210 x 185 cms
Reclaimed needlework, lace pins on nylon tulle
Australian artist Louise Saxton ‘reinvigorates and restores value,’ to found and reclaimed textiles, paper and ceramics. The last decade has seen her concentrating on discarded needlework, which she assembles onto nylon tulle using lace pins, to become works of art that are often based on historical paintings. Each piece honours the time and craftswomanship of the original fragments and highlights their beauty and fragility. In contrast to today’s throwaway society, they are also preserved and reinvented into a new format for future generations.
What is your background in textiles?
My art school training was in drawing, painting and printmaking, but over the past nineteen years ‘the home’ has been central to my art practice. While I have no formal training in textiles, I grew up in a family where making things by hand was valued and textiles were at the centre of domestic productivity and creativity. My mother was an avid knitter and excellent dressmaker and she taught me to sew and knit my own clothes, before I learnt to paint. Also, my Nana constantly crocheted. It’s interesting to reflect on my childhood in relation to my current practice in combining my use of reclaimed textiles with my reinterpretation of historical imagery. As a teenager I reinterpreted a number of my mother’s vintage knitting patterns from the 1930’s and 40’s. By knitting the garments in high-key colours popular in the 1970’s I was contemporizing, while keeping alive, the exquisite patterns of the past. This is what I am trying to do in my practice today – to reinvigorate and also restore value to the exquisite needlework and pay homage to the artisan needle-workers of the past.
How do you describe your work?
I describe my work as “mixed media” and myself as an “assemblage artist”, as the work is assembled from countless textiles fragments held together by delicate lace-pins. I also assemble other materials such as paper and found ceramics. Unlike traditional ‘textile artists’ I do not make the materials myself, but rather rescue and reconstruct the handwork of others. I was trained as a painter and printmaker and now, with all the materials I use, the work embraces both art and craft traditions and references both painting and sculpture.
Why do you use reclaimed materials?
For the past decade my main art material has been discarded needlework, which I “reclaim” for art. This is primarily vintage or antique, hand-made embroidery and lace – doilies, tablecloths, bed linen and clothing etc. Originally, painstaking and lovingly made for functional and aesthetic domestic purposes in previous eras, they are now culturally redundant in our ‘throw-away’ contemporary world. I use the term “reclaimed” as I am claiming the original domestic objects for a new purpose. I rescue these materials from charity/thrift shops and markets and I am fortunate that friends, family and, even strangers, also contribute needlework to my collection. I wish to honour the original needle-workers by re-using their handwork, and also to draw a link between this disappearing material and traditions and the fragility of species in the natural world. I also draw a link between the domestic archives of the home, which include linen drawers and cupboards, storing family heirlooms and; the public archives of the museum and library – which also preserve rare and precious items from which I draw inspiration for much of my imagery.
What techniques do you use?
The techniques I use are time honoured and proven – collecting; sorting; hand-cutting using embroidery scissors; and pinning – techniques used by both domestic seamstresses and high end couturiers.
The process, which applies these techniques in order to create a work of art, is painstaking and time consuming. It involves collecting, sorting, cutting, colour coding and pinning the embroidery and lace, extracted from domestic linens. I often re-interpret historical paintings using the textile fragments and; for this I first project the original image onto a ‘membrane’ of bridal tulle, which is pinned taut to my studio wall. I create an outline with large dressmaker pins and then, drawing from my pre-cut boxes of coloured motifs, I pin, unpin and repin until the picture is complete – much like a painter who lays down one colour, scrapes away, then lays down another colour.
You tend to use use pins instead of stitch? Why?
Yes, I rarely stitch down any of my textiles, although I have, on various occasions used a vintage sewing machine to stitch the reclaimed needlework to layers of tulle and silk. I now primarily use stainless steel or brass lace-pins to hold the textile fragments in place. These pins are archival (although brass pins will tarnish, neither will rust) and they add a sculptural element to the relief-work, as there are countless pins in each assemblage. In the case of my bird imagery for example, the pins add a sense of light shimmering on the feathers. The pins also have significance beyond their practical or aesthetic use in their fascinating and quite gruesome historical origins. Also, in what they may represent metaphorically and conceptually in terms of pain. For me, this includes the painstaking labour of needlework traditions and the pain of loss associated with disappearing traditions and species in the natural world. I am also interested in the fact that during the industrial revolution the ‘pointers’ whose sole job it was to grind the head of the pin, inhaled the tiny shards of metal and acquired a deadly lung disease known as “pointer’s rot”.
I have developed calluses on my fingers from all the pinning, unpinning and re-pinning it takes to make each of my pieces and every time a pin pricks me, it is a sharp reminder of the pain associated with these traditions over the centuries, and the existential pain of realizing that everything is transient.
Where do you work?
I have a lovely studio above a shop in my local village, which I’ve rented for the past nine years. It was originally the living room in the shop residence, built in the late 1800’s and has a north-facing balcony, which was enclosed in the 1960’s and which receives the winter sun. I have rented studios in warehouses with other artists in the past, but I find this type of space, with high ceilings and domestic windows; and a fireplace etc, suits my collection of domestic objects and the work I make. It connects me to the sense of “home” that is so central to my practice. I have the whole top floor to myself as the other rooms are used for shop storage and so it’s very private and peaceful – my home away from home. The studio is only a fifteen-minute walk from home and so very convenient.
How do you work?
I keep a journal which documents the inspirational imagery and also the development of each piece I make, which is becoming more and more an on-line process on my website. Occasionally I will sketch out an idea in the journal, but I don’t sketch from life any more as I did when I was using traditional drawing and painting materials. I don’t make samples – I jump straight in to working on a piece, once I’ve decided upon the particular imagery, scale etc. I do, however, make small experimental pieces, which sometimes end up in finished artworks, but these are usually three-dimensional pieces, which are quite playful.
Your subject matter seems quite varied – Are there recurring themes?
The imagery may seem varied, but each major body of work is held together by a concept, which can be very strong; (such as “Sanctuary” which over all has entailed 15 reinterpretations of historical paintings of birds and insects) or; a more loose collection, which celebrates and explores the idea flora, for my last solo exhibition WILD in 2015. However, central to every body of work I’ve made since 2000 is the idea of “Home” – as a place which can inspire the making of art and, in which art is made.
How do you choose the subject – is it through the materials you use or do you do a theme per collection?
Sometimes the subject comes because of the materials I’m using and sometimes the subject drives the search for materials. One example is the body of work titled “Sanctuary” – focusing on bird and insect imagery in reclaimed needlework, it responded both to the museum site where it was exhibited and; to the idea of preserving the materials – finding sanctuary for discarded and disappearing needlework. Heide Museum of Modern Art, is a kind of ‘sanctuary’ for birds and plants (in that the art patrons who originally owned the museum were conservationists). It is also a ‘sanctuary’ for the art that was made on the site, when it was the patron’s home, and for the art collection that is housed in the museum.
What inspires you?
I am fascinated by the home – as both a source of inspiration and a place in which creativity occurs. I have made several bodies of work, which were inspired by the decorative and domestic-art traditions of many different cultures. I find inspiration in historical paintings that allow me to speak about the fragility of reclaimed materials and the potential loss of species in the natural world – such as in natural history and botanical paintings; as well as the Dutch still-life tradition of the Vanitas. I find inspiration in daily walks to the Yarra River, close to my home, observing native bird life and the magnificent River Red-gums, which have been growing there for hundreds of years. I find inspiration in the materials I work with – their beauty and painstaking creation and I am greatly inspired by, and often wonder about, their mostly anonymous makers
What has been your career highlight to date?
I was very fortunate in 2012 to be given a solo exhibition at a contemporary art museum – Heide Museum of Modern Art, in Melbourne, www.heide.com.au/exhibitions/louise-saxton-sancturary, which was seen by more than 5,000 people over the four months it was on display. This exhibition led directly to my being represented by a well-known commercial gallery, where I have since had two successful solo exhibitions. A commercial gallery in Boston USA now also represents me.
What advice can you give to aspiring textile artists?
Being an artist is your own individual journey. My main advice is to allow your practice to develop and change as you do and when you find a process and material you really enjoy working with, explore it as much as possible. Also don’t feel pressured into feeling you have to be a particular way in the “art world” – be true to yourself and what feels right for you. It’s good to be involved with other artists in creating opportunities for exhibitions; enter your work into prizes and bit-by-bit you start to develop a career as a creative professional. I’ve always found that having a studio or a space, which is allocated solely to making art, is really important.
It is always a juggle between working on your creative pursuits and other commitments such as paid employment and family, but fortunately I am now in the position of being able to work full-time as an artist. That is not to say it is an easy life – making art full time involves administration and PR as well as making and presenting the actual finished work – there are many aspects to juggle and it’s often exhausting, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! I feel very fortunate.
Would you like to add anything?
I’d like to add that I see my work as a silent collaboration with the original makers – I try to honour those needle-workers, whose painstaking labour has never really been considered art in the contemporary/modern sense of the work. In this way, my work also follows the lead of second-wave Feminism in it’s desire to re-evaluate the place of what was once deemed “women’s work” within the lexicon of Fine Art.
louise saxton artist