Focus on an EVAN artist: Wendy Ann Stanger

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Interview with Wendy Ann Stanger – Fibre Artist – by Polly Marix Evans

This was supposed to be an in-person interview with me going to see Wendy Ann at The EVAN Gallery in Penrith but, due to me recovering from an emergency operation, it ended up being a phone jobby instead. Sad, as there are usually more biscuits or cake involved when I meet someone in real life. But we had a pretty good giggle down the phone lines and, I’m hoping, there’s not too much anaesthetic and morphine still swooshing through my veins as to totally disrupt my train of thought and make my interview even more rambly and digressy than usual! Though you have been warned!

Wendy Ann Stanger

Wendy Ann works from her studio at Farfield Mill in Sedburgh, an amazing complex set over four floors, with 20-plus studios housing working artists and makers, galleries, shops and tea-room. It’s open to the public five days a week. She only took on her current studio here in March 2024, though had previously worked from the mill when she first moved to Cumbria in 2017.

Raised on a farm in rural Northumberland, where the nearest town was at least an hour away, and the nearest village a few miles, Wendy spent a lot of time in nature ‘Examining the clover and long grasses, making bracken dens, walking bare foot on stone walls and dam building in the rivers. Does that sound a bit weird?’ I ask if she was an only child, though she tells me she has siblings but also ‘I was a rebellious teen and I often decided to run away from home, but only got as far as the next field!’ So her continued love of nature began in her childhood years.

She studied Design Crafts at Cumbria College of Art, in Carlisle, so there were links to the county before she moved back here, graduating in 2000. Working as a freelance artist in Essex for a couple of years, painting murals and working on community projects. Returning to Northumberland she then qualified as an Art and Design teacher from Northumbria University. She has taught at schools in both Durham and Consett, where she met her husband.

In 2010 Wendy Ann left the teaching profession to have children but, as well as having a newborn followed 19 months later by another baby, she decided now was the time to set up a new business – and Blooming Fibres was conceived. ‘Working from my home studio was more flexible than teaching while running a family home.’

She’d been creating her own fibre art pieces using very organic processes and materials, such as plant fibres, bamboo, linen, mint, silk and rose. She tells me it’s a bit like wet felting (which everyone assumes it is) but more like silk paper making, a fibre fusion technique, using cellulose based glues to stop the flowers falling to bits or discolouring.

Her business became successful when she stumbled upon making wedding keepsakes. Following a few wedding fairs, a florist in Morpeth commissioned Wendy Ann to make a keepsake for her shop, the perfect companion for her business, and the orders came flooding in.

Wendy Ann Stanger

Wendy takes the bouquet, dries and preserves the flowers in a silica gel, or presses them. She constructs fibre-based backgrounds, often using lace from the wedding dress or confetti alongside the flowers. Some of the pieces can become quite abstract, but others have the original bouquet blooms more visually apparent. After a while it did become quite stressful and a bit ‘mass production’ feeling too, which began to take the enjoyment out of the work a little. ‘I knew it was time to explore other elements of my practice more and steer away from the repetitive nature of a keepsake.’

When her husband’s work forced the move back to Cumbria, Wendy Ann lost the contacts she’d had through her local florist. Then personal circumstances forced her focus to shift onto her family for a while. When she was ready to go back to work it seemed easier to fall back on the teaching, with a maternity cover opportunity at Trinity School. Followed swiftly by a Head of Department (Art) at Richard Rose Central in Carlisle. Another Maternity cover which led to a more permanent role as an Art and Design Teacher within a lovely Art Department.

Wendy says she felt unfulfilled in her teaching role and missed having the energy to give time to her own artistic practice. ‘It stopped working for me and I knew it was time to leave’. She left teaching again last year and is a lot happier in herself, and her own creative work, but it wasn’t instant, it took a good six months to relax into creating again. ‘I had creative block when I was teaching, I was so busy problem solving and handing out creative ideas to everyone else that it blocked my own creativity. Though it does sometimes aid creativity too. I did cyanotype with a Year 9 group, and now use this process in my own work. The same goes with gel printing – if I hadn’t taught these disciplines at school it’s very unlikely I’d be using them myself now.’

We discuss the age groups we prefer running courses for and agree that at Primary level the ideas are flowing so freely and without inhibition that it’s truly a wonderful age to be. Early secondary years seem to involve trying to conform and fit in. The way in which art is taught in schools doesn’t help this, trying to force a creative subject to fit around the same rules applied to other, more academic, subjects. ‘It removes the essence of creativity; students need to be given permission to play and experiment.’ Then the free-flowing ideas and not caring as much what other people are creating seems to return at A level, and especially Foundation Art.

Getting back to the work she produces now, I ask if there’s a favourite and how she works (this bit I love because it’s so like me!)

‘Ooo, I can’t choose! I dip in and out and never work start to finish on anything! You can be pretty sure what needs finishing first WON’T be the thing I’m actually working on! I start with the ingredients; I’ll be dying a batch of fleece and a certain bit of colour that appears almost by accident will match to some fabric or lace. The materials dictate what I make, though I do have an of an idea what I’m aiming for, but a particular flower will demand to be star of the show and the piece will evolve around it. You can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be sewing and dying and scrolling through Tik-Tok and drinking a cuppa all at once!’

Wendy Ann Stanger

Wendy Ann Stanger

And amongst those many things that Wendy Ann is making, whilst dancing to the radio, drinking cups of coffee, getting the kids to school and talking to people visiting her studio, is a plethora of intricately detailed, fascinating and beautifully colourful works – including framed pictures and wall-hangings, lampshades, purses, brooches, cards and kits.

You can see her work both at The EVAN Gallery in Penrith and at Farfield Mill in Sedburgh.