I have recently been making transcriptions of interviews in which artists are talking about their work. (This is not something which I can discuss here, for reasons of confidentiality.) I have also been doing rather more embroidery than usual, and sitting doing embroidery does give me time to listen to what is going on in my head. This musing, for example:
When I show someone a piece of my counted-thread embroidery – either a piece that is a work in progress, or one that is not obviously a specific item such as a tablemat or a cushion-cover – I tend to get two reactions more than any others:
The first is ‘that’s very nice, what is it?’ Or ‘what is it going to be when it is finished?’
The second is ‘You must have a terrific lot of patience, Sue.’ Or ‘I would never have the patience to do that.’
Both of these responses seem to me to be very, very revealing about the way people view the kind of geometric embroidery that I create. The first tells me that counted-thread embroidery is only seen as having ‘value’ when it is part of another object, and usually of an object which is seen as having a lot less status than a ‘work of art’. If it were a drawing or a painting or a photograph that I was showing, or even a more-obviously ‘creative’ piece of embroidery, this question would rarely be asked. But because I am working in a very old, formal tradition, and perhaps because this type of counted thread embroidery has been traditionally a female leisure occupation, I am not seen as making an object that is to be considered in the same way as a piece of artwork is to be considered: on its own merits and for what it is, what it says, how it affects the observer.
As for the matter of patience, it occurs to me that most of these people have sufficient patience to drive a car for an hour, to read a book or a newspaper, or concentrate upon some other task for pleasure or for profit. So the patience is there. (I rarely stitch for longer than an hour or an hour and a half at one sitting.) What they are really saying is again related to the work’s perceived value: ‘I could not be bothered to spend that much of my time, and do that much work, just for a piece of decorated cloth.’ If they were talking to a painter or a sculptor, they would perhaps mention a lack of skill, or a lack of inspiration, but they would not devalue the work itself in the same way. Instead they might well imagine the work to be more challenging than it actually is to someone who is well practiced at doing it. Because they would see it primarily as a piece of ‘art’.
So how can I get a piece of work in this medium of thread and fabric, and in this tradition of geometric, non-representational, counted embroidery seen as ‘abstract artwork’, not as just an attractive bit of hobby-handicraft? Obviously the setting in which it is found affects the viewer’s expectations. I could put the work in a frame on an art gallery wall. (Lots of white-space around it, and a discrete label to give title, artist and price.) However, putting this type of embroidery into a frame takes away a valuable part of it – the tactile nature of the stitched cloth. Better, then, to invite the visitor to touch and handle the material, but in a formal, gallery setting. Perhaps a ceremonial washing of the hands first would impart a certain amount of distinction to the handling, allowing the viewer time to prepare, for a change of mindset? Building up an expectation that what is to be seen and touched is not just a bit of hobby-stitchery, but something that may provide an experience to savour.
What else? Information panels, talking about the nature of the work, the spiritual value of the repetition and the meditative nature of stitchery? Notes on the history of the different stitches used, and on the sources and inspirations for the pieces on show? Short essays on the development of the ideas, what I learned during the stitching; what I thought about, the frustrations and triumphs, what it felt like in my hand? Perhaps a display of photographic enlargements and drawings showing the needlework in new ways; particularly showing the interplay between the thread and the fabric, between the various degrees of randomness inherent in the materials and the formal, geometric nature of the patterns and stitches? All these things, for me, lift embroidery from a pleasant hobby to something that answers a deep-seated need, part of a long, ongoing personal journey and a means of self-expression within a constrained environment.
But first and foremost – and here is where my ambitions are doomed to grind to a halt – I would need to have the drive and self-confidence to talk about my needlework and myself in a manner in which I prefer not to talk about them. I can discuss the techniques, I can discuss materials and I can talk about the history of the subject and my personal journey through it, and what I am learning in the process. I love to do all those things. But I hesitate to say ‘I am an artist. This is a work of art.’
After all, it’s only just a bit of embroidery.