In the stairwell of the Great Northern Hotel in London’s King’s Cross, an intricate map-like image stretches across the walls from reception up to the Plum + Spilt Milk restaurant on the second floor. Charting the Thames in Ordnance Survey-like detail then spiralling off into what appear to be surrounding constellations, A String of Thoughts… is the largest commission to date by Cork-born Debbie Smyth. The form is fascinating, but so is the medium it is constructed in.
“She creates drawings, just with pins and thread rather than pencil,” says Yvonna Demczynska, founder of London’s Flow Gallery, which represents Smyth. “I don’t know any other artist working this way, with threads, words, maps, abstract forms.” The results are “unique 3D floating illustrations”, says Smyth, who describes herself as a designer rather than an artist and mostly creates bespoke work. “I like being given a brief, a starting point. I find it difficult to work with a blank canvas and find that the communication between two people allows the work to evolve.” She has created large-scale commissions for clients in the UK, the US and China – including the Dorchester Collection and Four Seasons hotels. She has created window displays for Hermès, a huge 16m-long work for the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra and numerous pieces for private homes.
“I have made many ‘Home Sweet Homes’,” says Smyth of her text-based commissions (from £650 for a small A4-sized work). Maps of specific areas (from around £3,500) are also often requested, and can be commissioned as gifts. “They seem to be very popular for weddings,” adds Smyth, who works with her partner, photographer Zac Mead, from their studio in Stroud. Each piece starts with a drawing and a discussion about colour and size. “I show clients examples of past works, and then there is a back-and-forth flow before the final work is created.” The image or text is plotted either on a board or directly on the wall with nails and pins, then gradually built up with thread and knots, rather like shading with a pencil. Small-scale pieces are completed in four to eight weeks.