“A weird celebration of boredom and honesty”: Have a chuckle with the relatable work of Jess Warby
We chat to the London-based artist about her humorous textiles, quilts and non-sequential creative process which often includes a blast of TOWIE.
- Jyni Ong
- 20 January 2021
Illustrator and artist Jess Warby takes experiences from the domestic trivialities of every day and transforms them into witty textile drawings. Having studied illustration at uni, Jess knows very well how to construct a popping image, but always adds her own twist to the equation. Tufting, sewing and printmaking are staple methods in her practice; nimble exercises that help to add character to simple storyboards or the humorous anthropomorphism of objects. Pretty much anything can inspire Jess, and it’s often the more ordinary scenarios that end up gracing her charming textiles.
“I’m a bit of a starer and sometimes will zone out observing an encounter,” she tells us. She likes to pop into local hubs like cafes, pubs and supermarkets around the UK to people watch; an activity which often leads to the inspiration for her next piece. For Jess, an interesting story can be found anywhere, from the pensive consideration of an old lady ordering breakfast at a greasy Spoons to the experience of going to the loo and encountering a somewhat smug loo roll.
Going back to her roots in the arts, Jess grew up in a town in the West Country where she’d spend most weekend with her grandma. There, she’d make herself busy making tiny jeans for Ken dolls and in general, she tells us, “wreaking havoc on her poor sewing machine.” A great deal of her childhood and adolescence was spent deeply preoccupied with making things. She used to watch a lot of soap operas and Cartoon Network, and when she wasn’t doing that, she was generally knocking around, ear wagging about the latest town’s goings ons. And gradually, all these natterings accumulated in a practice where hearty fun takes centre stage. Or, as Jess puts it: “I think this manifested my interest in people and gossip, and a weird celebration of boredom and honesty.”
At school, she found it difficult to focus, only finding the concentration she needed when keeping her hands busy. This, coupled with the fact that she was very good at art, led her to pursue the subject – even though she’s had her doubts along the way. “I’ve definitely gone through phases of feeling like I should try working as a graphic designer or as an animator,” she adds on an all-too-familiar conundrum that emerging illustrators often find themselves wondering. But whenever she’s gone down that route, time and time again, Jess has found herself coming back to art. The wonderfully tactile medium that brings you away from the monotony of the screen, it naturally employs one’s problem solving skills and experimentation. It's also a way to learn new skills along the way.
Jess gravitates towards tapestry and embroidery for its storytelling techniques. “I love the way they have been used to represent experiences, communities and identity throughout history,” she adds, noting a particular appreciation for Afghan rugs, Tibetan village rugs and embroidered nudie suits on the matter. In Jess’ work on the other hand, the style is distinctly graphic and hand rendered, evoking a human quality to the craft. Though she admits she doesn’t always do things in a strictly conventional sense, the end result has a consistently “Jess” feeling about it – a culmination of her cut-and-paste methodology.
Once she has an egg for breakfast, she walks to her London studio; a good way “to take in the surroundings and get some headspace.” She likes to start tasks, leave them for a bit, then come back to them later; taking an non-sequential approach to creativity which can see her wrapping wool around a toilet roll while writing an email, or having loud TV or music in the background while she gets to work on her tufted rugs. A bustling noise is imperative to Jess’ efficiency and she likes to hear the hum of the embroidery machine in the background as her own soothing racket “which keeps me stimulated throughout the day.” It’s also lucky that she has a very forgiving studio neighbour, Jess adds, “who finds all the noises of various machinery with a note of TOWIE quite amusing.”
Working in this way, she’s recently made a corona quilt for an exhibition raising money for the NHS depicting the nitty gritty of day-to-day isolation. Using familiar and objects and vices to fuel the symbolism of the work, the quilt features a half-eaten chocolate bar because, in Jess’ words, “why not spend two hours making it into a hand sewn image?” Jokes aside however, appliqué is a satisfying way to spend one’s time (especially when there is a lot of it in lockdown).
As for the future, Jess is planning on a year of exploration and is applying to a variety of residencies and grants. She’d like to make work about a different part of Britain, exploring the country against the backdrop of Brexit and a new era of cultural identity. Determined to get the ball rolling in 2021, there is much on the cards for this exciting and highly relatable artist. She leaves us on this affirmative note for the future: “Covid and facing the 30s has made me rethink things and I would like to respond to different surroundings, push my practice and create work for a solo exhibition.”
GalleryCopyright © Jess Warby, 2021
Copyright © Jess Warby, 2021
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.