We are pleased to introduce you to our Manc of the Month for September, Alena Ruth Donely. Donely is a self-proclaimed vegan rug maker, a fibre artist specialising in using a pneumatic tufting gun and vegan materials, whose Instagram is a minefield of colour-popping rugs and patterns. Her studios Islington Mill describes Alena’s visual style as ‘unapologetically technicolour, playful and emotive’.
Cotton On Manchester: Please introduce yourself to the Cotton On MCR Readers.
Alena Doneley: ‘Hiya! I’m Alena, a textile artist specialising in tufting. For the past four years I’ve lived in Manchester, with my studio based at Islington Mill in Salford. I fell in love with the area whilst studying Visual Arts at the University of Salford & was enamoured by the vibrant atmosphere of bustling city life. Not necessarily the literal greyness, but what’s hidden amongst the greyness. But I grew up in Blackpool, which certainly provides some weird & wonderful inspiration for my artwork. My work narrates a lot of life experiences, from the good to the bad & the funny to the sad.’
COM: How did you get into tufting?
AD: ‘I was very lucky that my university had tufting facilities on site & that I was taught by a fantastic fibre technician. In 2016 I tried out the pneumatic tufting gun & just became obsessed with the possibilities! My first (partially) tufted artwork was a reproductive system for the Women’s Equality Party first conference in 2016. Then I got the fantastic opportunity to work with Castlefield Gallery & artist Ruth Barker in a collaboration for International Womens’ Day 2017. After that, I was hooked on the idea of being a practicing artist & knew I wanted to pursue a career focused on tufting specifically. I graduated in 2018 & have been working full-time as a textile artist since 2020!’
COM: You sell at markets and you’ll be at our Art All Dayer: Autumn Edition. What’s
your experience like at markets?
AD: ‘I really enjoy the face-to-face interactions at markets; hearing what your artwork reminds people of, listening to those little snippets of their life stories that connect you ever-so-slightly to the objects in front of you both. I love meeting other makers & hearing about their work, their processes & goals! It’s just a lovely, lively atmosphere which is very welcoming & inviting. Artists & creatives can really benefit from that creative feedback & those conversations can be incredibly valuable.’
COM: You also offer workshops, tell us more about them.
AD: ‘I started running public tufting workshops in January 2020… that’s right, I managed to do three of them before the world shut down! Just when I thought that was the end of it, tufting became massively popular on social media platforms during lockdown & I suddenly had piles of requests for workshops. I currently offer one-to-one workshops for up to two people in my studio, with plans to expand into group & off-site classes at the end of this year. The reason I started running workshops was because the only way people could learn tufting was through academic settings, so I wanted to forge a more accessible pathway to such an exciting medium. There’s a lot of process-based work that goes into rug tufting & it’s an expensive set up, so guidance & reassurance can be incredibly helpful. I couldn’t have learned all I know without some amazing tutors, so I’ve aspired to be the support & encouragement that they were to me.’
COM: Where do your design ideas come from?
AD: ‘I’m very much a sponge absorbing the world around me! I do take a lot of imagery from my surroundings & memories to base my artwork on, including the bizarreness of Blackpool.. especially the Illuminations. Close-up textures tend to captivate me rather than the overall picture. But story-wise, my work narrates personal struggles with mental illness & how it’s easy to revert to a childhood state of loss & confusion. The process of tufting itself is a source of therapeutic action; when I’m making, I’m concentrating on what lines I need to create next, rather than the worries of the world outside of my textile haven. I make the things that bring me happiness, which usually derive from sketchbook doodles drawn in blunt crayons & neon felt tip pens.’
COM: What challenges have you faced in your career?
AD: ‘It certainly hasn’t been an easy journey. In the past four years alone, I’ve
struggled through personal issues, home & family problems, financial insecurity & traumatic events, as well as constant second-guessing of my decisions. But a big learning curve has been trying not to compare myself to others. Especially when tufting went viral, I had a lot of insecurity & sometimes jealously that I needed to work through. It’s taken a while to let myself be the artist I naturally am & allow myself the space & vulnerability to create the artwork that I love. It was initially difficult to monetise my coping mechanism & put that pressure on myself to make a living from my creative outlet. But I managed to strike a balance somehow & teaching tufting to others has helped me gain the perspective I needed to progress forward.’
COM: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
AD: ‘I was extremely excited when my work got put in the Whitworth, which can be seen until September 11 th 2022! I’m blessed to have had work in three major Manchester galleries. But I’m particularly proud of the overseas work I have done; in 2017 I attended a Portrait/Animism course with Caroline Achaintre in Salzburg, Austria, which gave me a fantastic insight to a revered artists’ process. I got to show her the tattoo I have of her artwork & she loved it! I also went on a fellowship to the Venice Biennale in 2019, working as a steward for Cathy Wilkes’ installation in the British Pavilion for 4 weeks. These trips have been absolutely life-changing & essential to my creative development.’
COM: Your work and your style is so colourful! Is colour important to you?
AD: ‘Colour is incredibly important to my artwork & my lifestyle. I adore the emotions it can evoke & how it can transform a piece or space entirely. My bold colour choices are directly for the child version of myself; I dress brightly to show the world that I’m living in a complete technicolour wonderland in my head. My name means ‘ray of light’ in German, so I project that sentiment through my neon yellow hair. My nan was also a German immigrant & introduced me to textiles in my childhood, which has given me such adoration for soft things today. Garish patterns & clashing colours are my favourite mixture. Childhood influences my artwork massively, especially through my drawing style & colour combinations.’
COM: Do you have a favourite item you like to create/a favourite piece you have made?
AD: ‘My most beloved imagery comes straight from the sketchbook, as they’re raw
drawings packed with emotion & sentimentality. The pieces that give me a giggle or help me work through tough feelings give me an incredible sense of satisfaction upon completion. Sheela (2020) was a particularly special piece about my time spent in Venice, made from strips of tufting that I’d taken there & dipped in a canal. ‘She’s’ inspired by a fleeting love story by rippling waters & given the spirit of a protective water goddess. Plus, ‘she’ was an experimental effort to make a non-rug piece of tufting. I also really enjoyed making a tufted moss costume for a lovely group of drag queens in Birmingham this year; just getting a crazy idea pitched to you & making it come to life is incredibly precious, so I’ll always have a soft spot for quirky collaborations. The same can be said about my recent commission with Salford Lads Club; a Happy Mondays styled rug that will honour Shelagh Delaney Day on November 25th .’
COM: If you can live in any artwork, what would it be and why?
AD: ‘I have to say that living in one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror rooms would be spectacular. I love the thought of floating through endless repeating shapes & morphing into the pattern over time. But Sheila Hicks’ installation at the Venice Biennale in 2017, Beyond Chromatic Lands, gave me the real-life moment of ‘I want to jump into that artwork & live in it forever’. Stacks upon stacks of colour, loose fibre meshed into colourful balls of huge cascading softness. It’s the ultimate dreamscape, when I saw it I almost lost my mind! There were even signs on the floor saying, ‘do not sit on the artwork’, so I’m not the only one who wants to jump in & let the wave of colours consume me.’
If you want to find out more about Alena, her work or her classes, head to her website – alenaruthtufting.com or her Instagram page – @alenaruthtufting. And you can purchase her work at our Art All Dayer: Autumn Edition!