Nat Uhing is overwhelming.
As an artist, writer and a member of the online art community. And I mean that in the best possible sense… she doesn’t hold anything back. Her energy and intensity imbue her paintings and textile art with a luminous sense of life — lived boldly, without compromise — which is rare. And the vibrancy of her spirit is so raw and uncompromising that it can almost feel overwhelming.
Nat, who currently resides on a fishing trawler in Darwin, Australia, works in a wide range of mediums. When I see she has posted something new on her wonderful blog, smallestforest.net, I race to read it, never knowing what to expect. Bookbinding, painting, photography, embroidery, print making, sculpture, a poem.
Although I’ve been reading her blog and admiring her art several years, I’ve just learned from doing this interview that I was dead wrong about a crucial piece in her biography!
She has so much to share with us about making art, sources of inspiration and living. So let me let her do the talking. It’s amazing.
Since this is a stitching blog, can you tell us about how you first started to approaching embroidery or other textiles as something more than functional? When you started thinking of it as worthy of “art?” What were your first pieces like?
I took an interest in stitch 32 years ago, and from the very beginning embroidery was, to me, about ornamentation, a way of making beautiful…even though, at 7 or 8 years old, my idea of beautiful was to stitch an unimaginative little motif from one of those Japanese cross-stitch magazines…strawberries, a cartoon bear…and then display it in a hoop.
I know it sounds as though I have been stitching regularly since then, but that’s not really the case. I made maybe a dozen cross-stitched items. When I turned 10 my mom gave me Mary Gostelow’s book Embroidery (a stitch dictionary and encyclopaedia) and I learned that there were other things you could do with a needle and thread besides cross stitches, so I did a couple of “mixed stitch” designs of my own, and also some rigid stitch sampler squares at school from 4th to 6th grade. Awful stuff. Then I dropped the whole thing for a very long hiatus: the next time I started to stitch something, I was 19.
In all that intervening time, and although I was focussed on anything but embroidery, whatever I had absorbed about the craft seemed to go on developing inside my head, ripening in some hidden place. When I decided that I wanted to embroider again my hands just seemed to know what to do…as though I had never stopped. It probably helped that while I wasn’t stitching, I would still browse the technical notes in Gostelow’s book, and look at the stitch diagrams.
The first piece that I attempted at this time was crazy-ambitious. I used a stretched artist’s canvas rather than fabric and, now I think of it, maybe it was this random decision that planted the idea that embroidery can also be drawing, painting, poetry, something highly personal and enjoyed with the senses? Don’t know. Sounds good, anyhow. It was hard going (the primed canvas was tough to stitch) and I abandoned the project. No idea what happened to that unfinished oeuvre, but I guess you could say that it put me on the road of stitching my own ideas, my own designs, of incorporating text, paint, or collaged papers, and mixing pretty much whatever the hell I wanted into the finished piece.
No picture of that tree, but here is one of the next two embroideries I made…already I was doing that craft juggling act, learning marbling, bookbinding, and working on embroidery, all at the same work table in my parents’ basement).
Having read and looked at your work for a long time, you seem to be inspired by all of your senses. I’ve seen you respond to music you’ve heard, to cooking you’ve done and to the natural world around and translate that into your own artwork. Can you describe an embroidery project to us from the time you were first aware of its source to making the piece? (I’m wondering about your process.)
A photographer friend once told me that we have all our ideas when we’re in our 20s, and spend the rest of our lives as artists just developing/exploring those few ideas. Matisse says something similar: “The artist has but one idea. He is born with it and spends a lifetime developing it and making it breathe…I move along the course of the picture’s creation, pushed by an idea that I come to know only gradually as it develops.”
I wasn’t conscious of having art “ideas” when I was in my 20s, but I was aware of myself compiling a mental slideshow of images and stories which, for some reason or another, seemed terribly important (or beautiful…or fascinating) to me, and to which I kept adding new images over time. They were all connected to an event and a strong feeling that I wanted to hold on to, something so good that I wanted to build upon it, celebrate it, re-create it in other ways.
Almost everything I do now is based on one or another of those images that I have been collecting and carrying in my head for two decades. It’s not organised…I don’t even realise I’m doing it. It’s not as though I riffle through this mental collection and pick one out…most of the time I actually think I’m starting something completely fresh, newly-minted, only to find as the work develops that I am repainting, re-stitching, or otherwise re-working something from “the archives”. And that, I guess, is how you find yourself possessing something like a “personal iconography”.
I’m a lazy person by nature, and I need a little kick in the backside before starting a project. This sometimes comes as an invitation to submit work in a group show, though I also get the machinery up and running on my own by applying to have an exhibition with my local artist-run gallery every two years or so. If the theme has not been supplied from outside (I like these because they are often so different from what I’d come up with myself, they stretch my imagination) then I will slowly circle around a handful of my own ideas, eliminating one and then another as I work, until something eventually emerges as the main theme (usually the night I design and order the invitations for the show).
Sketches are mainly technical, where I figure out how to construct, if that is necessary, the piece…I rarely do drawings of the art side of the works, because I am not someone who can repeat a work happily, and my subconscious doesn’t seem to care how an idea gets expressed, so long as it is expressed at that moment. A comprehensive sketch would use up the very energy I need to do the a finished piece, and then I wouldn’t feel like doing it, anymore. I am not interested in repetition, it makes me feel dirty.
Once you have an idea for a piece, how do you decide which medium to work in? Have you ever started in one medium and found the piece works better in another and you’ve changed mid-stream?
I try to hold an image of what it would look like in my head. Either I start by knowing what medium I want to use, or I run through the list of media I am familiar with, and imagine doing the work with my hands…how it would feel, what the difficulty level would be. I use what I know about the way different materials feel to imagine the texture of the piece, the play of light on its surface, the ‘character’ and possible uses for the finished work.
I often find myself working an image in material X, and having these flashes of insight about how much better the piece would look if I had used material Y, instead. I don’t shift mid-way unless things really are not working out and I am not getting the effect I wanted, which is pretty rare. More commonly, I will finish the piece but, after a few months of doing something else, will get the craving to do explore the idea again, in that other medium.
Every material wants to be handled a certain way, is distinctive, and lends wonderful, beautiful characteristics of its own to the image/idea: stoneware tinkles musically, or rasps like dry bones in sand. Embroidery gleams with a fuzzy sheen, a richness of texture, and talks—with every stitch—quietly about the passage of time, the patience of hands, and about encrustation. Paint smears and blends and dribbles and runs, turning a dozen colours into ten-thousand colours with the flick of a loaded brush.
I live for this: the joy of the creation dance between my hands, the materials, and an ethereal idea.
You’re originally from the States and now live in Australia and you’ve written about the influence of your Filipina-American heritage on your work. Can you tell us a little about the geography of your life as an artist?
Oh, I’m not from the States at all! I never dreamed that writing “Filipina-American” would give that impression, I guess I just assumed everyone knew that…I should have realised that most people would read it the other way around.
I was born, raised, educated in Manila, and lived there up until until my Russian-Australian husband expressed a desire to return to Oz.
My Dad is from the States (though he’s been resident in the Philippines for over fifty years, now) and when I and my brothers were born he registered us as “US citizens born overseas”…hence the passport and citizenship. If I come across as “Westernised” on my blog it isn’t really my Dad’s doing; the truth is that the West exports itself so invasively and heavily to the rest of the world that one can live in Asia all her life and still be au courant with the culture. I have pure-blooded Filipino friends who speak with a flawless Californian accent.
While I have spent most of my life in the Philippines I don’t think I’m what you’d call “a Filipina artist”. A few of my embroidery projects have been influenced by the heavily embroidered textiles that Filipinas were employed to produce for the Spanish colonisers (from the 1400s to the late 19th century) and my grandmother on my mother’s side was a dressmaker and embroiderer, but otherwise I don’t really use the visual language of the culture in my work, and I don’t document the country’s landscapes or people.
The sea and shoreline have been much more influential…not as boundaries that separate one landmass from another, but as freely-moving currents—beholden to no ruler or government—that blur those boundaries, and connect all islands and continents to each other.
I owe this viewpoint to several years spent living in a fisherman’s shack at the edge of the South China Sea, and becoming so comfortable with that body of water that my husband and I took to walking straight out into the gentle lapping waves at night, stirring up the phosphorescence with our hands and floating on our backs in the dark—ears filled with the clicking sounds of the reef, and the sky dusted with powdery stars. Islands, their flora and fauna, the colours and creatures that live in tropical waters, as well as ships and the sea, have all found a place in my personal system of symbols.
When Kris later decided that he wanted to go back to Australia, we sailed (he is a legendary sailor) and stopped at a few islands on the way. Even when we settled in Darwin we chose to live on the water…bought and converted a fishing trawler into a home, and from the kitchen we gaze out at mangroves and pelicans instead of neighbours’ back yards. So, in a way, un-rootedness is more a theme in my life than being grounded in one place and identifying with one culture.
The world in my head—put together out of hundreds of books, thousands of pictures, the art, crafts and cultures of places different from the ones I grew up in or live in now, a love for languages, and the fluid expanses of water that circle the planet and recognise neither king nor country—is more real to me than my physical surroundings, and that is the geography upon which I draw to make things.
“I am not born for one corner, the whole world is my native land.”
In other words, anything and everything my mind is interested in is fair game. 😉
Finally, can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
Our local crafts council, Tactile Arts, is having a Members’ Show in November, and the theme is Text; I am thinking of using embroidery for this one, though nothing has gelled, yet. I am still in the”rubbing my hands gleefully together and dreaming/scheming” stage. No doubt you’ll be subjected to nerdy, rambling posts about it on my blog when I start working on the pieces for this show in earnest.
Isn’t Nat fantastic? I’m overwhelmed (there, that word again!) by her depth and passion. And, most importantly, her talent, work and vision.
Read more about her on her website, spend time studying her work in her flickr stream and please support her shop. She is so profoundly inspiring to me as an artist and a fellow traveler on the other side of the world.