The internet has revolutionised the lives of artists and makers who can now showcase their work without moving from their back bedroom. It can also spare them the agony of touting their wares around galleries. Still, there are obstacles.
Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Etsy are overcrowded spaces. It takes real talent to stand out. Proof of this is the fabulous Mister Finch, a self-taught textile artist and maker of fantastical creatures, who attracted attention the instant he put his work on Etsy, a marketplace for handmade and vintage goods. The team at Etsy HQ featured it on their blog and Facebook page and it went viral.
His hand-sewn, soft sculptures are highly original and have a Gothic fairy-tale quality. Equally compelling is the mystery surrounding the Leeds-based maker. His refusal to reveal his real name is part of the enigma.
“My first name is quite boring and friends just call me ‘Finch’. Is that all right? Are you sure you don’t mind? Honestly?” No-one ever does because he is so sweet, funny and self-effacing and the pseudonym is not a gimmick or a Banksy-style bid for complete anonymity.
“A lot of people think I am shy but I’m not really. I just like being secretive and I like to withdraw. A lot of people give everything away but those that I most admire don’t do that. In my case, I like to think it makes people focus on the work instead of on me,” says Finch, who now has a cult following that includes serious art collectors, New York hipsters and superstitious shoppers in Japan.
“The Japanese really like my spiders and I think that has something to do with them having eight legs. The number eight is seen as lucky. However, when I put pictures of my spiders on my Facebook page I lose as many followers as I gain because of arachnophobia. Personally, I see spiders as feminine and quite tragic and poetic. Some of the them eat their partner after mating and others die after laying their eggs,” says Mister Finch, whose work is influenced by phobias, nature, folklore and his own self-penned fairy tales.
He now sells at exhibitions and shows, although a couple of times a year he will release some pieces on his website, so that his social media followers have a chance to buy. Their favourites are his birds, moths and his plants, although what appears is always a surprise. He makes whatever he feels like, usually small collections of animals, plants and insects, often humanised and made with wire and upcycled fabrics. They are priced anywhere from £200 to £3,000.
His fans may have to wait a little longer than usual for his website sale as for months now he has been stitching, stuffing, decorating and story weaving for a selling exhibition hosted by Anthropologie. The ultra-fashionable boho store, founded in Pennsylvania, is opening its first outlet in the North at the new Victoria Gate centre in Leeds on October 20.
Anthropologie courted Finch for a long time until he said “yes” to an exhibition for the retailer’s London store in 2013. It was a sell-out. The Leeds exhibition is on a bigger scale and centres on his story of a thimble witch and her familiars. “Like other witches they are often incredibly busy and need help with things. This help comes in the form of a familiar. Often portrayed as a cat or toad, they can be anything from the natural world. In the case of a thimble witch, they make and sew their own familiar and this is then brought to life,” he says.
Each has its own characteristics and talents. There’s a rain-weaving spider and an albino moon hedgehog, who is quick at tidying the house and preparing food. The fox with five fingers makes light work of delivering parcels and gathering moss, while the curious sprouting bulb fellow takes care of all your gardening needs. They gaze out through their own display cases, all handmade by Finch from glass with taped fabric joints and bun feet he has taken from old cabinets and drawers.
The thimble witch, of course, is modelled on himself. He still works from his home in an insalubrious area of Leeds and even though his bigger pieces are fighting for space, he doesn’t want to move. “I’d always wanted to work from home and it really is nice. I listen to audio books and film soundtracks while I sew and I also like recordings of the wind and rain, which help me zone out,” says Finch, who has a disciplined approach, working seven days a week, often until 1am.
He uses vintage cotton and linen, which he stains, rips, then mends and darns so that his creatures look as though they have come alive at night and run around doing housework and other jobs. He dreams up personalities for them and stitches them into life.
Their fashion accessories are often foraged from car boot sales and charity shops, where he also buys old books that he loves to rescue. “I love to recycle. When I was working in restaurants and I didn’t have much money for fabrics, I’d use anything I could find. Black umbrellas from the roadside were perfect for making ravens and the wire rods made very good legs,” he says, adding that his inspiration lays in his childhood in Warrington. He was obsessed with making things and with Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
“I loved papier mâché, origami and whittling wood but I didn’t excel at school. I ended up working in a library then in restaurants and bars for years but I also painted and I made big pieces of jewellery for magazine shoots. In the end, I just wanted to do something I could control myself. My mum taught me to hand sew when I was child but I’ve made up my own techniques as I have gone along, so now I can make any kind of soft sculpture I want,” says Finch who has lived in Leeds for over 20 years. He gave up the restaurant jobs seven years ago to become a full-time maker.
“My ambition was to work from home doing what I love, sell my pieces and be secretive and now I do and I am so happy. My dream has come true and its really all thanks to internet and social media.”
His is a modern-day fairy tale with the mysterious Mister Finch as creator and ruler of his own magical kingdom.
• Mister Finch’s Familiars exhibition will run from October 20 to January 15 at Anthropologie, Victoria Gate, Leeds.