Behind Björk’s many masks
James Merry is a hand embroidery artist, originally from Gloucestershire, UK, now based in Iceland. He has working with Björk since 2009. He spends his days at a small cabin studio on a lake fifteen minutes outside of Reykjavík, working by hand in a variety of mediums. James has a formal background from one of the best schools in the world, Oxford University, where he studied Classical Greek but the thing he loves most, he taught himself.
Firstly could you tell us about about yourself and how you became an artist?
I was fortunate enough to have an incredibly creative upbringing. My mother and my older sisters are artists too, so my imagination and creative side were nurtured from a young age. I took a slight academic detour in my twenties, and decided to study Classical Greek at Oxford University. In hindsight, I probably should have gone to art school instead. Still, I have no regrets since I got there in the end!
How did you get into embroidery?
I have always loved working with my hands. In particular, I like any sort of work that requires delicacy and precision. I have a tendency to always zoom in on the details, and I also really enjoy quite slow-paced things that are given space to develop over time. Hand embroidery epitomises all those things, so I don’t think it’s any surprise that I ended up working with that medium.
When was the first time you realised that being creative making things was something that you absolutely had to do?
I don’t think it’s a conscious decision you make to be creative, it’s more of a nagging relentless impulse that you have no other choice but to obey. Artists probably don’t get the credit they deserve considering the demands of the profession. Unlike other jobs where you can finish up your work and switch off for the weekend, there’s always something left unfinished, and that voice in the back of your head reminding you of all the ideas you still haven’t realised yet.
What does being creative mean to you?
Being creative to me means always making the best out of any situation, whether it’s with humour, with friendship or with art. It’s that alchemical process of turning something mundane into something joyful or poetic.
You have been doing hand-sewn embroideries featuring small plants, over logos such as Fila and Nike, what is it that draws you to these logos?
My work is often about contrast. I like putting two things side-by-side that don’t usually belong together. Those hyper-urban machine embroidered logos gave me a perfect canvas to work on, contrasting them with some delicate floral hand embroidery. I love sportswear, so it was a kind of respectful subversion of those logos, breathing some nature and fertility into them, by hand.
I read somewhere that you like to listen to music when you work, what kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to BBC Radio 4 pretty much all day, especially when I’m embroidering. It feels like an umbilical cord back to my family and friends in England. But I break that up with a lot of podcasts and audiobooks now. When my ears start zoning out of the spoken word, I switch over to music. Pretty much always female R&B or pop artists, like Tinashe, Kate Bush, Kelela, Beyonce, Emilie Nicholas, and Jill Scott.
You recently decided to move to Iceland permanently, what inspires you about Iceland?
I get endless inspiration from Icelandic flora, especially their resilience and delicacy. It’s no coincidence that most of the flowers I embroider are the ones I see around my garden. I live on a hillside covered in moss, with lots of krækiber, bláber, blóðberg, holtasóley and lots of mushrooms in autumn. They always sneak into my work eventually.
How did your collaboration with Björk come about?
I started working with Björk over 7 years ago, just as she was starting her Biophilia project. We were put in touch by a mutual friend in London and after a few emails back and forth, I ended up moving to New York and Iceland to be her personal assistant. Since then, my work with her has evolved and is constantly changing. No year has ever really been the same, which I love. It’s always exciting and feels more like a series of adventures than a proper job.
Where do you draw your inspiration for her masks?
A lot of the inspiration, like colours and forms for the masks, comes from references or ideas Björk has shared with me, and from discussions or images we’ve sent back and forth over a long period of time. The emotional requirement of the headpiece is always at the forefront of my mind. What sort of mood or character should it belong to? Then I go away and experiment for days with different materials until something feels right. I guess nature, in all its forms, is always at the root of these inspirations. There are a lot of insects, flowers, sea life, and anatomy.
Can you tell us about your favourite mask that you did for her?
I’m usually most excited by the last thing I’ve made, so in that case it would be the red “ribbon” headpiece I made in Tokyo for the opening of Björk : Digital virtual reality exhibition. I made it quite fast and impulsively, from one single piece of flattened wire that I bent symmetrically by hand. I see these new wire pieces as a natural progression of my previous flat needlework; a sort of three-dimensional embroidery that can come off the canvas and start to float around the head.
What does the future hold for you and your work?
I want to keep learning, keep trying new things and pushing myself. I have a million ideas but only one pair of hands, so my main focus for the future is to stay productive, and not be scared to experiment with new technologies and keep moving forward!
August 08, 2018
May 08, 2018
March 01, 2018