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Threaded Narratives: An Interview with Caren Garfen

Meet Caren Garfen whose mastery lies in the delicate craft of textiles and meticulous hand-stitching, all driven by a profound commitment to extensive research. Through the fusion of these elements, her artwork emerges as accessible yet powerful narratives, delving into the heart of pressing societal issues. In this exclusive interview, we delve into the artist's transformative journey, from her exploration of women's issues and gender stereotypes to the artist's thought-provoking installations on dieting and the haunting legacy of the Holocaust. Join us as we unravel the threads of creativity and meaning woven into their captivating body of work.

2023-09-13

Joana Alarcão

Can you begin by telling us your background and the steps you took to become the artist you are today?

I was creative from a young age. I loved crafting, sketching and painting. Following school, I enrolled at a teacher training college with a focus on art. However, I left after a year, having realised that I didn’t want to be the teacher but wanted to be the artist! Over time, I joined various art classes, created brooches and earrings, sculpted novelty birthday cakes and was employed as a colour consultant.


It wasn't until my early thirties that I stumbled upon a creative niche that I loved. During a visit to a London doll's house festival, I was captivated by the exceptional quality of the showcased works. Amidst this fascination, I discovered an unexplored gap in the market for miniature embroideries, particularly intricately hand-sewn samplers. Intrigued, I delved into research and began designing patterns and stitching samplers on a one-twelfth scale. I contacted the event’s organiser, and to my delight, she invited me to participate in the forthcoming festival. I exhibited my work there and in various venues across the UK. Shortly after, my work caught the attention of an American agent who specialised in selling top-of-the-range doll house miniatures throughout the United States, Japan and Europe. It was a wonderful time for my small business as she invited me to sell my pieces at exhibitions in New York and Chicago, opening doors to a broader audience and to commissioned work.


After a decade of focusing on samplers, I became restless and embarked on a two-year City & Guilds class in creative embroidery. During this course, a tutor encouraged me to apply for a degree in the applied arts. I took a leap of faith and applied to university and was delighted to be accepted. This became the next chapter of my life, defined by the delicate balancing act of home life, caring for my two daughters, and immersing myself into rigorous studies. I continued making samplers until the final year of the course. I left with a First Class Honours degree of which I am immensely proud and began a new journey as an artist.


Your specialization in textiles, meticulous hand-stitching, and extensive research create a unique visual discourse. Could you describe how these techniques contribute to the accessibility and impact of your artwork in addressing pressing societal issues?

Textiles can evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort due to their everyday use. I find them to be the perfect medium for artistic expression and to gently express the complex societal issues that I deal with. The meticulous hand sewing is a particularly time-consuming process involving attention to detail and precision. This draws in the viewer to marvel at the tiny stitching even before they realise the discomforting content. The extensive research is vital in creating an authentic piece as I wrestle with the disturbing truths of the Holocaust for example. I am not telling people what to think. I am making a statement based on fact – ‘this is what is happening’. However, the visual discourse invites the viewer to engage with the multi-layered concepts and the materiality of the artwork on both a sensory and intellectual level, encouraging a more profound connection to the concepts being expressed.


The Secret Life of an Eating Disorder by Caren Garfen. Image courtesy of Caren Garfen.

Throughout your artistic journey, you've explored a range of themes, from women's issues to the Holocaust. How do you approach the process of translating these complex and sensitive subjects into visual narratives through your textiles?

My process begins with thorough research, seeking out articles and non-fiction books, using internet sources and social media and asking people questions. I complement these with visits to galleries and museums. Any of these sources could generate the creation of a new artwork. The core objective is authenticity, as a genuine representation is of vital importance when dealing with sensitive subjects and other people’s lives.


Sometimes, inspiration strikes unexpectedly. A segment on an antiques television show, for example, might discuss an object, triggering an immediate quest for a similar item that resonates with the theme of an artwork. Just as cloth draws in the viewer, objects possess a similar attraction.


Intuition plays a pivotal role in my decision-making. Usually, I can sense what will work and what will not. Admittedly, I have had a few instances where my gut-feeling has let me down and I have to abandon an idea. However, this is not always in vain as discarded concepts or objects can find their place in future artwork. Take, for instance, a wonderful box of vintage ophthalmic lenses acquired for an eating disorder project. When they didn’t fit the initial concept, I put them aside for a few years. Now they have found their place in the Holocaust and antisemitism project, playing a role in multiple artworks, including a significant piece titled ‘Selection’.



Selection by Caren Garfen. Image courtesy of Caren Garfen.

The 'kitchen' installation and the hospital room/teenager's bedroom amalgamation offer an immersive and powerful commentary on dieting and eating disorders. Can you tell us a bit about your conceptual research for these works? What steps did you take to reach the final visual composition?

I began making artwork relating to dieting in 2011 after I became aware that women’s weekly magazines continually published articles on dieting. I felt that they were placing undue pressure on women to look a certain way and that this continual focus on dieting could filter into the subconscious even if the reader was not considering losing weight. I purchased four of these magazines every week for a year and was amazed at the ways in which diets were described, such as the ‘most you can eat diet’, ‘I love food diet’ or the ‘chocolate diet’, and even changed the word from diet to plan. I used my findings in several artworks.


Early on I had an inkling that I would like to create an art installation to hold all the diet-themed artworks that I was making. I applied to Artists Access to Art Colleges (AA2A) for funding and was successful. I used the award to revisit my old university to use their printmaking facilities which brought my concept to fruition. I drew and handprinted onto cloth all the white goods, cupboards and tiles and they became the backbone of the artwork. I installed the ‘kitchen’, ‘She Was Cooking Something Up’, alongside volunteers, in a gallery at The Knitting & Stitching Show in London and Harrogate, England, in 2014. The finished piece drew many people into the space and prompted discussions regarding issues about dieting and eating disorders, as women seated themselves around the kitchen table. 


Once the installation was packed away and brought home, I received a message from a schoolgirl who had visited the show and the gallery. She wrote that seeing the kitchen had made her want to get better from the anorexia nervosa that she had been suffering from since childhood. We stayed in touch, and she felt it safe to send me copies of her diaries which related to her illness. I asked if I could make an artwork about her condition to which she agreed. I created a dress, titled ‘Anna’, hand stitching text from her diary entries using human hair (she had lost her hair from her disorder). I involved her in the process, and she made a pocket with her own words sewn into it. We were both delighted when the piece was selected for an exhibition in Kentucky, USA. 


I had touched on eating disorders in the ‘kitchen’ but had no intention of creating any other works relating to the female body. However, the collaboration with the teenager inspired me to highlight the suffering of other young people with eating disorders. I created many more pieces which came together in 2018 as a second installation ‘What’s Going on Upstairs’ after I was awarded funding by The Textile Society. After the response to the kitchen, I wanted to create another immersive experience. The installation was in the form of a bedroom which was closed off from the main exhibition by a single entrance, so entering the space was very intimate. The response from visitors was overwhelming with people crying and confessing to their own or family members’ issues with eating disorders. It was such an emotive and exhausting experience and proved how widespread such issues with dieting and eating disorders have become.


You created a series of works delving into the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism. What prompted you to delve into these themes?

I was out for a meal with friends, and one said something that really shocked me which I won’t go into, but it led me to ask myself the question, “How much do I know about this subject matter?” and I thought that there needed to be a confident two-sided dialogue. This led to me creating the map artwork ‘Stand up and be Counted’ in 2019, which I updated in 2022 with ‘Flag Up’ after the first map was acquired by the Jewish Museum London. These works tell the story of the number of Jewish people expelled or who had to flee from their homes and businesses in the Middle East and North Africa after the creation of the State of Israel. You seldom if ever hear of the Nakba (catastrophe) from this perspective. This artwork was a springboard to all future works relating to the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism.



She Was Cooking Something Up by Caren Garfen. Image courtesy of Caren Garfen.

The fusion of vintage optical lenses, dolls-house accessories, and domestic ware with stitched cloth in your recent works is very interesting. How do you envision these diverse elements contributing to the narrative and symbolism of your pieces?

The fusion of diverse objects and the stitched cloth serve to convey a multi-layered narrative and symbolism. Some comments have been made that there is a simplicity to the work making it accessible, but I have always added layers which the audience may or may not observe. I am interested in the tiny details, for example, when a vintage ashtray appeared as a souvenir trinket in one artwork, ‘A Taste of Things to Come’. However, it was sourced from Germany, and is decorated with an image of Neuschwanstein Castle which held more than 21,000 valuable objects stolen from Jewish people during World War II. In the same work are a dainty porcelain cup and saucer which belie the horrors which pervaded Germany when Hitler came to power. They sit side by side with a cloth napkin hand stitched with some of over four hundred antisemitic laws enacted between 1933 and 1938 which were devised to exclude and segregate Jewish people from society. I feel that this thoughtful approach can make history more relatable and emotionally resonant.


In ‘Selection’, selecting the vintage ophthalmic lenses was more than a device to hold the stitched stories of people murdered in the Holocaust in that I was acutely aware of the thousands upon thousands of pairs of glasses which were found in Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp which had originally belonged to those who were murdered on arrival at the camp.


I have incorporated dolls-houses and their accessories in several artworks since 2017, drawing on my affinity to them having been part of the miniature world from 1992 to 2006. These diminutive objects can evoke a sense of nostalgia and childhood innocence. On numerous occasions I have observed viewers, initially filled with excitement, drawing in for a closer inspection, enthralled to see inside the enchanting world of the dolls-house. Regarding the artwork, ‘The Secret Life of an Eating Disorder’, their demeanour often transformed to one of introspection and contemplation as they realise that appearances can be deceptive.


In the context of the eating disorder project, the concept of scale became of fundamental importance, highlighting the profound contrast between outward appearances and inner obsessive feelings regarding body weight and size. The interplay between the exterior and concealed layers of emotion accentuated the project’s significance.


With over thirty artworks related to the Holocaust and antisemitism, your exploration is both extensive and impactful. How do you see your art contributing to contemporary conversations about these subjects, and what reactions or reflections do you hope to evoke from your audience?

I am highlighting the painful history of the Holocaust and the atrocities carried out by a seemingly civilised society, and hope that the viewer can reflect on this and on the human toll resulting from hate, prejudice, and the consequences of unchecked discrimination. We need to look back and look forward, especially with antisemitism, antisemitic rhetoric, and anti-Zionism on the rise globally. 


What's Going On Upstairs by Caren Garfen. Image courtesy of Caren Garfen.

Your art often engages with pressing societal issues. Could you share a particular instance when a viewer's response to your work deeply affected you or confirmed the potency of your artistic discourse?

Within a gallery at The Knitting & Stitching Show in London in 2018, I exhibited the bedroom installation (as mentioned above), a poignant exploration of the devastating effects of eating disorders. Among many emotional encounters, one interaction stands out vividly in my memory.


A mother approached me, sharing her daughter’s journey. Struggling with anorexia nervosa and facing unsuccessful attempts with medical intervention, they had attended the show back in 2014 as a respite. By chance, they encountered the kitchen installation, and it somehow created a catalyst in her daughter’s brain, igniting a spark of inspiration and nudging her towards recovery. Fast forward four years, and the teenager’s condition was notably improved. She had enrolled to study for a degree in textiles. This story of transformation remains profoundly poignant to me, underscoring the effect that art is able to have on lives.


From private collections to public spaces, your work has found diverse homes. How do you perceive the relationship between your art and its surroundings, and how does the setting influence the narrative your pieces convey?

I do think that the interplay between my art and its surroundings are of significance. Often, the context in which work is displayed is beyond the artist’s control, particularly if it is in a group show. I am thinking back to 2018, when ‘A Room for Improvement’ was selected for a 62 Group of Textile Artists’ exhibition. It was displayed in three impressive display cases and showed off the work well. However, I had always envisioned it exhibited on the floor of an empty hospital ward. This piece, composed of 202 dolls-house miniature beds, set with tiny, crafted pillows and sheets bearing hand-stitched text or motifs, carries a profound message. The dynamics of this piece would be amplified within the context of an actual hospital ward. Its narrative would convey the staggering reality that, in 2017, a mere 202 NHS hospital beds were accessible across the entire UK for children and young people struggling with eating disorders.


Flag Up by Caren Garfen. Image courtesy of Caren Garfen.

Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers?

Recently an artist wrote to me saying that she was most interested in the way I approach my work, the beauty and the connection I have with tough subjects which so many people sweep under the rug. In her opinion, I make these things approachable and not to be whispered about.  

I was deeply touched by her words as it has taken some courage to create artworks about themes that affect us as multifaceted human beings in a society that can be complex and troubling in the 21st century.

Perhaps we need to connect more, send someone a kind word, and overcome our differences to make the world a better place to live.


Know more about the artist here.


Cover Image:

Room for Improvement by Caren Garfen. Image courtesy of Caren Garfen.

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I am an award-winning artist with a specialisation in textiles and meticulous hand-stitching, driven by extensive research. By combining these three elements, the artworks become accessible yet powerful discourses addressing pressing societal issues.

Throughout my artistic journey, I have explored various themes, such as women’s issues, gender stereotyping and domesticity. In 2015, my focus shifted to the portrayal of dieting in women’s publications, prompting me to collect a year’s supply of four weekly magazines featuring repetitive diet plans. Integrating this information and other research, I created a series of pieces over the next four years, culminating in an interactive ‘kitchen’ installation. Moving forward, I began to research the tragic effects of eating disorders, leading to another impactful installation resembling a hospital room and teenager’s bedroom combined.

Subsequently, in 2019, my artistic endeavours took a new direction, as I began examining and creating works related to the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism. This project has involved uniting diverse objects such as vintage optical lenses, dolls-house accessories, and domestic ware with the stitched cloth, resulting in potent and thought-provoking pieces. Despite creating over thirty artworks on this theme, I acknowledge that these works only begin to scratch the surface of the complexities of our world.

My work has featured in many publications and has been exhibited widely in the UK and Europe, as well as in the USA, Australia, Canada, and Japan. It can be found in both public and private collections.

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