Imogen is a Birmingham based artist who creates portraits using nail and thread. She graduated from Kingston University in Fine Art in 2013, and after taking a few years out to focus on youth work, has recently returned to exploring her art practice. She’s influenced by the traditional craft of hand-embroidery but her style of work puts a contemporary spin on threadwork. Her method of making consists of wrapping thread around nails which pinpoint the contours of the face to build up a mesh-like form made up of triangles. Imogen builds up layers and layers of these triangles to detail the subjects’ features and create depth to the image.
What is a thread artist? And what was the journey that led you to this particular expression?
I haven’t really heard the ‘thread artist’ term being used by many people. When starting out I made embroidery – which is the process of wrapping thread through another material to create form. However, my work has moved on from this technique, and while I still use thread, I don’t wrap it through another material. I wrap it around nails. So it doesn’t really classify as embroidery anymore, so instead I came up with thread artist. I use thread like a painter uses paint, or an illustrator uses pencil or pens – thread is my main medium of choice and it is how I create my work.
Can you describe the process from initial idea to final piece?
So from the very start I project an image onto paper, I trace that image and then tape that piece of paper to plywood. I then use a nail and hammer to tap small dots into the paper, and those small dots, when the paper is removed, appear on the plywood board behind. I use those dots as ‘pin points’ (excuse the pun) and then I hammer nails into all of those points. Once I’ve finished this I then wrap thread around the nails to build up my image.
How long does it take to make a piece? And when making are you hyper-focused or can your mind drift once you’ve mapped out the design?
It all depends on the size of a piece. A 40x40cm piece can take me between 8 – 16 hours depending the detail of the image. Landscapes take me the longest period of time because they are sooo detailed. Portraits of faces and dogs take me less time. I recently made a 17 x 2m public commission of a set of eyes for Art Quarter, in Digbeth, and this took me just over 50 hours.
How many nails do you think you use a week?
Ooh it’s really difficult to say! When I have a week full of commissions I’d say I get through 1.5 kg of nails. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but the nails I use a light as a feather! (The head of the nail is 1mm and the length is 20mm.)
I’m guessing there’s the possibility of disaster striking whilst you’re making. Are there any horror stories?
If I make a mistake it is always fixable – that’s what I tell myself. Fixing does take a while – I have to take out the nails, fill the holes, sand the filler down and paint over. But mistakes do happen, I haven’t had anything horrific happen yet though!
Is there a piece of work that you’re particularly fond of? Maybe because of the recipient’s reaction, the doors it unlocked for you or that exemplifies your work.
I credit the main piece I made at my solo exhibition in Digbeth Art Space in September 2019. It’s an image of Edie Sedgwick looking up and is sized 2.3 x 2.7 metres – it’s very impactful and really draws people’s eyes in. That piece kind of catapulted me into gaining more recognition and it is also why I mainly work with nail and thread now. It’s still available to view in the Zellig Building, Digbeth.
You’re about to launch another round of ‘affordable art’. Can you tell me more about the why and how?
Yeah so I feel I’ve really built an online community, and not everyone wants to pay £100’s for an artwork (which is how much my hand threaded commissions cost.) So I thought of creating art that is tailored to more audiences. I have made prints and illustrations based on my hand threaded portraits. I recently launched it and it was really successful. I’m thinking of continuing to launch an affordable range every few months, but each range have a theme to it.
Do you think being an artist has made you better at ‘noticing’? If so, how can we all in our daily lives be better at observing?
Hmm if I’m honest I’m not super observant! I actually don’t notice a lot around me and I think that’s partly down to all the thoughts and ideas that are constantly whirring around in my head. However, I am constantly inspired – I would say listen to music, go for a walk, read a book, listen to podcasts – these are all things that help me get inspired by what’s around me.
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