Cáit McEniff’s folk-inspired illustrations

The Leeds-based illustrator explains her love of wonky shapes and working with the limitations of textiles

I’m basically trying to make art and see the world like I did as a kid,” says illustrator Cáit McEniff. You could apply this to the purposefully wobbly lines and bucketloads of charm in her fabric pieces or paper illustrations. However, what she means is the childlike spirit and curiosity she tries to maintain in her practice: “Indulging in ideas and celebrating curiosity. Using my hands and learning new skills. Visual streams of consciousness.”

McEniff began to work with textiles in her final year at Leeds Arts University, which she praises for its relaxed definition of illustration, and found that she responded well to the limitations of fabrics. “This takes away some of the decision paralysis and enables me to get stuck into the making.” Those limitations are even tighter on the occasions when she works with offcuts, adapting her designs to the size of the fabric scrap.

Top and above: Cáit McEniff’s illustrations for the Hepworth Wakefield’s Festive Market campaign

Even when working with paper, the introduction of textiles to her world has streamlined her creative approach. “Having the forced limitations of wall hangings has sped up the decision process across my practice as a whole and I think it’s given me more confidence in my instincts and taste,” she says. “The simplified approach to wall hangings has subconsciously made me use shapes much more frequently in my illustration work. Collage is a large part of what I do now, I love making images with cut paper.”

She’s keen to maintain a “wonky and loose” aesthetic in her work, which she achieves by going for it with her scissors or sewing machine without sketching an outline on the materials. “Quickly ‘drawing’ something with my scissors and paper means the shape stays a bit more whimsical than if I was to labour over drawing it perfectly,” she says.

“My favourite kind of work is where you can see the hand of the maker that went into crafting it. I love the textures and imperfections that make up this kind of illustration, which you can see in some of my favourite illustrators’ work, such as Laura Carlin, Jesús Cisneros and Beatrice Alemagna.”

She draws inspiration from mid-century design and its “bold flat shapes, limited colours and printmaking techniques”, as well as the work of late designers Enzo Mari and Alexander Girard. She’s particularly interested in their wooden pieces and has herself tried her hand at whittling, but finds it’s not as easy as the Canadian lumberjack YouTubers make it look. Her all-time favourite artist though is David Hockney. “He has never been afraid to try new things and he’s never tied down to one form of making, he’s always evolving and staying curious. Constant drawing, constant ideas, I really think he’s a genius.”

“I’m interested in vehicles for telling stories and how we’ve made our oral history visual throughout time. I love folklore and the folk art which represents these tales,” she explains. For her final major project, she wrote four folk-inspired tales explaining the origins of the weather – something she’d love to pick up again and turn into a picture book, as she never had the chance to finish them during her degree.

McEniff was in her last year working on her final major project when the pandemic hit. “The world was a scary place, and it felt somewhat selfish to find myself getting so stressed over what was essentially making pictures,” she says. By the time she graduated, she felt burnt out, but after taking a break for a few months she rekindled her love of illustration and now runs a part-time freelance practice.

She recalls struggling with confidence at university – particularly because she wasn’t working digitally, both because she didn’t want and didn’t know how. “I thought that might mean my illustrations would never look professional enough to get me work,” she says. Working on the recent Christmas market campaign for the Hepworth Wakefield has restored some confidence: “So five years on to see my wonky Wilko scrapbook collages up around Leeds on posters for the Hepworth makes me feel quite proud.”