The Otter (2016)
60 x 60 cms
batik fabric and rayon thread on calico
Austrian artist Janine Heschl had a number of careers before she discovered her true passion as a textile artist. Describing her work as ‘textile wildlife art,’ she uses machine embroidery to create incredibly realistic animal portraits. Her current work focuses on endangered animals and wildlife protection.
What is your background in textiles?
I’m a self taught textile artist. My background is actually quite unartistic except for a degree in special effects make-up for film and television. When I left school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, so I started to collect degrees and diplomas all over the world, for example an Operational Management diploma for film and television in England, Tourism Management Degree in Wales, Make Up Degree in Canada and I worked in several hotels in Spain and Ireland. I returned to Austria in my mid twenties and worked for the South Korean embassy here in Vienna, while training to be a life coach. But all that never fulfilled me, and when I became a mum for the first time in 2009, I started to return to my creative roots. I bought a really cheap sewing machine and started to sew clothes for my kids. But that did not last too long, as I soon discovered that I am not made for sewing in a straight line and I began experimenting with my stitching. I found great inspiration in Poppy Treffry and Alisa Burke, who both showed me that there was so much more to discover outside the sewing box! Their doodling on the sewing machines was so fascinating and inspiring, that I began my journey to become a textile artist. At first with little sewn illustrations and then, after gaining confidence, I started to fill areas with thread and discovered thread painting. My fascination with animals also only started then. I began to see colours and patterns in fur and feathers – it was like a whole new world opened up for me, after I opened up to my creativity! It felt like I was finally home! I took it from there, and with every animal I stitched, I grew in confidence to look even further outside of that creative box and with each experiment, I developed my own signature, that I am very proud of today.
Where do you work?
I have been sewing for many years on my dining table and it never was the best place to sew in the house! But it was convenient at the time, with the toddlers in sight and sufficient lighting – but once my passion and my determination to become a full time textile artist grew so strong, I finally got my own studio in the house. It is quite large and I have a great view into an apple orchard with beautiful birds of all kinds sitting outside my window sill. It really is all I could ever wish for, although secretly I am dreaming about my own little workshop/gallery in the city. But then again, I love my home and I love spending time here, so why not work from home too?
How do you describe your work?
I only have found a title for myself recently: textile wildlife artist, and I guess that defines my work as textile wildlife art. My focus lies in creating realistic animal portraits and letting them speak to whoever stands in front of them and whoever cares to listen. That sounds very artsy, and I never wanted to go down that road, but the feedback I get from people is always the same: your animals are alive and they touch to my soul, their eyes speak to me. Such resonance humbled me deeply and yet I struggled for a long time to accept that talent of mine (I still question it at times), but I have started to use that fact and gave my art an extra message to convey, ie. extinction and wildlife protection, to serve an important purpose.
While I started to create larger portraits for extra details, I discovered that I need to break out of that realistic mode every now and then, usually in between sewing blocks, and go wild with thread and paint. I stick to the animal portrait theme and they still have a realistic touch, but they loosen up my concentration and give me that ‘I finished something today’ feeling. Something I cannot deny as being important to me: accomplishments! Working on a piece over weeks can be very tiring, and that breaking out of the process and being able to show something off at the end of the day is much needed here sometimes.
How do you work?
I don’t have a concept when I start a portrait. I start with researching photos on the internet, and I always said: the animals find me. I get a certain feeling, almost like when you hold your breath, because something has stunned you, and this is how I know, which animal I get to do next. Obviously for exhibitions with a certain theme, such as ‘extinction is forever’, my sources were limited, but I could always rely on that ‘gasp’ and knowing which portrait to do next.
And so I begin recreating what I see on the photo onto fabric and translate patterns and emotions. Again, no concept. I often have no idea about my next steps. With the Western Lowland Gorilla for example, I had no clue as to how I should go about creating skin with thread. I experiment there and then and hope for the best. I am a very impatient character and when I see something I want to create, I need to create it right away! No time to sketch and sample – dive right in.
How long does one of your larger pieces take?
I can’t really say how much time goes into my larger portraits, as I have creative blocks and sometimes really need to push myself for days to break through a process I just don’t want to face. It is usually the collage making part, that is the most time consuming and the most difficult phase for me. Like I said, I am not the most patient person in the world, and I want to get sewing straight away, so there is much frustration bundled up during that stage. But since I value that as part of the whole, I would say about three months from finding that photo till attaching the frame.
Do you have a preferred brand of thread and if so why?
My favourite brand of thread is Sulky. I value their quality and colour range of cotton and rayon threads, which I frequently use in my larger portraits for creating that extra highlight and contrast, not just in colour but also in shine. Rayon being very bright and shiny, is perfect for letting areas really stand out and creating extra depth and a more realistic effect. Their cotton threads have a soft touch and I like that on my animals. It’s almost like creating fur. Sulky has been the perfect partner for several years now and I value their support immensely.
With so many endangered animals in the world how do you choose which ones to do for your #extinctionisforever series?
Great question, and I still have not got a concept on how to go about it… I just follow my gut instinct. I research, I gasp, I sew. And I love the freedom in that and it leaves all possibilities open and doesn’t single anything out. I like that approach.
So for this series, I started with my favourite animal: the tiger! I created a Sumatran tiger mask as the first piece and decided then to do a mini series on masks. A snow leopard and Amur leopard followed. My fourth mask was supposed to be an Orangutang, but after three attempts I finally gave up and decided to move onto a larger scale. So one thing leads to another and sparks something new. For example after the gorilla portrait, I learnt to be so confident in creating skin, that I took on my next challenge: a black rhino. I am still at the collage stage, but my fingers are itching to get embroidering!
What has been a career highlight so far?
My career highlight so far has been my very first exhibition in 2016 amongst amazing textile artist from all over the world in Karlsruhe, Germany. I think for the first time ever in my life, I really felt like I was finally where I belong, that I was on the right track. After so many years of trying to find out who I really was and why I have chosen to be here, presenting my work and people acknowledging it and recognising me as an artist – it was an indescribable feeling of warmth and of coming home. I still struggle to grasp what actually happened there, but let’s just call it growth. I have grown into my role as a textile artist and I have grown confidence to take a stage – something I could never do properly before.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to be professional textile artists?
A couple of years ago, I plucked up my courage to write to textile artist Karen Nichol in the UK and to ask her for a piece of advice for an aspiring textile artist. I surely did not see me myself as aspiring then, but I wanted to make contact for some reason, as I admired her work for a while. Well, she replied with those wise words of wisdom:
‘… to let the visual inspiration you are working with really influence and feed what you are doing ( texture, thread, color, quality, fabric etc etc ), rather than use the old tried and tested ’embroidery techniques’ in a cliche …it’s your main chance of creating something fresh as we all see things so differently.’
I stick to her words still, and I let everything I sense when looking at photographs work for me. I connect with the subject and I teach myself what I needed to know for creating what I have in my head. I would like to pass this on and add my own little bit to it: follow your instincts, as they will take you, where you are supposed to be and don’t limit them by ruling anything out. Stay open for inspiration and let it work for you.
Janine is exhibiting her #extinctionisforever series 4th – 6th May, 2018 in Karlsruhe, Germany and will also host two workshops about creating portraits using ink and thread.
textile wildlife art