Book Review: Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art

A few months ago, I won a of copy of Claire Wellesley-Smith’s Slow Stitch from  It has a soft, fabric cover with an image of one of her indigo stitched experiments.  The photography is colorful and inspiring – a great picture book.  I’ve found myself picking it up many times to read sections of it, but then I end up staring at the pictures instead because they are that good.  It’s an inspirational journey book for textile artists, both new and experienced, and focuses on exploring historic techniques, repetition, and simplicity.  Themes that surface here: beauty of weathering, time, ancestry, and location.  She teaches artistic exploration and process for its own sake and the meditative states that can be entered while stitching.  The process of creation is connected with the seasons – spring, summer, fall for planting, growing, and harvesting dyestuffs, and winter for stitching.  Her use of simple, repetitive stitches helps to showcase the nuances created by the natural dyes of the fabric.

She encourages the reader in exploring these themes as well, which has led me to attempt dying fabric for the first time.  I have some Swiss chard in my garden that I thought would work well for this.  When chard leaves are sautéed, the resulting liquid is a meaty Merlot that I love.  The other night I had steamed some leaves for dinner and the leftover vibrant stems seemed perfect.  The book lists suggestions for dyeing, but I didn’t have any alum, so I decided to look for an alternative.  For my recipe, I used these instructions:  I found that the stems do not seem to throw off as much color as the leaves and the dye bath began to lose its brightness after an hour of boiling.  However, this is probably a property of the  Swiss chard, so the next time I try, I’ll only use the leaves and heat them at a lower temperature for a shorter amount of time.


The bath is brownish-orange.



Two blocks of linen were dyed, one white, the other peach. An edge of the peach is visible on the left side.

The result was a slight darkening of the linen, a subtle effect that gives it a more natural look.  The difference is obvious in person, but not photographically.


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Nature Meets Technology: Susquehanna Art Museum

Today I spent the afternoon in downtown Harrisburg at the Susquehanna Art Museum.  The main gallery on the second floor had a split display.  As you walk through the glass doors, broad photographs of the Susquehanna River by John Pfahl set the tone.  A small map next to each image informs the viewer of the location.  Two walls have been added to square off the presentation.  This creates an intimate space which allows the viewer to be immersed in the photographer’s world.  The Susquehanna glows in these images, and the shadows show how the river has carved the land.  Locals are familiar with this subject, which connects them to others across our state and into New York and Maryland.  The world feels large and close at the same time.  The neighboring exhibit brings the closeness into focus.  Beth Galston‘s installation works take small bits of the natural world, then multiplies and enlarges them.  We go from Pfahl’s trees captured on paper to actual leaves trapped in resin.  “Ice Forest” allows viewers to walk through a field of suspended translucent rose stems which reflect the directed light and create delicate shadows along the walls and floor.  In a second darkened room, awaits Luminous Garden (Wave).  Resin cast water chestnuts become glowing flowers that fade and bloom again.  These two exhibits compliment each other: nature interpreted through technology.  However, the tools of each artist do not overpower the message of natural beauty, but instead directs and focuses the viewer’s attention.  The Luminous River: photography by John Pfahl and Recasting Nature: selected sculptures by Beth Galston will be on display until September 18th.

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Good Art, Bad Art: The Myth of Spontaneous Talent

There is a myth that great artistic inspiration and talent can flow out of an individual without prior experience or need for editing.  This isn’t possible.  No one becomes an Olympian or a physician, without years of training, so why would the arts be any different?  We are constantly influenced by our environment.  We lean on our prior experiences in order to make decisions.  The more frequently we have an experience, the more confident our actions become.  This is why, when you compare the artwork of an emerging artist and one who has practiced for many years you can see the confidence in the strokes, proportions and color selection.  It is also evident when examining an artist’s body of work.

Artistic talent is cultivated privately, in a good environment, through practice.  It is not inherent, or supernatural.  A lot of poorly executed and unsatisfactory work has to be produced first, before a good piece might be made.  Fascination can help an artist work through the time spent making sub par art.  Fascination with the subject matter and with technique.  This interest draws the artists attention away from the finished work and redirects it to the present.  The satisfaction of studying the moment becomes most important.  The act of creating art should be meditative and deliberate.  And joyful.

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Watercolor: Bowl of Fruit

This painting is based on a picture I took of a bowl of fruit a friend of mine created when I last visited her.  The colors were so vibrant and fresh I knew I would want to attempt a painting of it.


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Ladybug watercolor

I have been learning and experimenting with my scanner and photo editor in order to improve the transfer of my paintings to digital format.  Here is a watercolor ladybug I worked on today where I used some of my new skills:


Copyright, Erin E. Johnson, 2016




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Rework as Rebirth

work in progress

Current project

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.


Note outline of bird is cartoonish when compared to the realism of the orange.

post 3

Detail of Bokhara couching of the post.  This was worked with two needles.  I used three different browns, two on the foundation.  For the securing strand, I used the one brown from the foundation and a darker color to give contrast.



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.


Detail of the orange.  The claw has been stitched on top, instead of the orange stitches being worked to meet up to the claw.



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Today at work I attended a procrastination seminar.  My favorite bit of new knowledge from the program was that “procrastination is not a time management problem”.  The speaker told us that if you are procrastinating, a planner isn’t going to help you do the things that you don’t really want to do.  She told us that planners are for remembering, not reducing inertia. This information gave me relief.  We do have time to accomplish long-term goals and chores, it’s just that we often make poor choices.  Also, a lot of important activities require just a little bit of time, but must be practiced on a consistent basis, like exercise or maintaining relationships.

We were also given tips for identifying when we might be subconsciously procrastinating.  For example, if you start substituting a pressing need for another ‘productive’ activity , then you are probably procrastinating.  I do not like cleaning, but I realize now that sometimes I will do unscheduled cleaning at home to avoid something else, like boring paperwork that has a deadline.  The feeling of productivity and accomplishment for doing an unpleasant chore masks the internal excuses used for the more important task.

Whenever I attend these sorts of self-help classes, I find that for the next few days or weeks afterwards, I am hyper-aware of my choices and activities.  My to-do lists shrink and I feel accomplished.  It’s the sustaining of positive choices that can be so difficult.  But the practice of being aware of our choices is a step that can help us attain long-term goals.  So, it isn’t the actual content of the class that I’m after, but the actions that I know I will consciously take afterwards that keeps me coming back.

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