We recently had the privilege of spending a few amazing hours in the company of Frome-based textile artist Gladys Paulus. Famous for her animal masks that have been featured in film, theatre, music videos and fashion magazines, Gladys put on hold all commissioned work during the past year and embarked on a deeply personal creative journey called Hinterland ‒ the embodiment of a complex ritual of mourning, healing and love in response to her father’s death in 2015.
In the intimacy of her home, Gladys opened up about the overarching structure she created with Hinterland and the challenges she had to face in order to gain complete ownership over this soulful creative path she has embarked on, and she appeared at once venturesome and fragile, direct and introspective, humble and inquisitive, putting us in a state of curious anticipation of what we experienced later on at Black Swan Arts.
From her home we went to her studio, where she showed us some of her astonishing animal headdresses and kindly invited us to try our hand at wet felting ‒ the traditional method involving water and soap ‒ and experience the alchemic magic involved in the process.
Later in the afternoon we went to town to see her Ancestral Healing Costumes displayed at Black Swan Arts, conversing about how she emerged from this transformational and cathartic process and the overwhelming reaction from the audience.
Unleashing a lot of questions about identity and belonging, the work that Gladys laboriously created for Hinterland has the rare quality of enabling the viewer to switch voltage and reconnect with their ancestral self and experience the inexplicable closeness of what can’t be reached.
For those who are not yet familiar with your work, who is Gladys Paulus, the artist?
I am a textile artist working predominantly in handmade felt. My best known commercial work consist of a series of animal masks, that have featured in theatre, film, fashion magazines and music videos. More recently I have started moving away from commercial work to focus on my own creative practice, resulting in a very personal body of work and a solo exhibition called HINTERLAND.
Born into a Dutch-Indonesian family in 1973 and raised in the Netherlands, I come from an artistic family. Aged 5, I knew I too wanted to be an artist. After studying fine art (painting) in the early 90’s, and moving to the UK shortly after, it took 10 years of busy parenting and working a range of jobs to realise I had managed to lose touch with my own creative self. A journey of creative discovery ensued, until a chance encounter with a sheep farmer and some freshly shorn sheep in 2005. The rest, as they say, is history.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I have quite a few! My earliest one is of standing in my wooden playpen, looking through the bars at my older sister eating a lollipop. I was furious that I wasn’t allowed one. My mother says I cannot possibly remember this as I must have been around a year old, but the picture in my head is very clear.
But most of my vivid childhood memories involve being outside (I did a lot of horse riding as a child) or of making things. In one it is early autumn and I am sitting on the back of my mum’s bicycle as she is cycling through the woods. We are gathering blackberries together with her friend and her friend’s sons. I remember having to bend my legs up high to avoid getting stung by nettles and scratched by brambles, and the simple delight of finding a perfectly ripe berry. I still love gathering fruit, as well as harvesting vegetables.
Another (favourite) memory is of a family day trip out in a national park somewhere. We had brought a picnic and spent the whole day in the woods, constructing a den from branches and leaves. It was a spontaneous project which quickly became very ambitious, and my parents, my sister and I worked on it together for most of the day. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. It was the best thing and I remember feeling sad at having to go back home to our ‘proper’ house. This memory still feels me with great happiness. Both my parents were very creative in their own right (my mother still is), they were forever making or fixing something. I think what that has given me is a sense of anything is possible with a bit of focus and determination, and when you do something, to do it well.
Felt is currently your main artistic medium. To what extent does teaching the art of felting affect your relationship with the art itself?
Teaching keeps me fresh and forces me to analyse the way I make my work and why. In order for me to pass on techniques well, I have to break apart my working methods into very distinct steps. That may not necessarily sound like a positive, but in lots of ways it is, as it is only through questioning the effectiveness of all the stages of my making process, that I can improve on them in my own work too. The other upside to this process of analysis is that I often get a lot of new ideas for my own work from this initial planning stage.
On another level, I’m finding that the contents of the workshops I teach tend to follow the direction of my own work as it develops. So whenever I plan new workshop content, I have to engage with the motivations behind my own work. It is very important to me to work from the heart and for that reason I find it good practice to ask myself regularly if the direction I take is still fulfilling, because if it no longer is, then why do it?
Currently that means that I am becoming more and more interested in teaching the creative process as a whole, rather than focussing on techniques alone. Of course technique is useful, but it is what you are going to do with those techniques after the workshop that really matters. Are you going to adapt those techniques to your own work and make them your own, or are you going to blindly copy? I often observe during my workshops that students feel safe and comfortable when they are being given purely technical instructions to carry out, but feel much less confident when it comes to making design considerations for themselves. It’s that latter aspect that I want to nurture more.
And then of course, work created by students during the workshop can become the inspiration for a creative exploration of my own. It is not uncommon for me to get very excited about one tiny little effect or approach in the students’ work that I wasn’t expecting, but opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Likewise, I am very lucky that teaching takes me to places in the world, exposing me to a wide range of sources of inspiration.
You are now moving away from commercial work in order to create a much more personal series of artworks, an installation of ancestral costumes and masks called Hinterland. To what extent is this project a reaction to the commodification of art and a rebellion against on-demand art objects?
I didn’t set out to make a statement of rebellion with HINTERLAND, rather it arose very much out of a personal need to process my grief after the death of my father in 2015. But it is true that I had come to a point in my career where I needed to move away from commercial work in order to keep my work sacred to me.
Being an artist is a financially insecure existence, and the reality of meeting this challenge often means it is necessary to work to commission or produce work to sell. Yet the very nature of a commission is in direct conflict with my artistic need to work from the heart and to be fully in charge of my output. The whole notion of attaching a price tag to a piece of work means thinking about the work in terms of desirability and cost effectiveness from the start, and for me something soulful gets lost in that process.
That is not to say that I don’t get any enjoyment at all out of commissions ‒ I do ‒ , and they often generate inspiration for my own work. But the trouble is that any time spent working on a commission, is time away from my real desire to create work with content that connects.
In order to create the work for Hinterland I decided to put on hold all commission work, and most of my teaching engagements, for a year. To most people this would seem complete financial suicide, and it certainly was very, very stressful at times. But it was the only way I could make the time for this project and to have complete ownership over what I was making. I knew from the outset the work would not be for sale, and that felt unbelievably liberating. It meant I could go down any creative path without the need to consider anything other than what I wanted to express.
I feel incredibly grateful to have received the financial support of a wonderful little group of patrons during this time. Their monthly contributions ensured my studio rent and most of my materials were paid for, taking some of the pressure off. But of course my partner had to take up any remainder of the slack, and however much he supports what I do, at times that caused strain and friction.
The challenge I have now, is how to stay on this soulful path yet put food on the table at the same time. From the response I have had to HINTERLAND it is obvious that people are connecting strongly to the work, and feel there is a need for it, so I think I will have to try and tap into that by trying to encourage more people to become patrons of my work.
How has being a parent influenced your creative journey and informed your artistic vision for the Hinterland project?
Combining being a parent with being an artist is a complete juggling act, I am not going to lie about that. Art keeps no timetable, but my working hours are dictated by the school run and the family calendar, and that can be frustrating and demoralising. You also have to learn to be a chameleon and go from exploring your deep inner workings in the studio one minute to being nagged at for your dinner choice the next.
But being a parent also gives you a huge sense of perspective on what is really important in life. Before I started working as an artist professionally, I was already a parent to a teenager and a toddler. My life was fulfilling in lots of ways, but a huge creative part of me was missing and it made me unhappy, so I decided to follow my heart and have a go. I think it was having children that gave me the courage and confidence to do it. Of course there are times when I’m exhausted and doubtful if I will ever be able to make a comfortable living from my art. At those times it is helpful to think of my journey in terms of setting an example to my children and showing them the importance and power of following their passion in life.
Besides that, my children are a great help in taking myself a bit less seriously with their down to earth comments. They are super supportive of what I do and they are proud of me, but at the same time they don’t have any qualms about saying things as they are. If they don’t like a piece, they will say so. And if my ego shows signs of getting a bit too big for its boots, they will knock me down a peg or two! They help me see the things that really matter, everything else is just trappings.
With regards to HINTERLAND, my children are a huge part of the motivation behind this project. Losing my father was a pivotal moment for me. It unleashed a lot of questions about identity and belonging. It is very important to me that my children know where they come from, and for them not to be burdened by the same ancestral traumas that I have been carrying.
Hinterland explores a range of deeply personal yet universal concepts: identity, family, trauma and violence. Can you tell us a little more about the overarching structure you created? How does this structure look and how does it work for you?
The overarching structure consists of a series of Ancestral Healing Costumes. I am not sure that such a thing actually exists as an anthropological concept, but it is what came to me. These costumes tell my father’s story and those of his forebears, and is the result of a ritual of mourning and healing carried out over the past year in response to the death of my father in 2015. The creation of the work in this exhibition has been an intense labour of love. Each piece is made laboriously by hand over a period of weeks and months. Felt making, hand embroidery, growing dye plants from seed, slow bundle dyeing, charcoal making, all require time and patience
The costumes are stand-alone pieces, some simple, some complex, some consisting of a few elements, others consisting of many. They incorporate a variety of materials, but hand felted wool is the binding factor. Making these pieces has given me a greater understanding of my father’s, and my, place in the family line, and a deep appreciation of the lives that went before me and the circumstances that shaped them. These costumes are my gesture of remembrance, a way to honour my ancestors, and to heal some deep ancestral trauma.
Throughout my childhood, certain events in my family’s history appeared too painful to be spoken of, or were simply “forbidden” territory, yet at the same time these stories seemed to hold considerable power. After my father’s death I felt the need to know more. During my research, a clear picture began to emerge of generations of my family caught up in major historical events in the former Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). It is clear to me that the psychological effects of these traumatic events left an indelible mark on my ancestors and subsequent generations, including me. The impact of them is undeniable, as is the universality of the issues that they cover. The effects of colonialism, war and displacement, attitudes towards gender and race, and issues of identity and belonging are all entwined within them, and are just as relevant now as they were then.
To me, this work is about making visible the unspoken, to shine a little light of compassion on generations of silent suffering in the kindest way I can. It is my way of offering, and asking for, forgiveness for past hurts and misunderstandings and to express my gratitude for who I am; a result of all the passions, talents, tales of survival, and character traits of my ancestors. It is also my way of breaking the cycle of suffering, but at the same time keeping the stories alive so that they are not lost.
HINTERLAND builds on the notion that in order to heal oneself, one has to heal one’s ancestors; a common tenet in shamanic practices across the world. I am interested in the shamanistic worldview, perhaps this has something to do with my Indonesian heritage. I recall my grandfather telling stories of objects imbued with spirit, offering protection to the family, and his absolute matter of fact conviction of this as real and true.
In a way these costumes fulfil the same animistic role, except they offer their protection posthumously. As far as I am concerned, they are imbued with spirit too. I have transferred my own grief and inherited trauma into them during the making process, as well as trying to tell each particular ancestor’s story with them. The costumes have become a container for all of this. Wool is a perfect medium for this, as wool’s capacity for holding shape is due to its ability to ‘remember’. Felt making is a long, physical and intimate process, during which wool fibres, water and soap are combined to transform into a fabric which can be sculpted and shrunk into tactile forms. As the felt shrinks and dries, the shape is stored in the fibres. In this way, the felt is an outward manifestation of my own journey of remembrance.
Change and transformation are the two elements at the core of your work. Has Hinterland changed your perception of time in any way?
That is such a good question. As part of my preparation for HINTERLAND I have spent a lot of time creating a family tree and what I got from doing that is a real sense of how our lives stretch back across time, way beyond anything most of us can imagine. I don’t believe we come into this world as a blank slate, but rather as a small being already imprinted in some way with the experiences of our ancestors, especially if these experiences have been traumatic. Two world wars have left a mark on families the world over, and you only need to look at what is happening in current areas of conflict, as well as the various refugee crises worldwide, to understand that traumas experienced now, will have an impact that lasts much longer than one lifetime and will be carried into the future, way beyond our own short lives.
So you could say that the way I see time is as fluid, without any real starting point or finishing point. One life flows into another, one experience informs another. And just because we die, that doesn’t mean we stop having an impact. The whole motivation for working on HINTERLAND was to help me process my grief after losing my father. I have learnt that the grief will probably never disappear entirely, it just changes form as time goes by, becomes easier to bear and takes a different expression. That thing they say about time being a great healer... I think it’s true.
We imagine that you had to give a lot in order to create these ancestral costumes. You must have been both humble and inquisitive because you were and still are emotionally attached to other persons, both from your past and your present. How did you emerge from this transformational process?
I am still very much in it, just in different form. I am not quite sure if there will ever be a time when this work is truly finished, and I don’t think that is the point. To me the point is in the transformation that happens on the journey, and engaging with that. Inquisitive is a good word. I think you have to approach life with curiosity and inquisitiveness.
What I can say is that the process up to now has been hugely cathartic. I feel I have shed a lot of baggage, both my own and that of others. Although I set out to unburden my ancestors by making healing costumes for them, I hadn’t quite anticipated to what extent the process of doing so would also unburden me. From the palpable relief I felt with each finished costume, I came to realise just how much baggage I had been carrying. Physically, I lost weight also. Some of my ancestor’s stories were very hard to tell, especially those I had only learned about more recently and resonated with me deeply as a woman. I was processing the enormity of these stories as I worked, and that was tough at times. But despite all this, there was a sense of lightness too, it felt right.
Right now, I feel a little exposed and vulnerable if I’m honest. It has been such an intense process for me, and very solitary in many ways. I have holed myself up in my studio for 9 months, not really talking all that much about it with those around me. I just needed to go through it on my own. But now that I have emerged and the work is so very publicly on show, I have noticed how exposed I feel. It’s not a bad thing, but I do feel a little fragile and I need to take care of myself around that. The interest in the show has been overwhelming at times, and I have been talking about my work process pretty much nonstop since the preview. It means the rawness hasn’t had a chance to mellow. So I need a bit of a break. I also want to take my time before making any decisions on what’s next for the show. It’s great that people are so enthusiastic and encouraging, but right now I just need to let it all settle for a while.
What is the metaphor that would best describe Hinterland?
Peeling off the layers of an onion.
What were the biggest challenges that you had to overcome along the way?
I would separate them into practical and psychological challenges. The practical challenges were around money (not earning an income for a year), time (not enough of it, dividing my available hours between family & studio) and life throwing unexpected curveballs (being given notice on our rented home, buying a house and moving into it, right in the middle of it all).
The psychological challenges were for a large part about dealing with the practical challenges: feeling guilty about the impact of my intense working hours and the absorbing nature of my work on my family, and guilt around the financial pressure I was putting my partner under. Doubt would also creep in at times; doubt about my ability, but also around feeling self indulgent and wondering what, if anything, I was contributing to the world in doing this work.
How do you think that the audience has engaged with the Hinterland project?
I only really engaged with a few select people and my patrons about the project whilst I was actually working on it; those who I knew would get what I was trying to do. It’s quite a heavy topic and not something easily explained in casual chit chat, and I found it easier sometimes to avoid the topic altogether rather than try and explain my motives. That was based partially on experience: in the early days some people just looked at me like I was crazy, especially if they found out I wasn’t planning to put a price tag on the resulting pieces. I felt that as this was a challenging project enough already, I needed to surround myself with support.
But now that the work is actually out there and on show, the response from visitors has been astounding. Never, ever had I even considered that HINTERLAND would have such an impact on people, it has totally blown me away.
The atmosphere at the preview was pretty special, and according to the gallery they have not experienced an opening like it. Many people were visibly moved, some to tears, either choked back or freely flowing. Others felt overwhelmed and had to leave the room a few times. People shared some very personal and moving stories from their families with me on the night, and have continued to do so since via emails or by approaching me in the street. I feel humbled by the response that my exhibition seems to have provoked, and I feel privileged to be allowed to witness these very human of emotions. Many people come back to the exhibition multiple times, as they can only digest a little at a time. I feel incredibly honoured that people are willing to give the work so much of their time, I didn’t expect it.
From the feedback I have been receiving, it has become clear that people are touched both by the pieces themselves, the time and love that have gone into making them, and the details of the stories that they contain (which are explained briefly in the exhibition). It is making them think about the stories in their own families, looking at them in a different light perhaps, or wondering why uncle Jimmy was never mentioned ever again after a certain date. I think if my work encourages people to start talking and working out why family dynamics are as they are, that is a wonderful outcome. Of course it has to be handled with care, but ultimately I think it can only lead to understanding and growth.
You live and work in Frome, Somerset. Where do you go when you want to relax or get inspired?
Frome is big enough to have a busy and varied programme of cultural offerings, and small enough to have a real sense of community. It’s impossible to pop into town without bumping into friends or having a chat with an acquaintance, and there is a very lively music, arts, theatre and alternative scene. The town is surrounded by lovely rolling countryside, which starts two streets from my front door. To relax I like to go for a walk, sit around a fire in company of friends, or go dancing. I am part of a sangha (community) in the Buddhist Vipassana tradition and try to go on a silent meditation retreat in Devon at least once a year, to reconnect with and deepen my meditation practice. This is usually for a week to ten days and it is a deeply nourishing and inspiring experience which feeds my art practice in the most profound way. My partner has the same practice, and as a family, we also attend an annual family camp in Devon based in the same Buddhist tradition, which is a real highlight in our calendar each year.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
Somewhere near to a river or large body of water. I love wild swimming, it nourishes every cell of my being but I don’t do it nearly often enough as the nearest swimming spot is a car drive away.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a textile artist?
Textile art is definitely not the easiest area of art to work in. It is hugely underrepresented in the contemporary art world and not taken as seriously as other mediums, perhaps also because it is regarded as a predominantly female domain. So you’ll be up against it from the start. That said, if you feel it is your calling, go for it! But be prepared to put in the hours to hone your skills and develop your style. You have to be disciplined, turn up and put in the work, even when (especially when) you do not feel like it. It is definitely not a 9 to 5 kind of job. After the studio starts the business side; hours of promoting your work, following opportunities, dealing with admin, tax returns, etc. etc... you can only keep this up if you feel passionate about what you’re doing.
How do you think about the future? What you will be working towards after Hinterland and how do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
HINTERLAND represents only the first step on a long term project, which will continue with the creation of healing costumes for my mother’s side of the family and will eventually map the remarkable stories of two sides of a family and what happens when they come together.
I am not able to afford taking another year out to focus on this, and will have to concentrate on earning money through my workshops and commissions for a while. So in all likelihood I will carry out this work in the background over the coming years. However some of my patrons have told me they want to carry on supporting me through the next phase of HINTERLAND, so I need to think through the best way to keep my Patreon page running and be able to offer something back to my patrons at the same time as everything else. There has been some demand for a book, perhaps this is something that could be part of that, but it all needs thinking through really.
In terms of me evolving as an artist, I have come to realise that I may not stick to felt making or textiles alone. Where at the start of my felting path I was a real wool purist, now I am more relaxed about that and I’m beginning to incorporate other materials into my work, which opens up new avenues and keeps things exciting for me. It’s become more about choosing the material that expresses what I want to say, rather than being doggedly attached to felt just for the sake of it. So I am interested in a lot of mediums. Where exactly that might take me, I don’t know, I prefer not to cling too tightly to a plan. Life is full of surprises and I’m happy to let myself be guided by those. In a roundabout way I suspect that feltmaking for me may be part of a bigger journey back into painting, but time will tell.