The power of objects: An interview with Ruth Singer

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Ruth Singer describes herself as an “explorer and investigator of objects, stories, places, materials and memories…fascinated by material culture, history and the power of objects in human lives and the importance of making and remembering.” Fragments are found, stitched into and embellished, creating new Precious Objects. In this interview, Ruth tells us about the influences behind her work, and where we can enjoy it…

How long have you been a maker and where are you based?

I’ve been a maker for 12 years now and I live in Leicester which is very conveniently in the middle of the country for all the travelling I do. I have a small studio in my house but dream of a countryside view rather than the house across the road!

Your background is in museums and you’re currently Artist in Residence at Leicester University Department of Genetics. Can you tell us a bit about how you use these experiences in your work?

I suppose my background working in museums is inseparable from my own practice as a maker. I am always drawn to old things and to telling stories about objects. My early work used historical textile techniques in contemporary ways and that research into how things are made has always been a significant part of the way I work. Residencies and projects are my preferred way of working – I get to focus on a particular theme in depth and create new work for each project which is distinct to what I have done before. For me this keeps my creativity fresh and I’m always excited by the possibilities of each research project I’m doing. I don’t get bored, basically!

Is there a particular experience, conversation or moment that has significantly influenced your professional practice?

In 2008 I was hit by the recession – I had been making high end textile wall panels with the aim of architectural and interior design clients and the market vanished. I took a year out and worked on a museum project again. It was great fun and interesting in many ways but I was desperate to get back into the studio. I decided then to concentrate on project work rather than retail and give myself the opportunity to explore lots of different sources of inspiration.

Tell us a bit about your Precious Objects collection. 

The collection has grown from some work I made in 2012 after the death of my lovely Grandad. He was a professional gardener for over 60 years and had a fine collection of old tools in his (many) sheds. I first used the shapes of his tools to embroider onto his handkerchiefs. I later decided to use the actual tools as artworks with embellishments and details added in textiles including one of his shirts. Since then I have been sourcing other tools which don’t have a personal connection to me so I can bear to part with them.

I always start with looking at and handling the hammer, saw or pliers for a while and pondering the story it has to tell. I like to use embellishments which create a contrast or add to the story. The bookbinder piece started with thinking about red leather and gilded books – a humble tool used to create very decorative effects. So I chose silk and gold threads and a precious stone bead to give this piece a real feeling of luxury.

Other pieces are more humble such as the pointing trowel, used to put cement between layers of brick. I have used natural hemp threads in a grassy, outdoors green to give a sense of practical and no-nonsense labour.

We’re looking forward to seeing you here in Bovey Tracey for the Contemporary Craft Festival next month. How are preparations going?

This is the first retail show I have done for a couple of years and the first time with these pieces themselves. I am having some new leaflets made up and am trying to decide which images to use on a new series of postcards. In the studio I have a pile of old tools and boxes to choose from – I can’t possibly make all the pieces I have planned but I am busy trying!

Are there any other places where people can see your work at the moment?

Right now I’ve got a piece from my Criminal Quilts series on display at the Unit Twelve Gallery in Staffordshire (pictured below), a small piece in an exhibition of miniature portraits in Little Selves at New Walk Museum, Leicester and my collaboration Interlace is showing a huge installation in ‘Made in the Middle’ currently at The National Centre for Craft & Design.

Obviously you’re very busy as the Craft Festival’s just a few weeks away, but we know that makers can’t just focus on one task…are you working on anything else at the moment? 

The new collection I am working on includes groups and collections of altered tools as well as single pieces. I am also trying out some more jewellery-style ideas including beading and some pieces which don’t actually include cloth or thread. There will also be some print-based work coming soon which has been really fun to develop.

Thank you Ruth for giving us such a fascinating, personal insight into your work. We’re really looking forward to seeing everything and all its beautiful detail next month at the Contemporary Craft Festival (9th-11th June).

See and buy Ruth’s Precious Objects here and her new collection will be arriving online with us soon.