Textiles in the City

After moving to Townsville at the start of 2017, Deborah O'Toole is getting back into contemporary textile art - and can be found exhibiting her work as part of the Pop-Up North Queensland Festival on now. IMAGE: Natalie Mendham Photography

Artistically speaking, Deborah O’Toole has her finger in a lot of pies. Since her move to Townsville at the start of the year, Deb has settled in as vocalist for the 1RAR band – a role that suits her perfectly, since successfully crowdfunding, recording and releasing her own album in 2015. In her downtime though, she finds creativity through other mediums.

We caught up with Deborah to find out about her textile art, which featured as part of Umbrella Studio contemporary art’s Pop-Up North Queensland Festival last week. 

Where did your passion for art come from?

I’ve always been interested in it – sometimes I set it to the side for a while, but looking back I can remember doing art in year 12 where everyone else was painting but I was making textiles. I’ve always done it, but it had sort of just been a hobby I left for rainy days. Then I got a Diploma of Textile Art at RMIT – which was very hands-on, as opposed to the Bachelor course which is more curatorial-focused. For a while I got into natural dying which I find really fascinating: you get leaves and flowers, wrap them in fabric, throw some vinegar on them and put them in a dye bath for a while. When it comes out, you have prints of these leaves and patterns that are really fascinating.

I was making a few accessories and homewares and had a fledgling label which I would take to markets, but started thinking that if I did want to make a living out of this, how many prints and scarves would I actually have to make? Realistically I am just as satisfied being in the army band as I would be making my textiles, so I’m still doing something that I’m happy and love spending hours doing.

I’ve done a few exhibitions and group shows, then last year when I was on leave in Hobart I was able to start afresh and have a whole new body of work. My goal was to exhibit that which I did; I sold lots of miniatures, and that gave me a good indication of what people were willing to pay. But it was within a store, so people were seeing it apart from gallery space – it got it in front of new eyes.

Do you find it difficult to come home and be creative after days of singing?

I guess I have always been creative, but more as just a hobby. I found more focus recently after getting so involved in it last year, but coming back to full-time work it’s hard to maintain that creativity in down-time. When you spend all day at work being creative, you’ll find that you go home exhausted and want to just watch television or something. I am quite creative at work because I’m singing and developing concepts for a show, forming ideas and researching things, so even the rehearsal process is creative but in a completely different way because it’s music. Sometimes I feel like all the creativity is a bit sapped from my brain, and find I have to force myself sometimes to go back and be creative in a tangible way, so I can balance out that outlet. There have been times where I think I don’t need it, but now don’t want to lose it.

Deborah O’Toole. IMAGE: Natalie Mendham Photography

Have you always been a singer?

I didn’t join the army until I was 32 – so had previously been involved in musical theatre, cover bands, and I was in an ABBA tribute show too. So had a bit of a singing career beforehand and had done a bit of teaching and some recording sessions here and there, then also crowdfunded my own album a few years ago too.

How was that crowdfunding process?

It was a lot of work – I made my target $7,500 and got $9,500 – but had to work my butt off and it was only about half of what the album cost, because I used a 10-piece band. So there were a lot of people, lots of studio time, but had friends that helped me out with the artwork and formatting which was nice. The whole thing cost about $20,000 – the studio time, the mixing and everything just racks up. When I realised how much went into the crowdfunding campaign, it was almost as much as everything else in terms of concentration, energy and planning – you kind of have to be strategic about it all; remembering to take a lot of photos and videos during the recording process too, keeping people interested so it doesn’t just look like you’re just hitting people up for money

The best compliment I had was when I gave my album to the guy doing the mastering. He had a listen and then said, “this sounds like an expensive album.” What we put into it really paid off.

How have you seen your textile art evolve?

In my previous work, I was using a lot of eco-colours – so a lot of my fabrics were quite muted and in those very neutral natural colours. Since I’ve moved to Townsville though, I think I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the tropical climate because am progressing more towards the bright tropical colours and longer shapes, so it’s the same idea but they look completely different. When I moved here, I also realised that I had been holding on to a lot of stuff that no longer really fit in with what I did – I work with a lot of dyed silk and vintage fabric, so realised the boxes of secondhand clothes I had been holding onto for future projects would probably never get used, and could be passed on. I used rust a bit in the past too because found it worked really well with natural dyes, but what I’m doing this year is going a bit away from those colours. I do see a trend in what people are going crazy for in terms of artwork, and it’s bright colours now – that’s mainly paintings so I’m not sure if that transfers to textiles, but I’m trying it.

With everything from your textiles to singing, do you think people see the value in art? 

I’d like to say yes. It depends where you are, but I guess it also depends who you’re talking to. There’s definitely people who have an appreciation for a piece and understand how much work went into it. For others, it’s seen as a piece of decorative work that might be put on their wall if they can afford it. If it’s an original piece, it might be out of reach so they’d just get the print. Then there’s other people who collect as much original artwork as they can gather, because they just love surrounding themselves with it.

For my daughter’s 18th birthday last year, she got her first original painting from an Australian painter. It’s only a little one, but I sort of felt like it was a good thing to start her off on her original art collection. I don’t know how she’ll go, she’ll probably expect me to spend more money getting bigger every year. I think people appreciate it as beautiful but I also doubt their willingness to dip into their pockets and spend the money on it – I have some people when they ask how I price it and they seem a bit shocked. My work is all framed professionally under glass, and the latest collection is framed in these beautiful Tassie Oak frames – which is much more expensive. But I didn’t want to do it the cheap way! Some of the frames themselves are $300, and that isn’t even taking into account the hours of work I put into the piece of art. It really does come down to dollars for people, even if they do like what they see.

Do you think you’ll always be creative?

I think I’d just go a little bit batty if I’m not creative. The year after I finished my course, I stepped away from it for a while. Doing a course is relentless, doing projects non-stop. By the end of that year, I felt a bit depressed, or like something was missing – then my sister got married and she wanted me to style and make things. I made this backdrop out of paper flowers, twigs and branches. I found when I was in that zone, using my intuition to know where the placement of everything would be and where the curves would go, I’d gone back to my happy place. This problem solving, creative, visual thing was actually something I felt brought me back to what I loved. I was antsy to do something, but didn’t realise what it was until I was then doing it. I do feel if I go too long before I’m creative again, I miss it. It’s a bit like people who get addicted to running or exercise – if they don’t do it, their body misses it and I think it’s the same here, my creative brain misses that imagination – like exercise for the brain, I suppose.

Find Deborah O’Toole’s textile art accessories such as tote bags and phone cases on Red Bubble, and a range of original artwork and prints on her website.

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