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Female empowerment: Jess Rippengale

Be your own beach body – Collaboration with Anne-Claire Fleer and Alexandra Laurence, 2019

Read Time: 5-7 minutes

Female empowerment through body painting… how much do I love the sea?

My work explores the British coastline. Having spent a decade in London, where it felt as far away as childhood, and as impossible to reach as my memories, it became a metaphor for longing. I grew up in Cornwall and its elemental nature seeps through into my work. The sea comforts, it is a safe place, and it is used as subject, object and memory.

I was surrounded by highly skilled women as a child, my mother was a dressmaker who did everything from alterations to designing wedding dresses. My grandmother spent many hours teaching me various crafts; embroidery, cross stitch, knitting and crochet. There was a complete set of Crafts Magazine (published in the 70s by Marshall Cavendish) at home and innumerable Golden Virginia tins full of buttons to play with, so it seems inevitable I have settled on textiles as my medium.

Growing up I spent most weekends at the beach. Whilst not a traditional golden sand, blue sea beach, Portwrinkle is my favourite place in all the world, partly for its winter plumage. An empty beach is a special place. This place is the backdrop to my life story and is the conceit I use to explore my relationships and my place in this world.

I graduated from the University of Plymouth with a BA (hons) in Fine Art, where my chosen medium went from painting to photography to whatever medium suited the ideas I was working with. I have made the move toward textiles since graduating. My degree gave me confidence in my creative ability and thought processes and I combine this training with skills handed down by previous generations. I use craft-based techniques and combine them with my fine art training to create work which distils my experience of the coast.

After university, I spent a decade living in London. The pull of the sea proved too much to bear, however, and whilst this gifted me the idea of my current practice, it was also the reason for leaving.

My work has been shown in London through the Unravelling Collective and Scotland with the Spilt Milk Collective. I have also developed and facilitated Tunisian crochet workshops and organised occasional pop-up shops to showcase and sell work.

My tiny book gave me the opportunity to explore more playfully, I love geography diagrams (longshore drift is my favourite) and am often struck by the unintentional poetry of non-fiction writing. I created a new book of illustrated poems using an old textbook, picking and choosing, allowing my experience of the sea and of life to draw new meaning out of old, dry information.

The book was a two-parter, flipped upside down at the centre to find a second book. This was filled with old typewriter correction papers, found amongst the manuscript of my grandmother’s novel. It represented all the words that didn’t make the final cut. The residue of hours of work distilled into tiny, confused little outtakes. The historical content of residue has long been a fascination of mine. Back in my university days I placed cremated ashes under a scanning electron microscope to reveal surreal landscapes, attempting find meaning in the physical remains of a person who now lives only in people’s memories.

There are many artists for whom the coast is their muse and social media platforms such as Instagram have made a massive difference to me personally, as someone prone to hermitry. It has allowed me to find kindred spirits, others who also find smooth shiny pebbles a delight to hold and who share their collections and works of art online. So, whilst the world is celebrating the loud and the brave, I find solace in the work of fellow artists whose work celebrates our world’s nature and beauty.

I hope by this summer to be living in Cornwall once again, where the yearning of my recent years will transform into belonging. I’m looking forward to seeing how my work develops with free and easy access to my beloved Portwrinkle.

I have spent the past few years whittling crochet hooks from driftwood and using them to create colourscapes of the beaches they came from, working with the idea that the driftwood reveals its ‘memory’ of the beach. Unique to my practice is the fact that each hook is used only once, then serving as a hanging bar for the work.

I use the hooks as storytelling tools, each one rendering a visual representation of a particular stretch of coast. Sticks from the same beach vary in size and wood type and this affects the way the hooks work and what yarn works well with them. The same beach will look different across the seasons; I could spend a year on my favourite beach and not exhaust its potential. Driftwood is a source of food or shelter for some of the tinier shoreline creatures. When I beachcomb for driftwood, I am very particular about what I collect. The sticks need to be firm enough not to snap, splinter or crumble when dried and whittled. Their length, diameter and how straight they are is also an important factor. All this means that I often leave a beach with no more than two or three sticks, which I believe to be a sustainable amount.

My work is a conversation that keeps me connected to the sea and links me to friends and strangers who gift me sticks from their coastal wanderings. Because I live in a city now (Bristol), I have a romantic idea that the sea is reaching out for me with every high tide, missing me as much as I miss it.

The idea that nature forms a large part of the work, and I am a conduit through which it speaks, is one that is reflected in my use of natural fibres. More recently I have been experimenting with creating yarn from the tendrils of ‘mermaid’s purses’, the egg cases of the small-spotted catshark. This development is an exciting opportunity to further my skills, as weaving is a more effective use of these fibres, which have proven very difficult to crochet with. I am enjoying the sense of collaboration that occurs, as it coils and only half gives way to the persuasion of water and tension. How its golden colour and translucent nature is reminiscent of sunlight on the sea, its irregular shapes appearing like waves and ripples.

This new process feels like a honing of the ideas and processes I have previously used to express my experience of the coast, and as I learn more about its properties and limitations, a new body of work is emerging. Uncertainty and the relinquishing of control is a process of negotiation through which the sea is finding its own voice within the structure of my work.

The egg case tendrils are a sustainable, natural and long-lasting fibre. I am interested in testing the boundaries of what constitutes ‘fibre’ within an environmentally conscious framework. I see how plastic pollution affects coastal communities, both physically and emotionally. Growing up on the beach, I collected shells and sea glass, now when I come home to visit, I collect nurdles and ghost netting. Beachcombing has evolved into beach-cleaning, and many artists and craftspeople now use both as a source of material. Now more than ever our oceans need voices to advocate for their (and ultimately our) survival. These voices should be many and varied, a series of threads bridging the gap between oceans and communities through offering visual descriptions of the beauty, fragility, strength, utility and emotional impact that is ‘water, water, everywhere…’

Instagram: @jess_rippengale

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Text: Jess Rippengale Editor: Hope Fitzgerald

Photographs: Jess Rippengale & Hope Fitzgerald