We asked five questions of the five artists who participated in Northart’s very first exhibition in 1998 and have been invited back for ‘First Five’, one of two stunning shows celebrating Northart’s 20th anniversary (open daily until 27 November).

The second artist in our ‘First Five’ series is multi-award-winning fabric artist Susan Holmes. 

What media do you work in and what attracted you to it?

I started working with fabrics in 1970 when I was 30. Until then I had been trying to be normal and have a proper job as a school teacher while all the time hating it and wishing I could be an artist. I did drawings and landscapes but really had no idea of the hard slog that you have to do to be an artist. The fabric work was a sideways step into art because it was so technique-based and I just had so much to learn to dye and print and make garments and there was more emphasis on design and colour and pleasing the customer than on the hard things (to me) like concepts and expression. So I really enjoyed my sideways step and kept doing it for the next 45 years, supporting myself with my fabric work, mainly selling dresses, but also teaching workshops, entering competitions, making banners and working on movies and TV shows as a printer/dyer.

What artworks or achievements in the past 20 years are you most proud of?

I regularly fell in love with some of the things I was making, not that I wanted to wear them (they were too precious!) but the colours and the feelings involved with them were so strong. These are some of them:

My first scarf, a chiffon silk with potato printed little birds on it. I was so excited, I immediately made hundreds more, all different.

‘Dove Dress’ 1972, screen printed black soft voile, with doves and leaves. Made for a fashion parade and brought to life by a real fashion model (Sue Crockford) and photograped by Robin Morrison. So exciting.

‘Night Moth’, a most romantic dress, made for a show organized by Pamela Elliott of Compendium Gallery. I fell in love with this one and wanted to make more, but never did. Owned by Auckland Museum.

‘Parachute Bride’, made from a 1938 silk parachute for the World of Wearable Art. It’s part of the ‘First Five exhibition at Northart. I loved working with this old soft silk. Even the parachute strings and the stitching thread they used were made of silk. This was a very happy piece for me. Photographed by Phil Fogle.

You’ve had considerable success and exposure with the World of Wearable Art (WOW) awards. Tell us a bit about that experience.

Many pieces that I made for WOW were expressive and held a lot of meaning for me, as I worked on each one for months and it would take my life over, until I sent it off and hoped it would do well. It was a weird way of making a sculpture, making it for a competition and surrendering it to others to show it for a tiny five minutes in the show at WOW. Fortunately, they are marvellous at doing that, so it has been most rewarding, if emotionally draining at times.

How has your practice developed over the past two decades? Tell us about any significant stylistic changes.

Ah, changes, what can I say. As what I make depends a lot on what I can get paid for, I do make things for WOW that I think will excite the judges, but I find that unless they excite me they will be tedious to make and will excite nobody. So I'm forever looking for new techniques, new materials and new ideas (these come really slowly now after all this time; when I first started I was on fire with new ideas!) Also, besides dresses and wearable art I've been making banners and sculptures to decorate and enliven the conference venues (usually schools) for Fibre Forums in Australia, encouraged and invited by Janet De Boer. I was lucky and very pleased that Wendy let me show some of these at Northart.

What is currently occupying your time?

Now, at 77 and newly moved to Gisborne to be with grandchildren and family, I'm starting a new life in which I've hardly started to set up my dyeing studio again (I use the kitchen stove if I have to dye something). I find myself hankering to go back to drawing and watercolours, but having no discipline or habits for those things. No pressure or deadlines to spur me on! So at the moment, I'm a work in progress!

Susan Holmes is arguably New Zealand's most accomplished and acclaimed fabric artist. Her four-decade career has spanned the fields of craft, fashion and fabric art. Susan’s connection to the World of Wearable Art (WOW) has led to her being described as "one of the leading exponents of wearable art in New Zealand". Since first entering the awards in 1988 she has gained more than a dozen awards and one of her best-known pieces 'Dragon Fish' was the 1996 Supreme Winner. Her story and the creative impetus which propelled her into fabric design was explored in Cerys Dallaway Davidson’s book, Susan Holmes: Fabric Artist (David Bateman, 2016). (created by Angela Fraser).