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A Certain Character

A new exhibition by Kingston-based artist Ruth Blackford sees a celebration of the town’s diverse population.

Kingston Characters’ is an art exhibition comprising around 40 large-scale portraits of some of the town’s most colourful characters. The works by artist Ruth Blackford are created with fabric and stitching, and focus on a diverse range of people, from local restaurateurs to street buskers and the town’s mayor. T&L caught up with Ruth to find out more…

Why did you want to do the Kingston Characters exhibition?
I started doing the portraits for a bit of fun to show at the Kingston Artists Open Studios (KAOS) over the summer. The more I did, the more I realised that most of the people in the portraits were from Kingston – and I love it here, I love living in Kingston. I thought I would show the pictures in an exhibition that celebrates the community I live in.

How did you choose who to feature?
Some of the people I already knew and they were interesting people to know, and others I sort of accosted in the street if I liked the look of them! I was introduced to some subjects by people I was approaching for the project, so it opened a whole web of new friends.

You did the portraits in stitched textiles - what appealed about that medium?
I trained in textiles back in the 80s and worked in the industry for a good few years doing embroidered textiles for fashion for womenswear and children’s wear. Gradually my work became more illustrative and more about people and I started doing a lot of drawings, but my interest in fabric and colour, pattern and textures, was still pretty strong so it seemed natural to pull the two together. Rather than using conventional mediums like pens and paints, I’m using fabric and stitch to draw.

Tell us about your background. Are you from Kingston originally?
No, I’m from the north west originally but I moved down to Kingston after I’d finished college in 1990 and was here for about two years. I had to leave for jobs elsewhere but always hankered to get back and finally made it about six or seven years ago. I teach art at a sixth form college in Harrow. In addition to the teaching I do freelance illustration work and textile art for KAOS.

What is it you particularly like about Kingston?
In terms of location, you can’t get much better, you’ve got Richmond Park at the top of my road and the river at the bottom. People here are really friendly – I got to know more people in six years here than I did 16 years living in Tooting. I love it. When I first moved here it felt like I was on holiday and I still feel like that now.

Tell us about some of the characters featured in the exhibition.
Sharon Mehta is one of my favourites. She’s the person holding the huge lizard. I met her when I wanted to borrow some framing equipment. I put a notice on what was then Streetlife and Sharon, who is a framer, offered to help out. I went to her home to discuss it and when she came to the door and said, “I hope you’re okay with lizards as there’s a rather large one living here.” She had this huge lizard and I thought she’d be a great character to feature. Sharon’s been really helpful with the project, and introduced me to lots of interesting people to include in the project. By the way, the lizard’s called Fluffy.

What’s next for you?
After this I’ll be taking the exhibition to the Landmark in Teddington and I’m hoping that some commissions will come from people seeing the work.

Kingston Characters takes place from Tuesday 23 January to Saturday 3 March at the Rose Theatre, Kingston

By Ruth BlackfordBy Ruth BlackfordBy Ruth Blackford