Orkney Inspired Art – an interview with Jo Thomson

From vibrant galleries and studios to inspiring local artists, Orkney is a thriving hub of creativity. And it is no wonder, with the islands’ rich heritage and sensational scenery providing endless inspiration for artists and visitors alike.

My mum taught me how to weave from a young age and I spent all my time drawing, so I always knew I wanted to go to art school and become an artist.

Located on South Ronaldsay, the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery is a wonderful, family-founded business run by artist Jo Thomson and her brother Andrew, and established by their late mother, artist Leila Thomson in 1996. Creating beautiful, one-of-a-kind tapestries as well as handmade rugs and original artwork, Jo kindly told us more about their work…

The exterior of the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery
The exterior of the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

Q. Could you tell us about the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery and how it all began?
A. My late Mum, Leila Thomson, opened the gallery in June 1996 so we are in our 28th year of business this year! Mum graduated in Tapestry from Edinburgh College of Art in 1980 and moved home to Orkney to get married and raise a family. She continued making tapestries quietly, and by the mid ‘90s the house was full of large tapestries! After taking part in a few exhibitions locally, Mum saw there was interest in her artwork; so together with the help of a family friend, Mum and Dad put forward a business plan for building a studio/gallery onto the end of their house. They were awarded a business start-up grant through Orkney Enterprise and built and opened the gallery within a few months with the help of family and friends.

Jo with her mum, Leila, who taught her to weave
Jo with her mum, Leila, who taught her to weave photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

I grew up surrounded by the buzz of the gallery and Mum’s creativity. Mum taught me how to weave from a young age and I spent all my time drawing, so I always knew I wanted to go to art school and become an artist. By the time I graduated in Painting from Edinburgh College of Art in 2010 (being the seventh member of our family to graduate from this art school!) and joined the business alongside my eldest brother Andrew, who makes our picture framing, the gallery was bursting at the seams!

'Flow and Retreat' rug
‘Flow and Retreat’ rug photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

In 2012, we bit the bullet and extended the gallery for more studio space, yet again gratefully receiving a business development grant through Orkney Islands Council. Around this time we also introduced a range of handcrafted rugs made from pure Shetland wool. They are created completely differently to the tapestries as they are tufted onto a canvas using a tufting gun operated by compressed air, not handwoven. They are also created as repeatable designs, unlike the one-off handwoven tapestries. Our rugs are made by my brother Andrew over winter when he is less busy with picture framing, and the designs are by either Mum or myself.

Jo with her handwoven tapestry 'Inganess Ebb'
Jo with her handwoven tapestry ‘Inganess Ebb’ photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

Q. Can you describe the process of making a tapestry? How long do they take to create?
A. It depends on a variety of factors: how long it takes to gather research and develop an idea, the size of the artwork, how complicated your composition is to weave and how much time you get to spend physically working on it. The idea and drawing might come together quickly within a couple of days, or it can take months, sometimes longer than the weaving time! In general, the large tapestries hanging in the gallery which are at least 6ft in size, took anywhere between 2 – 4 months of weaving and often the same time again for the research and idea.

As with any original artwork, regardless of the medium, you’re making constant creative decisions while you work: composition, form, textural effects, blending of colours and making sure what you’re doing is expressing the feeling or idea you want to communicate through the artwork. There are days where you’re in a creative flow and make good progress and days where you feel stuck, and nothing happens. For this reason, it’s difficult to put a timescale on the creative process.

A beautiful sunset overlooking Hoxa Head in Orkney
A beautiful sunset overlooking Hoxa Head in Orkney photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

Q. What has been the main inspiration for your mum, and now you, with your artwork and designs?
A. As born and bred Orcadians I think the colours and rhythms of Orkney’s landscape are deeply ingrained in us, it’s part of our identity. However, I’d say Mum and I use the landscape differently within our artwork. Mum largely used it to communicate ideas, stories, and life experiences whereas I am directly inspired by the physical landscape, responding to the quality of light, weather and changing seasons particular to the place.

Jo cutting her latest ripple-inspired tapestries off the loom
Jo cutting her latest ripple-inspired tapestries off the loom photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

Q. How do you source the materials used in your designs?
A. Although tapestry is commonly associated with design, Mum and I use tapestry as a fine art medium. Each tapestry is a one-off artwork like a painting, it’s just made from threads instead of paint. We source our yarns from a variety of suppliers within the UK: Jamiesons of Shetland, Jamiesons and Smith, J.C. Rennie, Handweavers Studio in London, Weavers Bazaar and William Hall. We both use a mixture of cotton, linen, rayon, and wool in our artwork, blending them together to create the desired colour or effect.

'Eynhallow, Disappearing Island' tapestry, made by Jo
‘Eynhallow, Disappearing Island’ tapestry, made by Jo photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

Q. Which is your favourite design by your mum, and which do you like best from your own collection?
A. I don’t have a clear favourite, but I have three photographic prints of mum’s artwork hanging in my home: “Moondancer”, “Rockpool” and “Wellspring”. Funnily enough they’re all prints which have eventually been discontinued at the gallery to make space for new prints, as they weren’t as popular as others, but they were always ones I really liked.

I also don’t have any clear favourites of my own, but I was proud of my weaving in “Elemental synergy” which was developed from one of my watercolour sketches of a reflected sunset on wet sand. There were many subtle, watery marks I wanted to capture from the painting, so it was technically challenging to weave. For similar reasons I’m also proud of my tapestry, “Eynhallow, disappearing island” which was a substantial size for me (approx. 3ft x 5ft 7”) in addition to being technically challenging.

Q. What do you enjoy most about your job?
A. I don’t think the novelty will ever wear off that part of my job is to walk along bonny shorelines and think!

'Echoes of the Shore' handwoven tapestry artwork
‘Echoes of the Shore’ handwoven tapestry artwork photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
A. Be inquisitive and open to ideas, different ways of thinking and working. It’s important to allow for time and space to experiment with ideas and materials as that’s generally when the most exciting creative moments happen. Create work which excites you and you’re proud of, not what you think people want or expect from you. It will make your work stronger and unique to you.

As a self-employed person you also wear many “hats” – running a gallery or selling through galleries and setting up exhibitions, speaking to customers, marketing, social media, administration – all whilst trying to make your art which requires time and space. You need to be self-motivated!

Inside the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery
Inside the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

Although there are challenges to being a self-employed artist, it is equally fulfilling! It is a great feeling to release an idea out into the world and know that it resonates with people. Mum always felt very fortunate to be able to make a living from her art, being well supported both locally and with tourists from all around the world. I feel the same and can only hope to keep doing what I’m doing.

Jo's brother Andrew working on 'Wildgrasses' rug
Jo’s brother Andrew working on ‘Wildgrasses’ rug photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery

Q. What’s next for the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery? Do you have anything exciting on the horizon?
A. We would love to reach the milestone of 30 years in business! That would be an incredible achievement which none of us could have expected back in 1996. It has been an understandably difficult period of adjustment over the last couple of years with Mum stepping down from the business and passing away in 2022. My brother Andrew and I are finding a new balance as a two-person business as opposed to three.

Hopefully I’ll continue to feel inspired, create new artwork and celebrate Mum’s artistic legacy. I always tell people I don’t have to go far to feel inspired in Orkney, I just need to open the front door!


To find out more about Hoxa Tapestry Gallery, please visit: https://hoxatapestrygallery.co.uk/

Amy LeithBy Amy Leith
A marketing student born and raised in Aberdeen with an admiration of the Scottish isles, desire to travel and see the world, a superior taste in music, enjoys cooking and socialising with family and friends.

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Header image: Jo hanging her paintings in the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery photo © Copyright Hoxa Tapestry Gallery