Monday, 13 April 2015

Political Needling

You could have knocked me over with a feather.  There it was in black and white for all the world to read on Internet. Jonathan Jones, highly regarded art critic of the UK’s Guardian newspaper. He scrutinizes graffiti and handwork in today’s socio-political context.  According to Jones,

Graffiti is a pretentious subcultural backbeat that is replicated everywhere in much the same style, the same chunky lettering and coded messages. It is boring and expresses a generalised contempt for community, kindness, and the weak. How can leftists like this stuff? After all it is so blatantly hypermasculine, aggressive and destructive of people’s desire for a decent environment. It is in fact proof that men are still in charge of the world. There is far more creativity and craft in, say, crochet but because that is traditionally seen as a “feminine” activity no one bends over backwards to praise it as art. But graffiti, associated as it is with alienated young men, is treated with absurd reverence by people who should know better.

This is a back-handed complement for handwork--needlework in all its forms-- if there ever was one.  While Jones cites crochet, which uses a single hooked-needle, the essence of his argument is there for anyone who thinks about it long enough. About a nano-second should suffice.  Needlework (embroidery, knitting, crocheting) in all its forms = feminine = not art because the establishment so deems it. Jones implies creativity and technical virtuosity (craft) are the essence of art.  

So what’s new here?  Not much, except the acknowledgement by an establishment figure of something that those of  us who practice the needle arts already know:   Sexism skews western society’s perception of value and significance, particularly in art.  But we needle-wielding women (and men)  need all the allies we can get.

Women artists are acknowledged by mainstream institutions, even then parsimoniously, if they paint or sculpt. To put it another way, women must express themselves in a prescribed way to merit wider attention.  (How’s that for fostering originality and promoting creativity!)   

Painting by Grandma Moses on US stamp

Take, for example, Mary Anne Roberts Moses, better known as the naïve painter Grandma Moses. She stitched her whole life. Aged 78, she took up a paintbrush and was discovered as “an artist.”  Her themes, rural Americana, did not change with her medium. In 2006, one of her paintings sold for $1.2 million. In the meantime, her earlier works, quilts and thread pictures, are not widely known, if at all.

Recently discovered embroidery by Grandma Moses

By comparison, the ceramics of Pablo Picasso or the paper cutouts by Henri Matisse receive attention and exhibitions, albeit they command lower prices than their artists’ canvases.  There seems to be a double standard regarding what is “included” in an artist’s oeuvre. Even clay and paper cut outs rate above needle and thread.  Was Mary Anne Moses artistic vision of the world less in thread than in paint?  What is it about needle and thread that appear  to diminish or tarnish a reputation--artistic or otherwise?

Maybe this association of “feminism” and “needlework”  and “weakness/negativity” will never change.  Or do we need  “powerful” women, who succeed at “men’s jobs” to acknowledge they do needlework, in some form?  Would this help "rehabilitate" needle work? There are examples. Denmark’s Queen Margarthe publishes her extensive embroidery and design projects on the royal website. She doesn’t have to worry about her “political image.” She was born to power.   Still, there are other influential women who reportedly do handwork. Brazil’s president, hardly a shrinking violet,  Dilma Rousseff, embroiders--when she is not smoking a cigar. Madeline Albright, America's the first female secretary of state,  describes in her biography  the therapeutic benefits of knitting caps for her grandchildren.  Julia Guillard, Australia’s former prime minister appears to knit, although some see it as a publicity stunt. Maybe it takes a self-confident leader to admit to doing handwork.   Might embroidery or any needle art become a litmus test of true political courage and real self-confidence?  We will just have to wait and see, won’t we.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

A Tale of Two Trips

This blogging gig has become quite a challenge. My absence, if anyone has missed me over the past weeks, has been motivated by the apt advice of one Tom Lehrer, a piano-playing polymath if there ever was one. He advised:

”If a (you) can’t communicate, the very least (you) can do is to shut up.” 

In my case it was more that I had nothing about stitching to communicate. This blog, after all, is about role of stitching in the modern world.  Now,  the thoughtfulness of friends has enabled me to break my silence. 

Thanks to the ubiquity of internet, this week two couples in my circle sent photos of embroideries that they happened upon in their travels. Touring Canterbury Cathedral in the UK, ahead of a visit by Queen Elizabeth II, my friends snapped two newly commissioned cushions intended for the royal couple's use. The pillows are, of course, regal, right down to the gold work and crests.

Canterbury Cathedral Cushions .

Try as I might, I found no mention of them online. So, dear reader, your patronage of this blog has been rewarded with an “exclusive!” You saw it here first.

Meanwhile other friends, holidaying halfway around the globe in Vietnam, dispatched pictures from an embroidery enterprise their group was visiting.  They were particularly taken by a forest scene.

XQ Embroidery from Vietnam

Close up  of forest scene

Via the link to the website, I see  the portraits, my particular passion, that Vietnamese masters create too.  I wish I could be transported by email to look at these things in person, but, sadly, technology is not that advanced.  I must be content to study images courtesy of internet and my friends.

What these two electronic postcards have in common the intersection of embroidery, friendship, and a new experience.  Over the years, my boundless enthusiasm for stitchery has, it seems, sensitized these friends to embroidery’s beauty and artistry.  (Yes, I do a little tap dance of joy. Mission accomplished.) Not-embroiderers themselves, my friends now notice this art form and valued it. I suspect many in their group probably just walked by pieces or hardly understood the time, skill, and artistry that must meld to create beautiful objects like these.    

I am chuffed because once my friends noticed the stitchery, they  remembered me. They took the time and effort to send me pictures to enjoy. Now they are educating me about things I don’t know little about or never will see.  How genuinely kind of them.

So, once again, my conviction that the point of a needle (and thread) in the 21st century is to communicate -- be it beauty, love or friendship -- has been borne out and even reinforced.  Surely, this is something to write home about…or at least blog on.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Ilustrative Embroidery

Yesterday, my walkabout the Web left me cheering “yessss" so loud that a worried voice, from two floors below, called up to my attic studio to inquire "is all was well up there”.  And indeed it was. Not just with me, but with embroidery too.  Hence the unrepressed joy.   

I had stumbled across two new – at least to me—embroiderers whose works show that embroidery is finding a place and voice in our techno centric world even as renown painters like David Hockney abandon pencil and pad to sketch with an iPad.

Embroidery by Teresa Lim

Teresa Lim, a Singapore-based illustrator, embroiders as she travels around the globe, not to while away time in flight, but to document her journey. Hooped calico becomes her sketch book, needle and thread her pencil. As her fellow travelers photograph sights, she stitches them, and then photographs her embroidery with its inspiration in the background. Understandably Teresa’s work, a sketch after all, is quick and imprecisely executed. So what, I say to the classical embroiderer in me. That Teresa can stitch so quickly and convincingly is impressive. That she wants to is heart-warming.

Even more heartening than Teresa's verve is her age and background. Just 24, an honours graduate of LaSalle School of Art, she endeavors to meld  interests in embroidery, fashion, and textile design. She is well on her way, I would say. So here is a trained illustrator who approaches embroidery as a form of illustration rather than “handwork” or “craft”.  That gives embroidery a twist, a new lease on life. What’s more, Teresa offers to create portraits for clients. Wow!  That validates my own conception of needle and thread being full-fledged artistic media. So along with needle-painting, we now have needle- illustration!

This week Teresa has put embroidery in the spotlight big time. Her “Sew Wanderlust” series has been picked up internationally by Yahoo (USA) , Daily Mail (UK), La Repubblica (Italy) and (Brazil). How’s that for bringing embroidery to the attention of a non-stitching international audience! That in itself is quite an accomplishment.

Meanwhile, around the globe in Oxford, UK, yet another university-trained illustrator under 30,  is  translating her pencil and pastel sketches into thread drawings.  Chloe Giordano  maintains she has learned to embroider by trial and error. You would never guess that from her charming animals and flower embroideries or her striking book covers. She prefers to work with spooled sewing threads rather than embroidery floss.  Chloe supports herself primarily with her embroidery, selling her creations on Etsy. Now that is an accomplishment.

What makes these two stories so exciting to me, a sedate seasoned stitcher? Here we have two more young people beginning to rediscover the ancient possibilities of needle and thread as 1)  a means of artistic expression and 2) a way of earning a living. They are not pursuing a hobby. They are serious. These are young people with professional training and an ambition to succeed.  They clearly have caught the scent of something in the wind and are following it. Good for them. Good for embroidery. Are we about to witness a renaissance in stitching?  Will these creative spirits go on to produce the designs that will keep the embroidery fresh and engaging for their generation? There is reason to be optimistic when computer-literate  graduates in design take to embroidery! Let’s hope their enthusiasm --  and mine--bears fruit.  Our needles and floss depend on them. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Other Needle-based Art

A year ago, when I began this column, I thought I had a decent appreciation of a how versatile a sewing needle could be. Years of piercing fabric with this metal tool, carrying thread in its wake, made me aware of the needle’s ability to conjoin or decorate. In the kitchen I occasionally stitched up a turkey full of holiday stuffing.  And of course, I was knew the needle’s value to other endeavors:  tattoo parlors, hospital emergency/surgical units, acupuncture clinics, and voodoo séances. Motorized by a Mr. Singer, a needle could drive a whole industry. Still, in the course of this year, I have discovered that needles can do more, much more, particularly in the hands of an artist.  Live and learn, as they say. 

Needle as a Cutting Tool 


Many an embroiderer has experience with how a sharp-pointed needle can cut the skin. An artist in Britain has applied that property extensively.

Leaf Art by Omid Asadi

Omid Asadi, originally from Iran now of Manchester, uses a needle (and scalpel too) to coax images from fallen leaves that others would trample under foot. To Asadi an individual leaf suggests its subject: a portrait of a Bob Marley or Jimmy Hendrix, a rose in full bloom, or a phoenix rising from a split tree.  He uses the deciduous leaf both as material and symbol. Life is short, he reminds interviewers

Asadi’s  approach is reminiscent of a sculptor, who releases figures trapped in a rude block of  stone. His works are fine, delicate and often symbolic or whimsical. To me Asadi’s leaf cuttings are works of art for a combination of reasons: First they make me wonder at his leaps of vision/imagination. He creates “negative” space images, stencils really, preserving the shape of the leaf making the observer reconcile the two in his/her head.   Then there is the sheer meticulous technical skill needed to liberate his vision, and finally, the depth of spirit he brings to his subject. A piece can take weeks or months to produce and is in constant danger of a fatal slip. As someone who stitches portraits over months I can relate to that!
Needle as a Frame

No, I don’t mean a frame constructed of many needles soldered together.  I mean the single hand sewing needle used to frame a piece of art.

English artist Willard Wigan uses the eye of a needle to support or frame his micro-figurines.

Sculpture by Willard Wigan framed in a needle

Peering through a microscope, his sculpts grains of sand or rice with surgical blades or self-made tools rigged from tungsten filament, tipped by diamond chip. Wigan decorates works with dust fibers, gold even a spider’s web. To he paints figures, he devised bushes from the hairs of dead houseflies which he collects.

As a child Wigan, who suffers with dyslexia, had difficulties at school. This he explained in a TED talk, He felt small and invisible. His art grew from his need to counters the misconception that because something is small or hard to see, it isn’t there. 

Wigan’s work, like Asadi’s requires great dexterity, patience, and discipline. Both artists are driven to elevate the mundane and unnoticed into something remarkable.  Wigen’s work can take months to execute.  You can be confident that no one fakes his work or Asadi!

Queen Elizabeth awarded Wigan an MBE.  Prince Charles, Elton John, Simon Cowell, and Mike Tyson are among his collectors.   Currently the Birmingham Library is displaying his work. 

Needle in Performance Art 


 Late last year, I wrote about the Paris museum that turned the expression “Searching for  a Needle in a Haystack”  into performance art.   The less said about that experiment the better. But if you must, click here to read what I said then.  The idea has not improved with time.  Nor have I changed my point of view.

In the meantime, if anyone out there has found new uses for a needle, I would be delighted to hear about them!