You know when you go to a textile exhibition and you just want to run away? I quite often feel like this for all the wrong reasons; but visiting ‘Word Play’ in The Museum in the Park at the Stroud International Textile Festival, I really wanted to just go home without seeing any of the other exhibitions on display throughout the town. The reason was seeing several hand embroidered panels by Tilleke Schwarz, some older works but one made this year.
I at once thought this will make a wonderful post because I was so freshly excited by seeing in the flesh – so to speak - work that I was already familiar with and this made me re-think what I was actualy doing within my own practice. So I asked permission to take photographs explaining that I wanted to show and discuss the work in my textile blog. But it was stipulated at the bottom of a sheaf of gallery documents – No Photography – even though I had already seen people taking photographs in the gallery……but in matters of copyright and blogging I really try to get permission were possible. So the work I am showing here is from my much thumbed copy of her excellent book Mark Making, copyright 2007 – ISBN: 978-90-70655-54-9 available from her website.
But this refusal wasn’t the reason I wanted to run – to say I was envious doesn’t quite sum up my feelings sitting outside the gallery later and waiting for my buddies from TFSW to take part in a Tea and Textiles walk round the Stroud exhibitions, what I was feeling was deflated. There was this wonderful set of work in a room full of other interesting works, some of which I know well and I felt dejected; why?
The exhibited works for the most part all had words in them, but some didn’t – more mark making or signs from Clyde Oliver – who showed handsome large lichen covered stones that had been drilled and stitched and I really did want to own one. Jess Turrell ( who I know well and is a member of the Stitching and Thinking group) showed her exquisite etched and enamelled words pieces; they somehow always make my gaze slide over the words when attempting to read them, so the surface of the objects becomes very important – even though I know this isn’t the maker’s intent – or is it? And then I realized that only in Tilleke Schwarz’s work, were you made to stop (even when the words are in her own language) her myriad amount of details make you attend to the work, stay in the moment, see the world from her varied and personal view points – which for the most part are humorous, wry, colourful, hand stitched, multi-layered, and ultimately worthy of prolonged attention.
And what I did discover when looking at this work was that it was the actual stitched surface, the haphazard motifs and slogans made in a whole range of traditional hand embroidered techniques, that make you attend. The sheer variety of stitching techniques means that it is never tedious to try to decipher her images and messages, in fact they just make you smile in recognition as some motifs are from traditional stitching samplers and appear time and again as do the commonplace overheard remarks or slogans.
These are perfect samplers for our times, wonderful regenerated versions of our European embroidery heritage, made in the image of graffiti – the little cross stitched pairs of birds, the signing alphabets, the daisies and carnations, as well as couching, running stitch, back stitch, seed stitch, all subverting the past rigidity of teaching needlework to girls; no wonder our stitching hearts sing when we see them. These seemingly untidy stitches are perfectly controlled, the couched down ravells of thread are meticulously held with the tiniest of single stitches – this isn’t slipshod work. Stitch used in this way seems to me to embody the energy of our increasingly overloaded visual world, and as the stitch changes depending on what is being depicted, the sheer mastery of the maker’s own language of hand stitching is demonstrated. And this is what made me envious and questioning my own way of constantly changing materials and techniques – why haven’t I just stayed with the needle and threads and fabrics? Here the modern, fast- moving, hectic overloaded visual world we live in is illustrated in one of the oldest and most traditional and slowest textile techniques, hand embroidery.
But more than anything else, what completely got to me about these works was their freshly washed, starched, ironed and ultimately immaculately presented surfaces. Here is our domestic heritage for all to admire, here is a woman proud of her work and wanting us to see it at its very best. I could almost smell the clean fabrics and I could imagine the time consuming preparations of the cloths so that the framer had very little to do but simply place each work into position and seal the back.
And now I hear you ask, how come you have been able to use these images from a book which is subject to copyright? Well yesterday morning I emailed Tilleke Schwarz, because on her website she says to contact her for permission to use any images. I really did not expect to hear from her for some time, if at all….but by the afternoon I had a reply saying that due to phone cameras it is virtually impossible to keep track of taking photographs of work any more…..if only I had the time to go back to the exhibition this week armed with this information – but my own Open Studio calls.