These embroidered allium journals are probably the most time-consuming of the ten journals that a friend has commissioned from me, so I thought I had better get cracking on the embroidery part. This is Number 2. They always take longer than I think they will: the painted canvas is leathery, hard to push through, and my index finger already bears small cracks and cuts where I use it to push the needle in. I suppose I should use a thimble, but I don’t own one (I have yet to find one that fits me properly).
The puffballs are very pretty (I think so, anyway) when embroidered…they don’t look as nice, painted or drawn. But it’s incredibly boring work, the same star stitch, over and over. Thank god for audio books! They make the repetitive stitching bearable. I have been listening to Barbara Mujica’s “Mi Hermana Frida” in Spanish. It’s my second time to listen to this audio book…a year and a half has passed since I first listened to it. I’m enjoying it so much more, this time around, because my Spanish is much better than it was then. It’s a nice way, too, to hang on to what I know of the language, as I hardly get to use it over here…
This new art print available in my Society6 shop features a tiny hand-embroidered Chinese junk sailboat, tossed upon the wild blue and green waves of a piece of canvas that Kris and I marbled, ourselves. (Marbling is not something you’d expect people who live on a boat to be able to do, but we’re stubborn as hell when we want something badly enough, and we manage to do it despite the challenges of storing huge quantities of pH-neutral rainwater and a rolling anchorage.)
Also available as a print on stretched canvas, or a framed print under glass.
I wrote (not much!) about the making of this piece here.
It was our penultimate day in Guyana, and I was walking among the stalls inside the public market in Bartica. Glancing to one side, I barely registered a woman sitting in one of the stalls, a large embroidery hoop in her hands. I had gone several metres past when it hit me: she’s embroidering! I turned right around and went back.
Naomi Drakes is 32 years old, a single mom with an 11-year-old son. Her family runs several stalls within the Bartica market; Naomi and her sister run a stall selling haircare products, fashion accessories and, by the looks of it, they do minor alteration work using two sewing machines, as well.
I asked Naomi if she would consent to a short interview and some pictures of herself and her work, and returned the following day with a camera. I tried to shoot a video of the interview, but the gloomy, greenish atmosphere inside the poorly-lit market produced a very poor video, and the ear-splitting roar of the town’s power station, which is next door to the market, drowned out her voice. So I have had to content myself with a few photos and some stills from the video.
I found Naomi to be a confident, articulate, and industrious young woman. On days when business is quiet at the stall, rather than gossip with her neighbours or kill time on her phone, the enterprising lady does her embroidery. Her large pieces (average size of her pieces is about 30 cm. in diameter (a foot) adorn bedroom pillowcases and decorative ‘towels’ (draped over furniture and such, not the kind used to dry things). Her work is popular, and she has quite a lot of orders from locals in Bartica. She leaves her embroidery projects at work, because she knows that if she took them home, she’d want to do nothing else, so clearly she enjoys embroidery.
Her designs come from things she sees in books, or sometimes she might ask a friend who knows how to draw to design something for her. I asked her what her favorite stitch was, but she couldn’t pick one…she knows many, and each one is good for achieving a particular look. She learned embroidery from her mother, but is the only one of her sisters who pursued it seriously. Embroidery floss is expensive in Bartica, so she gets her materials from Georgetown.
How much does she sell her work for? A pair of pillowcases with a matching design, plus all the sewing and ruffles that she adds with her sewing machine, goes for G$ 3,500.00. That’s US$17.50. I was horrified. “And the towels?” I asked… “the towels are G$2,000.00 (US$10.00) each, if I supply all the materials. Apparently, if a customer brings her own fabric for Naomi to embroider, it is cheaper. Each embroidery takes between 5 days and a week to stitch.
I protested that this was much too cheap for the amount of work she puts into each embroidery, but she reasoned that she would be sitting in the market all day, anyway, and a pair of pillow cases brings her an extra, unexpected G$3,500.00 on top of what she earns by running the stall. Fair enough, I suppose.
I bought a pair of her pillow cases. All her other finished work were orders that she couldn’t sell to me, and she had nothing else finished. It being our final day in Guyana (we had already cleared out with immigration, we were departing that evening) I couldn’t wait for her to finish something else. A shame, as I would have loved to conduct subsequent interviews, maybe shoot a video at her home on a Sunday (or at least somewhere with better light, away from the noise of the power station.) Only one of the pillow cases had been sewn up, the other embroidery was on an unfinished piece of fabric. “That’s fine,” I told her, “there’s no way I will use your embroidery as a mere pillow case, anyway! It’s too nice for that!”
I had noticed her broken wooden embroidery hoop, the day before, and so I left her a parting gift of one of my good plastic hoops…just an 8-inch hoop, not quite as big as the 12″ hoop she had been using, but I thought it might help her to tension her fabric better (if you look at the photos of her work, you’ll notice that her fabric is badly puckered and distorted by the tension of her stitches.)
I asked Naomi to write her postal address down for me, and I look forward to corresponding with her when I get back to Australia, maybe send her some embroidery goodies, books and such, because, despite the very different sort of work that we do, I felt such a kinship with this remarkable young woman who, in a money-and-gold-crazed mining town, and with very limited resources, has managed to nurture a serious love for the craft.
A week of rain…it just pours and pours. Nowhere we can really go on days like these, and not much we can do on a dark, gloomy boat. I sat in the crepuscular shadows and stitched a tiny sailboat against a roiling sea of marbled green and blue canvas. It captures the feeling of being alone on a wild sea, perfectly…
We marble our own fabric; this is a piece we made for an exhibition in early 2014. It was then that I figured out one good way of combining marbled fabric with hand embroidery…rather than try and tackle the intricacies of the marbling patterns, themselves, I try to see the print as an environment for some small motif…a hut on an island, a cat hunting a rabbit in tall grass, gold fish in a lily pond… It works well, and I love doing these small designs, as the embroidery is finished in a few hours, very satisfying to start and complete a project on a single day!
Kris requested this piece; he wants to frame it and hang it next to his chart table. The sailboat is just under 5 cm. (2 in.) high. Worked in split stitch, couching,satin, and french knots.
Was binding a dozen or so journals today, for a craft market later this month; at some point the books went between boards for pressing, and waiting for the glue to dry I started on this little project. It was so much fun that the books are still in the book press, several hours later! I just decided to keep going with the canvas bag until it was done.
These handy canvas artist’s bags were on special at work, so I bought one. They’re a good size (you can fit an A3 sketchbook into one of these, as well as lots of art supplies) with three roomy pockets, and a whole row of narrow brush or pen pockets on one side of the bag. I want to use it as my art tote when I am traveling (I am going to make more of an effort to paint, or draw, while I am out and about, than I have before now. Yeah, right.) But the bag needed some colour, I thought…all that plain canvas just begged for some paint.
I used a black Posca brush-pen to doodle the designs, then painted in with acrylics. I fooled around with glitter fabric paints, too. When the paint was dry, I loaded some flow acrylics into a gutta applicator bottle, and put in fine details like faux stitches and stems and leaf veins. (Note: want to give this a try? Everything you need for this project is available at Jackson’s Drawing Supplies)
This is just going to be something that I drag around with me, getting dirty, battered, and worn, so I was just playing around with the doodles, not planning ahead, and not trying to get anything perfect…I acknowledge that my writing could have been spaced better!
Before you try something similar, please note that I broke all the rules about painting on fabric with this one: I didn’t wash the bag first, and I didn’t mix textile medium with my acrylics, or use fabric paints. No idea whether it will all come off when the bag is washed, someday. I will let it dry for 24 hours, and then iron the bag underneath a layer of baking parchment, for what it’s worth, to try and heat set the paints. But it doesn’t have to last, so I don’t mind; it was just a bit of fun, and something to do while my books were in the press. 😉
Running out of pages in one’s current journal is not the only reason for retiring it and moving on to a new journal. It has been a very long time, in fact, since I filled a journal right up to its very last page. The way it usually happens, with me, is that I will sit down to my semi-regular ritual of journal-keeping, and feel a powerful aversion to writing in that journal. As though the things I want to write about don’t belong in that particular book. My journals usually span a period of 5-7 years…a good chunk of time in which major life situation and personality changes might occur (I’m not talking about the fanciful myth that claims we generate completely new bodies every 7 years!) that find me a different person, at the end, from who I was when I started the journal.
Soon after we arrived in Australia (sailing from the Philippines, stopping along the way in Timor L’este for a month, all in all taking three months to get here) I found that I could not bear to write in the wooden-bound journal (the one named, no kidding, Tagebuch) I had brought with me. Tagebuch, and everything within it, belonged to the tropical archipelago of small limestone islands where Kris and I had lived for 6 years, in a fisherman’s ramshackle beach house an hour’s walk from the next cluster of human beings. There was no internet, mobile phone, digital camera, or laptop. We didn’t have jobs. We had no electric power of any sort—no lights at night, no fans, no television, no music—nor plumbing, and the little bit of money we had, we made by selling our paintings and handbound journals at galleries, exhibitions and craft fairs elsewhere in the country. There had been a huge tropical garden (my pride and joy) surrounded by 2 hectares of coconut plantation, and a jungle looming behind us that rustled with the movements of monkeys, pangolins, civets, pythons, tree shrews, sea eagles, mysterious night birds, and the rare, endangered local peacock pheasant, tandikan.
I wrote my journal in the mornings, at a table standing among hippeastrum lillies in the garden, or at a desk in the bedroom on wild monsoon nights, with half a dozen candles burning for light. We would sit in the doorway of our bamboo shack, senses alert in the total darkness of the night to every firefly or leafy crunch, every susurration of the sea in its different moods. We spent our days painting, marbling, reading or binding books; we took breaks to comb the beach for tumbled glass or chambered nautilus shells, or walk the twisty dirt roads of the surrounding countryside. We moved through cycles of making art, making love, making coconut curries, making strong loaves of peasant bread. This was the real world for us, and we seemed to exist outside of time.
How could I, arriving in Darwin—a whirlpool of working & earning & spending, of material culture, of social interactions, of self-assertion and ego-building, of status anxiety, and the never-ending struggle to establish one’s meaning or worth in empirical terms—continue to use my jungle book, my turtle-moon-hippeastrum-poetry-green-glass-seasnake-soulmate-candlight journal? It felt like a desecration, and that’s how I knew it was time to make a new journal.
Twist and Shout has been my Darwin journal since 2007. The name was actually printed on the selvage of a quilting fabric I had used to make the covers’ patchwork with. It seemed to fit with the way I felt about Darwin at the time…the teeth-grinding busy-ness of the place, the commerce, the social and racial tensions, the clashes between individuals brought on by drunkenness or just selfish intolerance, the big hurry that everyone was in to get someplace else.
It contains the story of finding my place within this small city, of meeting friends and carving a small niche for myself, of making a home and coming to belong here. It cobbles together what I have learned about Northern Australia and the things I have come to love about the place. My very first fresh peach, apricot, raspberry, pomegranate were experienced here. My first fresh fig (a moment worth many chapbooks of poetry) and my first octopus (a moment worth many cookbooks). My encounters with crocodiles, flying foxes, frilled lizards, wallabies, kangaroos, and a Clydesdale horse so big that I thought of Norse gods.
It might mention some of the new toys and tools that living here made it possible to acquire. My job experiences as cleaner, as gardener in a plant nursery, as kitchen hand, as back-to-uni student, as craft teacher. My delight in bicycles and the daily love I feel for Darwin’s meandering, tree-lined bicycle paths through shady parks full of ibises, plovers, and sporty types, appears everywhere in its pages. It includes the year I rented an art studio, and the fun of putting together my first two solo exhibitions. The accounts of trying to learn a third language, to study printmaking, silkscreen printing, and doing a dressmaking course, are here, too. I made my own clothes for the first time here, on a 70-year-old sewing machine that I bought within a month of arriving in the country. Of course it documents the continuing importance of the sea in my life.
On the whole it has been a good companion, this embroidered and patchworked book of 500 pages (400 used)—so full of paint and inclusions that its covers are permanently agape—although I did not write in it as regularly nor as copiously as I did in the last journal. I was much more bound by time during this period of my life…well outside of the standard rat race, but a rat on the sidelines, nonetheless…with unexceptional jobs, keeping regular hours, having bills to pay and other financial commitments, watching in growing anxiety as the days, months, years flew by because my attention leapt from payday to payday as across stepping stones…the rest of the days falling, unremarked, between them, and flowing away like water.
Last week, although there was plenty I wanted to write, I felt unhappy about having to write it in Twist & Shout. I’ve learned to recognise this feeling immediately, and so put away my pen and ink bottle, and re-read the journal, instead. The signs were unmistakable: some entries were fun to read, and a little bit was of continuing importance, but most of what I had written was already obsolete. No longer useful or even relevant to me, the person I was in 2007 had been left behind. I had moved on, and at some subtle point had turned a corner, from which my 2007 self could no longer even be seen or remembered, and the way back had been rubbed out behind me.
Only the present moment is real, though I have some vague ideas about the way ahead.
In my next post I’m going to write about making the transition between an old and a new journal. I suppose one could just drop the old journal, and start in the new immediately, but it seems a shame to treat an old friend and one-time constant companion that way. It seems ungrateful, somehow. There are rituals of gratitude and farewell for tools and objects—as there are for friends and loved ones—to soften the sharp edges of change and to prepare oneself for what might lie ahead. I thought I might share my own practices here, not so much for you to follow as to help you think up rituals of your own.