Book Review: Susan Holmes, Fabric Artist, by Cerys Dallaway-Davidson, with Objectspace

Available now from bookshops nationwide.

cv_susan_holmes_fabric_artistFrom the outset, Susan Holmes emerges in this book as a woman of multiple and ever-evolving talents – a fabric painter, fashion designer, landscape and portrait artist, textile artist, crafter, tutor, teacher, improviser, art therapist, mentor, and wearable art designer. A mother, too.

From a young age, Susan explored and experimented with creative techniques, working with both new and recycled fabrics. She recalls making tiny dolls at age 6 or 7, using leaves and scraps of fabric and paper. Susan’s story is recounted in part in her own words, with verbatim accounts of key milestones and achievements.

Where other students may have used their Home Science degree to teach or follow a more traditional path, Susan took her new skills and knowledge in other directions. Her first partner, a poet, introduced her to the Dunedin art scene – to artists and painters, collectors, and exhibitors. Further study was followed by an OE, during which she developed a lifelong attraction to easily transportable textiles while travelling through Europe and Asia. Her luggage was crammed with richly woven, embroidered, dyed and printed fabrics.

Many of Susan’s first clothing sales were at craft markets alongside artisans who made and sold pottery, hand-crafted toys and furniture, weaving, jewellery and leatherwork. Feedback from early customers was a strong influence. Friendships and connections made between craftspeople and customers, and within the crafting community, provided encouragement and new opportunities. Susan’s subsequent move to a home within the Centrepoint community meant that she had a supportive environment to both live and work in. (The controversial history of Centrepoint is not addressed in this book, readers curious to learn more are steered towards other publications.) As the Centrepoint community assisted with childcare and household tasks, this allowed Susan time to both extend her own creative talents and share skills with other community members. She ran classes in dyeing and stencilling, as well as art therapy workshops.

Susan has received many awards – among them the Mohair Awards, Craft Dyers Awards, Wool Board Awards, and recognition as a finalist in the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards every year for over a decade. (Before New Zealand banned sponsorship by cigarette companies, Benson & Hedges funded a major fashion design event – with highly sought-after awards – for over 30 years.) Later, Susan’s success within the World of WearableArt® (WOW®) design competition provided excellent publicity and exposure, leading to significant commissions. Her first patron is described as a regular buyer and supporter: a ‘good bossy friend’ excited by Susan’s designs who continued to buy and order clothes.

With qualifications in design, fashion and museum studies, as well as experience gained working in the museum and arts sectors, author Cerys Dallaway-Davidson is well-placed to tell Susan’s story. The book not only covers many aspects of Susan’s personal and professional lives (which frequently overlapped), it also describes the social, cultural and political influences upon the New Zealand fashion industry over the past six decades or so. These include the impact of the 1987 stock market crash and deregulation of New Zealand’s financial markets.

This is a visually rich volume with numerous photos (some from Susan’s personal archives), as well as sketches from Susan’s notebooks – including working drawings of winning WOW® entries, sketches of birds and a charcoal sketch of a pensive James K. Baxter. In one photo, a radiant (former) Prime Minister Helen Clark models Susan’s Crest of the Wave WOW® entry in the South Pacific section, complete with a magnificent multi-textured blue turban. Many of Susan’s other WOW® entries also feature. A recent photo provides a glimpse of the interior of Susan’s home, walls adorned with artworks and carvings, her ongoing passion for interesting textiles also evident.

I always start with the fabric. I feel it and look at it and drape it about to see how it behaves. (p.111)

Photos can only hint at the way many of Susan’s garments move when worn, I suspect many of her creations would need to be seen in person to truly appreciate what she describes as the ‘complexity of the garment’. The book lists public collections where Susan’s work is on show. The images demonstrate how fashions have changed over the decades. Bat wing tops and a hand-knitted patchwork jacket feature alongside garments of hand-painted silk crepe de chine and tiered polyester chiffon, cocktail dresses, and cloaks. Hems go up, hems go down, colours burst and fade. Table mats, woven chairs, recycled baskets and parachute silk are all repurposed: Susan’s ‘experiments in colour, shape and movement’ are well-documented. Not all are successful and she is open about the technical difficulties she has sometimes faced.

A detailed bibliography references not only books and newspaper articles, but also blogs and websites, as well as clippings from Susan’s own collection. An index will help to direct readers searching for a particular garment, designer, or technique.

As noted in the foreword to the book, Susan Holmes continues to enrich and inspire makers, artists and designers. Ever adaptable, ever resourceful, she will undoubtedly carry on surprising us all.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Susan Holmes, Fabric Artist
by Cerys Dallaway-Davidson, with Objectspace
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869539351

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