Passage to India offers inspiration for artist

Sea of Faith,  hand embroidery on wool by Roanna Wells  based on the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage at Allahabad, India, which she visited in February''Sadhus on the pilgrimage
Sea of Faith, hand embroidery on wool by Roanna Wells based on the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage at Allahabad, India, which she visited in February''Sadhus on the pilgrimage

An intricate piece of work by Sheffield artist Roanna Wells on show at the Jerwood Makers Open 2013 in London through the summer took three months to make and even longer to plan.

Called Sea of Faith, it is an embroidered visualisation from the air of millions of figures at a pilgrimage in India formed into an almost abstract shape.

After being awarded a £7,500 Jerwood Makers Open commission Roanna made a research trip to to see the the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in India where around 35 million Hindus gathered at the banks of the Ganges to bathe in the holy water.

For some time the artist has been fascinated by the aesthetic possibilities of crowd formations.

“I had done several pieces based on aerial views of crowds and had used Google Images of Obama’s inauguration and concerts in Hyde Park,” she says.

“I found it easy to find an aesthetic shape in them and take it into something more abstract. I find it interesting what people read into the image and what they like to see before, or even after, they know what it is.”

There came a point when she decided she should work from original photographs. “The Kumbh Mela is held every four years but the main celebration comes to Allahabad once every 12 years. It just seemed the timing was perfect. I found online two local men who did remote control aerial photography - Gaurav Agarwal and Neeraj Agarwal - and contacted them and they seemed confident they could do it,

“Of course you don’t know in advance if you’re going to get what you want until you see it so I just had to trust it would work.”

And it did. The cameras were attached to remote controlled model aircraft and the results were perfect.

Apart from getting what she wanted Roanna Wells enjoyed the whole experience of witnessing such an extraordinary event, especially as someone who had never visited the East before. It helped that she was able to stay with the family of one of the pilots.

Once back in her studio at S1 Artspace the hard work began. It took three months of solid work, often well into the night, to meet the deadline of the Jerwood exhibition.

Of the many images that were taken she chose one where there is a clear space in the middle - caused by the pilgrims clearing the way for the arrfival of the sadhus - or holy men.

She traced in pen the pattern from the individual figures in the crowd which she then enlarged and re-traced. She then initially stiched through tissue paper - to provide her with something approximating a map - before getting to work on her ‘canvas’ - wool stretched across a wooden frame.

“I worked out some stats for the piece,” reports Roanna. “Over the three months I worked 300 hours and it took three needles. 264 metres of thread, 100,000 stitches (approximately!) - and 137 episodes of Desert Island Discs.”

The latter was her preferred aural accompaniment while she worked, often into the small hours. “I find stiching satisfying. You have to enjoy it or you would go crazy.”

The daughter of a textile artist (Kate Wells) - “I grew up surrounded by boxes of thread” - Roanna lived in Stannington and went to Sheffield High School before going on to complete an embrodiery degree in Manchester. She then returned to Sheffield and took a studio at S1 Artspace and supports herself by working as a nursery assistant .

So what next? She says she hasn’t yet caught her breath after such an epic project but she hopes to build on it, perhaps developing plans to look at different gatherings on different scales and cultures such as the Vatican and the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge.

Jerwood Makers Open 2013 continues at Jerwood Space, Union Street, Bankside, until August 25 and then goes to the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, in September.