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September/October 2003



In the past decade, I have seen several shows at Galerie Pousse in Tokyo of Nicola Henley's evocative textiles of birds - usually gulls, gannets, herons, oystercatchers, falcons, and crows - that glide, soar, dive, or wade in eddying, tossing seascapes or mottled landscapes. In her work, Henley combines dyeing, painting with pigments, and silk-screen printing on cotton calico. For texture and definition, she machine stitches the surface with pieces of paper or cloth, then finishes with hand stitching.

Born in Bristol, England, Henley majored in embroidery and textiles at Goldsmiths College in London, then returned to Bristol, where she was awarded a grant from the Crafts Council of Britain to set up a studio. In 1990, she received a travel award to lecture in Japan. She moved to Ireland in 1991 and now lives in rural County Clare with her three children, ages 9 to 18.

In college, Henley was intrigued by space and movement; she came to birds by chance. Stranded at a bird center by a storm while on holiday in Ireland, she started observing a peregrine falcon that came there each day, and she ended up being captivated by the "small jewel of being in all that space around it." Henley has both studied and photographed birds and still watches them, but she is now more interested in the movement of sea and sky. She wants to capture the "essence of the bird without making it about the bird."

Henley works from sketches, often combining pieces from different sketches and breaking images into different elements for a sense of motion. Her final hand stitching, influenced by a type of African stitching, puckers the surface of the cloth, thereby enhancing the sense of movement. The stitching, says Henley, is a guideline to where the bird was or where it is going and allows her to work with the undefined area around the bird.

Oystercatchers Cobalt, 2001; screen printing and painting on cotton calico, machine and hand embroidery; 29.5 by 45.25 inches.

Once a week Henley teaches art at a local primary school, where she instituted the first art program ever at such schools. She set up a database for artist residencies in schools and, in conjunction with the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, organized a local arts festival that features programs for children. She also plays piano for dance classes at the Waldorf school her children attend. "The teaching, the festival, and the music are all important," she says, noting that artists in Ireland are exempt from income tax.

"Birds are a way of exploring my need for freedom," says Henley. "That's why I live in this kind of place: to be free of the material world and of the body and to have a free and open mind. Birds are able to move in three dimensions without borders or boundaries."

- Jacqueline Ruyak

Jacqueline Ruyak divides her birdwatching between rural Pennsylvania and rural Japan.

This profile first appeared in:

Sept/Oct 2003

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