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Lalla Ward: Vanishing Act

11 April 2013 Rachel Ridge

For the next month, the National Theatre is exhibiting 'Vanishing Act' by Lalla Ward, which explores the natural world's extraordinary propensity for camouflage in a series of beautiful intricate thread paintings. London Calling's Rachel Ridge caught up with her to find out more!

London Calling: What drew you to explore camouflage in the context of nature?

Lalla Ward: When you look at fabric as much as I do you see possibilities. I had some cotton that looked just like peppered moths that changed their camouflage colours, as the landscape got darker from Industrial pollution. I knew about that from Richard (Dawkins) and had long since found the whole topic of camouflage fascinating. I thought there might be a way to use just one piece of fabric and pad the moths up, squash the background down and have them almost disappear but not quite. And that worked, so then I started to think of ways to do other things. Sometimes the fabric inspired the animal, and sometimes I searched for fabric because I’d found an animal I wanted to do.

LC: Have you always had a fascination with the complexities of the natural world, or did this develop later in life?

LW: I have always loved animals, and have been drawing animals since I was a small child. Maybe it was partly that I never had pets other than hamsters because my parents had a house in France, which we travelled for holidays so having pets was difficult. I used to go to the London Zoo every Sunday as a child – it was closed then to the public and you had to join a club. All the grown ups sat in the bar and we children took the peanuts and went and saw the animals, I took a sketchbook too.

LC: You’ve collaborated with your husband Richard Dawkins on many projects and he has written an introductory piece for Vanishing Act. Can you talk about the benefit of merging both insights of art and science together?

LW: Well I doubt if I can teach him much, but he has taught me how to understand more than just the way animals look. He taught me how they behave and why they look the way they do- this now informs everything I do. This has been massively important to me and gives me ideas that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t understand evolution and how they have come to be as they are. I think, too, the difference between the way artists and scientists think can help both sides; I am much more analytical and investigative than perhaps I once was and Richard has learned from me, perhaps, more about how actors phrase things and how words spoken can be helpful to how writers write.

LC: What is it about evolution and natural selection, particularly the way that nature learns to conceal itself and survive that interests you?

LW: Everything about Darwinism has fascinated me since I was very young. I read ‘On the Origin of Species’ when I was about 14, and then spent a long time trying to find other, more modern writings on the subject; to see if people still thought the same way. So I was reading up on it all and eventually came across Richard’s books long before I actually met him.

LC: Was it a conscious decision to exhibit at the National Theatre?

LW: “Vanishing Act” is my third exhibition for the National Theatre. They very kindly invited me to do the first, “stranded” (about island animals and thread), after seeing my work in an exhibition in 2009 about the Galapagos islands, something I was doing to raise money for the Durrell Foundation to help save the Floreana Mockingbird. They asked if I’d like to do one at the National Theatre. Like!! Yes Please!! It’s a wonderful space, I love being there and I love all the people with whom I work there, it’s a gorgeous place to be a part of. And I get better billing than I ever would have as an actor!!

LC: You will be staging a mini-mock-up of your workspace to show audiences how the intricate works are created. Can you talk about what this will entail?

LW: Well, it’s not exactly ‘staging’; there are six huge glass cases down the middle of the room, in which I am exhibiting large wooden bowls and platters by Nick Kettlewell. Each of which a camouflaged animal will sit– moths and geckos mostly. I’ve used one of these glass cases to recreate my ‘work space’; it’s full of the stuff that inspires me; on a ‘wall’ that mimics my workroom at home. A photo of my dog; Tycho, quotes that I love, fabric swatches, tickets to rock n roll concerts, CDs that I’m listening to (Joe Bonamassa – completely brilliant), scissors, needles and threads. And I will say thanks to the very nice people who manufacture the perfect sewing machine with which I have made every stitch in the whole exhibition, a loan Juki,  so that I can go on working on my own one at home. It’s just another exhibit – people seem to be fascinated by how one works and this gives a good idea.

LC: You’ve used interesting processes such as delicate thread painting set off by the robust wood turnery of Nicholas Kettlewell. Can you talk about your decision to work with these materials?

LW: Nick is my husband’s nephew and all the wood comes from the Dawkins family farm in Oxfordshire. I think Nick makes beautiful bowls and I wanted to include some of them. Moths and other animals are wonderfully camouflaged against the wood in forests; it seemed the obvious way to combine the two media. The animals themselves are entirely made of thread, there’s no actual fabric there other than a fine mesh within the stitches.

LC: Can you explain for those who don’t know what thread painting is?

LW: Well, it’s using a sewing machine to draw with so imagine a pencil suspended and static and you move the paper around under it – that’s what you do with your fabric under the needle.

LC: Have you got any future projects in the pipeline you can tell us about?

LW: Ask me again in a week or two when I might have got my breath back after this week’s private view! I always have so many ideas and somehow they seem, eventually, to sift through themselves and something specific comes to the surface. I jostle around between various techniques too it’s not just fabric; I like to explore how to draw in different media such as painting ceramics, that’s a major passion. Perhaps I’ll go back to that for a while…who knows? But it will always be animals, of that I am certain. I’ll keep you posted!


Vanishing Act by Lalla Ward, is at the National Theatre Olivier exhibition space until Sunday May 12th. For more information please click here.

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