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!

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Needlepainter Jerome Speekman

The email landed in my inbox shortly after I launched my thread painting website. It carried an  address from someone in Australia calling herself “needlepainter.” I dithered. Was this skulduggery, spam or fan mail from a kindred spirit?  Protection software pronounced it safe to open.

I was right about Australia and kindred spirit. But this missive wasn't spam or fan mail either. Nor was it  from a woman.

Jerome Speekman, an Ozzie embroiderer, was announcing a  trip to the Netherlands and offering to teach needlepainting to “my students”.  He enclosed photos of his work. It was astoundingly colorful, vibrant and big!

Jerome Speekman with "No Sunshine"
Sadly, I had no students for Jerome, but intrigued by his embroideries. I suggested we meet for a coffee when he was in Amsterdam. And so we did, in a café near the Stedelijk Museum six months later.

I brought along my latest portrait project, still on its hoop. Jerome brought his Dutch sister and his Australian wife and daughter, as well as his latest piece scrunched up in a calico bag. While the women talked among themselves over cappuccinos, Jerome and I put our heads together to discuss materials, techniques, subject matter, and life.  The conversation flowed as with female embroiderers I have met.

Jerome does not do “pretty” or “dainty” work. He creates bold pieces, often over a metre long. Sometimes he stitches free hand and then tacks a finished work onto painter’s stretcher bars. Other times he embroiders directly onto pre-stretched material. His work is meant to hang on walls, unframed. They can hold their own against paintings or photographs.

Lizard Island

Early Morning

Middle of the day
The lush countryside near his New South Wales home is Jerome’s inspirations. He stitches its native birds, animals and flowers. He depicts majestic the forests that make humans insignificant. He stitches people. Alternatively, he can reach into his fantasy to create blue-skinned woodland spirits playing among gnarled branches of giant trees. Then there are two canvases of suicide bombers. This is a shocking subject to be sure, but there no blood or gore. It is just Jerome’s way of pushing the boundaries of artistic perspective and embroidery convention!  

Jerome is an auto-didact with a life story as colorful as his work. Born in Amsterdam in 1950, he tried several schools before becoming a cadet at the Lagere Zeevaartschool, the merchant marine high school.  At 15, he sailed on the Pollux, the school’s triple-mast training ship, to Australia, only to fall out of love with the sea and in love with the country. By 19, he emigrated Down Under on his own.

 “I have had a range of jobs in a variety of fields,” he explained, “from fruit picking to a senior project officer with an unemployment schemes.” For the past 15 years, Jerome has been a partner in a computer shop. He also experiments with recordings, videos and animation. He had done wood carvings too. However, embroidery remains a constant in his life.

“Embroidery is a clean form of art with very little mess that pollutes. I can carry whatever I need in a bag. Some cotton and a needle is all I need.”   And that was so. To my amazement, the needle painting that Jerome pulled from his bag to show me was worked free hand and on aida-cloth in multiple strands of cotton thread. His long-short stitching was not “refined.” Did that matter? The interplay of color, movement, and theme were captivating. Van Gogh did not paint neatly either! And Jerome’s work had Van Gogh rawness about it. Here was an embroiderer that I could learn something from: “Just go for it. It’s the image’s effect not the stitches that matter.”

How did Jerome come to embroidery? “I started in 1980. My [first] wife embroidered now and then. The colors that spilled out of her basked were so beautiful. I had to use the blue—lapis lazuli. My first work was a comet’s tail inspired by Immanuel Velikovsky’s book, which correlated myths and legends with catastrophic celestial events.” 

Jerome stitched his comet onto a jacket, which he often wore. “So many ladies would stop in the street whenever I wore it, exclaiming that my work was amazing and that I was a “master.” It encouraged me so to go from clothing onto wall hangings.” Jerome has had a number of private commissions since.

“Yes, I’ve had some funny reactions to being a male embroiderer,” says Jerome when I asked him if his passion for thread art generates comment. The most memorable involved the police back in the days when his now short white hair was brown and shoulder length. “I was hitch-hiking. Two detectives stopped their patrol car with screech. They wanted to search my bag. They asked, ‘What have you got in the bag, darling.’

‘ Embroidery,’  I said. They both took a step backwards. So I showed them my embroidery from a distance. They liked it and left, never bothering to look further.”  I don’t ask what else they might have found.

999 Pelicans
Since that first meeting, Jerome and I have trade emails discussing projects and techniques. He sends photos of the great Australian outdoors with its forests, beaches at sunset, and big skies. And there are updates on his wife and his two-year-old granddaughter.

Jerome’s latest piece “999 Pelicans” is fascinating. The flock covers the whole canvas becoming an abstraction as the individuals’ bodies merge into patches of orange and white. This piece Jerome has stitched on linen, a material I suggested he might find easier to work on.

 Recently he announced a show of his oeuvre in an Australian gallery in his home town. 

What next? Depends on what takes his fancy. A love of stitching coupled with a vivid imagination propels him into the future. Stitching is his obsession. That and his granddaughter.