(This was published in the first issue of Dais, a university-funded magazine that I helped to create, write for and edited.)
“Sweet, but not too sugary,” is how Rhian McNeff describes her own work. These refined pieces of fabric are not only pleasing to look at; they are richly informed by the landscapes of her past. Rhian’s travels have also helped her recognise different attitudes and gain a set of influences, which is expressed throughout her sketch book.
From living in a city outside London to the countryside in the Welsh mountains, a contrast has emerged creating a strong undercurrent in Rhian’s work. Bold images of industrial machinery are placed in front of faint watercolour marks to express these two landscapes colliding together. Rhian describes this as nature fighting back, taking over; “I fused the two together to create out of context, sort of dream-like imagery.”
Fine lines, loose delicate marks and subtle colours are a trademark of Rhian’s style. Her work is based on her love of floral patterns and her desire to create a beautiful aesthetic. Being outside – gardens and wild places – is where Rhian finds her inspiration. “I have a fascination with urban living, but really, what I’m comfortable with, and what I enjoy, is living in the country,” she says.
William Morris expressed a preference for the flat use of line and colour, an idea that seems to resonate in Rhian’s work. Morris’s emphasis in designing tapestry was on force, purity and elegance of the silhouette of the objects represented, which can also be found in the balance between delicate colours running into an industrial element, and in Rhian’s vision of creating “a subtle beauty with a bold punch; a louder element.”
As with the Arts and Craft movement, the environment and sustainability are also important elements to Rhian’s work. She worked in a commune in Spain during her gap year, which was an ongoing experiment with eco-living. She also visited Cairo in the first term of her course, describing it as a colourful but oppressive place. These experiences have strengthened her focus on the disparity of place which is constantly printed in her work, and which at certain points seems to have more in common with Warhol’s 1950s etchings than the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. “It’s all about catching a feeling,” she says.
For Rhian’s final project in her second year at UCF, she was given a set brief with a prescribed subject and outcome. Her target market was for Saltwater, a high-end British clothing design label based in London and Cornwall. “Regardless of what I’m trying to communicate or the brief, I just want a beautiful aesthetic,” she says.
Rhian believes that an organic way of working is to start without knowing what to expect from a project. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like in the end – that’s the exciting bit for me,” she says. “My first love is drawing so it always stems from that.” Rhian’s sketch book is full of detailed drawings, much like the ones in her final piece. Her style is gained from traditional paintings, the work of fashion designers and the use of space created by illustrators.
The colours produced in Rhian’s final piece have not turned out how she had planned. This was a mistake from insufficient testing, caused by using natural dyes which reacted with the pastes she used. “I had a few technical problems, but that’s always part of the journey,” she says, explaining that these accidents do not happen often, or at least not in her final print. Research and development would usually mean that these accidents would happen sooner, giving her more chance to experiment with them. She described this as a “happy accident” – a technical error but one she is content with.
Textiles have always been a major part of Rhian’s life. A love of arts and fashion runs through her family; it was only natural for her to carry on the passion. Through travelling, working and studying an art foundation, Rhian believed that she wanted to do something different in what she described as a ‘rebellious’ stage. But in the end, Rhian realised that it was all about textures and putting her work onto fabric. The balance of fine arts with a more technical side is the reason why she chose to focus on Textiles. “Now I do it, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else at all,” she says.