CREDIT: Fiona Susanto/Supplied
Textile artist Shilo Engelbrecht possesses a calm that is in itself an oasis from the chaos of Salone del Mobile, the annual design fair that attracts hundreds of thousands of jostling design industry favourites and fans to Milan. It’s a quality that’s also evinced in her arresting, impasto oil paintings, which Engelbrecht photographs and transfers onto beautiful textiles that not only adorn but enhance living spaces made all the more interesting for having her painterly touch.
Below, Engelbrecht speaks with GRAZIA about how she went from making her debut as a fashion designer winning awards at Australia Fashion Week to the world stage of textiles at Salone, including a quick detour via the venerable Italian design house, Missoni.
Perhaps we could begin by gaining an insight into your practice. What is it that you create and how did you make your art practice a viable enterprise? “I started five years ago while I was living in the UK. I launched a business with my oil paintings, which I do in a really traditional fine art practice on a large scale. I then photograph them, and digitally print them predominantly on linen and some heavy cotton. Initially, I was inspired by some historical artists in the UK who use their home as an extension of their art practice and studio by hand-painting their furniture and textiles. When I was living in the UK, I couldn’t find anything nice for our home so I just started to paint on things.
What do you think was your lucky break? I think I got really lucky because someone in London found out about what I was doing. I was living in Cambridge at the time, and wrote an email to about four or five people and said, ‘I’ve made these things, I’d love to hear your feedback’, and one of those people worked at the Telegraph and forwarded it on to her network in London. I then got invited to come and show my work to some people, and one of them worked as an assistant to Kit Kemp – the hotelier and interior designer – and that’s where it started.”
CREDIT: Fiona Susanto/Supplied
Did you train formally as a fine artist in Australia or the UK? “I actually studied fashion design formally at the University of Technology in Brisbane and won the Mercedes Benz start-up prize for my debut womenswear collection. As soon as I’d shown in Sydney at Fashion Week I realised, ‘Hang on, I don’t think I can keep up with this’, but only because of the pace of fashion. I also think that textiles for me were always really where my passion and interest lay. So I was more interested in exploring that in a cross-disciplinary way with other industries like architecture. I’ve started to do some collaboration and research with sound artists and light engineers who also want to look at textiles in other ways.”
Where are you based now? “I’ve been back in Australia for about a year, I came back to Australia after seven years to do my first collaboration with Sportscraft. I created an artwork for them and we launched that last November with a capsule collection of beachwear – men’s boardshorts, a beach umbrella, and a few things I’ve never done before. That was quite fun.”
What did that experience teach you? Did you have to cater your creative impulses to create a commercial product? “I think I did, yeah, and I think those particular products informed the work a bit. I knew it was very beach related so that informed my palette. So it was something very different from what I would normally do. It was a very interesting learning experience for me to not have full control and to work with them and compromise to work things out together. [My practice] is very solo, so it was a different playing field.”
Do you remember a time when you first started wanting to engage with art, painting and design? “I think when I first realised I wanted to work with textiles I was still in school and I had an awesome art teacher who is a really well respected painter himself in Australia, John Honeywill. He gave me a lot of freedom, and even when it wasn’t really part of the curriculum, he allowed me to use textiles in assignments. I remember sitting at lunchtime and sewing bits of fabric. That’s when it started. At university, I took a couple of fine arts electives and I discovered artists like Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, all female artists actually who were incorporating textiles into their practice.”
What advice do you wish you had been given when you began practicing as an artist and a textile designer? “Trust yourself. It’s something that I was told by my mentors actually. Last year I was recently invited to meet with the creative directors of Missoni and I came to their head quarters here in Italy. We sat down and spoke about everything; they were guiding me and I think that’s also one of the things that I got out that experience too. To trust what you’re doing, and that you’re on the right path. To listen to your instinct, and your intuition, when it comes to the path you’re on, and not being distracted by anything else. [Missoni] were interested in what I was doing, and I guess they just thought I could’ve used a bit of guidance. I had a lot of different opportunities on the table at that time and I wasn’t really sure which ones to accept, so they helped me process everything. I told them all about these different opportunities and they said, ‘Yes, no, yes, no’. They were very supportive and they showed me all around their workshops and factories and it was amazing to see. They’re a huge inspiration for me, and obviously very important to Italy.”
Have you sourced a lot of inspiration from your time in Italy at Salone? “It’s been overwhelming and inspiring. The things that I’ve seen that have touched me have been decorative and textile related. But the exterior experiences of Salone, meeting other people and seeing their studios, making those connections and seeing how they work and how generous and open they’ve been with me has been the definite highlight.”
COVER IMAGE: Fiona Susanto/Supplied