In Conversation with Julie Paterson

Finding the sweet spot

On display in ADC Object Space Gallery from 31 January to 18 March is the exhibition Sweet Spot by Julie Paterson. Sweet Spot is a collection of stencil symbols and the marks that they make. In this work Julie Paterson cross pollinates her multidimensional practice as a designer, painter and printmaker. ADC's CEO Lisa Cahill had a chat with Julie about her fabric design label CLOTH and where she gets her inspiration. 

CLOTH has been an extraordinary success for you. When did you start and how did the idea come about?  
Julie: CLOTH came about in 1995. It started off as a playful idea between myself and fellow textile designer Penny Simons. We had been freelance designing commercial textiles for companies like Sheridan and Kaldors for a few years and had lost the joy somewhat. The work they were asking for was a bit run of the mill and quite Eurocentric we felt. We realised that no one back then was creating furnishing fabric by hand in Australia, and focussing on the Australian flora and fauna. We thought we might give it a go for six months and see what happened. 

Very quickly we knew we were on to something. People were REALLY interested in what we were doing - architects interior designers and the general public. What was a six month experimental project designing directly onto the fabric with no specific outcomes now is in its 25th year!

What have been some of the pivotal moments for you?  
Julie: In 1999 - four years in, Penny wanted to focus on building a permaculture business and I wanted to keep Cloth going. I had a vision of a little shop with a print table at the heart of things where people could see us working, and become part of the process themselves. But we were heavily in debt and Penny thought that was too risky a move but I intuitively knew by then the business had legs. I took on the debt, gritted my teeth and moved into a retail shop in Clovelly. I soon had a whole new audience and amazing support. My intuition was right.

Another pivotal moment came soon after opening that shop when I was invited out to Alice Springs to work with a group of Aboriginal artists. We created designs that were showcased at Fashion week and were received really well. Sadly the company that funded that project went into receivership and we never developed the project further but travelling out to central Australia for the first time was an amazing experience for me. Working with those women sitting on the ground hearing their stories changed me and deepened my connection with the land.

Another great moment was touring with Object to Japan and Milan as part of Freestyle. (It) Felt good to be defined as part of a new Australian design posse.

Another was around 2012 when our rent in Surry Hills was too high and the economy slowed and people stopped buying my fabric. My accountant told me I had to reduce my overheads by 40% or go bust within six months. I reached out to the City Of Sydney for some cheap rent. They obliged by offering me the William St space and this saved my bacon for another 2- 3 years. In which time I'd written my book ClothBound  (another major highlight) and realised that in fact I could do business differently . I closed the shop and moved to the Blue Mountains full time. I found myself a distribution arrangement with Ascraft Fabric and then the financial pressure was off for a while. I've spent the last couple of years having the opportunity to re-establish what it was I really wanted to do and now here I am on the cusp of building up Cloth once again.

You’ve had a long association with ADC. What has that involved and how has it helped your career?   
Julie: ADC or Object as it was then, has been very supportive from the outset. In the early years at Customs House and then at Bourke St I have been involved in many exhibitions (can’t remember any names of those exhibitions! ) over the years. But the significant one was when ADC had just opening at William St (my old shop!) and we created the touring show Cloth: From SeedsTo Bloom: 20 years of Cloth. This was one of the last initiatives of then CEO Steve Pozel (who personally has been and still is very supportive of my craft over the years) who took the exhibition that I had created at Sturt and created a touring show that travelled regionally around NSW for two years. As that show was touring the regional galleries, I developed my workshop LookDrawPrint. Each time the show opened I offered a workshop. Each time they sold out and I would go back for a second and often a third workshop. This exposure and getting the chance to meet face to face my supportive regional customers was invaluable and heart warming. Cloth customers are so nice. All of them are but especially the regional ones. 

Tell us about this new direction for CLOTH presented in Object Space.
Julie: So over the past few years living and working up in the Mountains I've been seriously wondering if there was anything new to say through Cloth. My focus on the Australian landscape was a strong as ever but I was playing around with exploring it differently. Less from a design perspective, more from an artists headspace. I've always sat in this place - artist /designer/ maker but the designer in me has always led. I thought now was possibly the time to let the designer part take a back seat. January 2019 I had a print making show in Katoomba, Blue Mountains. It was landscape based, using my cut paper stencil process - the same process I've been using to design textiles with for more than 25 years, but this time I was making one off large scale artworks. The show was called Edge to Edge. During the making of the work as I cut the specific stencils that I needed to make the shapes of the trees, or the sunlight through the trees, or a chimney or the shadows cast by buildings or the windows or the brickwork, what ever it was I needed. Each time I started printing these tiny stencil shapes one at a time on a separate piece of fabric side-by-side, after I'd used them in the making of the artwork. At the time it was an afterthought. But then I looked at these stencil shapes and realised they were really interesting in their own right. They were like symbols on a map. They all meant something. I knew that these shapes could be the start of a new set of designs. They were fresh and abstracted and very much based upon place and process (two of my favourite topics). I knew I needed a bit of time for this to settle in and allow for space to play and explore. But I knew intuitively that my 'Library of Shapes' could well be a new way of looking at the landscape through textiles. Design coming directly from the art. A clear and strong connection. It was a bit of a eureka moment. I wasn’t sure how exactly it would pan out but I knew it would take shape somehow. That was all a year ago. I approached Lisa and blurted this all out to her in her office and she said 'let's do something in a years time' and now here we are.

This past month I've had a play around scaling the tiny motifs up and just last week had my second eureka moment about the work- and again I went to Lisa and blurted it all out. I even swore in my email, I was that excited.

And although I know roughly what I'm doing, I don’t know what might happen and I'm giving myself the chance to continue playing. This playtime will be for a week in the window of ADC / Object Space - in front of and with an audience. Just like it was back in the early days. I will be prototyping new design ideas with the stencils directly on the fabric. At the end of the week other people will be working with me to create a group version.

So I feel I'm back on board the designer train with great enthusiasm. I love being an artist but deep down the designer in me is strong. So the two go hand in hand - I'm a designer with an artists mindset. I love that design can reach out to many, to be accessible and affordable. To be contemporary, relevant and direct.

I like that I consistently make my story and my process to be at the front. I like that I always aim for the authenticity and honesty to shine through and allow space for the mistakes and the uncertainty. This is where the gold lies. I've found my Sweet Spot!.

Do you have advice for creatives in terms of anything that has helped to sustain your career?
Julie: Keep honest. Keep looking within. Keep asking the questions. Keep making mistakes. Be humble and be playful. Be prepared to let it all go.


The exhibition Sweet Spot: Julie Paterson is on display in Object Space, 31 January to 18 March.  Julie will spend 18-22 February printing in the William Street window and hosting a day of workshops on Saturday 22 February. 

Sweet Spot Community Printmaking Workshop
You are invited to join an hour-long stencil print workshop to create a unique, collaborative textile design with Julie. 
When: Saturday 22 February, 2020
Where: Australian Design Centre
Tickets: $55, all materials included, book here


Image: Julie Paterson in her studio, Photo: Courtesy of the artist