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Laura Nathan

I spoke to Laura Nathan – a Manchester based textile artist, working with family history, narratives and identity as well as stitching some beautifully colourful paper based textiles pieces. We talked about her family, her projects and her focus on wellbeing. Find her incredible work on Her Instagram @paperstitchart and @leahgittel as well as on her Website.

Sara – I’ve been following you for a while as @paperstitchart and I loved seeing your Corgi project. Tell me a bit about it.

Laura – The Corgi project was a very out of the ordinary project for me! 50 artists, schools and community groups were invited to design and decorate a corgi celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. There was a short turnaround with only a month to design and decorate a corgi. But I didn’t want to turn it down as I felt that it would be a really good challenge. When researching, I fell in love with the embroidered Robe of Estate which the Queen wore for her Coronation. This robe is a beautiful and symbolic piece of art, famous for its goldwork embroidery. I experimented and learnt how to embroider gold work and I put my own contemporary twist on it. The hardest part was constructing the corgi’s coat as I had to teach myself pattern cutting. The corgis were installed in Altrincham Town Centre as a Corgi Trail to celebrate the Jubilee. My corgi was housed in the Cheshire branch of Delcor, which is a beautiful showroom displaying luxury hand made furniture upholstered with decadent fabrics. At the end of the month, all the corgis were auctioned and money was raised for Inch Art, which is a charity and Art Gallery which do a lot of community-based projects. I found the auctioning process a little scary, as I don’t normally make commercial work. The auction raised £23,500 in the end which was phenomenal!

‘Coronation Corgi’ Photo credit: @studio9ltd (fibre glass corgi, velvet, faux fur, goldwork embroidery) – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Laura Nathan

My Undergraduate degree was in Embroidery and my Master’s degree was Art as Environment. My Masters degree developed my knowledge of working within the field of public and community arts. The Corgi project fitted well as it balanced my practice both as an embroiderer and community practitioner. The whole project brought people together to celebrate and to get them involved (with the trail and with raising money for Inch Arts’ further community projects). It’s been a really nice project and I’ve got to know many of the artists and coordinators.

I originally found you through your @paperstitchart page on Instagram. I love the colours, the stitching and the shapes you created. Then when I looked you up on your Website I found all the other styles of art you do. You inspired me so much and I felt really intrigued about you as an artist.

My work is really diverse and can feel very separate. I built my own website, but it needs developing as all the elements of my work look a little too separate. Half my work is very beautiful and busy, and the other half is sad and reflective, but actually when you put them together, the process is quite similar.

I feel that they fit in really nicely together as a whole. They are very different, and initially it did surprise me a bit. How did you come from embroidery to paper stitching and then working with all those extra materials and layers?

I always primarily focus on the concept. Whoever I am working with (a group or my own work), I focus on what is the best way to approach certain topics. Most of my work is influenced by my family history surrounding the Holocaust as it was such a significant thing to have happened.  It impacted my grandparents but also my parents and my siblings – a generational trauma, and the loss of family. I find it difficult to understand the enormity of my family history and this feature a lot in my work. Most of my work is quite anxious and reflective. It’s often an obsessive repetitive process as I try to figure out what is happening by deconstructing and reconstructing things to understand stories. Even though my art styles may look different, it usually about me trying to process things that have happened, the layers, history and feelings

I’m doing a residency at the moment which is delivered by Venture Arts. At Venture Arts we work with neurodivergent artists and artists with learning disabilities. The residency program called Conversations Series brings together learning disabled and non-learning disabled artists together to look at a subject. This time round we are all working together to explore identity and heritage, and this is a positive example on how people can connect based on a shared topic, in our case our family history. I have been paired up with an artist after we discovered a shared history of Polish, German and Jewish family during the Second World War. Also, my Polish grandfather was a concentration camp survivor and hers was a Polish Prisoner of War – so we got talking and worked together in conversation to look at our family history.

I am currently focusing on my grandmother, who loved creating tapestries. It might have been her way of relaxing and this I can relate to. Some of her tapestries are quite garish and unfinished and two still have the needles in the place she stopped before she died. One needle is very rusty. For me that is so powerful.

‘Laura’s grandmothers unfinished tapestries with the needles in their resting place’ Photos taken by Laura Nathan – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Laura Nathan

I am working with letters her parents sent her and families’ documents. Some of the sterile official documents are hard to process until you look closely. For example, there’s a list of children my grandma came over on the Kindertransport boat with. It has her name on it and its very matter of fact. And then you look again and question why some names were crossed off and who are all these children. I’m experimenting by stripping down the letters and documents into threads and weaving them into tapestries. I’ve also used a photograph of her parents and printed this onto Binca fabric and deconstructed the fabric a little. I then weaved strips of the letters into it. We also have my grandmas needle case which she made as a young girl in Germany. Her mom said ‘take your needle case with you on the boat, you might need to fix your clothes’. I find this so powerful.

‘Sample piece created during the Narratives Residency’ Photo taken by Laura Nathan (wool, digitally printed fabric, tapestry fabric, photograph) – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Laura Nathan

It is powerful and also relatable even if in different circumstances.

I agree, it is really relatable; no matter how many facts you are told, it’s the personal stories that resonate. I have this overwhelming sadness for my grandma. She doesn’t really know the exact fate of her parents. She knew that they went to the harbour and she got on the Kindertransport boat, and her father was too sad to say goodbye. They wrote her letters, then my grandma received shorter letters via the Red Cross. And then her parents were deported to Riga and she didn’t hear from them again. My grandpa has a horrific concentration camp narrative and my grandma perhaps felt guilt because he went through absolute trauma. My grandma felt like she didn’t as she was able to come to England with the Kindertransport. I am trying to process all this really intense history and at the same time my life can feel very busy. So, at night, I find sewing really nice and relaxing. Normally, I am constantly thinking and planning, but when I sew, I’m relaxed.

Yeah, I can imagine it helps you get out anxieties and even just by the movement of your hands it helps you relax.

When I am sewing, my thoughts slow down. Its slow pace helps me become calm.

When you say you are focusing on wellbeing in your art, is it your own wellbeing by the process they are made through? Or is it the themes and topics that help you express certain thoughts and feelings? Or connecting with others?

All of those, I think. When the COVID-19 pandemic started my children were 2- and 4-years-old and I was working at Venture Arts. I was focusing on everyone else’s wellbeing and neglecting my own. I made a series of art over Lockdown and some of it used hair to explore anxiety. Since the age of 16, whenever I felt anxious or stressed, I would play with my hair and pick the split ends. I would find this really soothing. This is a condition called Trichotillomania.  After a long day I would realise by a clump of hair that clearly, I hadn’t been in a good place that day. This didn’t feel very constructive and instead of discarding it I wanted to explore as it’s a reflection of how I was feeling. I took the clump of hair and popped it on fabric. I then stitched it down exactly how it was. I made a series of these. I also experimented with synthetic hair embroidering the words I was feeling.

‘Lockdown Anxiety’ Photo taken by Laura Nathan (human hair, synthetic hair, calico) – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Laura Nathan

I realised at night I needed to do something constructive, and I started sewing to balance my mental health. I preferred using paper to fabric because it felt immediate. I only had a little window of my own time and with fabric you have to prepare it – iron and cut, which would have taken up energy. With paper I could just sit in front of the TV and just cut. It felt so nice. I started cutting shapes and stitching them down, then carried on. I never thought much what I was doing with it, and it just kept evolving.

‘Busy hands Close up’ Photo credit: Martin Livesey (calico, cotton and embroidery thread, paper and card) – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Laura Nathan


‘Busy Hands’ Photo taken by Laura Nathan – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Laura Nathan

I found your Lockdown Series very expressive, I felt it so strongly. I looked at it and I felt it summed up my anxiety and feelings during lockdowns.

Looking back, it was a really difficult time for everyone. This piece shows how chaotic I was. I feel people really connected with and they also feel the mania and intensity. I like how I turned stress and chaos into something beautiful and relatable. I now understand if I need some headspace I can sew and that keeps me grounded. I recently sewed on a six-hour family car journey to Dorset; on the way there and back – it gave me something to do to keep me relaxed. Along the way I picked up a sandwich packet, hotel sewing kit packaging, a National Trust Castle ticket and I stitched them into the piece. I think this piece starts to link my more personal work to the colourful ones because it’s using documents and shared memories. I feel this is where it could gradually cross over.

‘Dorset close up’ Photo taken by Laura Nathan (calico, cotton and embroidery threads, paper and card) – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Laura Nathan

Gosh, I wouldn’t even notice those bits under. You see those big colourful things, but you have an underneath layer there. So interesting. Do you get a lot of responses from people connecting to your art?

Yeah, for sure. I never set out making work to sell. I mainly make art if I’m a little bit anxious or needing to do something with my hands.  I think because it’s more genuine and authentic people can connect with my experiences. Years ago, I used to do commercial work to sell at markets, but this didn’t have any soul. I’m not necessarily a person who is going to sell much art- but I’m a person who loves creating art and working with people. I mainly earn my living through working with people. I enjoy the balance of working with people to develop their artwork and working on my own art.  If in the end I start selling work that is a bonus. Saying all this, I do have an Etsy shop and I have a card range that I do sell online and in local shops. When I think about it, I actually have a lot going on, it’s all a bit manic. But I think all artists are.

I think we all are not just artists. You just express it and we’re not. How does your family (mom and dad) feel about you working on your grandparents’ history? Is it helping them to connect and express too? 

Yeah, I think they really like it. Especially my mom because it’s her parents. She just scanned some of the letters for me. I think she finds it really hard to talk about. But by showing me documents and my grandma’s needle case and wools, it’s her way of being able to deal with things and pass them on. She has my grandmas’ letters in German, and she wants to translate them herself. She doesn’t want someone else to translate them. These letters I find very powerful, when you notice the little things – the title reading ‘my beloved poppi’, so interesting.

The residency, through Venture Arts is supported by Manchester Jewish Museum. In the museum there is a film about Journey’s, and you can hear my grandma talking. She says ‘I came on the Kindertransport, I can’t remember my father saying goodbye to me. When I received the first letter it said that they went to the docks and saw me on the boat, but they didn’t say goodbye as they probably couldn’t face it.’ At the end she says ‘They wanted to give me my nationality back, but I said no, thank you I’m British. I’m not a blooming German, I’ve been British for donkeys’ years. I find this bit quite funny. Before I went into the museum, I thought my exploration would focus more on myself as a Jewish woman. Then I heard this video and I started thinking about what my grandma went through, how she must have felt. I thought about the reasons she used to shout at me if I was disrespectful to my mom and how proud she was of her British Jewish identity. It made me realise that this project is still about me but centred around my grandmas’ experiences.

I went to the museum last year and I was sitting there watching it. There was a bit about people from Hungary or a snippet from Hungary and it felt personal. And it’s not even people I know, but the country is still grieving, still hurt and it just felt very intense. If you have someone in that video, it must be so hard to hear it, but also so personal and close. 

There will be a Narratives exhibition at the Lowry Art Centre next year. I’d also love to exhibit in the Jewish Museum with my grandma’s narrative in the background with space to install the tapestries. The Jewish Museum is such an incredible place for that.  You can hear and feel these wonderful and sad stories. All those stories are so powerful. For me, it’s really important to find the material (for example the original documents of my grandma’s or using her wool) and to tell a story by using authentic materials. 

I was going to ask about that, you mentioned that you use symbolic material for your narrative art. 

Yes, for my grandpa’s story, the Tailor’s story. After the war he became a tailor; it was his way of survival. I feel his connection with fabric. You know when you go into a fabric shop and you can see snippets of the fabric around the edge such as “100 percent wool, Made in England.” I really liked that, and I chose to retell his story through his tailoring fabrics. I stitched his testimony onto it during my Embroidery Degree many years ago. Because he was so traumatised by his experience, he didn’t tell anyone apart from my auntie. She is a psychologist, and she managed to get a few brief details.  The dates, the camps he was in, snippets of what happened. He died relatively young of bowel cancer; I think his body was really damaged. We have these little snippets of stories and for my grandma it must have been horrible, because they are just snippets of what her husband went through. You forget the person sometimes as its the horrible stories you remember. The only thing my grandma had from her parents were those few photos and letters. This interests me, there is this beautiful background of someone’s life which is reduced to a narrative of trauma and pain. All I know is the horrible stories, but they were actual people. Seeing their pictures and personal letters make them more human to me.

‘Grandfather’s tailor fabric’ Photo taken by Laura Nathan (cotton threads) – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Laura Nathan

You are getting to know them even more through these documents and your art. It is really great. It’s hard to imagine what they have gone through, but it’s lovely you are learning more about them. 

Tell me about working at Venture Arts? It’s been ongoing for a few years now, right?

I’ve worked there for around 12 years. I’m a textiles facilitator and volunteer coordinator. I really enjoy working at Venture Arts, it’s all about supporting people to develop their own skills so they can communicate their own projects and ideas. 

You support people to find their style or help them with technique?

Yeah, both. There are so many really wonderful pieces in production. For example, there is one artist who is really interested in his collection of suits and the occasions he wears them for. He stitches his stories about all different events and the suits he wore into printed photographs.

Can anybody go to Venture Arts, or it’s focused more on people who are neurodivergent?

It’s a visual art charity that supports people with learning disabilities and neurodiversity. We are not teachers; we support artists to realise with their creative ideas. People come for different reasons – some people want to be artists, some people love the social side of it, some people want to learn how to express their story.

You also worked with other community groups?

Yes, I’ve worked with many different groups including Pulling Together- Asian Women’s Group and The Muslim and Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. I also worked with The Manchester Cathedral as a schools and community engagement officer when the Anne Frank & You exhibition came to Manchester. I really like working with different groups – thinking about what they want to explore, whether it’s an issue, a conflict or something they want to process. It’s about finding a way to do so within their own cultural understanding. I don’t do a lot of community work anymore as I’m working mainly with Venture Arts and on my own art practice.

You also have been working with the Jewish Museum?

That’s through my current Narratives residency. They are supporting it, so I go there most Fridays.

Yeah, it is a lovely place.

Did you say you have been to the Jewish Museum?

Yeah, I visited, and I also had an interview with them. I didn’t get the job, but I had such a great experience with them. They were so human, and it made the whole scary experience into something lovely. I would love to go back and visit again. 

They’ve really redeveloped it. It is a great place that highlights stories and personal experiences supported by objects. 

I am really grateful for you sharing your story. I found some of it relatable to me, not fully of course, but for example, when I moved away from home, my mom sent me with a thread and needle stuck in it, just in case. When you mentioned that I felt that. Or my grandparents lived through the war and the Soviet years in Hungary, and they don’t talk about it much and I would love to know more or understand more. I really love the way you do it – deconstructing and putting it back for you, in your own way. I find it inspiring. 

As much as my art is for me, it has to be good work. You can create art just for yourself and never communicate it publicly. But it’s important to think how an audience can connect. There is no point in having a piece of work that people don’t understand or connect with. It’s a balance.

Is this something you learned at uni or something you see aesthetically or the way you think of art?

I really remember it from uni. As much as I need to do it for myself, if it doesn’t connect with the audience, then it stops with me. I love artists who tell a story and make you think more and feel it. I realised by experiencing this connection with certain art, that I need to create art that can connect to others, if it’s going to be socially responsible. Otherwise, it’s just pretty and I think maybe self-indulgent.

What do you mean by socially responsible and what does that mean to you?

I think being socially responsible is thinking about society and people, the work you create and how it impacts people. Whether it’s working with people together to help with issues, or helping bring people together, or though conveying something that might help someone. 

That’s amazing, well said. Thank you for your time and sharing your art and your story with me.

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