In 1971 my mother taught me to sew on a Bernina 807
“Minimatic”. Despite having 8 other machines now, including two “bells and
whistles” computerized ones, this little gem below is the very machine that I choose today above
all others to free motion stitch on. It has stitched over dryer lint, egg
shells, wet paint, gel medium, knitted wire, plastics, fake finger nails,
condoms, tampons, and more crazy stuff. I have an irrational love for, and
attachment to, that machine. You can also tell that I use a lot of black thread!!!!
My mother, being a woman who followed Emily Post’s Book of
Etiquette to a “T” throughout my upbringing, went to great effort to teach me
to sew the “right” way. However, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that
I had more fun trying things the wrong way! One of the techniques she taught me
was darning. It was way back in ’71 that I executed my first piece of “Free
Motion Stitching” otherwise known as machine embroidery, by dropping the feed dogs, putting the darning foot on, and
going at it! I wish I had kept those first experiments. I seem to remember drawing a dog with black thread....
I have been using free motion stitching since then, and I have lots of old photos (and some slides!) of those pieces made during the 80's and early 90's (a lot of wearable pieces I used to sell at gallery shops and craft shows) but it wasn’t until I moved to Kauai in 1998 that I began to use machine embroidery seriously and with intent as my primary method of creating. We were living in a 900 S.F. traditional Hawaiian house, and there was little space in which to create art, so out came my sewing machine. Some early works of that time and into the early 2000's are below- pardon the less than exemplary photography- things sure have come a long way since then for us artists to effectively capture our work!
As the 2000’s progressed, my space was less constrained and
I began to incorporate a wider variety of materials into my work and also to
work larger. I believe it is really crucial for artists to explore a variety of
medium and methods; it is great to find your favored one and develop a body of
work from that, but still really important to add to your repertoire and allow
yourself- and the materials- unrestrained creative expression. I read a quote
today, from Sculpture mag, vol.32 no. 6, p.38 A Conversation with Nnenna Okore
Political by Nature, When I work with a material, I set out to showcase its range and
possibilities and textures and its new identity or meaning. Materials
are not just things you stick on or add frivolously because you need to fill up a space;
they contribute to your piece and state something all on their own, as well. I would also add to Nnenna's statement that it enhances our work if we become aware of the
history of the materials and method we use; think of silk thread and the incredible worm, or cotton fields and slavery, each material detracts or enhances, speaks to us in some way.
The beauty of the stitch- whether free motion machine embroidery or hand embroidery- is often its ability to transform the lowliest of materials into works of beauty, grace and conceptual intrigue. Below I have included some samples of just that- manipulations of lowly fabrics.
Art- and fine craft- can be transformational. Learning a practical, non-artistic skill such as darning led me into a lifetime of enriched creativity, self-awareness, recognition of who I am, and fulfilling art making. I could probably make a lot more money as a "permanent darner" or seamstress! but the wealth of affirmation that comes from taking an assortment of items and my vision and turning them into new visual statements to provoke, enhance and titillate, is extremely satisfying to me. I know that might be true for you, too?