The Quiet Activist
Posted on: 23/09/2016

“In Deirdre’s projects, materials are inseparable from stories of their making; she makes narratives of matter, narratives that matter. Handheld stories that weave words and wool, that value knitting and narration as ways of living more fully and more carefully; stories that are threaded through our world to keep them from passing from our hands and our hearts” Ruth Little


One of Scotland’s foremost contemporary textile artists, Deirdre Nelson is our first ‘artist in residence’. From March 2017 until the summer, she’ll be living and working around the Cateran Trail as part of the Common Ground team. In this post she shares a little bit about herself, her work and what drives her and what she plans to do during her residency with us.

deirdre-and-rubyDeirdre (with Ruby, Napkin Project ), photo by Jim Wileman

Deirdre can you tell us a bit about your arts practice and how you became the artist you are?

I studied textiles at Glasgow School of Art. Although really interested in making, I was also very interested in working with communities and after graduating, worked in education and arts and health. I also developed my own arts practice alongside and later began to do residencies which integrated my making and work with communities.

1-easterhouse-stitchEasterhouse Stitch, photo by Deirdre Nelson

You’ve been described as “a maker who embodies the principles of quiet activism making work that places craft as a central and productive force in society”. How do the values you hold determine what you do

“My core interest is in people and how we can value their diversity and their individual skills. My work tries to find ways to celebrate what individuals have to offer to the world around them – their special skills which are often overlooked. Celebrating the ordinary and the every-day, highlighting the overlooked, discovering the small things that are going on in people’s lives and communities is what motivates me. Even though there are lots of challenges around us I’m always looking to find ways of being celebratory and positive.

I’m a nomad and love to travel. I’m also very curious, very interested in a lot of different things. People’s lives and stories are endlessly interesting to me. I want to help tell their stories through my projects. Place matters to me. People’s connection to place, both urban and rural, it’s specificity, social history and environment is an enormously rich resource for me. Made in Easter House, which challenges stereotypes of the area and Shapinsay, which took patterns from the landscape of this Orkney Island and made them into cushions are both recent examples of how I work with place.”

2-stitching-fieldsStitching fields, Shapinsay, photo by Deirdre Nelson


I’m also quite mischievous! I like finding ways to mix things up so that you challenge people’s idea of place – as I have done in the Easterhouse project. Finding ways to create quality projects that have minimum environmental impact is central to my work. I try to be thoughtful and consider every aspect of a project. This involves being careful about your choice of material, who you work with and designing the end of the project at the beginning so that you are really forcing yourself to think about the long term ‘legacy’ of your work. I’m also very committed to using traditional craft skills – needlework and knitting for example and finding ways of passing those skills on.

4-hands-stitchingMaking Moves Project, photo by Becky Matthews

How do you keep learning and developing your own artistic practice?

I’m constantly looking around at what is going on, especially in other professions and other disciplines. That’s another way my curiosity kicks in! I think its really important to make sure you don’t just stick with your own field or even your own age group – developing links with younger artists and younger professionals for example constantly nourishes my work. I’ve also found the ethos of the ‘lean start-up’ methodology very relevant for developing my practice – “pivot and persevere” – knowing when to change course very quickly if necessary and knowing when to persevere and hold fast to your direction of travel.

I’ve only been making the kind of work I do now for around 15 years, before that I taught and I think that that experience has been really helpful because it makes me think of the people I’m working with first and foremost, what I can teach, what skills I can pass on. And it’s a virtuous circle because if you are interested in people and what skills they have you are bound to learn something from them too!

Why did Cateran’s Common Wealth and the Common Ground project interest you?

I have always been interested in walking – walking is a great way of observing. One of the things I was going to do when I turned 50 (which was just recently) was to walk 50 miles – so walking is a big part of my daily life and the idea of observing and being inspired by a Trail like the Cateran Trail that covers such diversity of landscapes, towns and villages and people holds great interest for me. As a textile artist I’m also interested in Eastern Perthshire’ rich textile heritage and the resurgence of local interest in this craft exemplified for example by Ashleigh Slater’s amazing Cherries and Berries Tartan. I know that there are many other artists and crafts people living and working around the trail too and I’m looking forward to being inspired by them and all their creative activity as well! In fact I’d love to walk the Trail when I come up for my residency next year and invite different people to join me and I’m talking to the organisers to see how we might make this happen.

dsc_1734Berries & Cherries Tartan by Ashleigh Slater, photo by WarpWeftWeave

What will you be doing during your residency?

Essentially I’ll be residence in the area for the Spring and early Summer of 2017, facilitating and leading the design of a new Cloth for the Cateran Trail in a project called Common Ground. This project is all about reconnecting people to the extraordinary heritage that is on their doorstep, which spans millennia – from the Neolithic Stone Age to the current day. The new aerial photography and place name research that is being done by Perth & Kinross Heritage Trust for the project is absolutely fascinating and will, I know, be a great source of inspiration for everyone involved in the design of the new Cloth.  My plan is to work with as many people as possible from local Schools and Community Groups in the area to draw on that inspiration to design a new Cloth – one that can be used in a whole variety of local settings and which will serve as a tribute to the generations of people stretching across thousands of year who have shaped the Cateran Trail area into what it is today. The Cloth we make together will be one way of ‘celebrating and sustaining the things that belong to all of us’ which is what the Cateran’s Common Wealth project is all about and I can’t wait to get started!

6-tablecloths-loch-lochTablecloths, Made in Easterhouse photo by Deirdre Nelson


Deirdre was interviewed by Clare Cooper, Co-Producer of Cateran’s Common Wealth in Alyth in March 2016.