Spring is my favorite season. We associate spring with new life and the disintegration of the old and dead. But, new life comes from an ancient process of repetitive renewal. There are many perennials in our garden, and when I come home from work, I like to take a walk around to see who is coming up. I don’t personify my plants per se, but this ritual feels like a greeting to me. The ancient cycle becomes personal when expectation and response meet on a daily basis. There is one variety of trillium in the back yard who is the harbinger of the season. It often is blooming by the end of March. It exists as a tuber during the winter, but each year, when it sprouts and blooms, the result is never exactly the same. The first year I placed it in the garden – when it was likely already a seven year old plant – it produced a single stem, but this year, there are four. So it is an old flower and a new flower.
I was thinking of these ideas of repetition and renewal when I decided to create an embroidery piece based on a watercolor I was commissioned to paint last year. The image was a Baltimore oriole straddling a wooden post and a sliced orange. I had made several studies in my sketchbook, so I selected one, scanned it into my computer, cleaned it up in Artweaver, and then printed the pattern on Sticky Fabri-Solvy, a soluble adhesive interface. After preparing the linen I studied the image. This is usually when I make decisions on color palette and stitch types. Sometimes, while looking through a stitch catalog, I’ll get sidetracked by exploring stitches I haven’t tried. These experiments all go onto a sampler, some as a reminder for later projects.
Recently, I had learned that watercolor paintings tend to work out better if you plot out the subject and build the environment around it afterwords. This advice probably applies to other mediums as well, but I decided to ignore it for this piece because I was so interested in stitching the freshness of the orange first. The bird’s left foot grasps the rind at the top, so I chose to work around that space. Then, I did an outline of the bird in grey. I had wanted this piece to have a fun, open feel that showcased the unusual stitches. For the post, I wanted to use a new couching technique that I thought would give it interesting texture. As I added stitches to the post, I realized that the image was becoming more realistic than my original vision. If I continued on this path, the bird would look incongruent with its surroundings. After some more staring, I realized that I needed to make a decision. There were two different works of art struggling on the same canvas. One would need to go. I had been more fascinated by the work of the orange and the post, so I decided that the grey bird stitches would need to go.
At the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, there is the painting Giving Thanks by folk artist Horace Pippin. The painting is the interior of a cabin, with a bed in the corner. Pippin painted by building layers as the objects existed. So, for the bed he painted the whole frame, then the whole mattress, which he covered with sheets, a quilt, and pillows. So, he painted the bed as he would have made up a bed to sleep in. You can see the layers if you come close. I thought this layering technique might work well in this piece. The post and orange would be stitched completely, and then the bird’s claws would come to rest on top, as a bird would perch.
My new path required something that many embroiderers find painful – removing many stitches. This process is much slower than laying stitches and the regression can be demoralizing. However, completing a work of art where you consciously choose to ignore one or more blatant flaws is worse, because when you look at your work, all you will see is the error. All of the hours spent on the beautifully arranged areas will fade and the whole thing feels disappointing. So, I had to remind myself of this, pull out the scissors and tweezers, and start cutting. Once the first cut was made, the decision became bearable because the block in my mind was also cut. After the stitches were removed, I took a piece of masking tape to clean off remaining debris. A clean surface helps with the creative process.
Even in embroidery, where laying each step is a deliberate act, where planning is key, there can still be spontaneity and the decision to start again to change the direction of the image. Once stitches are removed, a new work is being born, but it is the old work as well.