In Bahamian artist Gio Swaby’s colorful sewn portraits, an invisible yet integral thread comes in the form of an invitation to celebrate Blackness and womanhood. Through the language of textiles and pattern, her practice centers on accessibility and facilitating connection with the viewer. “I think about people like me and how I didn’t get into art or museums or anything until I was 19,” she tells Colossal, sharing that the historical exclusion of Blackness in art motivates her to make pieces that reflect individuality and joy in a mirror-like way.
The Toronto-based artist began working with sewing and textiles around ten years ago, and her use of the medium acknowledges the intersection of traditional craft and fine art, viewed through the lens of personal relationships. “My mother was a seamstress,” she says. “I grew up in that world, but I didn’t come back to it as an art medium until around 2013. I associated it with a special love between us, and I wanted to share that with the viewer, too.”
Sharing in connection and conversation is central to Swaby’s process, which involves sitting down with her subjects prior to beginning each piece. Most of the portraits represent women in her immediate circle of family and friends. “I already have a sense of who they are, but I learn more about them, and they learn more about me,” she says. The conversations lead to the selection of fabrics, which the artist chooses based on the individuals’ stories and personalities, with an emphasis on exuberant hues and bold designs. In self-portraits, she considers family histories and memories. She says, “I picked out a hummingbird print for my dad because I heard a story that when he was a kid, he was the only one in the neighborhood who could run fast enough to catch a hummingbird.”
In her larger portraits, Swaby incorporates sewing directly onto canvas as a drawing tool, outlining the contours of faces, hands, and hair. Loose threads dangle from the surfaces, suggesting the reverse—typically unseen—side of embroidery and the individuals’ sense of self being perpetually in progress. The titles of her concurrent, ongoing series imply dualities and connections. In New Growth, vibrant silhouettes celebrate Black hair while also alluding to a person who is thriving; Love Letter references a sentiment passed from one person to another—or perhaps even to oneself; and Another Side To Me recognizes the innumerable, intersecting facets of every identity.
Recently exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, Swaby’s solo exhibition Fresh Up travels to the Art Institute of Chicago and will open on April 8. Find more of her work at Claire Oliver Gallery, on her website, and follow updates on Instagram.
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“Colour is my first passion,” says Sydney-based artist Michelle Robinson, who weaves textured fibers in vibrant hues into lively wall-hangings and accessories. The artist draws on more than twenty years of experience in the soft furnishings and upholstery industry, which instilled a deep appreciation for textiles. She began working with the medium as a way to further explore her love for decor and shares that the process “allows me to continuously play with all the colour combinations that wizz through my brain—and hopefully pass on some of the energy to others that colour can evoke.”
After weaving for four years, Robinson signed up for a masterclass in passementerie, the 16th and 17th century European decorative art—derived from passement, an archaic French word for “lace”—that centers on ornate trimmings like edging and tassels for clothing and furniture. Led by U.K.-based artist Elizabeth Ashdown, the class was an opportunity to learn traditional methods from a practitioner who is committed to keeping the craft alive. Robinson shares that she “was immediately besotted with the possibilities for this historic and beautiful technique and was reminded of all the beautiful braids I worked with in my decorating days.” Her pieces reference the ornamental plaits and trims of furniture and garments.
Robinson creates wall hangings and accessories like bookmarks on frame looms, employing traditional techniques to produce geometric works that have a contemporary feel. Recently, she has been exploring how to scale up the medium, examining how the different threads behave within the structure and retain a sense of nostalgia and playfulness. She explains:
I find myself constantly experimenting and learning new techniques, using primarily all-natural fibres. I also love adding repurposed items like knitting needles and re-spun fibres and finishing weavings with hand sewn details. It’s the details that draw you into an artwork that appeal to me.
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Throughout the history of Western art, certain tropes occur again and again in painting and sculpture. The motif of mother and child has been reflected throughout the centuries in the likeness of the Holy Virgin and infant Christ or in domestic family portraiture, like in the works of Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, who specialized in the theme. The archetype of the female muse dates back to ancient Greek mythology and religion, when goddesses like Calliope or Melpomene were considered the source of creativity and knowledge. Brooklyn-based artist Ruby Sky Stiler challenges these preconceptions and archetypes in her ongoing series of Relief Paintings.
Stiler’s works play with gender conventions by turning the male subject into a muse for the female artist or representing parenthood through an image of a father with his children. In “Old Woman (Blue),” she taps into society’s lingering taboo of aging, especially for women. “I’ve recently been exploring the trope of the ‘muse’ and placing the male figure as object. And also in the role of parent, which is strikingly uncommon (in contrast to the abundant depictions of mother and child),” she tells Colossal. “I’ve also re-positioned the female figure in the empowered role as The Artist.”
In bold, geometric patterns, Stiler’s subjects are human-scaled and gaze directly at the viewer. Black-and-white, tile-like patterns provide the background for abstracted figures that nod to Cubism—a movement practically synonymous with masculine figures like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Stiler dismantles the “male gaze,” or the lens through which women are depicted as objects of desire for men in visual culture. She explores the notion of the gaze further in the way that the paintings are experienced by the viewer; from far away the outlines of the figures are easy to see, but the closer one gets, the more the fractal-like patterns distort the image.
A monograph of Stiler’s work is scheduled for publication by The Tang Teaching Museum in the spring, and a solo exhibition of her work will open in March 2023 at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami. She is represented by Nicelle Beauchene, and you can find more of her work on her website and Instagram.
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Deceptively Flat Weavings by Artist Susie Taylor Interlace Threads into Playful and Nostalgic Patterns
Patterns we might typically associate with childhood—the plaid vinyl lawn chairs of family barbecues, thick pink, brown, and white stripes of Neapolitan ice cream, and the simple ruled markings on notebook paper—become vibrant woven tapestries in the hands of artist Susie Taylor. Nostalgic in aesthetic and vivid in color palette, the Bay Area artist and textile designer interlaces cotton and linen threads to create flat weaves that appear almost three-dimensional in complexity, with the mathematically-inclined motifs and subtle shifts in color embedded within the pieces themselves.
The fiber compositions draw on the traditions of Bauhaus and Black Mountain College through a boldly playful lens and “include basic shapes like blocks and stripes to address pattern, symmetry and color interaction and the notion that ordered systems can still flirt with chance, interruption, and improvisation,” the artist says.
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Fractals, grids, religious symbols, and ancient architecture are among the eclectic patterns translated into elaborately engraved gemstones by Bryan D. Drummond. The Las Vegas-based artist carves naturally occurring motifs and geometric designs into jewels like blue topaz, citrine, and tourmaline, adding depth to the glimmering surfaces.
Whether displaying the hexagonal configuration of honeycomb or imagery referencing the sun’s rays and stars, most of Drummond’s patterns are produced with custom equipment—he modified a 16th-century-style woodworking machine designed to carve rosettes and epicycloids so that it handles the precious materials, for example. The artist shares that the surface area and color help to determine the motif, which once carved, embeds the light-catching jewel with additional layers of shadow.
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Conveying the “texture of a threshold,” the mixed-media drawings that comprise Tanya P. Johnson’s ongoing Wisdom Engines series invoke passing between wakefulness and sleep or life and death. Mirrored renderings entwine gears, levers, pulleys, and audio equipment with flowers and geometric motifs in elongated columns, referencing the shape of the human spine. The bisected works reflect both a connection between entities and finding balance through somatic experiences and symmetries.
Drawn on vintage ledger paper, the pieces are “tools for consciousness hacking,” Johnson says, instruments for confronting the systems we’re accustomed to. Each work “generates subtle awareness, cultivates wisdom, and wicks fear. They symbolize the ways movement and breath can be used to interrupt patterns, to strengthen electromagnetism, and to stabilize energy.”
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Editor's Picks: Design
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