The Cutting (& Stitching) Edge – Cayce Zavaglia

Contemporary embroidery art via Mr X Stitch

Cayce Zavaglia is a textile artist from St Louis, Missouri. Her work is stunning.

I am in love with her portraits; they move me almost to tears.

Here’s what Cayce has to say about her work:

Over the past 16 years, my paintings have focused exclusively on the portraits of friends, family, and fellow artists.  The gaze of the portrait toward the viewer has remained constant, as has my search for a narrative based on both faces and facture.  The presence of actual paint, however, has slowly been disappearing from my paintings.

Initial works on canvas, painted so thickly they often resembled cake frosting, transitioned into works on panel that employed thin layers of medium-laden oil paint.  These works subsequently led to my current series, in which the portraits are sewn with crewel embroidery wool and the use of paint is limited to the background only.  From a distance they continue to read as paintings and only a closer inspection reveals their true construction.

It was the birth of my daughter 9 years ago that prompted me to establish a non-toxic studio.  As I removed turpentine, varnish, and oil paint from my studio, I found myself replacing these mediums with materials with which I had little history.  Remembering back to a crewel embroidery piece I did as a child growing up in Australia, gave me the idea to incorporate all of my current interests into portraits of wool.

As I tried to re-learn the traditional stitches of crewel embroidery, I realized it was the medium alone that I was wishing to employ.  The technique needed to borrow from my own study of and experience with drawing and painting.  The process needed to develop as I worked from portrait to portrait and experimented with the material.

Working with an established range of wool colors proved frustrating at first because I was unable to mix the colors by hand.  Consequently, I created a system of sewing the threads in a sequence that would ultimately give the allusion of a certain color or tone.

The direction in which the threads were sewn had to mimic the way lines are layered in a drawing to give the allusion of depth, volume, and form.  Over time the stitches have become tighter and more complex but ultimately more evocative of flesh and hair and cloth.

“The subject matter of these embroidered works focuses primarily on the portraits of my own family and only recently has included those of a few friends.  My decision to focus primarily on the portraits of family coincided with the tragedy of September 11th, when I was starting my own family, and the world as a whole was contemplating and mourning the loss of family. The timing seemed fitting to begin this series of documenting those dearest to me.

“”My work unabashedly nods its head to the tradition of Tapestry and my own lifetime exposure to and love of craft. Using wool has allowed me to make more of a long-term commitment to each piece, as well as broaden the dialogue between portrait and process. It is my hope that each work would initiate a journey – one that causes the viewer to advance and retreat as they are introduced to a family portrait and a re-interpretation of traditional embroidery.

I could stare at these pieces all day. The portraits themselves are fantastic, let alone the fact that they are stitched. The use of colour and shading is simply astonishing and my mind boggles at the complexity of these pieces. I could stare at these all day, and I suspect tears of joy would begin to fall from my eyes after a while. It’s inspirational.

If anyone is in any doubt about embroidery as a valid art form, Cayce’s work settles the matter.

You can see more of Cayce’s work on her website and she is represented by Lyons Wier Gallery.


The Cutting & Stitching Edge is brought to you in association with PUSH: Stitchery, the must-have embroidered art book by Mr X Stitch !