Virus outbreak leads to online showcase
It's been “an up and down year” for Emma Steele. Hers was a spur-of-the-moment submission to the Bermuda National Gallery's 2020 Bermuda Biennial.
She was thrilled when it was accepted, the news coming with the success of her work-in-progress show at the Royal College of Art in England, where she's in the final stages of a master's degree.
Then came Covid-19.
In the space of a week, she was told the assessment she had expected as part of her programme had been postponed, and the school itself was shutting down.
“So, at that point I decided, for the safety of myself, there's no need to be in London right now, and I was able then to head home, down to Devon.”
The former BHS student left the island to study in England seven years ago, at the age of 16.
To the best of her knowledge, she will still graduate this summer, although her courses will now all be online, which makes it “a bit tough” for someone pursuing a textiles-based degree.
Her skill is on display in Aftermath. The three textile knit pieces she created for the Biennial are all about sex.
Ms Steele used her body to create three prints which she cut from polyester knit, leaving an abstract hole within the piece.
“I wanted to explore the meaning of the feeling behind people's experiences with sex,” she said.
“Each person you have been with leaves an imprint. You adapt and change to that person. That person becomes a number, a number on a list of people; the memory for the experience leaves an imprint.
“The beauty is what can be left behind, because to be seen naked is to become vulnerable. Our most vulnerable state is our naked selves.”
She's thrilled that the work fit well with the theme of the Biennial.
As described by the BNG, Let Me Tell You Something “speaks to our unique, individual stories and agency we have to direct and respond to them”.
“I really did just apply on a whim,” Ms Steele said. “I thought, if I get in, it's an amazing opportunity and, if I don't, I'm in my final year. It's so critical for me, I'm just starting to build my portfolio to get into the industry.
“So, when I got the phone call from Sophie [Cressall, the BNG curator] saying we absolutely adore your work, it really was amazing.
“It was kind of a bit of a juggle — my submission for the Biennial and my work-in-progress show. But I felt the whole title, the story to the Biennial this year, fit perfectly for my project, and to get in was just an exciting moment.”
Her studies prevented her from attending the exhibit's official opening on March 6, but she was heartened by pictures she saw of it.
“I cried in the pub seeing my work up. I had a week to produce the work for the Biennial; to see it up made me feel so emotional; it was really nice to see.”
The temporary closure of the BNG in response to the coronavirus means her work is now being showcased online rather than in the physical gallery.
“Virtual is a type of platform that has never been really explored before and this opens an exciting avenue for the BNG.
“[It's] a step that I know many galleries in the UK have taken. Virtual is not the same as being able to see the pieces in person, but they are still providing us with a new way of showcasing our work on a new, different platform.
“Their Instagram is consistently being updated and it is a great platform for artists to showcase their work.”
Ms Steele was also part of the last Biennial, held shortly after she received her bachelor's degree in fashion textiles from London College of Fashion.
“I'm dyslexic,” she said. “I found education quite difficult, but art was always something that grounded me. It always focused me.”
A programme offered by the BNG that she took “at a young age” introduced her to photography.
Once in England, a tutor “sort of pushed” her towards textiles, and she fell in love.
“I really took to photography,” Ms Steele said. “It was something I enjoyed doing — going out and photographing things — but I needed something else.
“Textiles kind of was that for me, combining the knitting and the photography together. I use the knit as a base and I begin to build off it to create stories.”
It's become her speciality. To do it she uses “very specific yarn that's polyester-based”.
Meanwhile, a technique called dye sublimation allows her to print images on to knits and create a design.
“I absolutely love creating textiles,” Ms Steele said. “I'm passionate about it. I like to make it meaningful; I like to tell stories and I very much like to express issues through my textiles.
“My goal is to be able to still continue what I'm doing with textiles and, at the same time, be able to fund myself.
“The next few months for me are quite critical in being able to focus and narrow down where I would be going past RCA.”
In the meantime, she's coping with the coronavirus pandemic in England, while her parents, Kathy and Tony Steele, hunker down here.
“As much as I am concerned, I think we're all just trying to keep safe and I know that back in Bermuda, from reading the news every day, you guys are taking all the measures you need. I'm just hoping that everything will be OK.”
• Emma Steele's designs are on Instagram steele_emma; bermuda_nationalgallery