Interview: JESS DE WAHLS

In our last issue, Naomi Purvis explored the idea of using art and craft practices as a form of activism and as a way of encouraging the conversation of controversial topics. Jess De Wahls is an international artist, encouraging social change and gender equality, exploring Feminism and embracing recycling and reuse all throughout her intricate embroidery work. Naomi speaks to her to get an insight into her work as well as her opinion of art practices such as embroidery being used as an activism technique.

What’s your background?
Originally, I am from Berlin but have been living in London for 14 years. I am a trained hair stylist and besides my art practice, still run a 2-day salon in Soho Theatre. I have never studied art but have always been passionate about it and wanted to develop it alongside my hairdressing work. Over the years I have become a lot more focused on my art and hope to make this my main job in the future. I spend my time either at my studio, working on new projects, or travelling to places to teach embroidery workshops in the UK and abroad.

How did you get into embroidery? 
Like everything else within my art career so far, it happened almost accidentally. I was determined to make my Retex Sculptures more intricate and started to simply embroider certain aspects of what had already been pretty detailed pieces. I don’t think I was even aware at that point that what I was doing was already classed as embroidery. I thoroughly enjoyed the process and started to watch tutorials online and learn more about embroidery, which helped me develop my work into what it is today.

Explain your use of ‘Retex Sculpture’ – how did you decide to use recycled textiles in your work?
Throughout my work with embroidery, I have always I used recycled fabric for many reasons. For one, I wanted to create something for my gorgeous goddaughter and thought that reusing old textiles would be much more tactile and personal than I felt a painting could ever be. So, I started creating little funny looking plush monsters, made from my old clothes, because I loved the idea that they are made from cloth that I used to wear but I was giving them a new lease of life.

What’s more, I can’t deny my East German heritage, and in that recycling, upcycling, and a heightened awareness of the wasteculture we now live in, has always been part of how I see the world. I also see the utter waste and lack of solutions all around us every single day and I always use recycled fabrics of clothes that have been given to me, even throughout my workshops.   Another aspect of Retex is that I created a self-imposed rule onto myself, so that I can only use what I have, and I am not ‘allowed’ to buy matching fabrics should I run out of a particular colour or texture. What that creates is an environment where I have to be creative with what I have, which I believe is a brilliant way to flex your creative muscle.  
And last but not least, using recycled fabrics provides me with a myriad of different colours, texture and prints, that if I had to buy all of that, I wouldn’t be able to afford, or even store it in my studio.

PatchYourselfHappy – what inspired you to start it? How did it come about?
There are two kinds of people in the world: excuse-seekers and solution-finders. I am the latter. So, while thinking about how to actually tackle our textile waste crisis, I decided that instead of telling people not to buy cheap fashion that won’t survive laundering twice, to provide a solution instead.  This way I could encourage people to use what they already have and to not just dump clothes that have gone out of fashion as they are still perfectly functional. So, I designed, crowdfunded and manufactured a vast collection of beautiful, intricate floral patches, which I am introducing slowly but surely to shops and retailers.

Has feminism always been an inspiration for your work? What else inspires you? It hasn’t, simply because feminism, including its history and modernday meaning, was something that I started to only grasp around the age of 27. I was always very engaged in standing up for female rights and equality, not knowing that my acts have always been inherently feminist.  But growing up in East Berlin which was governed by a communist-socialist sentiment meant that I grew up surrounded by people who often to this day are entirely unaware or even against the idea of feminism, which to me is utterly bizarre, and there is certainly a future explorative exhibition carved in stone.   So, with my move from illustration and painting to textiles, also came feminism, which is interesting when you look at the connection of feminism and textile art throughout history, though it was at that point not at all deliberate.

How do you feel about craft practices such as embroidery being used as activism?
Speaking from a personal perspective, I see embroidery every bit an art practice as I see painting or sculpting. I think the advantage of using embroidery for activism is that you can create political imagery and slogans that can be worn directly on, or as part of, clothing, and in that way spark conversations.

In fact, many of my Big Swinging Ovaries Embroidery Patches are quite bold images through which many people with ovaries not only identify themselves, but by wearing them, they open themselves up to conversations, which in my opinion is one of the most powerful forms of activism. You have to talk to people to inspire change.

What key messages do you hope to portray within your work?
I don’t really think about it that way. I absolutely live through my work, so whatever I work on is an extension of what I currently go through or explore. I love that my work speaks to so many people, but in all honesty, the person I have to please first and foremost with it is myself.  Additionally, regardless of whatever message I would hope to portray in my work, art has a way of being interpreted by the viewer, often despite of the original intention of the creator, which of course is part of the beauty of it.   

Having said that, if I had to bring it down to one thing in particular, I would have to say that whoever sees my work and feels touched by it in any way – I hope they understand that everything is possible when you trust your gut, follow what feels right to you.    

You mentor for the Hand & Lock embroidery prize – what does this entail and how did it come about?
Being a mentor came about as organically as everything else so far and social media has certainly played a huge role in how Hand & Lock became aware of my work, approached me and asked if I’d like to get involved.

Being a mentor can mean many different things, from giving advice on how to potentially improve upon a piece, to acknowledge when there is nothing to add or take away, and sometimes it’s simply helping with logistics or just being there at the event for support.

I always try to be as transparent and straight with the finalists I work with as humanly possible. By that I mean I will make sure that my advice or criticism is as objective as possible, and sometimes that means that there isn’t really much to do because the work is already excellent.

How do you see your future? Any new projects?
With everything that has been going on over the past few years such as Brexit and Trump to name but a few, I have somewhat resigned from trying to control my future. Nobody can in any case, but that didn’t stop me from trying.    What I can control is the here and now, so I keep creating work that matters to me and thankfully speaks to others. I continue to run not only creative embroidery workshops, but also the kind that allow me to actively create change, such as the one I run with Florence of the Vagina Museum, where half of all proceeds go towards funding an actual bricks and mortar vagina museum in the future. Or my workshop that supports the fantastic efforts of #bloodygoodperiod, by teaching to stitch and raise money to help end period poverty. That’s certainly something I want to do even more of over the next few years, which also means a lot more travelling for me, me, which I love.

I want to give up hairdressing entirely eventually and just be a living and breathing artist. All of next year is already dedicated to creating work for my next Solo Show ‘No Common Thread’ with which I will return to Australia for another solo exhibition in early 2020. I am writing a book about creative embroidery, and generally speaking, there are some major exciting things coming up for early 2019, which sadly I am not yet allowed to speak about.

Where can people find your work? Are you exhibiting anywhere at the moment or in the future? 
Currently the best way of finding out about any kind of exhibitions I am involved in is to sign up to my newsletter as I like to try and add regular updates when I can. It’s also the best way to find out about upcoming workshops. I also hope to be able to share some very exciting plans for 2019, which I will announce as soon as I can but hopefully will give people a chance to view my work.

Keep up to date with Jess’ work at or on Instagram at @jessdewahls
All images via Jess De Wahls


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