by Julia Welstead
Like so many island makers I am meeting, Emma MacKenzie is a multi-tasker extraordinaire. Her love of textiles began with spinning and dyeing, felting and sewing, all skills taught to her by the Barvas wool and spinning group. From this she has developed her own unique style of collage to produce stunning images of the land and seascapes that surround her.
Originally from Cornwall, Emma moved to Lewis with her parents and has now lived here through her own daughter’s schooling. Work includes gathering seaweed for the Stornoway based Ishga skincare company, and leading Hidden Hebrides walking groups. Her daughter, who is now studying art, encouraged Emma to find time to get creative and experiment with her textile techniques.
Transforming her creative ‘playtime’ into the public sphere of exhibiting and selling her art has been a big step, the success of which has surprised her (though it doesn’t me, as her work is captivating). She now sells in cafes and galleries, at craft fairs and through Open Studios Hebrides as well as online via isle20. Her framed pieces are so popular that the challenge now is to keep up with demand.
As well as providing outlets for her work, Open Studios, exhibitions and craft fairs give the opportunity to meet other makers, to share ideas, collaborate and inspire each other. Events dotted through the seasons encourage a sense of belonging to a creative community and help to stem any feelings of isolation.
After a kitchen coffee and blether, Emma invites me to her studio, ‘to see where the magic happens’ and I find myself in a glory hole of colourful off-cuts of textiles, threads and found objects – feathers, wool, sticks etc. Recycling discarded fabrics, and using what the natural world provides, forms an important link with Emma’s depictions of the environment. Emma paints outdoors, on location, to capture the atmosphere of the scene, then brings the initial painting back to her studio.
She takes me through the process: choosing a piece of fabric, painting a scene onto it in acrylic and watercolour paints, backing it with stronger fabric, and then the magic of machine-stitching back and forth through it with a ‘free needle’ and myriad thread colours. Additional materials (whisps of sheep’s wool, fragments of fishing net, feathers) are glued then stitched over, adding depth and texture to the emerging image.
I ask the inevitable question about her source of inspiration. In amongst her working days and helping her parents (who live next door), two energetic dogs require to be walked, and this is the time (about two hours per day) when Emma can contemplate her surroundings.
‘We are such a small part within this huge Lewisian landscape, and nature is very much in charge here and we at the mercy of it. My art is an attempt to capture that.’