FROM HER studio in Tuam, the artist Kathy Ross is reaching the world. Her textile work, depicting animals and the natural world, has led to her becoming a brand ambassador; a commissioned portrait artist; and rising name in arts and crafts.
In spite of Covid-19, Lockdown, the continuing restrictions; and how they have affected, and continue to impact on the arts and cultural life, Kathy is among the few who has been able to thrive during a most challenging time.
Initially though, it did not look that way. “My biggest loss was my classes which I teach five days a week,” Kathy tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. “I was due to give a number of workshops and talks throughout the country over the summer, and I was to have a solo show in May in connection with Galway 2020 and Project Baa Baa. I had spent months researching heritage breed sheep and talking to farmers about the different breeds, and the pieces had been completed when Lockdown was announced. The exhibition has been postponed until October.”
‘A huge kudos for any textile artist’
Far from being stalled, Kathy got creative, and with her children created a series of YouTube videos. “It was ‘How to draw this, how to sketch that’, like Don Conroy back in the 1980s, it got subscribers and went well, and we did that up to the summer.”
As summer arrived, so did a series of good news for Kathy and her art. In mid-June, Aurifil, the world renowned thread manufacturer based in Milan, selected Kathy as one of it’s Aurifil Artisans - for the second year running.
Every year, the company hosts a worldwide open call to makers, quilters, and artists to apply for the programme, which offers artists a global platform to showcase their work, as well providing support to the artists as well.
'Making the portrait of Kirstie Alssop was very challenging. It’s now hanging in the Janome HQ. I know Kirstie saw it, there’s a photograph of her with it'
“It's a huge kudos for any textile artist,” says Kathy, “and so amazing to be able to bring Irish textile art into focus on a global platform. They’re a huge company in the US as well, and run online classes with thousands of followers. Every year they put out an open call, it’s literally a competition, and you have to write to say why you should be accepted.
“Since being accepted, they’ve sent me all the threads I’ll need to use for a year and a series of monthly challenges for 2021, and then look at how do you use your threads; which are your favourites; using types of thread you’ve never used before; create a 3D piece. They’re about challenging and pushing you, and it’s good to be pushed in the materials you use and how you use them.”
Kathy is also a brand ambassador for Sewing machine manufacture Janome, and it came via an unorthodox subject for textile art - portraiture.
“My daughter is a great admirer of Greta Thunberg, so at home she closely monitors our plastic intake, and such. I made a portrait of Greta for her. I also posted it online, Janome saw it and loved it as well, especially as portraits are not seen very often in this medium.”
Janome also sponsors the Handmade Festival, probably the largest such festival in Britain. Its ambassador is Channel 4 presenter and arts and crafts champion Kirstie Alssop, who was also instrumental in the festival’s founding. Janome asked Kathy to make a portrait of her.
'I find myself turning more towards animals that are extinct or in danger of extinction'
“It was very challenging,” says Kathy. “With a portrait painting, you can blend the paints you use to create the skin texture, but thread has a different feel, you can’t allow the final piece to look furry. You have to use individual threads, and it can take up to 15 different threads just for one cheek, but I loved the challenge of it. It was displayed at last year’s Handmade Festival, and it’s now hanging in the Janome HQ. I know Kirstie saw it, there’s a photograph of her with it, but I don't know what she thought of it.”
To the waters and the wild
In talking about her art and practice, Kathy finds herself welcoming a challenge. It was how she got into textile art originally. “It was three or four years ago,” she says. “I had an exhibition of watercolours of old farmhouses, but at the end I felt it was very two-dimentional, very flat. I wasn’t 100 per cent happy with it, so I decided to experiment.
“I looked through some old sketchbooks from my teens, just before I started art college, and I found a hand embroidered piece with which I’d won a competition. So I got myself a sewing machine and watched some online videos, and the first thing I did was a series of nighttime skylines of Galway. Living by the sea, the sky produces some beautiful colours as the sun goes down and thread lends itself really well to capturing that. From there textile art and sewing has grown into a serious addiction.”
Kathy describes wildlife and nature as her chief inspirations, and animals have been dominating the work she has produced throughout the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Where we live in Tuam we can see foxes and badgers and pine martens around the garden,” she says. “I love animals and they are a big part of my inspiration. When Lockdown came in I started making smaller pieces, and I had the idea of ‘the view from the window’, so I started crafting these colourful pieces of bees, butterflies, things that you would see in your garden, and then expanding to dragonflies and flamingos. I posted them online and the reaction was great. There was also a huge demand for them and I was able to sell then to the UK and Europe.”
'There is a rise in interest in this kind of art and a growing acceptance of it as an art form. There is a global audience for it'
Since the end of the Lockdown, Kathy has returned to creating much larger pieces, and her most recently completed works are of a stag and a grey wolf. “The grey wolf went extinct in Ireland in the 1760s and I find myself turning more towards animals that are extinct or in danger of extinction,” she says. “To create such a piece, the needle is so small you can get the fibres to look very realistic.”
The stag piece is one metre by one metre, and marks one of Kathy’s largest works. “I wanted to see how big I could go, and I was drained by the end of it,” she says. “I made it for the Festival of Quilts competition in Britain which is online this year.”
With demand for her work high, Kathy reflects on the importance of social media for her work. “I’m in my studio in Tuam, but I’m in contact with people all the time,” she says. “I get emails and questions and comments. Every piece I make I put on my social media and also show the process from beginning to completion. There is a rise in interest in this kind of art and a growing acceptance of it as an art form. There is a global audience for it and if you can tap into that, you can make things happen.”