Sunday, 30 November 2014

Embroidery Eraser

Embroidery made the mainstream media this week. Yep, right there in the Guardian’s Culture Section under the rubric Photography.  This is not a typo.  Have a look.

“Julie Cockburn takes studio portraits from the past, obliterates the faces with embroidery – and injects them with new life,” writes Sean O’Hogan, the Guardian’s photography columnist.  I’m not so sure about the injecting new life into them part. Recycling, re-purposing, maybe.  Getting attention, for sure.   I suspect this is the point of Ms Cockburn’s use of photographs, never mind the art speak of her gallery.

The combination of thread and photographs (or paint, for that matter) is not novel.  I’ve written about it before.  Sadly, pairing thread with some other media continues to be the best way to persuade the mainstream art establishment to recognize embroidery as a valid artistic technique. 

And that is a pity because Julie Cockburn is a very imaginative embroiderer.  The shapes that she creates, her controlled, beautiful stitching, and the effect of her color choices are arresting in and of themselves. Had she ditched the photographs and stitched onto plain canvas many of her works would stand on their own. 

But would they attract attention? Would they sell? The goal of artists, let’s be pragmatic, is to make a buck so they can buy materials, have a roof over their head and eat, too.

Still, if we turn the photography proposition on its head, perhaps Julie might be saying something else. Yes, I can do art speak too.  Maybe she is telling the art world to look at what embroidery can do. It can obliterate/erase associations with a cozy past (represented by vintage photos) and you, dear viewer, just have to give up your prejudices and look at what abstracts modern embroidery can produce. 

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder and understanding in the mind of the onlooker, but reputation is firmly in the hands of the art establishment.  So hats off to Julie The Embroiderer, for grabbing their attention and making it into the London and New York art scenes. Not an easy task. Judging from her long list of exhibitions and the considerable size of her oeuvre, she has worked long and hard at it. The patience and perseverance that embroidery teaches is showing. My hope is that just maybe, further along in her career, she will get her embroidery into galleries not through the back door and not on crutches.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Needle in a Haystack

A simple sewing needle made big news in Europe this week. Besides hitting the papers, this needle featured in prime time, international TV broadcasts too. What made an ordinary stitching implement so special?  Location, location, location, my friend.   The needle was on show, so to speak, at the Palais de Tokyo , Paris’ Museum of Contemporary Art. It was hidden in a not-so-proverbial haystack.  Italian performance artists Sven Sachsalber had just 48 hours to find it. 

Irish Haystacks by Johnathan Wilkins (c) Creative Commons

What’s the point of this needle? The Museum’s director Jean de Loisy explained the exhibit this way: ''It is a symbol of the search we are all doing for something.''   Honest, he really said that.

I’m gob smacked.  Here is a museum director who understands a needle’s role the process of discovering ourselves. He sees the artist’s search and experience very important.   Hooray for that. But the embroiderer in me is incensed. The director breezes over embroidery. It’s the process of discovery that is so important to him. 

 A needle is indispensable to those of us who explore the creative process – and discover ourselves--through the needle arts.   But hang on; needles shouldn’t have any thread in them.  That would leave a trace of the effort that many of us have expended during our quest of discovery. The quest and product would be embroidery and definitely not comme il faut

 I am delighted that the museum director gets that needles are associated with doing something time consuming (thus life consuming), but hay—oops hey-- this is ridiculous.  

A search for something concrete, like a needle in a haystack, is art when it is performed by a young handsome man devoting two days of his life to it in front of on lookers.  (Let’s hope that his time is paid for.)  The private process of embroidery, or even its concrete product, is not worth the time of the art establishment despite the thought and technical skill that embroiderers put into them.  Why?  You tell me.
Palais de Tokyo in Paris by Strobilomyces

  And the questions keep coming. Why haven’t hundreds of thousands of embroiderers worldwide produced artistic superstars worth shows in the galleries of the art establishment? Statistically there must be fantastic contemporary embroiderers out there. Surely finding them must be worth the effort of finding a needle in a haystack.  And much more interesting, I would say.

One adjudicator of modern taste the MOMA, Museum of Modern Art in New York, has an ongoing workshop exploring modern gas masks and embroidery. It’s performance based, vanishing at the end of the day. A search of the Palais de Tokyo website –not the haystack--unearthed a previous exhibition featuring embroidery as fashion embellishment.  Embroidery is clearly not the main event. And New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art did a show on textile history. That’s about as good as it gets fans. The Museum of Craft and Design has a collection of modern embroideries but you can’t search their site! 

After years of pondering these questions as I stitch away trying to understand  the world, the answer appearing out of the mist seems to be that much embroidery—not all—is made by women.  And that’s the rub, impediment, explanation, whatever you want to call it.  Amanda Vickery explored the lot of female painters through the centuries in a brilliant BBC series.  The programs got a wonderful review in the Guardian.  A quick look at the comments from enthusiastic female readers shows there is a broader understanding of sexism and feminism a foot.  So if you see embroidery as that subset of art primarily practiced by women, often older women, how can the lack societal interest be anything else than it is:  Benign neglect. 

Because embroiderers understand this condition doesn’t imply we accept it. There are many more urgent existential problems facing women that deserve society’s attention and resources. We don’t make a fuss. Still that doesn’t mean that embroiderers shouldn’t call attention to sexism and ageism. Nor should we shrink from the opportunity to needle the art establishment or to prick their consciences. It just might set someone of them searching the haystacks of their souls.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Why Do We Embroider Anyway?

This week an Australian mate posted a pointed question on a needlework forum:  ‘Why do we embroider, anyway?”  

This very question plagues me too, frequently in the middle of some stitching project that is going “terribly wrong” as I rip threads while hoping the silk beneath remains unscathed. 

The facile response is there are as many reasons to embroider as embroiderers. But I don’t do easy. So let me give the answer a go. It’s a different one than I might have given at another, more fraught stage of life, when I had less free time. 

I embroider because I must potter, preferably at something with a result.  I am a “do-er.” To my mind, the antipodes of “do-ers” are “be-ers.” These are individuals who can read quietly, contemplate, visit exhibitions, or just go shopping. There is nothing preferable to either type; they are just different.

Harold Knight Painting

Embroidery suits my temperament and living arrangements.  Abstract “do-ers” -- programmers, writers, composers -- produce intangibles.  Being a physical “do-er”, as I am, comes at the cost of manufacturing “stuff.  Beyond the price of materials, there is the amount of work space and mess that projects entail. In all three respects –materials, mess, and space--embroidery is a productive activity that does not have to be expensive.

Embroidery projects, like work, can expand to fill the time, physical space and budget available.  But actually, a piece of cloth, a needle, and a couple of hanks of floss are really all you need. The complete ranges of DMC or Anchor threads can set you back a bit, but I collect them slowly, project by project. And threads, unlike paints, will last years without spoiling or drying out. As for space, you don’t need much. Most embroidery paraphernalia fits in a box, if needs must. And there is no toxic, permanent mess to deal with. Have you ever seen a painter’s studio floor?  Of course, there can be untidiness with embroidery, too. But an impending visit from your mother-in-law and a vacuum cleaner clears that up in a jiffy. And let’s be modern and recall that hand-embroidery -- note the qualification -- is ecologically responsible. You just use body energy, not electric mains. Thus you exercise and lose weight while you work, or so I tell myself. 
The Embroiderer by Jean-Baptiste Chardin

Inevitably, physical “do-ers” must confront the issue of what to do with the product of their 
labour.  Completed projects can add clutter to lives (or kilos to our frames, in the case of baking, another “do-er” activity I practice). Sure, one can try hawking product. A neighbor, who makes jewelry, warned me years ago this awaits “do-ers”. This is not something I aspire to. Yes, I know about Etsy and Ebay. But blogging and social networking are quite enough technology to contend with at the moment, thank you very much!

Our town hospital offers its long halls as temporary galleries for local painters.  I marvel at the canvases on display.  They are big and many. Given their datings, the productivity of these artists is high, like their price tags. If pieces don’t sell – and few do-- where does an artist store them? In a house that is already filled with life’s acquisitions? In a lock up or shed?  My embroideries fit into a single drawer or a folder, if I don’t choose to the frame them. At some point someone will chuck them, even if I can’t bring myself to do that.

So I am brave and give some of my production away, hoping my embroideries will be appreciated.  Some are. But you can’t count on that anymore than you can count on meeting of the minds or confluence of tastes across generations. Many “gifts” vanish once handed over. It’s in one door out the other. Better to accept that. The only person sure to like my work is me.

So as an embroidering “do-er”, I strive not to have a huge production capacity. On purpose, I pick embroidery projects that take a long time. Portraits created in single strands of thread need upwards of six months to complete. That’s keeps me occupied and struggling with colors and light effects, satisfying my inquisitive nature.  I confess to getting sidetracked by short projects with a fancy stitch or a enticing color combination. Or I may digress to knitting for new arrivals. These projects are for evenings in front of the TV when I can multi-task. Portraits require my undivided attention.

So why do I concentrate on human portraits? Well, beyond being an activity that engages my brain and consumes my time, portraiture is about connection, primarily me to my subject.  Perhaps my portraits in thread will resonate withsome family member not yet born. I will never know. But it doesn’t matter. I just keep stitching because that’s what I, the “do-er”, do and will keep doing as long as my eyes and my fingers allow. So what’s your story?