In the early 1960s, before artist Joy Pitts was born, her mother worked in a Nottingham textile factory as a ‘tabber’, sewing labels into hundreds of items of clothing.
It is no wonder then that she found it a little amusing that her daughter made her name creating unique art work with discarded clothing labels.
“It was a job she did briefly when she first left school so I had no idea about it until I started working with labels and she told me. It’s a little ironic isn’t it?” said Joy with a laugh.
However, rather than her mother’s first job, it was probably the Midlands’ proud history of producing textiles which influenced Joy’s love of material and garments.
“I first started experimenting with materials when I was at college and even used the garments themselves in big installations for shows,” she said.
“The first piece I did when I began exploring the labels in the garments was a plastic shopping bag covered in them. When it won an award I did something similar and that won another award, as did my third piece. That endorsement of what I was doing kind of led me in the direction I have taken.”
Joy has never really looked back since and has had work exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition twice (most recently this summer for a show curated by Grayson Perry) and been commissioned to create a piece for the private collection of Nottingham’s fashion designer Paul Smith.
Joy, 52, who lives in Ilkeston, was a civil servant before she made the decision to follow her true vocation and study art. Following courses at college she went on to study Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University in 2001.
“I’d always wanted to be an artist but my parents didn’t encourage it at the time as they thought it wouldn’t go anywhere. ‘Get a safe job’, they said, so I joined the civil service,” she explained.
“Art was always going on in the background though, and I was always creative. After I had the children I thought, I’m going back to college and that took me to university and eventually a new life as a full-time artist.”
Unlike most other artists, Joy’s studio in the attic of her home isn’t cluttered with brushes, tubes of paint and palettes. Instead there are rows of boxes brimming with thousands and thousands of labels.
As you might imagine the label gathering takes up a large part of her time.
Some she collects from charity shops, others have been donated by manufacturers who no longer have a use for them and others she commissions from Cash’s of Coventry who have been making name tags for almost 150 years.
“The collection of used labels is ongoing, and I usually make visits to charity shops once a week. I unpick labels from discarded clothes destined for the rag pile, so I don’t actually have to buy the garments,” said Joy as she started opening boxes to show me her hoard.
“The new labels, which have been donated to me, are all stored in clear boxes with an index so they are easy to locate. The old labels, are in old cardboard shoe boxes in various colourways.”
A sketch based on a photograph is Joy’s starting point for each design. She then covers the background in labels and then overlays the image on top, attaching the labels to the canvas with dressmaker pins.
She explained that her larger pieces (the one of Queen Elizabeth II measures 88 x 72cm) can take several days to create.
She worked for 136 hours and used 125g of dressmaker pins for her Royal subject. Since starting her work she reckons she must have used close to 100,000 labels.
Joy doesn’t just randomly pick her subjects; there is always an event (such as the death of Muhammad Ali, and Theresa May becoming Prime Minister) that sparks her ideas.
“I am always looking out for a new subject and have lots of ideas in my head.
“Once I have decided what I want to do I then have to set about finding the perfect labels to create it. That alone can take me some time – even years in some cases,” she said.
To learn more about her work go to http://www.joypitts.co.uk
The featured image at the top – Military Boots – was specially commissioned by Nottinghamshire County Council for its The Trent to Trenches programme.
It is made up of 520 hand sewn name tapes of men and women who have served or are serving in the armed forces. The name tapes were stitched by the soldiers’ families, and by soldiers who are still serving now. The work was preselected for the Royal West of England Academy Open Exhibition.