Michael Brennand-Wood

Michael Brennand Wood Vase Attacks by Michael Brennand-Wood Burst by Michael Brennand-Wood
Stars underfoot by Michael Brennand-Wood
Babal by Michael Brennand-Wood

Michael Brennand-Wood describes himself as ‘an artist with a sustained interest in textiles’. During his 40 odd years as a practicing artist he’s held numerous exhibitions and has also worked as a lecturer (at Goldsmiths College, London), curator and arts consultant. He makes elaborate, eye-catching wall-hung pieces that are part sculpture, part textile. Covered in an intriguing variety of materials ranging from conventional textiles to flags, CDs and badges, the pieces have elaborate visual patterns which mask more profound meanings.


What first attracted you to working with textiles?

As I child I spent a lot of time playing with textiles. My grandmother was an industrial weaver who worked in a mill in the north of England and as a small boy I used to play with fabrics she bought home. She also taught me to knit and sew and do a little embroidery. Her brother had a little loom at home and the noise and smell of the loom is a strong childhood memory.

Most of your pieces are supported on a wooden base, were you interested in woodwork and sculpture from an early age as well?

Yes, my grandfather was an engineer and he had a shed at the bottom of the garden where he made things in wood and metal. He was an old-fashioned craftsman who really enjoyed making. So my two grandparents were responsible for my interest in the two materials that are primal to my work – wood and textiles.

So what made you decide to study textiles rather than go down the sculpture/fine art line at university?

I was going to study fine art but when I showed people my folder it was full of textiles and I think they were a bit put off. When I went round the corner to the textiles department I felt much more at home and decided to stay there. But I studied embroidery as it was far the most open-ended area of textiles and the area closest to fine art as I saw stitching as drawing in thread.  

What was it like studying textiles as a man in the late 60s, early 70s?

Before I started I had no idea that textiles were a ‘female’ craft, they were just something that was always around and you could use to make things. But when I did my degree in textiles I was the only man among 30 odd women – it was beyond unusual, especially as irony hadn’t really been invented. I think I was quite brave! My work has always been about putting myself in unfamiliar territory and working in the margins and I think as a man working in a ‘female’ area I was doing just that. My tutors didn’t know what to do with me, but it meant I had to work really hard as anything the women did I wanted to do better.

What was interesting was that my skill base was quite different from the girls as at school there had been some degree of segregation with the boys doing woodwork and the girls cookery, so I could bring different skills into my work. Also my approach was quite different. I was quite philosophical about why I was doing things and not just interested in doing them well and stitching onto fabric. My work was always about ideas and not just technique.

When you left Manchester how did you want to develop your work?

I wanted to release the stitch from the background and separate it from the historical. The great thing about a traditional art school education was that you got an excellent grounding in techniques and the history of textiles and so I wanted to build on that and work on how you could adapt and extend the techniques. I liked the geometry of the stitch and wanted to work out a new way to do it and experiment with new materials. Textiles in the 1960s were all about decorative stitching on fabric and I wanted to push against that.

Your work is very sculptural, does relief play an important part in your work?

I think one of the strongest characteristics of my work is the illusion of space. I’m interested in exploring the space between the second and third dimension. Touch is also hugely important, and is all part of the nature of textiles – you can experience them a bit like Braille. It’s a sensory experience with the materials conveying a message through touch.

How important is meaning in your work?

The work can be read on several levels and I like the interplay between the micro and macro readings of the work. From a distance it looks purely decorative, but as you get closer you can see the details and understand it on a different level. I like the idea of going into the work, there’s almost a hallucinogenic quality to some of my recent pieces – you enter a different world. I’m interested in abstraction and enjoy seeing what you can do optically with rhythm and colour, but the abstraction still has a meaning and is not just playing with pattern. I hope my work makes people think. It’s very rich and you can go into to it and get a lot out of it over a long time.

How do you convey the meanings behind your works?

I use titles as clues to help explain the meaning of the pieces and most of the time people do get it. I’m also very interested in the nature of materials and the meanings they convey – they all have a message. For example, at the moment I am doing a series of flag-based pieces which are all about associations of war and conflict and the euphemisms people use when they talk about these issues. They’re not anti-war with a capital A and W, but they are linked to the madness in the Middle East and the great sadness I feel about putting our young people into the positions that we do. Flags are very emotional and very loaded icons.

My floral pieces are also full of meaning. The biggest mistake you could make is to think they are just quite pretty as they have a darker underbelly, a bit like the Venus flytrap flower or flowers at a funeral. I’m interested in the way historical textiles have lots of resonance and were used to mark important stages in life like birth and death.

Is making an important part of your practice?

For me making is the thinking process. Nowadays making is considered dinosaur-ish, but I make all my own work and that’s very important for me. I do work with digital technology and use computerised machine embroidery to make the individual blooms found in my floral pieces and I don’t have a problem with that, although I would if I did it all the time. My first joint show was at the Crafts Council in 1979 and I feel I was part of that generation of makers encouraged by the Crafts Council and I don’t want to turn my back on that making heritage.

How would you say your work has developed over your career?

I think my work can roughly be divided into four stages. The first stage, up to the mid 80s, was dominated by embroidery, and then from the mid 80s to the early 90s I spent a lot of time working with pattern. During the 90s I became fascinated by lace, particularly the idea of reinventing it from a male perspective. And after 2001 I started working with traditions of floral textiles. I like my work to change and evolve rather that re-working the same pieces over and over again. With my lace pieces I was pushing both myself and my audience – people would say, ‘why are you doing these things, we liked your old work’, but then they began to get used to the new pieces and appreciate them more. I think it’s important to have a body of ideas which you continually try to extend and develop.

I’ve always being interested in working in contested areas. Pattern in 80s was very unfashionable and people couldn’t understand why I was working in it, and the same went for my more recent work with floral and historical textiles. I think it’s really exciting for artists to put themselves in unfamiliar territory, push things ahead and ask questions. Projects, commissions and exhibitions are all a form of continuous education.

Interview by Diana Woolf