|"Large Red Nautilus," Meredith Woolnough|
Textile artist Meredith Woolnough makes embroidered sculptures inspired by the rich land- and sea-life of her native Australia. Her work is currently featured in a two-woman show titled Entwined at the Kerrie Lowe Gallery in Newton, NSW and this morning, Astounding Knits presents 10 questions-and-answers with the artist about her history, her inspiration, and her future.
1. In the past decade or so, knitting and crochet have made a tremendous turn-around—from being perceived as something "crafty," to art. Is there a similar turn-around happening now with embroidery?
I love that there has been this great surge in hand crafts lately. I think more people are seeing the value in handmade, labour-based production and these shifts in perception are very positive, in the art world and in our everyday lives. I have been seeing more and more embroidery in art galleries; artists are taking the basics of stitch and reinventing it in their work. It's very exciting and inspirational.
2. Did you begin as a textile artist?
When I started my art degree, I originally wanted to focus on painting and photography. I have always painted (and still do) and I was doing some freelance photography work so I thought that was the direction I was going to take. But once I started studying fine arts I fell in love with textiles and all the various facets that are included in fibre art. So I decided to change direction and major in textiles and I spent the next three years happily sewing, knitting, dyeing, printing, and weaving. When I decided to do an honours year at the end of my degree, I chose to focus on embroidery, and more specifically freehand machine embroidery as I felt that it gave me lots of scope for creative expression and experimentation. I fell in love with the process during that year and haven't looked back.
3. Did you begin as well with wanting to explore natural forms?
When I first started working with embroidery, I was really interested in how embroidery (and craft arts in general) were placed within the broader art world. As a result of my research, I was greatly influenced by traditional needlecraft motifs from various cultures and I used these in my work. I would rework these tiny motifs into large-scale installation-style works that hung from the roof. I have always been drawn to natural forms and I think they appear in my work even when I don't mean them to. As my practice has evolved, I am now working almost exclusively with natural forms, creating my own embroidered specimens. I am fascinated by the structures found in nature and how these interrelate among all living things.
4. In addition to your nature-based work, you also are exploring elements of traditional lacework. What are the similarities/differences between these?
The pieces that are based in lace and filigree designs are some of my early work and I don't really visit them much these days (unless a commission calls for it). In saying that, I feel that this early work has been a huge influence on my current work in that it taught me how to balance a design and work with line effectively. Who know's—I may go back to this style of work eventually; things have a funny way of going full circle.
5. What traditional lacework are you studying and what about it fascinates you?
When I was studying lacework designs, I was inspired by many types of traditional embroidery but in particular, I was drawn to European blackwork embroidery. This is clearly reflected in my dominant use of black in my filigree designs. I am interested in the intricacies of line and pattern found in embroidery, and how these designs are repeated. My practice is grounded in repetition—as are many craft-based techniques. Repetition appears in nature constantly so it seems fitting that I should try to replicate nature in such a labour- intensive, repetitious process.
6. Are there things you can only accomplish using a sewing machine to stitch your work? And conversely, are there things you would try to accomplish only with hand embroidery?
While I use a sewing machine to create my work, I still maintain complete control over the machine; it is not automated in any way. I use the sewing machine like a drawing tool and I see it as just that—a tool to assist me in creating my art. Sometimes people seem a little disappointed when they hear that my work is done on a machine. I think they have these romantic visions of me stitching away at all hours of the night to create my work and they feel like I have cheated somehow my speeding up the process through mechanisation. However, if I was to try to create these works by hand, I think the work would be really limited and suffer as a result. I physically would not be able to produce the number of works that I do or on the scale that I would like. There are still hours and hours of work involved in each of my pieces, and I have certainty fine-tuned my unique approach to embroidery.
When I teach my embroidery technique, many of the students in my workshops find the process impossible to begin because of the fine motor control needed to sew in this way. However, like anything, with time and practice you can master it. I guess I don't see my work as embroidery in a pure sense—I see it as the most effective medium to create my artwork. I like to think that I am pushing embroidery into new areas.
I really enjoy hand embroidery and find it much more pleasurable than the work I do on the machine. When I work on the machine it's loud and rather intense work. I hand embroider myself when I have the time. I love to hand embroider onto thick paper and draw with the stitches that way.
7. What makes your work art rather than craft, and how do you think one makes this determination—or should we at all?
I think what sets my work in the world of "art" rather than "craft" is that I have always seen it as art. I am working with a conscious intention to create these objects as artworks and it just so happens that I have found that the best medium to express what I want is a "craft- based" process. I see my work as sculpture—I am creating forms of my own design to explore concepts that are important to me as an artist and the medium and process that I use are irrelevant to that. However, in saying that, I think that craft-based media and techniques are very powerful things to work with when making art because of the ingrained history associated with them.
8. Besides embroidery, are there any other traditional handcrafts that you have in your arsenal? Or are interested in learning?
Oh yes, so many. I learnt so many wonderful techniques when I was studying art—and I am always trying to attend workshops to learn new processes. I particularly love techniques where you start with a basic material that you can transform into new forms. For that reason, I love to play with felting, basketry, and weaving. But I am always hungry for more—I don't think you can ever learn enough so I value learning new skills very highly. I have always wanted to learn to knit. While I can whip out your basic scarf (albeit a very uneven one with many dropped stitches), I just can't seem to get my hands into that smooth knitting rhythm that I see others do. I love watching my mother-in-law knit—it's hypnotic; she doesn't even look down from the TV and a baby bootie will just appear out of nowhere. It's magic. I think I'll leave knitting to the experts and stick to me sewing machine for now.
9. I love that you have taken something that is usually 2-D and figured out how to make it 3-D and sculptural. How did you hit upon this technique?
The 3-D element is hugely important to my work and I go to great lengths to maintain the sculptural quality in my pieces. When I first started working with this technique, I was producing hanging sculptures or pieces that were pinned directly to the wall. I loved the shadows that the pieces were casting—they added a whole new quality to the work—so I have been working to hold onto this quality ever since. It took me months to come up with a technique that would present my work so that it appeared to "float" off the paper that I mount it onto. I experimented with perspex rods, hanging strings, and wire but eventually I came up with just a simple method of pinning the work in place and spacing it out with long beads. This process allows me to have multi-layered pieces so I can really capture the 3-D quality of the work without compromising my designs. Recently, I have been moving back to more sculptural works—I have a range of pieces that are embedded in resin to form free-standing sculptures. Also, I have recently started to create hanging sculptures again for an exhibition I have coming up later this year. It's really nice to work without the confines of a frame.
10. Have you thought of working larger, and how that might be accomplished?
I am constantly trying to push my work in scale and would love to work really big—I just haven't had a project that calls for it yet. There isn't really a size limitation when working in this technique—it's only how much time and energy you want to commit to a piece. If I was to work in a really large scale, I would look at doing a work in several pieces then sewing them together like a big jigsaw puzzle. At present since most of my work is framed for sale I am limited by the restrictions of the frame (maximum paper size and weight restrictions etc).
To learn more about the work of Meredith Woolnough, visit her at her website.