May 31, 2010

An Accidental Artist: by Penny Burnfield

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:15 pm by Aleksan

An Accidental Artist: by Penny Burnfield
Hampshire Art and Crafts Magazine
May 2010

I never meant to be an artist.

If you had spoken to me 30 years (and half a lifetime) ago and suggested that my life would become centered on art, I would not have believed you – I would have laughed. I was firmly convinced that I was no good at art.

I attended a very academic girls’ day school. It gave me an excellent general education, for which I am grateful, but art took second place to Latin, Higher Mathematics and Shakespeare. What little art education we had was traditional, and I wasn’t taught drawing skills or art history.

Home didn’t help either – my parents had no interest in the subject. My niche was in the Biology lab. – it was inevitable that I should study medicine. By the age of 22, I was a qualified Doctor – and married. But things didn’t run smoothly. It soon became apparent that my husband was unwell and something had to give way – though I worked for over 10 years. I ended up doing baby clinics in village halls – the halls were scruffy, and the babies yelled when I gave them their inoculations.

By 1980 I found myself out of work, a mother to two little girls, and bored. Salvation came through the Women’s Institute! An embroidery course was offered at Sparsholt – I had always liked making things, especially with textiles. I took to it like a duck to water – but I didn’t suspect where it would lead. After the course I was offered some part-time teaching.

But I was aware that I needed to learn a lot more about the subject I was teaching – so I enrolled in a City and Guilds Embroidery Course. It took me several years, and opened up a whole new world.

The WI and the City and Guilds system are an unconventional way of getting into art. In some circles they are held in such low esteem that I hesitate to mention my connection. But for many women who missed the boat they are a useful back door. Let’s dump the prejudices!

You can’t make a good piece of embroidery without knowledge of the history of art and design. It also helps if you can draw and paint. So I added other classes to my studies. Some of the best were evening classes offered by Winchester School of Art. Sadly this was a short-lived venture, but I was a fortunate beneficiary. I also began to wonder if I could get into Art School. So in 1992 I enrolled at Winchester to do a BA in Textile Art.

What is Textile Art? Textile Art is not designing yardage for clothing or interior design, nor is it making soft furnishing or jumpers. It is textiles as ‘Fine Art ‘and it can encompass any textile material or technique, or simply reference textiles as subject matter.

As a distinct subject it was born out of the 1970s feminist movement – a ‘challenge to the male-dominated hierarchies of art’. In those days there were a lot of alarming ‘hairy hangings’. Thankfully these have now been consigned to history, and the feminism has receded, but as a female dominated discipline there will always be an element of sexual politics.

Artists have been using textiles in art for a long time – Robert Rauschenberg is an obvious example. But there is a difference between a painter appropriating a textile as part of a work, and a Textile Artist making the work of art itself. If you would like to know more please look at

The course wasn’t completely satisfying. We were expected to make ‘art’ but were located in the department of ‘design’. We never managed to define who we were – what we wanted to achieve. Was it was sufficient to say that we liked working with textiles, and using them to make art?

I understand that the Textile Art course at Winchester is ending. I’m sad – a similar course at Goldsmith’s has gone too – but perhaps it has achieved its aim – to make textiles a fully acceptable strand of ‘Fine Art’. Or to quote Ann Sutton, the weaver, “The material is immaterial”. You only have to look at Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry to see how things have changed.

Yet I’m not sure about this. Exhibitions and exhibiting groups which define themselves as textile-based, are still marginalised. They are not visited by heavyweight art critics – they are reviewed in “Crafts’ magazine, not ‘Art Monthly’. We still have a way to go. But at the Art Schools the current trend is for ‘Visual Arts’ courses in which all media are accepted.

I now would call myself a mixed media artist. – and my media are very mixed. Recent works have used timber, paper, assemblage, an old sheet, digitally projected images, and rusty paint. I exhibit nationally. I continue to extend my knowledge of materials and techniques – I want to express ideas and I am happy to use anything that works for me.

I did try to get back into medicine, but circumstances were not right. My scientific background has informed my art practice and over the years I have employed Alchemy, fundamental organic forms, and museums of Natural History as themes.

This leads me to an interesting question. Does my training as a scientist affect my approach to art? What are the commonalities and differences between artistic and scientific creativity?

Scientists are certainly creative. Thinking outside the box is fundamental to scientific progress. And science has a concept of ‘beauty’ – it could be defined as an aesthetically satisfying and simple means of expression. Art seems to have lost this.

Recently I have been studying the development of science and I was struck by the concordance between science and the arts in the past. Samuel Coleridge was a friend of Humphrey Davy. Erasmus Darwin celebrated the discoveries of William Hershel in verse. Joseph Wright painted the Industrial Revolution. Now we have lost this richness – we have two cultures, viewing each other with suspicion.

Creativity in art and science is a subject that I would like to pursue further, and I would be interested to hear from anyone who would like to contribute to the debate. Can we use the Hampshire Art and Crafts Magazine as a forum for discussion?

For myself, I sometimes feel that I work differently. My work processes are experimental – I prefer to work directly with materials rather than start with drawing – and anyway, how do you draw ‘alchemy’? My sketchbooks are notebooks, full of brainstorming lists. There is a certain precision underlying my finished pieces.

Ananda Coomaraswamy once wrote that “the artist is not a special kind of person, but every person is a special kind of artist”. Each of us brings our lifetime of experience to our art.

Would I have been a better artist if I had gone to Art School instead of Medical School at 17? Who can say? But, to my surprise, I have become my own ’special sort of artist’

Dr Penny Burnfield May 2010


  1. sue Flood said,

    How true about City and Guild qualification. I was resently putting together my CV for my degree moduale on Professional Practise and was told not to bother adding my City and Guilds to my short list of educational qualifications.It is difficult not to say`but that has been part of my journey` ,if I had not done C&G I may not be studying for a degree in Embroidered Textiles now!!!! How does it make the tutors feel when their excellent work is not recognized.?There are high skill levels taught at these centres. You have to have the skill levels to impliment the art.

  2. Alexandra Mackie said,

    Dear Ms. Burnfield,

    I am interested in your art design, i am doing an art and design course and wish to further my knowledge. If you could please tell me what materials you use, and which are your favourite, and why. I hope that you will be able to help me.

    Yours faithfully

    Alexandra Mackie

  3. Hi Penny,

    I came across your name in a book ‘The Found Object in Textile Art’ – as soon as I saw your work I knew we were like minded artists and that I had to contact you. I was hoping for a website and email address, but they are ‘under construction’ – hence me contacting you this way.

    I also consider myself a Mixed Media artist and came to it via the ‘back door’ of various City and Guilds Embroidery and Textile Art Courses, as a mature student (I have just completed my MA this year).

    Part of my personal statement is:

    “Looking at Museology, especially in historical collections such as Cabinets of Curiosity and the Spirit Collection in the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London, I create work containing a range of collected artefacts, both found and contrived. Each has its own narrative, which is open to the interaction and interpretation of the viewer.

    I explore various ways to use archiving, classification and association in my art work, as well as looking at the areas where art and science meet.”

    I recently read an article in the New York Times which referred to this way of working as: ‘the new crossover art’ – how exciting!

    Paula MacGregor

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