Thursday, July 30, 2009

A stitch in time

“I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a panel discussion this much...”

This morning on the train, a woman complimented a friend on her blouse, which she explained had been custom made by a seamstress. “Oh!” her friend replied with delight. “I sew a lot of my own clothing!” It dawned on me that it has been years since I sewed my own clothing, even though I did it all the time in high school. Unlike my sister who followed patterns diligently and produced clothing that looked exactly like it should, I took liberties and reveled in the challenge of correcting my mistakes. There was something very satisfying about determining how all of the pieces fit together, and that’s probably where my interest in fibre sculpture really began. I made dresses with grommets, skirts with asymmetrical hems, and even a quilted skirt with a secret pouch to hide money in case I got pickpocketed at my first concert (Lollapalooza, if you’re wondering).

I learned to sew long before adolescence. My grandmother—or Grandma Saunders, as my sister and I called her—taught me to avoid sewing with a strand of thread longer than your arm, and my mother showed me how to sew on a steel machine attached to a clunky desk (from the era of televisions with wooden exteriors that resembled furniture). In high school, I befriended Joann Schelstraete, who is now a successful designer at Danier Leather but at the time she was still studying fashion design. Anyway, at some point shortly after she graduated, I think in my first year of university, we went to an exhibition about fashion at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where there was a garment by a classmate of hers. It had lots of stitching, which I would call expressive rather than decorative. I can’t remember her name but I can tell you that a new world opened up to me when I saw it.

Wow, that turned out to be a longer reminiscence than I expected. Writing this has made me realize that I miss having different approaches to sewing, so I decided to sign up for a class (more on that in a moment). What I intended this blog post to focus on was last night’s panel discussion at Manhattan’s Center for Book Arts. Five artists discussed their work in the exhibition, Threads: Interweaving Textu[r]al Meaning, which was organized by Lois Morrison and Alex Campos.

After a dramatic introduction with thunder in the background, Iviva Olenick talked about her quirky journalistic embroideries that document her love life. I enjoyed her presentation so much that I signed up for her continuing education course this fall at the Pratt Institute, The Embroidered Art Journal: Embroidery as Narration and Illustration. (I have been meaning to take an embroidery class for several years so I am very excited, especially to find one with a focus on contemporary art). Next up was Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, whose lively discussion of the history of suturing—the focus of his screen printed book—was a real treat. Because I sew cocoon sculptures, I was pleased to learn that when an animal/organism ruptures from its constraints, it’s called a suture. And because my work is about clothing, the body and sewing, I also thought this observation was noteworthy: “[Through suturing,] we treat the fabric of our bodies with the same tools as we use to make the clothing we put on our bodies.” Following Jonathan’s talk was Meda and Veda Rives, twin sisters whose aptly named Mirror Image Press offers art that is as engaging as their identical twin-ness. Their largescale installations of handmade paper containing embedded thread evoke spiritual associations without being heavy-handed. Elise Wiener followed, captivating me with her realization, “Stitching in and of itself was beautiful,” which is evident in her undulating, colourful stitching on LPs from her youth. Her commitment to making a work of art each day for a year is inspiring. The night finished off with Tamar Stone, who stole my heart with her bed books. In these loose versions of books, each layer of the doll-sized bed sculptures—the blankets, sheets, pillows, and mattresses—contains embroidered stories about the lives of women based around beds, ranging from tales of midwifery to being locked in a bedroom for apparent insanity.

Thread is to me what paint is to painters. Hearing this panel made me think of something I wish I had addressed in an invited lecture on stitching as mark-making in a Sheridan College drawing class this past winter: there are so many reasons I use thread and not another medium, namely its ability to bind two things together, to be camouflaged through tiny stitches, to form an image through repeated stitches (i.e., embroidery), to create an expressive line by pooling, to create unexpected knotted masses, and to fray.

The show runs until September 12, 2009 and there will be a second panel discussion (featuring Patricia Dahlman, Tanya Hartman, Yoko Inoue, Vandana Jain, Heather Johnson and China Marks). I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a panel discussion this much, so I hope you will try to make it, especially since I’ll be out of town and won’t be able to see it myself.

To view images by the artists:
Iviva Olenick
Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
Meda and Veda Rives
Elise Wiener
Tamar Stone


  1. A lovely review. Thanks for the feedback on the talk. I am glad you enjoyed it so much. And I will see you in class! -Iviva Olenick

  2. Did you look at Tamar Stone's corset books? There was something about them that reminded me of your work. Clearly not exactly but the use of a highly restrictive and extremely symbolic piece of womens' clothing to describe and illustrate female experiences and roles. Just seeing those corsets with the words on them is powerful.


  3. Heather you were always very talented!!! I am glad you are still involded in artistic endeveors!! - sorry can't spell endevor? :-)

  4. HI Heather,
    I just wanted to say THANKS for such a nice posting and I'm sorry I wasn't introduce to you at the talk. I didn't have your e-mail address but sent an e-mail to the lycos address. You can reach me through my website and I hope to hear from you - by the way, do you know the outsider artist Judith Scott? you may find her work interesting -