Monday, May 12, 2008


In this installment of TCA’s artist profiles, profiler Nicole Morell chats with OCAD-trained textile artist Hillary Webb about her ethereal art, summers in Kenora and Mexican insects.

Hillary at MADE

Q: Your work is really complex – there’s a lot of technique happening in those small spaces. Can you describe some of your recent work, like the birds and trees?

For the most part my work involves naturally-dyed cotton fabric that I stain with a residue of wax to bring out the subtle colours. The images of trees and birds are drawn on with pencil then I highlight aspects of the drawings with embroidery. The stitches I use the most are a running stitch and French knots. Sometimes I will embellish the piece with some of my bead and button collection.

Q: Your latest work, the birds, makes me want to look up close. It’s so beautifully layered and detailed and yet quite serene. You’re obviously inspired by the natural world and I’m curious about where that comes from. Are you a native Torontonian?

Yep, I grew up in Don Mills. My mother is from Kenora, Ontario and I spent many summers on the shores of Lake of the Woods. We also had annual camping trips and I went to overnight camp for many years. I love the outdoors.

Q: You dye your own fabrics, which is pretty cool. And messy, I’m assuming. Tell us about that process. And what the heck is cochineal and umbilicaria? Do I have it in my backyard?!

Most of the plant dyes I use I find in my parent’s garden. I use flowers like marigold and dahlias. To create dye from plants, they have to be soaked in water, then boiled. Once the dye is ready to use I remove the plant stuff and add mordants like aluminum, iron, and copper to change the colour of the dye and make it colour-fast. Cochineal is an insect that is farmed on cacti in Mexico. It is a very traditional dye that was used in the past as red food colouring. Umbilicaria is a lichen that grows on rocks in northern Ontario. I’ve gathered it from Muskoka and Kenora.


Q: Tell us about your workspace. Where do you work and when do you feel most inspired?

My favourite time to work is when I can go up to my parents for a couple of days, usually over a weekend. They still live in Toronto, but it feels like a vacation. I have nothing else there to distract me from creating art. Any messy work I do at my parents in their garage workshop. I have an electric frying pan with wax, an iron that I use to iron the wax out of my fabric, and my dye pots. I usually do my dyeing in their kitchen. I also use their workshop to build frames and boxes. Most of my frames are store bought, but there are a few that either I or my brother built. I do my work in a few places, I have an iBook that I do my website and research on. Just this past weekend I set up a desk I built in our office; my boyfriend and I both share it. My hand sewing I do in the living room, usually curled up on the couch.

Q: Let’s hear it for supportive parents with well-stocked workshops! Sounds like a great set-up. Do you have a current favourite tool?

My father’s chop saw. I just made some lightboxes and loved the process of building the boxes to stretch my art over. It had been a while since I worked with wood, and I love building things.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about the cultural renaissance in Toronto, but much of the conversation is around architecture and big works like the ROM and the AGO. Do you sense the same energy in the art/craft world?

I was at a big symposium at Harbourfront Centre last month that was entitled “Crafting New Traditions.” A lot of the talk focused on how underrepresented the craft community is in Canada, especially in regards to the recording of our craft history. The symposium inspired me to start writing an essay on the history of smocking in Canada, since this is what my family is involved in.

Our First House
Our First House

Q: Do you consider yourself part of the art/craft community or the art community or do you even make the distinction?

I think that there is a lovely community of craftspeople in Toronto. Examples of this can be found at Harbourfront Centre, stores like the Knit Café and Lettuce Knit, and collectives like Vest, Joe & Josephine, and Domestic (which I am a part of). Of course there is also the Toronto Craft Alert, which is an amazing resource. I think that there is a distinction between craft and art, but that craftspeople are able to span both. There is fabulous art being made using craft techniques. This is usually how I describe what I do – art that is created using traditional textile techniques.

Q: You were a part of the MADE show at the Gladstone recently - exciting! Was it the most public show you've done?

It was my first time participating, but it is not the first public show I've done - I have had a booth at the
Outdoor Art Exhibition at Nathan Phillips Square for the past four summers and I have also had a booth at both the Christmas and Spring One of a Kind Show (I did each show once). Those have probably been the most public shows I've been part of. The rest of the public showings I've done have been more art gallery type exhibitions.

Q: I was intrigued by the theme at this year’s MADE show, “In The Closet.” At what point in your career did you feel comfortable saying loud and proud "I am an artist"?

A: I have only recently felt comfortable telling people I'm an artist when they ask me what I do. In the past year it has begun to be the first thing I will say when people ask me what I do. I realized that the jobs I keep to pay the bills are not where my heart is - I am much more enthusiastic talking about my art. I love explaining my process and techniques.

Westwind Drift
Westwind Drift

Q: I completely relate to that. Isn’t it the greatest thing to be able to make a living doing something you love? As an up and coming artist what role do things like flickr, craft/art blogs, and the online arts community play? Or do they play a role for you at all?

Unfortunately I’m still not able to make a living just making my art. I have to work four days a week at a “regular job” and do art, grant applications, and update my website when I get home at night. This generally means that I don’t have too much extra time to take advantage of what things like flickr and other online arts communities offer. I hope that one day I can work less at my day job so that I can spend more time doing the things I need to do to promote my art.

Great chatting with you Hillary! Looking forward to more beautiful work.

Hillary Webb’s work is available at Arts On Queen, The Paper Place, and, fingers crossed, at this year’s Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition in July at Nathan Phillip’s Square.


A freelance writer turned retailer and part-time crafter, Nicole’s Etobicoke shop, Honeybunch, is a bijoux corner shop filled with laid-back and affordable children’s décor, gear and toys – and crafty goodness too. 3885 Bloor St. West,


Blogger Shiny Black Shoes said...

I say some of Hillary's work at the Made show and those pictures don't do it is stunning, elegant and happy to see this interview here.

8:24 a.m.  
Blogger Shiny Black Shoes said...

*i mean to say that I 'saw'

8:25 a.m.  

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