Future Heirlooms – Cayce Zavaglia

Today’s Future Heirlooms is with the incredible Cayce Zavaglia. She has been featured here before but this time we get to hear about her work, her life, and her practice through her own words. I first saw Cayce’s work in person at a solo show at her gallery Lyons Weir in Chelsea- an old professor of mine had heard about it and told me to check it out. As you can imagine I was blown away, the technique of her work is astounding. Having many friends who are painters I was especially intrigued by how seamlessly she translates the techniques of painting into wool stitchery.

When I found out that she was a mama I was even more intrigued as I am always looking for fellow mother artists to be inspired by, learn from, and connect with. And she is not just a mother but a mother of four, yes I said four.

I had the pleasure of curating Cayce into the Cutting Edge exhibit at the Textile Arts Center and I definitely hope our paths continue to cross, maybe even in person someday. Either way prepare to read an inspiring interview from an extremely talented artist and a refreshingly grounded woman.

Here goes…


Where do you live? Does this affect your work?

I live in St. Louis, Missouria city rich in architectural and seasonal beauty. From my studio window, I am inspired by both. The collectors and galleries, it was something they hadn’t seen before, but they immediately accepted it as painting.

Aunt Lin- one of Cayce’s personal favorites

Are you self taught or formally trained? Do you think this affects your practice, if so how?

I am formally trained in drawing and painting, but completely self-taught in the art of embroidery. It was my initial schooling in fine art, however, that taught me how to “see” . With that training, I am able to break down the shapes and colors in a photo and translate them into wool. My inspiration also continues to come from other painters, rather than traditional fiber artists. Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter, and Chuck Close continue to be big sources of inspiration.

What drew you specifically to embroidery as a medium?

I grew up in Sydney, Australia, and from an early age was surrounded by arts and crafts of all kinds. My earliest memories are of my Mum doing cross-stitch and teaching other women to do needlework. She held craft night once a fortnight and invited all her friends over to sew. It was my Mum who bought me my first crewel embroidery kit of a sheep station and taught me how to make the sheep out of French knots. That finished piece was tucked away for years, yet I had not forgotten it. I firmly believe there are artistic piecescreated as a childthat make a lasting impression. You then spend the rest of your career trying to make that piece again. It was my memory of this piece from my childhood that inspired me to use crewel embroidery in a modern way.


I heard that you started as a painter and moved to embroidery when you had a child- can you talk about this transition and choice?


I studied painting in undergrad and then went on to get a Master’s in Painting from Washington University in St. Louis. My paintings, however, employed a lot of turpentine and varnish and I felt uncomfortable continuing with these materials while pregnant. I wanted to stay true to portraiture, but was unsure of the medium. Experimenting with collage, watercolor, and acrylic, I ended up with a summer’s worth of awful work. Through it all, I kept thinking back to the embroidery piece I had done as a childwondering if it were possible to sew a portrait that would still read as a painting.

Did this change what your collectors and galleries thought about your work? Did it change how you felt about the work?

For me, this work was a natural progression from my paintings. My work has always been about the portrait and the process. For the collectors and galleries, it was something they hadn’t seen before, but they immediately accepted it as painting.

Past portraits and inspiration for new pieces.

How do you find the subjects of your portraits?

As I am only interested in documenting those dearest to me, I only sew portraits of family and friends. I never do commissions. At the time of my first pregnancy when I was starting this seriesI was thinking a lot about family. This coincided with the events of September 11, when amidst tragedy, the most important thing in the world was family. With these issues in mind, I wasn’t interested in painting those I didn’t know, but rather discovering more about those I did know. Studying someone’s face for 6 months detailing every mole and hairhas allowed me a meditative sort of reflection on these relationships.

I feel the same way and so enjoy the process of spending hours on a loved ones nose.


Can you talk a little about your process and goals as a portrait artist?

Each portrait begins with a photo shoot of 100-150 photos. I narrow down my favorites, then visit and re-visit each photo before deciding on a final image. I play with scale and then do a series of thumbnail sketches to determine the size of the piece. The portrait backgrounds are painted in several layers of acrylic paint sanded and distressed before the embroidery begins. I then work in a manner similar to a grid method, mentally concentrating on one small area at a time. I forget everything else, thinking only about the color and shape of that one area.

Elly– First stitched portrait- front and back.

Since you are trained as a painter your work is VERY painterly- it seems like you layer threads just as you would layer brush strokes and glazes. Can you talk about how you make the practice and skill of painting translate in to this other process.

When I first decided to do a portrait in wool, I researched and attempted some of the traditional stitches of crewel embroidery. I chose crewel wool because I wanted to refer back to the piece I had done as a child. After an hour of experimenting with traditional stitches, I realized it was not the technique, but the wool alone that I was interested in using. I realized that I needed to trust my background in painting and drawing and allow the technique to evolve as I experimented with the material. My first piece (Elly) is very loose in construction and was made using only about 30 colors of wool. The most recent piece (Teo) features multi-layered stitching and is much more obsessive. In a way it can be considered Embroidered Pointillism which is ironic considering that out of the entire history of painting, Pointillism is my least favorite.

Photograph and resulting painting Martina

How has your work evolved since you first began working with embroidery?

Each portrait definitely informs the next portrait. I am continually learning about the texture and colors of wool, the way they can be manipulated, the way they can be layered and combined with other colors, the way they can be sanded down to create a thin, fine line.


As mentioned you are a mother, how do you balance the role of mother and the role of artist? What are the challenges of being a working artist and a mom?


My 4 children are ages 9, 7, 5, and 2. I keep open the notion that the amount of time I am able to spend in my studio will fluctuate constantly until all of my kids are in school full time. If I were still in graduate school, I could get up, have breakfast, drink a coffee, and work from 9-12 in my studio. But this isn’t possible with 2 kids still at home. I treasure the time with my kidscooking with them, taking them for treats to the coffee shop, strolling the Botanical Gardens with them, and reading to them. So I choose to look at this as time that is going to inform my work not take me away from my work. I am always thinking about my work whether I am sewing or not. I am confident that I would never have stumbled upon this medium had I not become a parent and wanted and needed my work to change. I tell my artist friends who become mother’s to look for how their work will change for the better when they become Mother’s. We cannot imagine it until it happens.

Wow! If she can balance all of that, we all have nothing to complain about. An inspiration to a new mama like me!

in the studio.


Describe your studio and studio practice.

My studio is on the third floor of our house, which was built in 1911. I have a space to sew with all my wools and threads organized and at arms reach and a support easel for my embroidery that my dad invented. I have another space in my studio to paint with a large glass palette and wall easel, and then another space in the studio for my computer/books/ sketching materials. I typically work when my oldest children are in school and my youngest is napping. This gives me quiet, valuable time to sew and hopefully two hours of uninterrupted work in per day.

wool organizer made by Cayce’s husband.

What else do you spend your time doing? Do any of these inform your work?

My life is definitely family centered. Family Fun night on Friday nights with the kids. Sunday night Italian dinners with my husband’s side of the family. Way too much time at the coffee shop time that could probably be better spent in my studio. I love to bake. I make the world’s best blueberry muffins and chocolate ganache pecan tart.

Mmm. Cayce feel free to send that tart my way.

Give us an idea of a day in the life of you.

My life stays quite busy with 4 kids, a husband, and a poodle named Rose. I am very much a stay-at-home Mumand proud of it. After the oldest kids leave for school, I have my coffee, check the blogs (Rummey Bears, 16 House, Design Sponge, Remodelista, the Sartorialist), squeeze in a load of clothes, make the beds, chat with my Mum on the phone, work in the studio, make lunch, more studioand all with two Jedi Master’s playing at my feet. Then it’s off to school again to pick up the kids.

The force is definilty with this incredible artist and mother.

back of Aunt Lin


What is the next direction or step for your work?

I would love to do some double portraits of couples. For example: Aunts and Uncles, cousins, or some of the parents of friends from my childhood. This intimidates me a little, but I would love the challenge. I am also experimenting with some C-prints of the backs of my pieces. I am fascinated with their abstract beauty and the accidental emotion that emerges amidst the chaos. And of course, I am eager to get my work into some more interesting museum shows.


Where can we see your work?

My work is exhibited in New York with the Lyons Wier Gallery in Chelsea. All of my portraits can be seen on my website: www.caycezavaglia.com. The work is included in the current Midwest edition of New American Paintings #89 and is available on newsstands. I will have work at Art Miami in December with the William Shearburn Gallery and new work included in a contemporary embroidery show in St. Louis in March.

Until next time keep stitching!!!

Joetta Maue is a full time artist primarily using photography and fibers. Her most recent work is a series of embroideries and images exploring intimacy. Joetta exhibits her work throughout the United States and internationally, and authors the art and craft blog Little Yellowbird as well as regularly contributes to Mr. X Stitch. Joetta lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, baby son, two cats, a goldfish.