There’s something about Palo Alto, California.
With all due respect to Stanford University there, what really distinguishes that Silicon Valley suburb are the things that go on in the garages, sheds, and workshops behind all those terribly genteel homes. Think Bill and Dave who famously started the company (in a Palo Alto garage) that would become Hewlett and Packard. Think Facebook. Think Ealish Wilson.
Ealish Wilson’s seductive sculptural textiles are the perfect combination of traditional craft, unlikely materials, digital technology and design. Trained in the UK and in Japan, her work’s been shown around the world and her commissions have appeared in numerous places, from chapels to ocean terminals (and once, on a bride).
The work’s dramatic and hidden, lush and minimalist. The drama comes from her extensive, painstaking, almost obsessive smocking which gives her textiles that lush quality and sculptural dimension, and the unexpected ways in which she uses the utilitarian plastic cable (or zip) tie, often dyed with an ombre effect.
And the subtlety comes from the fabrics she’s designed and which form the basis of much of her work: fabrics digitally printed with manipulations of photos she’s taken during her global adventures. You have to look closely to see what they’re about: hidden stories, mysteries and secrets. Smocking that’s almost sexy? Yes.
Now this is all well and good, but there was something else that kept pulling me back to her work. It took a while to figure it out: and then it hit me. The world of textiles is something I associate with big ideas but a calm spirit: it feels contemplative, quiet, calm. What I felt in Ealish’s work was the verve and spirit coursing through it, its joyfulness, its vivacity, even a refined sort of boisterousness.
And like her friend Klari Reis, it turns out that the joy and creative exuberance I saw in her work was a direct reflection of the personality of Isle of Man-born Ealish (pronounced Ay-lish.) She’s a helluva lot of fun.
Her studio, in one of those workshops you can easily imagine 1950‘s Suburban Man disappearing into for long afternoons, is nestled into her back garden. The studio’s a direct reflection of Ealish’s personality: playful, inventive, engaged, curious, warm. (Bonus: next door to her studio is her husband’s brewing operation. A pub sign – Porter’s Lodge – hangs outside. Porter, the chocolate (porter) lab, trots around our feet happily.)
However, 1950‘s Suburban Man would not recognize what she’s done with her studio. The antithesis of a man-cave, it’s a playground for anyone creatively oriented (particularly if you’re even remotely interested in textiles).
A dress form in the corner is swathed in a luscious expanse of faded hyacinth rip stop nylon, meticulously smocked with those ombreed plastic zip ties. In a couple of large cabinets against the wall: stacks of gorgeous fabric. On her work surfaces: yards of digitally printed fabric she’s designed.
Tearing myself away from all the toys and eye candy (extraordinarily hard), we sat down on the corner sofa and had a cuppa and a chat.
I must say, I’ve never met anyone from the Isle of Man. What’s it like? It’s wonderful, and where my family is. It’s a place that’s steeped in history from the Vikings onwards. We have the oldest continuous parliament in the world, did you know? (No, I didn’t.) We’ve had one since 979: it’s called the Tynwald. We’re proud of that. The Isle of Man is also independent. While it’s a (British) crown protectorate, all our domestic affairs are our own. But mostly, for me it’s the place where I was able to do things that I really loved all the time: drama, music, art, etc.
I take it Ealish is a Manx name. Yes, it’s specific to Manx Gaelic. It means noble and is actually the Manx version of Alice.
But you traveled a lot as a kid, though. I did. I was born in the Isle of Man, but I grew up in Germany until I was 10, then I moved back. My dad worked abroad, though, so we traveled a great deal and I was exposed to a variety of cultures.
What was the best? One of the most profound experiences was going to Oman when I was 12. I was struck by the color of clothing. There is migration from Africa, and of course the women had gorgeous robes and headdresses. There was all this color – colors I never had seen before particularly for clothing. I was also struck by the different forms of architecture; very opulent palaces to simple bright doors. Architecture: that’s always fascinated and inspires me for large scale work. I still look at architecture for ideas of proportion and find it an invaluable source of inspiration.
So how did you start making: was it always about fabric and sewing? I supposed I started because of my mum: we always made things, clothes, curtains, I was always creating or painting something. In high school I did a lot of costume design and spent most of my time in the art room. That’s what I did all the time: anything that had me using my hands.
When did you start to realize that this was a calling, not just a hobby? I think when I went to university, at University of Chester (UK). I went to do art and history and I was fortunate enough to meet Maxine Bristow, who is the textile tutor at Chester. I loved working with fabric but she made me realize that I didn’t have to make functional things. That was quite an eye opener, because I’d come from such a traditional textile background. Maxine made me question the application of textiles and that it’s more than curtains.
I ended up doing a Masters of Design at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh (it used to be the Scottish College of Textiles) where I did screen printing and fell in love with designing through the computer and photography.
But at some point you went to Japan. There’s so much Japanese influence in your work. I went to Japan in 2003 on a 3 month residency. I lived and worked in Kyoto with Michiko Kawarabayashi, an amazing textile artist. I didn’t speak Japanese and she didn’t speak much English, so it was a full cultural immersion. Our communication was primarily visual, which was a unique experience, very intense, but extremely personal.
My experiences in Japan changed my life in terms of how I view my practice and my daily living. In Michiko’s house it’s about the every day, she taught me to see the art in the every day; eat from your beautiful dishes don’t save them, use all of your home. It was such a pleasure to use beautifully-made things every day. Many of them were made by Michiko’s friends. The greatest lesson for me was about art practice; it’s a life -long journey. That’s how I became obsessed with smocking: people taking the time to do things consciously and with care, doing them repetitively, like meditation.
That’s one of the many things I adore about Japan: people take the time to do things in all sorts of ways; wrapping a book you have bought, creating a kimono, preparing a meal. There is something about that diligence which heightens your senses.
How did the smocking come to be a major part of your work? I visited the Prada building in Tokyo and I wanted to recreate the undulations in the glass and on my return to Kyoto I started to investigate different ways to manipulate fabric and so my smocking obsession began!
Then I came here to the States and I couldn’t work so I started doing smockathons of massive amounts of fabric for my creative outlet. It did save me in terms of not going crazy!
And then there are those ties. How’d you start using them? In Japan I’d always been using mizuhiki. I figured that since I’m now in the Silicon Valley I might as well use those cable ties. I love that I can dye them. I buy them at Fry’s.
So you’ve talked about many of your influences and inspirations: travel, architecture, travel, your time in Japan. Anything else? Fashion and historical clothing are influential in my work, particularly the details, pleats, buttons, collars.
I’ve been looking a lot more at fashion recently, and looking back at older fashion (especially from the 1930s). For me it’s related to architecture, and architecture is the thing that really inspires me. The DeYoung has such an incredible facade; I have a fabric I have been working on inspired by it. The angular nature of the Transamerica building, and the Hoover Tower make for lovely repeats. I also love the detail on San Francisco buildings: I have a continuing photographic collection of moldings.
What next? Well maybe it’s the Silicon Valley water, but I have been doing some entrepreneurial ventures. I wanted a platform for textiles so I’ve created a line of cushions. And I’m working with a friend to create a line of pattern kits: kits that have pattern and my fabrics, so all you have to do is to sit down and sew (genius). And I really enjoy doing large scale projects we shall see!
What do you do for fun? I sing in the Stanford Chorus, walk Porter, cook for friends, but my work is part of that too.
Who’d play you in the movies? Oh, because she’s always timeless and elegant, Katherine Hepburn.
And what five things define you?
- Being from the Isle of Man
- Jewelry from the Middle east. I adore it.
- And shoes. I adore shoes. I’d love to design shoes with my own fabrics.
What do you listen to as you work? A variety of music but mainly to BBC Radio 4: I enjoy the plays and books. One of my favorites is the Shipping Forecast. the reading of the place names is poetic. I love it because they always mention the Isle of Man and that gives me a daily reminder of home.