Traveling to exotic locations to capture the sights in plein air compositions is nothing new, but an intrepid British artist is blazing a new trail of in-situ artworks with her sewing machine. Textile performance artist Harriet Riddell specializes in observational portraits rendered in embroidery. Using self-sustaining sources of electricity, she has traveled to places like Kenya, India, and public streets throughout the UK to create live portraits with an electric sewing machine.
Riddell tells Creators that there are advantages to the unusual circumstances in which she works. “I love to work from life. I never draw before I stitch, I like the immediacy of my work and having to work quickly and intuitively to respond to my surroundings.”
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Riddell first picked up needle and thread when she was just five years old, but it wasn’t until she began taking life drawing classes that she started stitching portraits of live subjects at the suggestion of her instructor. “Much to my classmates’ dismay, I did bring my sewing machine to class and stitched the models in the silent classroom. Immediately, I found a love for this style of drawing.” In addition to supplying her with the visual inspiration for her stitching, Riddell likes to work from life in order to capture an element of spontaneity. “This directly feeds energy into my stitched lines. I am always looking for new places to explore my work in, different subjects and real life scenarios and new audiences to share the art with.”
Once Riddell started taking her electric sewing machine out in public to capture live subjects, she realized that she was limited to situations with an available power source. She discovered that she could connect a motorcycle battery to a power inverter to give her sewing machine portable electricity, but then she was limited to the length of time that the battery could run her machine before dying, and even solar panels are weather dependent. But with the help of the folks at Electric Pedals, Riddell is now able to produce her own power with a generator that hooks up to a bicycle, allowing her to recharge her battery and work indefinitely wherever she wants.
With her pedal-powered sewing machine, Riddell brings her work to remote areas, as well as urban streets where power can be difficult to access. “My sewing machine led me on adventures. I would set up in public places and draw what I could see and hear in cafes, pubs, and on mountain tops.” Of course, early sewing machines were also pedal powered, but antique machines aren’t nearly as portable as newer electric sewing machines, and the bicycle doubles as a mode of transportation to the places Riddell works.
Riddell’s interactions with her subjects are often intensified by the necessity for them to ride her bike to generate electricity to power her machine while she stitches their portrait. “I love the interaction I have with people when I work. By using the bicycle as power, it enhances this interaction and encourages the public to become a part of the art.”
While Riddell’s work may be produced quickly and spontaneously, the social impact she has on the places she goes and the people whose portraits she stitches seems to be lasting. “By traveling with my sewing machine and working on the streets, this allows me to become a part of a new place and have a part within the community. I can use my art as a form of communication, creating a bond with the onlookers and my subjects. By becoming involved with the local people and responding to my surroundings, I getter a deeper understanding of its culture and politics. This feeds into my work and I then share my stories with a wider audience through exhibitions and talks.”
Harriet Riddell is currently working on an exhibition of scenes, architecture, and people in London at the GX Gallery in Camberwell, which will open later this year. Find out more about Riddell’s work on her website, and look out for her on the streets of London.