Meet Sabine Kaner, our Artist of the Month. Sabine has been creating artwork since she was a small child, which has provided her with a creative space in which her imagination could flourish and she could find refuge from the traumatic and chaotic experiences that made up her childhood and a life full of trauma and ill health. She feels in her current work that she is looking to articulate issues that concern her, both from the present and from the past, but which also have a wider connection to society as a whole. Each piece of her work is very labour intensive and a takes a long time to complete. She talks here about working under challenging conditions , moving into the territory of textiles and working as lead artist in a community project with members of the Windrush generation.
Why/when did you start making art?
I was brought up in London. My parents were both immigrants to the UK. My mother was German and my father came from Jamaica to Britain as an airman in the RAF. Life was very difficult as a mixed-race person growing up in the 1960s. There was a lot of racism and poverty amongst immigrant communities. I had a very difficult childhood as a result and was a very sickly child. The only way I found that I could survive was by drawing and creating art. I won my first drawing competition at the age of five at primary school and was awarded my prize at the BBC. When I was seven, I won a national road safety competition with a painting. Since then I have never stopped creating art.
Where do you work?
I work in two different parts of the country. My partner’s job means we have to travel away from home. I have a studio at my permanent home which I use three days a week, where I can really spread out and experiment. In our temporary accommodation I have to compromise and have set up a small space to work in our bedroom. At the moment I am the lead artist in a community art project attached to a large gallery, working with members of the Windrush generation. The project has been designed by me to visually capture their experiences of living and moving to the UK, using the medium of textiles.
When did you start working with textiles?
Originally, I trained as a fine art printer, so I had lots of experience with hand and screen printing. However, when I was in my twenties, I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder which meant I had to be careful about the materials I worked with. So I moved from print and started to explore textiles as a means of expression. I began using recycled textiles, items that I had lying around, and repurposing bedlinen, discarded clothes and other fabrics from family and friends. I also worked as a freelance seamstress for a short while, which enhanced my hand stitching skills and accuracy.
How would you describe your pieces?
I usually work on calico or linen. I would describe my images as collages/ mixed media. They are semi-abstract. I also use a process of layering. I begin by printing directly onto the canvas, using only water-based inks, and then paint with acrylic and watercolours. There is often a layer of felt on top of this, followed by the primary image, and this is finally embellished with various types of stitching. I leave some of the painting and printing to show through. This approach varies according to the composition.
Do you follow a set process or does it vary?
I start my process by doing research, collecting ideas and drawing. Colour is very important in my work. I try to select colours that inspire me and that I want to use before I start. I look through the fabrics and materials I already have, such as felt and threads. I find textured surfaces, like wallpaper and scraps of packaging that have textures on them, or I create my own. I am always experimenting and mixing things together. Then I begin the process of stitching the layers together and adding the embroidery on top.
What inspires your work?
I see my work as being about layers in its process and form as well as in its meaning. A lot of my work is autobiographical. These are themes that not only affect my personal experience but are ones that other people may be able to identify with too. My life journey has often been a struggle for survival through my own ill health and that of family members.
I went to art school in the late 1970s and early ‘80s in London and then Manchester. As a student I visited an exhibition about Outsider Art at the Hayward Gallery. It was the first exhibition I had ever been to that I could really connect with. I am inspired by work by artists at Outside In as well as in psychiatric institutes, both in the past and present. I was fortunately able to study social sciences and art therapy as a mature student, which has informed my work in many ways.
Do you have any creative role model?
My creative role models include Paul Klee, Hundertwasser, Gaudi, Gustave Klimt, the photographer Roger Ballen and the furniture maker, CR Mackintosh. I have visited Outsider Art exhibitions across Europe, including the Dr Guislain Institute in Belgium which exhibits the history of psychiatry and holds a variety of thought-provoking contemporary exhibitions. My greatest role model is Agnes Richter, who lived in nineteenth century Germany and stitched her autobiographical text into her institutional jacket as a resident of a psychiatric hospital. It is housed as part of the Prinzhorn collection in Heidelberg.
Are there particular themes that run through your work? If so, what are they?
The aim of my work is to express my experiences and address topics that have touched me and many others, topics that are often difficult to talk about. I am telling stories about life, like a writer might in words, but through the language of art as art can express things that often words cannot.
Themes such as mental health, social and political issues, recycling and our connection to the natural environment are all threads that inhabit my art. My current work uses deconstructed clothing into which I stitch. I have at present created a series of work using sleeves.
Do you think about an audience when you are making work? If so what do you hope the viewer gets from your work?
I do think about the audience viewing my work. I work in a metaphorical and semi-abstract way and hope that it is accessible to people. I use a lot of colour in my work that hopefully attracts people. There are many ways to view my work. Some people are interested in the materials and techniques whilst others are interested in the underlying meaning and the narrative. I hope that the viewer makes some kind of connection with my work on whatever level.
What is your favourite piece of art (by another artist)?
This is a difficult question. I like any kind of art that encourages me to reflect on mankind and life’s deeper meaning, though I am especially drawn to textile work. If I had to choose one piece of work, it would have to be Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun. This piece speaks to me at the moment. It has such a beautiful array of colour and simple geometric shapes. I can imagine this picture in textiles and stitch.
What has been the standout moment for you as an artist so far?
I have recently been accepted as a member of the well-known textile group Prism. My work has also been selected for their London 2020 exhibition at the New Garden Pavilion, which is part of the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
The work I have produced is a metaphorical comment on the Windrush scandal that has dominated some of the news headlines. As a descendant of the Windrush generation, I have felt compelled to draw attention to some of the experiences of those affected and acknowledge the contribution that they have made to British society.
Is there an artwork that you are most proud of a favourite piece?
The artwork to date that speaks to me most is called ‘Decorating the Cuts.’ This piece highlights and expresses my personal experiences of self-harm, a subject which is hard to articulate and full of unresolved emotions. Through artistic expression the narrative is more manageable and allows time to make sense, helping to nurture a form of acceptance. I used repurposed clothing that have a personal attachment, textiles, and stitch, redesigning them into a composition that is imaginary, symbolic, and abstract. I have deliberately chosen the colour red to stand out on a black background. With self-harm there is always the danger of death. The two colours interact with each other, the red standing out in front representing life, leaving the sombre black background behind. The patterns represent the transformation of the cuts and a turning point. This piece went to London as part of an exhibition called ‘States of Existence.’ The show was about experiences of mental illness.
What are your hopes for the future?
I would like to have the opportunity to exhibit more and contribute to difficult and complex conversations through my work.
If you would like to be featured as our Artist of the Month, or to nominate a fellow artist, please get in touch with Matt on firstname.lastname@example.org