Tiny black specks spiral together around an empty focal point, concentrate in clusters, scatter out towards the edges against a vast expanse of white. In her monochrome embroideries, Roanna Wells substitutes people with stitches and in doing so offers us stunning, often dramatic, new perspectives on human gatherings.
Using aerial photographs of large-scale gatherings as her starting point, Roanna then deconstructs these images, doing away with everything – the built environment, natural structures – except the human. Only the titles offer any context to these human arrangements: Obama Inauguration, Washington 2009, for example, or Drowning Victim, Coney Island Beach, New York 1952.
The events she chooses are ones with political or social importance: election protests, religious gatherings, Live Aid concerts, for instance. In each case, the event signifies the huge sense of potential – for change, for solidarity – that can only be palpable when people are physically brought together.
Yet Roanna sees another layer of potential in these crowds: an aesthetic one, which lies in the patterns that form amongst the many individuals on the ground and in the spaces, empty of people, between.
We often see images captured from such a height that the distance renders people tiny and indistinguishable from one another, identifiable only as a crowd. But we rarely see these images stripped of everything but the human. To look at Roanna’s embroideries is to be left in a state of wonder – at what can happen when we come together, at the impressions we make on the landscape, at the pure beauty of human connection.
How would you describe your work?
I describe myself as a fine artist using graphical stitch. I’ve always been reluctant to use the phrase ‘textile artist’ as I feel this brings up so many preconceived ideas about the medium, so I definitely place myself within the fine art world and the context of contemporary drawing. My work uses the mark-making quality of hand embroidery to depict detailed aspects of imagery and pattern.
What inspires you?
I’m both technically and conceptually inspired as an artist, having produced work which is either purely process led and abstract and that which has a deeper sense of context either socially or politically. My most recent series of works, entitled Interpersonal Spatial Arrangements, depict abstract representations of individual human forms within crowds as seen from above.
Inspiration for these is not only taken from the geographical context and current topical relevance of the image, but also the aesthetic composition of the emerging patterns.
In 2013 I worked on a huge embroidery for the Jerwood Makers Open. The funding allowed me to travel to India and commission specific aerial photography over the Kumbh Mela religious gathering in February. It is the world’s largest gathering of people and attracted over 60 million pilgrims to bathe in the Ganges over the month-long festival. My work for the Jerwood Makers depicted the crowd that gathered on the most auspicious bathing day.
What’s your desk or workspace like?
I have a studio at S1 Artspace and it is on the side of the building that receives the most wonderful afternoon and evening sunlight. It’s a beautiful space that provides me a little creative haven to mix with other artists and make work. My process is very time consuming, so the light and comfort of my studio space is very important.
What do you love about Sheffield?
Apart from my three years at Manchester School of Art, I have lived in Sheffield all my life and I feel so content and inspired here. The geographic nature of the city means that, even in the middle of the town centre, you feel constantly connected to the beautiful surrounding countryside just over the hill.
There is a reassuring sense of space, distance, and possibility here. I thrive on variety, and I feel that Sheffield provides a brilliant combination of vibrant ‘goings-on’, accessibility to cultural nourishment, and the space and sense of community to feel settled and at home.
What would you do to improve the city?
More places to sit and have a drink that get the evening sun in the summer. A rooftop bar for all-day sunshine would be perfect!
- Words by
- Kathryn Hall