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Cross Roads at the Heart of the Universe (Julia).
Bonded wall hung panel.
Memorial to 11 Sept 2001.
2 x 1 metres (79 x 39 in).

Workshop on the Web

Celebrity interview with . . .

. . . Julia Caprara

Photos by Michael Wicks


I know that you wear many hats - artist, author, teacher and that, with your husband Alex, you run the Opus School of Textile Arts. In addition to this, you are a member of the 62 Group and a regular contributor to such exhibitions as the recent Prism show at the Mall Gallery in London. How do you manage to combine all this and still produce such wonderful, time-intensive embroideries? Are you very disciplined or a 'last minute' worker.

Thank you for your very nice comments on my work. I guess, like most women, I am a master at multi tasking. I would love to be a lot more disciplined, but to be an artist too. That, as well as all the other roles I currently carry, means that I have to allow 'life to come in, too'. So I do maximise all my waking minutes, I juggle and weave time so that I can write or stitch each day, have time with the family and still manage all the Opus roles as well. I do have a self-assigned on-going discipline and this is to stitch for at least 10 minutes each day. This has wobbled recently as my emails have gradually built up, but stitching in this way can grow a lot of work reasonably quickly. I am committed to hand stitching - which can be incredibly frustrating as I can't work as quickly as I can draw. But I am also incredibly lucky as I can stitch fast and I love challenges such as new ideas, deadlines, even pressure which sounds a little mad. My mainstay and the key element in the alchemy of all this is a fantastic husband who understands me and my work. And, because he is an artist, he realises the necessity of working at personal creativity - for instance if I don't work on my creative work reasonably consistently, I get ill, literally. There are many times when I would love to clone myself and send off a version of me, either to sort out my studio, write a university paper or phone a friend. I love it all, but it is hard sometimes to keep the balance as so many unexpected and interesting things occur almost on a daily basis!

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Rune Cloth (Julia). Details from a hand embroidered wall panel.


We had a very favourable response to our review of Prism (March issue, unrestricted access) and I was particularly interested in the theme of the exhibition - the drawing angle. Can you tell us more about this and how you go about curating and hanging such a large exhibition.

Maggie, your questions are excellent and really reach some fundamental areas that are important to me. I introduced the Drawing Focus challenge for our Prism members this year to challenge our members and question our use of drawing in our everyday creative practice. It was a 'wake up' call really, to remind each member that, although we each stitch for a reason, we speak in particular through textiles and fundamental to this expression should be a practice of drawing. Opus fosters a continuous practice of drawing through all our courses and teaches this in a very direct and accessible way. So our students begin to 'fly' by learning to draw. They quickly become more confident as they develop sound hand/eye co-ordination and this, in turn, enables them to express new and creative approaches to textiles. With a husband like Alex, who has such visual integrity through his own drawing, I wanted our members to value this strength in their own work and by challenging themselves, they will in turn grow as artists.

The last reason for introducing drawing as part of the exhibition this year was to help and support the curating of the overall exhibition. I believe that a well hung exhibition will make an artist's work 'speak'. So this innovation was to help the public, our visitors to the Mall Gallery exhibition, see into our creative imagination. To help them to understand how or where ideas come into being and how, by combining drawing with stitch, each is complementary to the other and can make the work 'sing'.

Curating and hanging the Prism show is always a huge challenge, we are strictly limited by time - only two days to hang the three huge spaces of the Mall Galleries. Three large, beautiful galleries, each well proportioned and well lit, each presenting a variety of problems: huge height, awkward corners, window spaces, large spans that could engulf tiny pieces. I first spend time 'getting to know' the work. I have to 'listen' to each art work so that I can appreciate its special voice. Then we look for sequences, connections, links such as colour, theme, contrasts or forms. I am very lucky. I have a fantastic team who support, listen, advise and are sensitive to all the issues involved in such a complex task.

Once we know the work reasonably well, we then look for the 'Beginning' and the 'Ending' of the show. These involve the key focus of the vast end wall of the West Gallery and the smaller, more intimate space of the North Gallery. It is here that we try to build some surprises for our audience, to pull them into the gallery and create a dynamic composition at an unexpected moment. One year, we designed this as an all red gallery, while last year it was mainly white with some black to relieve the forms. This year it was a theme of 'dazzle' - lots of vivid and lively colour that danced around the gallery spaces. Once we have placed the key pieces, we then start building between the larger forms, harmonising colours, adding to the themes. It is at this stage that our technical team step in, each artist having a fabulous eye for form, space and mathematical harmony. I love this part as I believe that all art is about a poetic or mathematical balance of proportions, harmonies and tensions. Achieving this through a well hung collection is like making music, each art work finding its own space and place to 'live in' where it will come alive in the gallery.

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Drawing of Owl's Wing (Alex).

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Sketchbook page - Heat (Julia)

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Detail, Flying Dragon in the Heavens (Julia).
Wall hung textile, 2 x 1 metres (79 x 39 in).


I think that your answer to the previous question will be an inspiration to anyone involved in curating an exhibition. Now to ask about one of your other 'hats'. The Opus School of Textile Arts has grown into one of the largest (query, the largest?) distance learning establishments. How did it start and what courses do you currently offer? Where are your students drawn from?

I am not sure if Opus is the largest distance learning establishment, but I think that we are probably the largest company/school which teaches stitch and mixed media textiles. I will try and keep this short, but our story is quite complex because we started in 1983 and we will be 25 years old in May 2008!

It began almost by accident, but was what I call a moment of synchronicity, when two people happen to be on the right wavelength of understanding. It was during a conversation with one of my students - Margaret, a geographer and a scientist - when we were discussing special places on the earth and prehistoric sites. We discovered that we both believed in ley lines and inner laws of harmony and balance that were at that time in the early 1980s, as yet unproved. I explained a dream that Alex and I had held for a long time, to create a centre of excellence for the teaching of embroidery, experimental textiles and art and design. To create somewhere where our students could find a sense of spiritual harmony and balance and where they could develop their true creative spirit. Margaret responded by insisting that we met a good friend of hers, Barbara Marriott, who she believed shared our focus. So, over coffee in a snatched moment between classes, the story of Opus began.

We began this journey as 'Stitch Design' in one of the delightful converted Georgian stables of the West India Company in Cannon Workshop in the Isle of Dogs, only a year or two before the huge Canary Wharf Tower was built. Our space was simple: a small kitchen, an office space, a large airy classroom cum gallery and a mezzanine floor with more gallery space. Barbara was the business manager and cook, Alex curated the exhibitions, while I established the programme of classes. We would hold a class, such as 'The Beach, Low Tide' or 'The Forest Floor', with one of Barbara's delicious lunches to match. Very soon, our reputation had travelled abroad and students from further afield began to ask to share in our creative life and so the distance learning courses started. When Barbara retired twelve years ago, Alex and I decided to grow Stitch Design into Opus School of Textile Arts, and we launched our degree in embroidered textiles soon afterwards. We were the first company to teach the City & Guilds Certificate in Embroidery and Patchwork & Quilting by Distance Learning and certainly the first to launch the BA(Hons) Embroidered Textiles degree programme. I believe that ours is still the only distance learning degree for embroidery in the world. Our mentor throughout this period was Constance Howard, who realised that our passion for creative education paralleled her own dedication to embroidery and teaching. Her belief and support for our work was very special and strengthened our resolve as we began to scale the formidable heights of business and company practice.

Our curriculum has grown like topsy. Originally, it all began with our City & Guilds Certificate and Diploma courses; we now have a broad programme of courses, starting with our Beginners Course in Embroidery, then our Level 2 City & Guilds Certificate in not only Embroidery, but also Machine Embroidery, Goldwork and Drawing. Our Level 3 Certificate and Diplomas in Embroidery and Patchwork & Quilting satisfy those who want study the subjects at a deeper level, while the Foundation Course is designed for those wishing to build a portfolio for application to a degree programme. The Advanced Course suits those who want to find their own voice beyond the City & Guilds Diploma courses, while the Master Class and Mentoring Scheme are for those who need a reflective opportunity to work at their own pace and who want to refresh their work but don't necessarily wish to embark on a degree programme.

The BA(Hons) Embroidered Textiles degree is fast growing into a unique programme with its own special identity and really helps our students to get to grips with their personal and academic ideas and technical skills. Our students graduate with mature professional skills that enable them to start their own businesses, market their work as freelance artists, teach and become members of leading professional groups such as the Society of Designer Craftsmen.

We are now currently working on some very exciting new plans for a Postgraduate Course of Study - so do watch this space or at least our web site (www.opus-online.co.uk). In addition to all this, we also run a regular programme of lectures and day schools on themes and subjects that relate to the various levels of our courses.

Where do our students come from? Well everywhere: Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Sweden, Norway, USA, Europe, Malaysia, Venezuela, Scotland, Switzerland, the Republic of Ireland are amongst the 28 different countries represented by our students. Because it is distance learning it really doesn't matter where people live; as long as they can speak English and have access to a phone and computer it is as easy as writing a letter. The diversity of our students is of course the enrichment of our courses, as each person brings with them their own rich background of culture, skills and creative responses. Opening these parcels of work is like Christmas and birthdays all in one. Hidden treasures, skills, ideas and individual personalities all secreted into the samples and drawings worked for the module assignments. We say that our students take us everywhere we go, and it is this rich material that is the fountain really of education and certainly the education arising from Opus.

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Mandala (Julia). Hand embroidered panel - detail.


People get confused about the respective roles of Opus and Prism. Can you set us straight, please?

This is a very good question and I do appreciate that both Opus and Prism have their own identity and profile so it must be confusing for our visitors . Opus (our name stems from Opus Anglicanum or the best of English Needlework of the 12th or 13th centuries) is the 'mother ship' or the School of Stitched Textiles, directed by Alex and myself who are the joint Principals. As in any college, our various courses form the class structures in Opus. Prism is the name of our key exhibiting group, comprising our advanced level students and graduates, tutors and our annual invited keynote guest artists. I started Prism nearly ten years ago in order to give our advanced level and degree students the opportunity to test and stretch their professional experience. I well remember how hard it had been for me on leaving art school when I had to struggle and build my own professional path without advice or support from anyone. So we were determined to help our students where possible to establish themselves in a more fluent way. Although I am Chairman of Prism, our members take very active and responsible roles in the life of the group, managing and running the 100 or so members and supporting the group during our major exhibitions. Our artists are selected into the Group through a portfolio of work and, in turn, our exhibitions are also closely selected. It is a lot of work, but we have a fantastic committee who are all incredibly talented, hard working and committed to textiles and art and design.

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Colour Sound Harmony - A Season of Rainbows (Julia).
Hand embroidered wall panel, tent stitch, cross stitch with mixed media.
180 x 85 cms (6 x 3 ft approx).

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Sketchbook page - Aegean (Julia).


Can you tell us something about your own work - influences, inspirations, etc.

I am a self confessed committed hand embroiderer and, although I was trained in stained glass and printmaking (my specialist area was wood engraving), I find it is stitch that is the creative centre of my work. I stitch because I have to. I know this sounds odd, but there is an aspect of hand stitch that opens up the creative unconscious and enables one to explore one's deeper concepts.

I use colour in very deliberate ways, using strong bold marks of colour to create visually vibrating surfaces. I enjoy working with unusual colour relationships, working very large, and I do like to challenge myself to work with ideas that have no obvious solutions and which I don't know how to handle. I enjoy complex compositions and have to work experimentally, and my ideas usually evolve through the making rather than by preplanning or designing. I think that I can do this just because I have spent so many years in looking and drawing and working with such strict disciplines as stained glass and wood engraving. I guess I 'draw and paint' with stitch. Much of my work has focused on Light and Illumination - either the physical attributes of light, the spectrum, reflected light or else the spiritual illumination of the soul. Many of my pieces have their own mythology and symbolism and I am constantly fascinated by the textiles of other cultures where the cloth itself becomes a sacred element in its ritualistic use. I have recently been working with a totally different 'cloth' which has evolved through bonding and layering 'glazes' of cloth and papers. This has metamorphosed into a new kind of translucent surface, very like glass, which I work into compositions using wood, sticks and other found objects in a more sculptural form. I see these 'wands' as transmitters or instruments that link elements as disparate as earth and air, mind and spirit, memory and mythology.

My influences come from many areas; in the early days nature and natural light reflecting surfaces, the phenomena of light, mythology, history, myself and some of the great artists of our time: Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and above all music and words.

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Sketchbook page - Seascape (Julia).
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Wand - detail (Julia).
Bonded cloth and paper with painted sticks.
200 x 15 cms (7 ft x 6 ins).
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Detail of Cross Roads at the Heart of the Universe (shown at top).
Bonded wall hung panel - Memorial to 11 Sept 2001
2 x 1 metres (79 x 39 in).


Your husband Alex is an artist, too and we have seen something of his incredible drawing ability in books and exhibitions. How does it work with two artists in the family? Do you work together and inspire each other or is it a very separate process? Who cooks the dinner?

I think I am the luckiest of people to have a husband who is an artist as he does totally understand my commitment and, I guess in a strange kind of way, we each encourage the other to be even more committed. We met at art school when I was 16, so we have shared a lot, but it was Alex who taught me to draw - not the (great) tutors of their time who were our teachers. He taught me to 'see', which is the greatest gift anyone can give you really. We are each quite different in the way we work. I like complete silence, Alex likes to have music. I can work wherever I am and have trained myself to pick up work in those odd corners and cracks of time between other tasks, while Alex needs time and space to think things through. I am (very) messy, while his studio and tools are immaculate. We both focus on colour, though, and we share the same involvement in the study of art. Exhibitions of current ideas are very important to us, although I 'travel' an exhibition at great speed, Alex is far more thoughtful. I work on a fairly huge scale, while he enjoys smaller and more intimate forms. We are both good at concentrating - in fact I think all art is about intensive concentration, so much so that we recently escaped to a cottage in Cornwall in order to produce a collection of work and were so quiet all day that our host had to knock on our garden gate to enquire if we were OK as we were so silent. It was a fabulous way to work.

I work best late at night once all the phones and visitors stop, while Alex works best in the early morning! He will kick me when I flag, but doesn't notice the dust and muddle in the house - or at least he doesn't remind me of it!

I usually cook the dinner because it helps me unwind after a day at the (Opus) office but he is a good cook and, when the going gets tough and deadlines loom, he will step in. I guess our ideas compliment each other as we are both deep into prehistory and mythology and the alchemy of life and materials, but he is an incredibly well read man, so he 'leads the way'.

I have enjoyed your questions Maggie. They have certainly made me think and also helped illuminate areas I hadn't looked at for a while. Thank you and I hope your readers will enjoy this.

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Cornish Cliff - Strangles (Alex). Acrylic paint and drawing.

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Blue Cretan Drawing (Alex)