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9 March 2020

Interview With Helen Delany of Electronic Sheep, 2020 Culture Fund Designer

Electronic Sheep are designers Helen Delany and Brenda Aherne – they specialise in graphic knitwear and illustration. Helen spoke to us about their Culture Fund supported tapestry, which will tell a new story about the influence of Irish people living on and around Kilburn.

What’s your connection to Brent?
I moved to London from Dublin permanently in the nineties. I always wanted to live here since I was a teenager. I have close Irish family in west London so I’d been coming here since I was 5 years old. I lived in Ladbroke Grove for 20 years but recently I’ve been living just off the Kilburn High Road. I used to socialise in Brent when I was younger – mainly music places like the Luminaire. I have fun memories of going to The Mean Fiddler as a teenager and in my twenties – it was the biggest music venue in the 1990s and anyone Irish and interested in music flocked there.

What was Kilburn High Road like back in the day?
I only ever came here at night time so I remember the pubs and the venues being wild. To be honest myself and Brenda would follow the music and the crowd. There were a lot of London bands hanging around the pubs that we would be drawn to… The Clash, The Damned, Big Audio Dynamite, The Pogues etc. It was usually word of mouth and we would go anywhere that had live rock n roll or a music scene.

Is it the first time you will have made a tapestry in this way?
No. In 2016 ago we did a tapestry style piece marking the 100th anniversary of the 1916 revolution. It was a serious part of history but we mixed it up with what art was like in 1916 – so we put in Picasso and Gertrude Steiner and Marcel Duchamp and all these artists who were around at that time. So we could tell a bigger story – a more European story about what was happening in 1916. That one will parallel what we want to do with this tapestry. In addition we have produced several oversized knitted pieces over the years that feature stories through our drawings and pattern.

What’s it going to look like?
We work in quite an illustrative way; we tend to play with scale and collage. We love fanzines, punk and cut n paste styles – we have a comic called The Electronic Sheep Comic which influences our style too. As you can imagine it won’t be a traditional tapestry! It will have a very contemporary look and feel. But it will tell stories in the mode of a tapestry. It will also feature tradional Irish emblems, details or patterns that we find relating to the area. Old Irish dancing costumes, hand knits, Irish fabrics from personal and photographic archives. We also do knitted typography so we will incorporate that as well. It’ll be a light-hearted approach. We’ll be looking mostly from the 50’s onwards. The positive influences that came out of this area and are linked to this area. People of Irish descent who have left a legacy.

How do you make it?
We call it a tapestry. But our work has been described as tapestry-like. It’s actually a knitted illustration that will have the look and feel of a tapestry. We’ve been designing in this way for more than 20 years and have gradually developed a technique where we translate the illustration into knitwear. We hand draw the stories, then we draw them digitally and lastly we work with our producer – this is through a small family-run business in Greece. He’s the only person who is able to do our fine-detailing, which is really hard to do. We go backwards and forwards with him and digitally alter it as we go along. He’s incredibly patient! We don’t mass-produce, we do small collections and one off pieces and it takes time.

Where will the tapestry go?
To launch the tapestry we will have an event in one of the venues on the Kilburn High Road. It would be fun to do it in The Fiddler or the Colin Campbell. At the end of 2020 we will donate the tapestry to the Brent community but we haven’t figured out yet where it will permanently live. For 2020 we would like it to become a travelling piece. Our company Electronic Sheep have a retrospective exhibition in Dublin coming up this year and we would love to take it there for a short visit so the London Irish or indeed Brent Irish stories could temporarily live in Ireland. I think that would be a nice place for these stories and heritage to go full circle – back to the roots.

What kind of stories will the tapestry tell?
There have been films and plays about pub-fights and the pub life in Kilburn. While we want to document the pub and music scene we want to get past the cliches about the Irish in this part of London and also unearth stories that haven’t been told. We want to involve musicians and creative people with an Irish connection. The tapestry will be a mix of history and the contemporary: artists, poets, musicians and the everyday activities of the Irish community in Kilburn and Brent. In our signature illustrative and colourful style the tapestry will be a collage of these tales.

The project involves the community to generate the stories and we will be meeting and interviewing various Irish people along the way. The first stop is to attend a tea dance (Trades Hall Tea Dance)* in Cricklewood to meet the elderly Irish and record some of the happenings from the old days. The funnier stories like an Irish fella pulling a bus up the Kilburn High Road with bare hands will be honoured as will talk of a normal day in the area when they were children.

Alongside this there is an Irish playwright, a comedian and an actor who we plan to feature and of course an array of musicians and venues. There are some well known people who have immortalised this area – like Vince Power (founder of the Mean Fiddler) who is back on The Kilburn High Road with a new pub and I am looking forward to interviewing him. It will be interesting to see how the Irish community contributed to shaping Brent and we are hoping to scoop out a few untold narratives.
*Brent Irish Advisory Servic