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Material Issues


Art is frequently about the interrogation of self, the who? The why? The what might be or what might have been? For artist Natasha Kerr, it is a central driver of her work. Kerr who works with antique textile and photography, initially examined her own family background, however over the course of her career, she has investigated not only the lives and stories of clients, but also of fictional personalities of her own creation. “Telling a story is fundamental to my work,” she says, “but first I do a great deal of research.”

Kerr’s grandfather Otto came to Britain to escape the Nazis in 1936. A successful surgeon and specialist in women’s health, who trained under Freud, he was the son of a highly renowned Viennese tailor. As for so many political immigrants and asylum seekers today, his life’s trajectory and that of his family changed dramatically. This became a crucial focus for his Granddaughter, Natasha Kerr. At the centre of her ‘At the End of the Day,’ (used by the V&A as the lead image for their Quilt exhibition in 2010,) is a photo of her grandfather Otto, lying on a sheet in the garden, in front of an empty chair alongside his mother, whose face is covered by a handkerchief, all set in a multicoloured adapted Union Jack flag. It is according to Kerr a “displacement flag” an image perhaps of those left behind, those who are missing or about just not belonging anywhere.

This sense of dislocation or searching for the story of what makes sense of individual lives is the theme of much of her work, all of which is deeply considered, explored and researched. Her own family research culminated some 20 years ago, in ‘There Are Things You Don’t Need to Know,’ an extraordinary, haunting installation comprising a series of textile artworks and medical paraphernalia, enhanced by smell and sound, set in a decaying terrace house in South London. Kerr wanted to show her work not in a fractured way as just a series of anecdotes, but to make it understandable as a chronology of a family.  “It is a proper story of migration, change and the cycle of life,” she explains. She wanted her family to be seen in a house, rather than a sterile white gallery, so she self-funded the show and in the process nearly bankrupted herself. Being textile-based, it failed to attract the attention of fine art critics, who only later came to re-evaluate the use of textile as a valid artistic medium.

For Kerr, stitch is a form of family language, derived not only from her grandfather’s surgical skills, but via the matriarchal household of three generations, in which she was raised. Her great grandmother and grandmother made clothes for Harrods, Kerr made her own clothes and developed her own style. During her textile course at Brighton University, she created what she calls “very distressed’ fabrics based on Italian frescoes, which always showed the touch of the human hand. “I love things with soul,” she explains. “It’s a dichotomy because I don’t like broken things, yet I love age and patina. I like the interaction between the human being and the object. There must be care in the construction, which is reflected in the object.”

After graduation Kerr designed printed fashion textiles using Renaissance imagery creating work with a ghostly feel. Her breakthrough into fine art came when her mother gave her a forgotten album of old photographs. Kerr transferred them to vintage textiles, trying to establish the whys and whens of the family members in the images. Each textile panel was hand painted, hand sewn, silk screen-printed, transfer-printed and pieced together. “Hand stitching is important,” says Kerr. “ It is very different to using a machine … it looks different, it is less regimented, less immediate and stitching by hand takes time.” Finally Kerr augments the story by writing on the work using a fine paint brush and Indian ink.

Kerr’s family pieces led to a series of exhibitions, including a solo show at the Ruthin Gallery. Subsequently Kerr created artworks for hotels and restaurants alongside designing book jackets for Penguin Random House and Hodder. In 1999 she was commissioned to create a Royal Mail Millennium stamp design depicting the suffrage movement. 

 Kerr is regularly commissioned to do textile portraits of others, (often as a surprise gift.) Her approach is forensic, mixed with the psychological. Each subject is researched in conversation with family members and friends. “I am creating heirlooms,” she says, “but ones that the public will never see. I am creating not a decorative object but something that reflects who the recipient is, how others perceive them or how they perceive themselves. These are stories that would otherwise get lost,” she explains. “In a throwaway society it is giving something with love and personal involvement. It is a dialogue and negotiation; a kind of therapy perhaps and it can be very intense. Everything I do starts with the story.”

In her self-generated pieces, Kerr is equally driven. She constructs whole fictitious histories, based on found images. “They inspire the type of character I will create, what did he do for a living, when was he born, where was he born and it goes from there. I will research what happened at the time the person lived, what were the innovations, what was the zeitgeist. I then try to convey elements of the story within the piece. The actual story is also written onto the piece. All of the characters could have inhabited the background that they find themselves in.”  

All Kerr’s fictional characters are based on facets of human nature; on the trigger points that change people. Indeed all Kerr’s work involves an analysis of human behaviour, but also the stories of people’s lives, both those that they create and the factual ones. To date, most of Kerr’s work has been about other people, only one work has been a self-examination. She is both an author and a fine artist.  Her artistic ability relies not just on the creation of a striking and beautiful image, but on her understanding of what it is to be human.

“I think what I try to do is make incredibly personal work for people. It’s very intimate and if people have the capacity to let me, I’m very happy to go on that journey with them. A bond is formed, but unlike with a therapist, as an artist you can carry on that relationship.” That therapy analogy is apt. After the birth of her son, Kerr wanted to learn something new and to stretch herself. To add depth to her practice, Kerr is training to be a psychoanalytic therapist. “It’s more about how you feel about your narrative. I’m listening in a different way. I listen to understand, rather than the actual words. This has given me more confidence and allowed me to gradually let go of formulas and just flow.”

Interview by Corinne Julius. 

Images courtesy of Natasha Kerr. 'Otto the Photographer’, 1998, 156cm x 87cm'Tante Gertude Gast', 1995, 144cm x 98cm, 'Holding Hands', 2006. 160cm x 110cm, 'Fag Ash Lill', 1997, 150cm x 94cm, 'But Mum Can’t Swim', 2002, 196cm x 142cm. Copyright for all images, Natasha Kerr. 

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