Upcoming Exhibition – Zillah Bell in Thirsk

I am busy stitching and stretching canvases at the moment, trying to get this collection of urban wanderings finished in time for the delivery deadline! The exhibition starts on 9th June and I’ll be giving a talk about my work on Sat 16th June. See the Zillah Bell website for details

In the studio

The stitching is the final phase of preparation. Next step, stretching them on their frames

This big old industrial embroidery machine is ridiculously noisy. So I look forward to the quieter moments of canvas stretching…


I’ve got a collection of stitched canvas prints for this exhibition which range from urban allotments to 19th century derelict docklands! Below is a taster of some of the pieces that will be on show.


North Warehouse


The images above are the digital image which is then printed onto a textile canvas, usually either white cotton canvas or linen. Below are details of them as they are stitched.

stitch deatil 2

stitch detail 1


Make Unmake Remake

An On-site Installation at Sunnybank Mills

I’ve been based at Sunnybank Mills now for around 4 years and in that time I have documented the gradual deterioration of its derelict spaces whilst watching other areas of the site become transformed through renovation and conversion into new uses. The contrast between the two types of spaces is becoming more stark with time and the ultimate demise of two of the main areas, The Weaving Shed and the Finishing Room is now on the horizon. September’s Heritage Open Day was the last one to include these buildings, next September they will be gone.

The Scouring Shed

The Scouring Shed – due for demolition this summer

We can get sentimental about our Industrial Heritage, but for many chancing upon these spaces, if left to neglect, would soon be seen as blights on the area and unwelcome “eyesores” as they most certainly do not fit into your standard historic ruin category. This Mill complex sits right at the centre of the Farsley community. At its height it was the chief employer for this small town. But times change, the world moves on…

As a human species on this planet, we don’t just exist in our environment, we mould it, re-form it and make it. We construct buildings to inhabit and shelter us and create cities and machines, to serve our needs both physically and socially. Most would accept that it is part of the human condition to make things for our comfort and pleasure. We are natural creatives. But what we make we also discard. We progress so fast that the things around us quickly become obsolescent, from whole industries, which either disappear altogether or get shifted to other countries, to day to day objects, which simply go out of fashion or become “superseded” by the next new thing. The first I-phone was released in 2007. We are now around 8 models later and the first is not only obsolete but is not supported by todays software technology so even if it still works, it can’t access much of the media that is now out there.

So the flip side to our huge creative brain is the trail of cast offs we leave in our wake. We live in a mass consumerist and throw away society and whilst we all talk of sustainability and the need to re-cycle, very little of our everyday life actually engages with this. As super creative beings we should be directing all our creative endeavours into this aspect of the human condition.

We have programmes on tv that explore re-cycling “old junk”. Upcycling is a great new trend as is Vintage where second-hand becomes high fashion. We value our old ruins as a nostalgic relic of the past and that un-making process (or is it a re-making?) of decay has been a sport of the Romantic Movement in one form or another, for centuries. Today “Urban Explorers” break into derelict spaces and post up great photos of nostalgic presence. But ultimately they are documenting the cast offs.

In my time at Sunnybank Mills, much of this has pre-occupied me. I have looked at the decaying structures and was initially pre-occupied with documenting and re-portraying it, in a not dissimilar way to the “Urban Explorer”.  But as I have spent more time in these areas, I have thought more about what that word decay actually means. Through the human eye it is viewed from a solely human perspective. That is, what use is something unless it benefits us? This is something that always strikes me about us as a species. We have a very binary way of looking at things.

But that “decaying”process is merely a transformation into something else. It might not be into anything we see as purposeful but in a universal sense it is a dynamic change. The term “entropy” is a difficult one to grasp (I’ve been looking at this for years and still don’t quite get it!) but it is a physics term which relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. My personal interpretation of this is that it is in the nature of our system, that the molecular structures that make up an object, are in a constant state of flux as they endeavour to form their simplest state and as such everything is continuously changing . We view this as ageing or decay but from an abstract viewpoint it is simply change. It is a constant state of re-making and un-making.

Play space

From derelict weaving shed to graffiti gallery

Pushing aside all those thoughts of mortality, which inevitably pop up, (the human binary perspective again) if you look at this in a creative way then the opportunities are endless and there is some real fun to be had playing with this idea!! The weaving shed becomes an adventure playground and the graffiti gallery is seen as a typical transition for this space…..but it is creative, expressive and transforming.

My own explorations were concerned with a more tentative investigation of both the perception and physical re-making of the space and some of its contents. In my last exhibition I started to explore some of the objects, making casts to see how they might be re-viewed. These I have since brought back into the derelict Weaving Shed where their originals came from.


Castings of the loom parts re-introduced back into the derelict Weaving Shed.

This made me think of the originals and how they might be re-made and reimagined into something which might re-contextualise the objects and their original purpose (now obsolete) With permission from the owners, I collected a number of these old machine parts and had them re-coated in a range of bright colours.


Powder coated machine parts from an old Loom

They became instantly toy like and had a lovely tactile quality which made them so accessible to play with. Arranging and displaying them became a major pre-occupation – like building with meccano! I sat and made a series of gouache paintings based on them, just because the shapes took on a whole new interest for me.


Gouache paintings based on the machine parts

All of this was happening in my studio, somewhat distant to the space they came from.

Regular re-visits to the Weaving Shed were mainly concerned with recording what I saw, either through photography or drawing and then playing with this imagery (as above) and I had resisted interactivity in the space as I felt this might change or interfere with the nature of that space. However over one of the summer’s a series of “graffiti events” made me re-think this. Additionally, collecting the machine parts and re-making them, enabled a different kind of engagement with the objects and by inference the space as well. These spaces aren’t just there to be derelict they are spaces in transition and as such anything goes really. This was very liberating and I started to think of it as a sort of adventure playground, viewing the place in a very different way.

The loom was my first choice of interactivity. I suppose as this was an object within the weaving shed rather than the space itself, it didn’t seem quite as intrusive (why do I use this word?)

Loom wrap

Wrapping the loom in cotton muslin

This gave me time in the shed to be occupied doing something and thus spending more time in the space itself. It is very quiet in there! There is no industrial activity and noise, which would have been deafening when all the looms were at full tilt. There is now the occasional flutter of a pigeon and odd creaks….but otherwise silence. Wrapping the loom might seem an odd way to engage but it was slow and methodical …and careful and enabled me to engage with both machine and space in a more contemplative way. It also made me consider the space as something which was still dynamic and changing. I decided to bring the work which had been inspired by the space, back into the space so that the two, the subject and product could be introduced to one another!


Completed textile re-hung in the Weaving Shed



The embroidered textiles are printed with care, meticulously stitched and pressed and kept clean and crisp….the antithesis of the space within which they sit. And yet the two sparked off a conversation with each other and I hope encourage the viewer to engage with the space in a more enquiring way.


The Loom with its partner piece


The gouache paintings made wallpaper backings to the shelving which housed the machine parts.

Both cast objects and the re-coated machine parts were brought back into the space from which they came and were used to re-dress the old shelving they had come from. My painted compositions based on those machine parts were also used to “dress up” the shelves. I wanted people to see this stuff as something which had exciting potential….and to re-contextualise it all, away from its original purpose.




I called the temporary exhibition/installation, Make  Unmake  Remake.

Material Evidence Exhibition 24th October – 29th November

So, my exhibition was finally looming which is always a great motivator to get things done.


In fact there was a high level of panic (as always) which did produce results but, on reflection, I would now do it all very differently.
Ironically, having now completed my residency I feel all the ideas are suddenly rushing in and there are many things I have left undone which, without the deadline, I can ponder and complete at my own pace. So I will keep this blog open for the time being with space to add new stuff as it emerges. “Stuff” in this instance is not slang but a generative term to cover a range of outputs!
The exhibition was a joint venture of four of us, all producing work in response to the Mill and Mill Archive. Between us we produced very diverse, and personal responses to the site and whilst most of them were textile based, this is where the similarity ended. Setting up the exhibition therefore commanded a joint and co-ordinated approach of co-operation to produce a cohesive curated whole. This took longer than we thought but was worth the effort and I feel the overall result was a space which drew the viewer in and encouraged exploration rather than simple viewing. This was backed up by feedback from the gallery staff who reported that visitors were staying much longer to look at the work.
Despite reservations about my own work, I have to say that the overall exhibition was a delight to see and one of the best I have been lucky enough to be involved with. Thank you everyone!
Below are a few photos of the exhibition and my work. I hope you enjoy viewing them.



Robot Wallpaper Great fun to make and reminds me of 1970’s kids wallpapers….or maybe some sort of futuristic tartan!!


Objects of Desire



Casts made from some of the many objects found in and around the Mill.

Looms in the weaving shed have been great inspiration for colour as well as form.

Loom 1aa


The Finishing Shed – to be demolished shortly. Nothing lasts forever….


Barrows – one of the stitched pieces for the exhibition



Random Composition – Digital print on cotton canvas with additional infill embroidery. Textile Mill, Textile Response!




Colour is a major preoccupation for me so I’ve been using my photography to focus on areas of colour around the Mill that might inform a palette that I want to work with. When I usually work out colour, its quite an organic, intuitive process and whilst this is still an important part of the way I work, I thought a more systematic colour investigation could make for an interesting experiment to see if there are any common colour relationships throughout the mill spaces. And there are…..

Door from the Old Woollen





There are blue and orange complimentaries everywhere throughout the mill and in particular with the industrial blue painted on the walls. There is also the engineered green of the machines and then so much rust, but this is tempered by small elements of pink. The deep oily blue-blacks are really striking and I really want to use this as an anchor point for my colours.

So many Objects……..

DSC_0034      DSC_0018

Walking through the derelict Mill buildings, I have come across so many strange objects which I tend to see as remnant sculptures, left behind as the industrial function departed. I don’t have the technical knowledge or language to name these objects for their function, and so, to me they become the contents of some big industrial cabinet of curiosites, and I have to resist the temptation to collect them for my own personal cabinet! These objects had purpose and utility but divested of their function and “abstracted from any practical context they take on a strictly subjective status” (Cultures of Collecting, Elsner and Cardinal (Eds) 1997), so I have have been deliberately trying to avoid naming them in order to analyse them purely for their shape, colour, texture …..and even smell!!

Some of these objects could easily be identified as tools of some sort, but others are far more weird, wonderful and positively Heath Robinson..esque! Some people viewing this blog may well be able to identify the contraption below…please do not contact me with a name or description of its purpose.  I suspect my imagined purpose is far more outlandish than the reality and I want to keep it that way!

DSC_0203Untitled-1A lot of my work revolves around documenting through photography (though I am not a photographer!) and I now have a huge collection of photographs from around the Mill complex. I will be using these to develop some of my pieces for the exhibition in October but I have also found many of these objects quite intriguing, and simple recording them is not quite enough.

So, I have been borrowing a few from site and have taken casts of them to make new objects. So far I have only made three casts and this process is new to me so I am on a bit of a learning curve. But it has thrown up some interesting questions (well for me anyway!) which are about …..well you will have to judge for yourself if you come to see the exhibition. But in the meantime here are a few examples of my experiments so far….

cast 5

cast 6 cast 3

Place and space – Some early thoughts on Sunnybank

I first visited the Mill complex in 2013 when it was already obsolete and filled with many derelict spaces. I came to the Mill with no preconceptions of the place as I have no historical affinity to it, at least not in a direct way. However, as someone living in Yorkshire, I do have a sense of the textile history of the area, especially as the landscape is strewn with its industrial remains, regularly referred to as those “dark satanic mills”, a phrase re-attributed from William Blake’s classic poem ‘Jerusalem’ and now seen as synonymous with our Industrial heritage. This aspect of our social and industrial history creates an ingrained  preconception, which can automatically feed into and “inform” or “influence” our view, on a superficial level, of the remaindered spaces of places such as Sunnybank Mills.

Early Morning, West Hartlepool 1963, by Don McCullin

Early Morning, West Hartlepool 1963,  by Don McCullin

So it is not quite true to say that I came with no preconceptions, and my impression first and foremost was of an industrial ruin. During my residency so far I have attempted to throw off some of this baggage. I have specifically tried to avoid the social history of the site and it’s still strong community connections as I want my response to be a material reaction to the spaces and objects in and around the site as it is now. That is, a space in transition, no longer serving its original purpose and seeking a new one, though still inextricably tied to its industrial identity. Obviously what I am writing here is full of contradictions because, of course I cannot simply ignore the history of this place, and it will almost certainly inform what I see. But I do want to try to avoid the creep of nostalgia and any references to the word “heritage”!

Perhaps part of the attraction of this derelict space (and others) is the perception of it as a sort of un-curated museum. Here there are just the spaces, with no directions or labels to guide your way and nothing to create a “context” for you. The Mill as it stands now could be seen as a rootless set of spaces, disrupted and without direction. The objects within are losing their original meaning and purpose and are rapidly becoming pieces of fragmented clutter.

floor emphemera

Somewhere like Sunnybank Mill has many histories and indeed it’s transitory position today is part of that. So a visitor to the site now has the ability to construct their own stories. Those who see it, walk though it, curate their own visit dependent on their personal history, and in its current condition, it is great fuel for the imagination!

boiler room

Still Life?

Still Life?