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Interview: Textile artist Amanda McCavour

embroidery art

‘Come up to my Room’ installation

I’ve always greatly admired people who, not only work with their hands, but do intricate fiddly stuff that requires hours of work, immense concentration and steady hands. I get fumble fingers just trying to tie a ribbon on a gift!

Needless to say, embroidery was one craft I never mastered. But for textile artist Amanda McCavour it is her life and her work. She has not only mastered the art, she’s turned traditional embroidery on its head by creating delicate, life-sized, three-dimensional ‘drawings’ in the air. And all out of thread. Her work has been exhibited in New York, Chicago, Romania, South Korea and Toronto. She is currently undertaking an MA at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.

Intrigued, I wanted to find out more. Join me as Amanda talks about her creations …

embroidery art

A tribute to Amanda’s old living room in her old apartment. All pieces are to scale 1:1.

Why embroidery? What’s the appeal of thread over other creative mediums? And when did you decide this would be your medium of choice?

I really started to get interested in embroidery in a drawing class I took which looked at drawing in a more expanded way in the second last year of my undergraduate degree (in 2006).  We defined drawing simply as “line”. It was in this class that I started to get more interested in thread.  I thought that it would be interesting to make a drawing that only existed out of thread, with no base, but I needed to find a way to do this. I’ve always loved drawing and when thinking about line in its simplest sense, I began to think about how threaded line is interesting because it appears flat but is actually a sculptural line.

Early on, during my undergraduate degree, I thought that thread was a fitting material when speaking about the body and its temporality. There’s a delicacy to the body that I felt connected with thread as a material. I was drawn to thread and its relationship to the body; how we know textiles through touch, how connected cloth is to the skin. I was also interested in how thread pieces appeared so fragile and as if about to unravel and how this relates to how temporary and fragile we are. Although the work appears to be quite delicate, it actually has a lot of strength that is created through the intersecting sewn lines.  The ravelled strength of the work is quite surprising.

My work has since moved beyond the body, to temporary spaces that bodies occupy, and toward more playful exercises and experiments. And now, in my studio at school I’m exploring many more different types of materials. Another thing that I think is really interesting about the work is actually how strong it is.

embroidery artist

Amanda in her studio

You clearly push the boundaries with how one traditionally thinks of embroidery – why?

I think there is so much potential for embroidery to be explored in many different ways. Embroidery and cloth have a history of use and of craft and I think those traditions are really interesting and carry a lot of meaning. It is also interesting to push the assumptions that we have about these materials. One of them being scale, the other being that stitching usually exists on a surface.

What gave you the idea to create 3D-suspended embroidery?

I was looking a lot at dioramas and stage design. It was interesting to me how sometimes transparency and layering was used to create a sense of depth even though the works generally were two dimensional. I was thinking about these artificial spaces and started to think about my own spaces. I thought that it could be an interesting project to work on, to create flat embroidered pieces that created a sense of a space.

embroidery artist

Installation based on the kitchen of her old home

You use a water-soluble fabric for the embroidery – tell me how this works?

I use water-soluble fabric and a sewing machine to create my pieces. Working with a sewing machine is sometimes like working with an uncooperative partner- sometimes it seems to have a mind of its own, sometimes it breaks! So then after learning these skills and doing lots of tests to see what works, how much thread is needed etc, I learned how to be more patient with the machine I was working with.

embroidery art

The vulnerability of the thread represents the fragility of home

With the sewing machine, I sew into the fabric so much that the thread image begins to hold itself together. I can then dissolve the base, leaving just the thread image behind. I draw out my images on the fabric before I start sewing – drawing the outline and then blocking in areas that will be in different colours of thread. I usually treat the embroidery like a drawing, moving from lighter colours to darker ones, like shading with thread.  With my more abstract work, I am working with this same process of sewing and then dissolving the base but looking at embroideries that stack and fold, creating intersecting embroidered pieces based more in ideas surrounding accumulation of thread and geometric forms.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your work to date?

The most challenging aspect of my work to date is the time that it takes to make the pieces. Because the works are large, they often take a long time to do. Another challenge I’m working through right now is how my work can grow and change. I think it’s important not to get stuck doing one thing and although my work has explored different ideas in the past, I really have been exploring one way of making. Right now my big challenge is to grow and change as an artist and to incorporate many different ways of working through ideas and processes into my artistic practice.

Tell me about your studies.

I’m studying right now at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, MA in their Fibres and Material Studies Department. Because I didn’t get my undergraduate degree in textiles, there are lots of amazing processes I don’t know about. There are looms, a digital embroidery machine and screen-printing facilities at the school. Additionally, I’m getting exposed to so many different artists and teachers who are really challenging me in my work and my ideas.

How do you juggle study and work?

It’s hard! Right now the program I’m in is very much studio-based. So my challenge is to be in my studio working as much as possible. Of course I have many other things that take away from that time like other history classes and teaching but I am viewing this time at school as an intensive time to grow as a studio artist.

What, if any, exhibitions or piece are you working on right now?

This summer I will use the scholarship money awarded to me by the Embroiderers Guild of America to work on a project that will explore ideas around growth and the natural vs. the artificial.  Different types of stitches will be incorporated into the work such as hand stitches, machine stitches and digital embroidery stitches. This summer, I will also travel to install and exhibit my work in a solo exhibition titled Embroidered Space in Campbell River, British Columbia at Campbell River and District Public Art Gallery.  This exhibition will run from June to July 2013.

Where do you go, or what do you do/read/see to get inspiration?

I think that inspiration comes from many different places. So it’s hard to say! I am getting more and more interested in the ways that different plants grow so often just going for walks gets me excited about ideas and making.

embroidery artist

What would be your dream project?

I think my dream project would be to take over an abandoned house and to make installations for that space specifically. I imagine the possibilities in filling a space with both small and large pieces that would be specific to the space.

Have you had a ‘who’d have thought?’ moment? Tell me about it.

The one time was when I was making some of the scribble pieces. It was a long and repetitive process and I had finished the sewing and was then ironing all of the pieces. One of them accidentally stuck to my iron and pulled the embroidery in a weird way, skewing the image and sort of distorting it. At first I was mad because I thought I’d wrecked it. But then I continued to make that “mistake” over and over again.  By pulling the embroidery at the edges, I was able to make a cup form which looked very much like an abstracted flower. By paying attention to that mishap, I was able to make a whole new piece. So now I pay attention to what I think are “mistakes”. Maybe they are just hidden art pieces!

Thanks so much, Amanda, for such a great insight into your work! And if anyone is in British Columbia, or visiting now until the end of July, you must go and check out her Embroidered Space exhibition.

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