Over 100 Stitchers are Collaborating Across the U.S. to Complete an Unfinished Embroidered Quilt by Late Crafter Rita Smith
Chicago-based fiber artist and activist Shannon Downey has a particular affinity for unfinished projects. She seeks them out at estate sales, helping women who’ve passed complete their work. Although this has long been an area of interest for Downey, one recent discovery has catapulted to the front page of news sites around the world.
On a visit this September to a Chicagoland estate sale sale, Downey happened upon a framed embroidery (pictured above) that maps out the United States and illustrates all fifty state flowers. A casual conversation with the cashier at the sale led to Downey finding a large-scale project related to the framed work. An unfinished queen-sized quilt was meant to incorporate another U.S. map along with hexagons featuring each state’s bird and flower along with the year they entered the union.
Rita Smith of Mount Prospect, Illinois, had begun the project a few decades ago, according to her son, whom Downey subsequently connected with. Smith, who was a nurse, passed away recently at the age of 99. “I have an annoying habit of having to purchase and finish unfinished projects if I think that the person has passed on … but usually I’m just buying a half-done pillow that needs half an hour’s worth of stitching and then it’s done,” Downey told Block Club Chicago. “But this one was massive and it just felt really significant for some reason. And so I bought it.”
Downey has a substantial following thanks to her work as a community organizer and resource for people looking for an alternative to digital distractions. The self-described ‘craftivist’ tells Colossal that after running a digital marketing company for a decade, she was burned out and needed a break from technology.
I started stitching to find some digital/analog balance. I was hooked. I am an activist and I quickly fused the two. At first, it was about creating space for myself to think substantively and reflect on various issues and topics. As I started to share my work and thoughts, I found a community of folks on Instagram who were engaged and engaging. I have found ways to move those communities offline and into real life communities through my stitch-ups. Those communities are what inspire me to keep going, level up, find new ways of building and connecting, having hard conversations and tackling challenging topics.
Once Downey shared her unexpected find on Twitter, inquiries from potential collaborators began flooding in. Now she is coordinating between dozens of stitchers across the country who are volunteering their time to complete Rita’s masterpiece. Downey describes the effort as a strongly feminist project. “It is an opportunity for folks to consider how we define and assign value and meaning to craft,” she tells Colossal. “So many of the stories that people are sharing with me on twitter after reading about #RitasQuilt are about memories and connections that they have to the women in their lives who are/were makers and the significance that their art has come to have for them.”
The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky will be displaying the completed quilt, and Downey hopes that it will be able to come with her for a planned 2020 craftivist tour around the U.S. Keep up with Downey on Twitter and Instagram to see how you can get involved in craftivism in your community, and follow along with the #RitasQuilt hashtag.
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Artist Ava Roth loves working on collaborative projects. But her studiomates aren’t fellow two-footed friends. Rather, Roth pairs with her backyard honeybees to create mixed media collages combining embroidery, beadwork, fabric, tree bark, and honeycomb. The Toronto-based artist builds artworks inside the comb frames, and the bees complete the pieces by encasing them in organic honeycomb patterns. “This project is a collaboration in the truest sense. It involves careful listening, respecting the bees, and cooperating with them entirely, from the choice of materials, size, timing and scope of design,” Roth tells Colossal. “My intention is to celebrate the extraordinary work of the honeybee and match it with sewings that invoke their delicate and ephemeral comb.”
The artist explains that she had been working in encaustic, a painting technique that incorporates wax, for several years, and decided to start collaborating with her bees as she learned more about Colony Collapse Disorder and sought to uplift and honor the bee’s work.
The threadwork in this collection mirrors the fragility and beauty of the honeycomb in which they are encased. By placing the embroideries in hoops, I am also giving a nod to a tradition of women’s work. Since the working bees are all female – and not making ‘fine art’, the finished pieces are very much in the tradition of marginalized women’s work, and sewing in particular. Because both the bees work and traditional women’s work have been largely functional, their beauty and significance have been easily overlooked.
Roth tells Colossal that it took a great deal of trial and error to solve for the variables like what materials the bees respond to instead of destroying, how long to keep the pieces in the hive before honey is deposited, and conveying to the insects which areas they should or shouldn’t build comb. The artist shares that she worked closely with Master Beekeeper Mylee Nordin on strategizing and implementing the project. Shown here are works from her abstract series; Roth also works in this mode with more representational images, which you can see on her website.
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Embroidery and calligraphy merge in Olga Kovalenko’s gestural stitched lettering. Evoking the style of loose, ink-splattering calligraphy, Kovalenko replicates each speck of “ink” in carefully places, minuscule stitches. The artist shares with Colossal, “the main idea in this project was to connect two arts—the fast (expressive calligraphy) and the slow one (hand embroidery). It makes you think about the deceitfulness of time.” Kovalenko studied type design at Moscow State University of Printing Arts, and pursued further calligraphy studies with Evgeniy Dobrovinsky. See more of her multi-media lettering work on Behance and Instagram. (via Colossal Submissions)
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Working with vintage photographs, artist Julie Cockburn (previously) re-energizes images that have been lost to time with colorful overlays. Cockburn adds tightly stitched orbs, swirling marbled enamel, and architectural structures as overlays to black-and-white or softly toned studio portraits, candid snaps, and landscape photos.
The London-based artist’s current solo exhibition, ‘Telling It Slant’, is on view through November 2, 2019 at Flowers Gallery‘s Kingsland Road location. Cockburn’s show title alludes to an Emily Dickinson poem called Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant. In a statement, the gallery describes the artist’s work as “excavat[ing] authentic stories by circuitous means… Cockburn embarks on a visual journey to delicately reveal narrative histories and layered meanings in lost and discarded images. Cockburn partially obscures the images in a process she describes as ‘paradoxically unmasking’ their intrinsic truths.”
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U.K.-based embroidery artist Helen Wilde interprets oceanic landscapes in her three-dimensional hoop embroideries. Using tightly edited color palettes, often featuring teals and natural tones, Wilde layers stitches, knots, twists, and pom-poms. The organic shapes resemble commingled forms of plant life, and are built upon organza or hand-woven fabrics. Wilde’s most recent work was inspired by the tropical modernism of Sri Lanka. You can see more of her botanical embroidery on Instagram and purchase original works in her Etsy store. (via Colossal Submissions)
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Elaborate Embroidery by Laura Baverstock Forms Insects and Animals from Precious Metals and Colored Threads
London-based embroidery artist Laura Baverstock crafts stunningly intricate animals using colored and metallic thread. From copper bees to gold lions, Baverstock renders the unique textures of each creature. The artist studied at the Royal School of Needlework, where she received a degree in Hand Embroidery, and now works in the film and fashion industries. If you watched last year’s Mary Queen of Scots, you saw Baverstock’s embroidery work on the actors’ outfits, which earned an Oscar nomination for costume designer Alexandra Byrne.
“Embroidery has such a rich history, and I’ve found the specialized nature of the craft and the variety of traditional techniques to be hugely inspiring,” Baverstock shares with Colossal. “Needlework has such versatility and universal appeal; within my own practice I particularly strive to push the boundaries of three-dimensional hand embroidery and precious metal goldwork, with a focus on natural themes and realism.” Explore more of Baverstock’s complex embroidery work on her website and Instagram. (via Colossal Submissions)
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Amsterdam-based artist Giselle Quinto embroiders the quiet moments that occur as one finds solitude. Quinto presents subjects left alone with just a potted plant or floral background. The works are created with precise black lines that outline a range of hairstyles, from short pixie cuts to a cascade of curls being held casually by a woman’s hand. Color tends to be used sparingly in her designs, often only used as an accent for plants, flowers, lips, and cheeks.
Quinto explains in her bio that her practice “brings an anarchic view to classic embroidery, revisiting old traditions and transforming it in protest for equality, where all have the right to be and live whoever they are.” You can buy your own piece of Quinto’s through her online shop and follow her photo shoots behind-the-scenes on Instagram. (via Brown Paper Bag)
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Highlights below. For the full collection click here.