Some navel gazing over inspiration vs imitation

Chrissie Freeth Woven TapestryIt was an interesting time a few weeks ago. I finished the tapestry I had been working on and shared it in a few places and was rather taken aback by various folk stating they were going to copy it or parts of it. It pushed me into some serious self-reflection, about the difference between influence and imitation, and what the uniqueness of my work means to me.

Initially I was rather confused by this. Moral and legal issues of copyright are well established, so why would folk be so bold about their intentions? What was it about my work and my practice that made folk think it was ok? And what was it about this tapestry that provoked it – it has never happened with any of my other work.

There is a clear difference between being influenced/inspired by something and copying it. My pre-Churchill work was influenced by Johanna Schutz Wolff; the sense of transparency in her work resonated with me as a metaphor, no idea how she did it, never seen her work in the flesh, I found my own path, but no one could say I copied her work, they are two very distinct styles and narratives. My post-Churchill work builds on it, and I love the simplicity and starkness of Jan Yoors, and of course the narrative and technical aspects of medieval work, and Yoors was himself a proponent of the same principles of Lurcat that have been an influence on me, in the sense of boldness, scale and juxtaposition etc, themselves emerging from pre-renaissance tapestry. But again my work is entirely distinct from Yoors, Lurcat or my medieval predecessors – again, the difference between influence and imitating/copying. I have of course copied bits and pieces from medieval tapestries and blogged about it, it is what apprentices of old did to learn, but they are technical samples, studies, a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

So why do folk think it is ok to say they are going to replicate my new work or some aspect of it? The only thing I can think of is its apparent simplicity, because it looks simple, perhaps folk think it is easy, or not much effort has gone into it and so they have a right to appropriate it, and be so open about their intentions to do so? Ironically it is the most technically difficult piece I have woven, although my pre-Churchill work may appear more complicated to the uninitiated by virtue of its busyness, it is in fact far simpler to do. But I am not talking here of technique which is of course open to anyone who cares to put the time in to study it, but rather what one does with it, as an artist, as an individual.

I have obligations to share the fruits of my Fellowship and that is something I wholeheartedly embrace and although I have done that already to some extent it will be continued more formally once it is over, in various reports, publications and talks. That will focus on the medieval techniques I’ve been observing, something I feel missing from the literature, and really only available to folk willing to study tapestries themselves, an option not available to everyone. But that is different from my own work and style that has emerged from it. But because my new work is based on medieval techniques and I have been so open about that, is that why it is thought of as fair game? Is my work considered derivative and thus available for appropriation? Of course, it is not actually as simple as that. I have observed techniques, I have spent months experimenting at the loom, trying to find a way to use them in a way that achieves what I want them to, as an artist. Some parts have been easier than others, in the latest tapestry, the shading on the sleeve and arms is through stripes, a technique lifted from something I saw in the Apocalypse tapestry at Angers and another tapestry in the V&A, techniques open to anyone to observe and study and interpret and use. The hair, between you and me, was a pain in the arse, but it has always been a prominent feature of my work and so it had to be right. It took bloody weeks to find a way to do it in a way I was pleased with, there’s little like this in medieval tapestry, but the principles are there, the two tones, the stripyness of it. I’ve also done things that you won’t see in medieval tapestries to render finer detail in the face more prominent. It is based on medieval techniques, but I have brought my own interpretations to it – I have found what works for me and I guess that is what stops my work just being a medieval pastiche and it is also what will make my work, by its very nature, different to another artist’s approach. This has been at the root of my struggles since I embarked on this research, it is not about just weaving like they used to, it is about finding a way to make it relevant to today and to make it relevant to me. And in a way it is the legs paddling under the water. Perhaps if I share an image of some of that paddling you’ll see why these don’t get posted. But in not sharing all this, and instead just moaning about it more vaguely, do I, as a friend suggested this morning, make things look too easy?

Chrissie Freeth Sampling Medieval Hair.PNG

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know how much work it has taken for me to get here, as an artist as well as a weaver, and it is my sincere hope that, as folk have been kind enough to say, my sharing of that provides some encouragement and inspiration for their own unique paths. I myself have been the beneficiary of such encouragement. But I am conscious, as I feel I have hit my stride as a weaver and an artist, that all of who I am has gone into this last tapestry, very personal things, things unique to me, my experiences, my grief, my aspirations, my background, my upbringing, my research, my experiments, my intellect, my creativity and massive personal sacrifice domestic and financial, and it does make me feel soiled and exposed that folk think that is up for grabs.

Ironically as I write this an email has arrived discussing the potential for an exhibition that will explicitly marry the findings of my research with the development of my own work and it is something I am incredibly keen to do, and in fact, proposed. So perhaps, what niggles at me is the copying of my work whilst being dismissive at worst, or unaware at best, of the techniques, the work and thoughts and processes that have gone into it. That is something I want to share in my own way, rather than have it taken. In a world of Pinterest, Instagram and other social media, is that still a realistic notion, or is the loss of ownership of one’s work the price one has to pay if one creates something that strikes a chord? The alternative can only be retreat or paranoia, and neither are a place I intend to visit.

ETA And of course just when one finishes a post, one finds another from a highly popular and well-established craftsperson who creates new work within traditional skills, and who is able to articulate the issues so much better! http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/wood-craft-blog/2014/03/27/imitation-sincerest-form-flattery/

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2 thoughts on “Some navel gazing over inspiration vs imitation

  1. I wouldn’t worry about it. You have inspired others, hopefully they will give you a acknowledgement, (you could suggest when they say this) and their work will not be yours. We all stand on the shoulders of giant women x

    1. Interesting post, Chrissie. My reaction to your last partially finished post photos was also very “wow, I’d like to do one like that!” And I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since! I do botanical art and love color so my usual (sophomoric compared to your) tapestries are plants or color investigations. So far what I’ve come up with – it appears a lighter piece, both visually and in temperment, plus I am fascinated with Archie Brennan ‘s work which can display portraits of emotion and clarity with few tonal differences.

      I’m reading a book about van Gogh, he was very anxious about copying according to it – but who do you know who has successfully copied either van Gogh or Archie Brennan?

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