived on Lasquiti Island for many years and collected many books full of pressed flowers which were put into pictures and cards. I was always mesmerized by the delicate petals pressed flat – like I was looking into the secret domain of fairies – or something equally romantic. I still have a picture over my bed made by my great grandmother with pressed ferns and flowers. The aesthetic is quite similar to the imagery on my fern imprinted hose.
Do you have any training or are you self-taught?
I have spent a lifetime exploring textile arts and am a recent graduate of the Caplilano University Textile Arts Program – a wonderful program that was my gift to myself for surviving chemo therapy after breast cancer 5 years ago. This is currently the final term that this 40 year old program will be running – one of the many Arts cuts at Capilano University. It’s such a shame. This program offers students a skill base not found anywhere else.
I was born in Vancouver and have always lived in this area. the West coast imagery is part of my soul. There is never any shortage of inspiration. It can be found on short walk down the road to the river or just out in the backyard. The little fellow that was the model for my raccoon hat was a constant visitor last year. Always by himself, he would come in the evening and hang around in the backyard, watching us with great curiosity. The skunk hat also had a live model although not so cute. He sprayed the dog 4 times last year!
Considering the exaggeration of natural elements in your work, how does living in B.C. affect you?
Nature has both a fragility and a great strength. It has beauty that is constant and changing. I am always collecting rocks and twigs and leaves whose designs speak to me. My china cabinet is full of skulls collected from under a bald eagles nest. They sit perched on my grandmothers china. Both aesthetics equally precious to me.
Why do you feel drawn to nature?
I don’t know that it was ever a conscious idea or decision. You doodle and draw and paint and slop dye around – Some things appeal and some don’t. I very rarely have something turn out the same as the idea had when I began. Designs morph as you go. I have a very free-flow style of working that follows through the rest of my life as well. Sometimes I think it would be easier to approach things in an organized and structured fashion, but I have come to realize that you can’t fight your brain.
How do you like to use color in your clothing?
I love colour. It’s all about mood. Sometimes it’s playful with bright colours and other times more subdued and calming. Each day is a new day.
You make both accessories and garments. Which do you prefer, and how are they different?
I probably make more accessories than garments. They are a smaller canvas and I can experiment and work out different ideas. If that experimentation is successful, then it often progresses to a garment.
How long does it take you to complete one piece, usually?
I don’t really work with things one at a time, so it’s hard to say. If I am doing hats, I’m washing fleece and as it dries I am carding other fleece and felting blanks. While they are drying on hat blocks I am needle-felting the features on other ones. It’s like an assembly line – a skill I developed through years of hairdressing. The panty hose are the same kind of thing. I am painting the designs on paper, while its drying I am collecting and preparing the ferns and leaves, then laying them out in stacks and heat setting them. I do tend to do things in runs. If I am making scarves then its a scarf day or a felting day or a flower day, mostly because each thing requires a different set of equipment and I have a small space to work in.
When you are picking which objects to incorporate into the cloths, what do you look for?
Sometimes on a walk I will discover plants with interesting shapes or in the thrift store i’ll come across some really tacky doily with a lot of texture that is perfect. I feel like mostly, the things find me. Like the other day, I took the dog to the off-leash dog park and he shot off after a duck with me chasing after him. During that little adventure, I discovered the ferns that were growing from the trees – slightly softer and smaller than the ones I had been using. I was curious to see if they would work and how they would translate on to cloth. I loved them so I plan to go back later this week and pick some more.I am always careful to pick gently and not take too much, especially with things like lichens.
Explain the process of making those objects a part of the fabric. Is it difficult?
Sometimes I will paint the actual leaves, others I will make silk screens of the leaf images and screen the dye on. Sometimes I draw the images by hand, or a combination of all 3. It’s not any more difficult than another technique but it does require a fairly in-depth understanding of how the dye works and some specialized equipment.
How did you learn to do it?
I learned my basic skills at the Textile Arts Program at Cap U and have actually just completed a directed study to develop this technique. I wanted to take advantage of the last term the program is running to further my experimentation.
Where do you find your materials?
With the leaf imprinting, any time I leave the house I usually find something. My pockets are always full of leaves and twigs and seeds. The hats I buy use local specialty fleeces and I process them myself. The fabrics are often rescued or vintage.
Do you ever work with others professionally, or do you prefer to work alone?
I love collaborations and I love creating in solitude. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone of a similar mindset around to assure you that you are not crazy and to bounce ideas off of.
What is your favorite piece to make?
Every piece I make is my favourite piece in that moment. Although I have to say I am really enjoying the panty hose currently.
Which fabrics do you use for each garment? How do you treat each one differently?
Each fibre and fabric type – wool, cellulose, and polyesters – all require different dyes and treatments. I use wools for hats, scarves and shawls which may also incorporate pieces of silks or polyester.
How do you experiment?
Everything I make is an experiment. I am a messy artist, not by intention. It’s just that when I am working, I am oblivious to the rest of the universe.
How do you get such original ideas? Do you have any ways to encourage yourself creatively?
I think it is important to spend time with other creative types to keep the energy up. It’s also important to give myself time to create; turning off the phone and working undisturbed even if its just to mix dyes and sweep the floor or unroll fabric. I try to do my initial experiments without attachment to the outcome. I fine tune an idea before committing it to a 500 dollar piece of cloth. Sometimes doing something in a completely foreign medium is a great creative boost.
Do you have any other jobs or hobbies?
I foster high risk youth in the other part of my life. I like to garden and I like to cook.
How does your personal life affect your professional life?
I think the high stress level from my job fuels the need for creative expression. They kind of feed off of each other. Over the last 2 decades I have managed to keep a fairly symbiotic relationship between the 2 sides of my life.
What are you hoping for at this year’s Art World Expo?
I am really looking forward to this expo and am excited to be involved in such a creative venture. I am hoping that my textiles will be well received and I look forward to making many creative contacts. Did I mention that I was excited?