What’s Going On Upstairs

“The [work] had given people permission to open up about how they felt about their bodies…” - the artist

Room for Improvement (detail), 2018, toy bed, cotton, silk threads, 7 cm x 4.5 cm x 4 cm. NFS

Room for Improvement (detail), 2018, toy bed, cotton, silk threads, 7 cm x 4.5 cm x 4 cm. NFS

Q: What led you to become a fiber / textile artist?

A: I worked as a crafts person for fifteen years designing and hand stitching miniature dolls house samplers for adult collectors. It was a successful business and I had an American agent who sold my work all over the USA, in Japan and Europe. I traded my work in the UK. It was a lovely time and fitted in very well with my life as a mother of two young daughters. I traveled to Chicago and New York at the invitation of my agent to attend prestigious dolls house exhibitions. As my daughters began to grow up I felt the need to learn new things and attended a college to obtain a City & Guilds certificate in Creative Embroidery. Whilst there, a tutor encouraged me to apply for a university degree course in the Applied Arts. It was a wonderful experience which opened my mind to new ideas, and I had a chance to explore different media, but I always returned to textiles/fiber. In 2007 I completed my degree, released the ties from my business to become a qualified artist specializing in textiles. I had always wanted to be an artist from a young age so it was wonderful to finally fulfill my dream.

Under Pressure, 2018, cotton, silk threads, 34 cm x 10 cm. NFS

Under Pressure, 2018, cotton, silk threads, 34 cm x 10 cm. NFS

Q: What inspired the collection you submitted?

A: From 2010 I had been creating works about women and dieting and in 2014 exhibited all of the pieces as part of a full-size kitchen art installation. It was a major task as I had to draw up a plan as if I was designing a real kitchen with cupboards, a washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator, etc. A carpenter made all of the units and I covered them with silkscreen printed fabric, embellished with hand stitching. There was a kitchen table and when the visitors came to view the work they surprised me by sitting down at the table, which was set out as an art piece, and proceeded to talk about their lives. The installation had given people permission to open up about how they felt about their bodies, about failed diets and about family members who had suffered with eating disorders. A short time after the exhibition closed a young woman contacted me to let me know that she had seen the kitchen. She told me that she had had anorexia nervosa from the age of 11. She said that seeing the work had made her want to get better. We kept in contact and I wanted to tell her story. She very bravely offered me her diaries about her illness and this was the starting point of my research into eating disorders.

You See Food, I See Numbers, 2016, medicine capsules, cotton, silk threads, 15 cm x 24 cm. NFS

You See Food, I See Numbers, 2016, medicine capsules, cotton, silk threads, 15 cm x 24 cm. NFS

Q: Can you describe the materials you used and your creative process?

A: The main material that I use is cotton, and I use fine silk threads to hand sew text and motifs. There is usually an addition of other ready made materials, such as key-rings, dolls house furniture, and even weighing scales, which are adapted to emphasize my concept.

My creative process always begins with an inspiring idea. It is the springboard to opening up a fresh sketchbook in which to record my thoughts. Research is the most important part of my work and I will order relevant books online. Reading is always inspiring and will expand any ideas that I already have. I attend conferences and talks, as well as visiting museums and art galleries. Now that social media is so accessible, I utilize it to find out people’s views. I have also been contacted by individuals who have a story to tell. I like to include the lived experiences and thoughts of others to create an authentic artwork.

Life Line, 2018, cotton, silk threads, 175 cm x 52 cm. NFS

Life Line, 2018, cotton, silk threads, 175 cm x 52 cm. NFS

Q: We were impressed with your Best in Show piece, titled Life Line, as well as the rest of this themed collection. Tell us more about this piece/series.

A: Thank you. ‘Life Line’ was created to be displayed inside a bedroom art installation titled ‘What’s Going On Upstairs’ (2018). I created the drip bag using a pattern from a medical IV bag. The piece hung from a drip stand and the attached tube ran from the bag to a handmade quilt which lay on a bed. It became a metaphor for the recovery of a patient with an eating disorder. All of the hand stitched text on the drip bag came from a teenager’s account of her illness, and in particular her struggle with an ‘anorexia fairy’ who sat on her shoulder. She was mentally controlled by it, and would follow its instructions on what not to eat and how much exercise she should do. When the artwork went on display, the first person to read the words on ‘Life Line’ was crying uncontrollably. She said that she had recognized herself in that piece.

‘What’s Going On Upstairs’ was created to be half way between an adolescent’s bedroom and a hospital room. It dealt with scale, as a person with an eating disorder will often think that their body is much bigger than it actually is. There was a dolls house titled ‘The Secret Life of an Eating Disorder’ which was displayed on a chest-of-drawers. It appeared really innocent until the viewer looked at the detail. Each room related to something about eating disorders, and the bedroom in particular, was laid out in a similar way to the full-size installation. There were miniature objects such as pink slippers, a blood pressure cuff, weighing scales, even a tiny stethoscope in the dolls house, and these were replicated as full size in the room. It gave a feeling of unreality, and begged the question: ‘Am I standing inside the dolls house or am I in the installation?’

Identity Crisis, 2017, cotton, silk threads, plastic catch, 6 cm x 2 cm. NFS

Identity Crisis, 2017, cotton, silk threads, plastic catch, 6 cm x 2 cm. NFS

Q: What do you hope for viewers to take away from your work?

A: When I make an artwork I do not think about what the viewers will take away from it. I am thinking about how I am going to construct the piece, how it is going to be displayed and most importantly, does it work successfully? Because of this, it is always a great revelation how the work is interpreted by the public. When ‘What’s Going On Upstairs’ was exhibited I was overwhelmed by the reaction to it. The room became a safe place for people to express their emotions. There were many tears (I shed some myself), many hugs, and many accounts relating to eating disorders. Viewers talked about problems that they were having with their own illness, or those of their family members, or friends. People really connected to the work and it was a hugely emotional show, especially so because the exhibition took place in a knitting and stitching show and not in a healthcare environment.

Do My Bones Look Big In This, 2018, puppet, cotton, silk threads, 36 cm x 12 cm. NFS

Do My Bones Look Big In This, 2018, puppet, cotton, silk threads, 36 cm x 12 cm. NFS

Q: How do you view your art career in five years?

A: I am constantly questioning my art career as I do not want it to become static. I want it to be continuously moving forwards. I would like to work more with institutions, collaborating with academics in other fields. Within five years it would be great to be combining my own research with those from universities and from health organisations to create more insightful artworks.

Photo source: the artist

Photo source: the artist

About the artist:

Caren Garfen specializes in textiles and painstaking hand stitching creating carefully considered pieces with profound messages.

Caren's interest is in gender politics and women’s issues in the twenty-first century. She works around specific themes, such as women and work/life balance or women and dieting/the body. Her wryly humorous and sharply observed hand sewn messages are the result of extensive research and intuitive observation. Inspiration is derived from social media, fiction and non-fiction literature and from personal stories.

Caren has established an international reputation for her accessible yet challenging issue-based art. Her work has been exhibited widely in the UK and Europe, as well as in Japan, USA, and Canada.


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