(Warning: The artwork featured in this column is Not Safe For Work by many standards, so be selective about when you view it. But do not miss it.)
Toronto born, NYC-based artist Meghan Willis celebrates both the female form and female sexuality with fearless energy in her textile artwork.
Her hand embroidered images — on linen, with machine applied leather applique and hand painting depict a universe of young women who are confident in their own sensuality, independence and strength.
Meghan trained in the fashion design at Ryerson University in Toronto and works in the apparel industry. One can see hints of fashion illustrations in her work, which are frequently based on photographs she creates in partnership with her husband, Aaron Tsuru.
I m particularly drawn to the simplicity of her lines and the way she uses images of the female form undressing and moving. As if you re seeing what has been traditionally hidden underneath our clothes or constructs of modesty. There is a certain grace and fragility in her imagery that contrast with the chin up, clear-eyed women she depicts.
In truth, I feel a kind of tension in her work that stems from my own struggle (in my own work, too) with images of women s bodies and how they have been historically defined by the male artist s gaze. What I admire about Meghan is that seems to be playing with the legacy of women s bodies as mere objects and turning it on its head by translating what have been objects into her subjects.
What follows is an interview conducted by email during the month of December, 2013.
How long have you been making art?
I come from a creative family. I ve always been creating things and drawn to the tactile world of fashion. My mother first taught me to sew when I was 6 years old and desperate to make ill-fitting clothes for my Barbie doll. I then put those sewing skills to good use and received a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Fashion Design from Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. From there I spent a number of years in Columbus, OH, the Indie Art Capital of the World, which allowed me to pursue various creative endeavors as part of an amazing, supportive community.
Can you describe the first piece that you considered successful as textile artwork?
Probably a piece called Lost in Thought . It was something I had in my head for a while to do, and it really just executed exactly as I pictured, which doesn t always happen. While I had been making stitched pieces before that, I think for me that was a turning point where I felt like I wasn t just goofing around, but maybe creating something special even if it was just for myself.
When looking at your work on your website, it s exciting to see various versions and drafts of your artwork. There are photos, process shots and drafts, as well as animated gifs. Can you tell us about your creative process? For example, how do you gather source materials and ideas for you artwork? Do you keep a sketchbook?
I have a couple of sketch books, but I m pretty terrible about using them regularly. In Google docs I keep a running list of random ideas, sometimes with links to inspiration. I keep an inspiration tumblr where I re-blog other art that sparks something.
Sometimes when we re going to do a shoot I ll then use those pictures to put together a mood board.
For example, I had it in my head to do some sort of floral themed piece. I put together a mood board to show the model where my head was at, bought some flowers and shot a couple different ideas. From there, I ll pick my favorite shot, and transfer that fabric. Some ideas I sit on for a while, as I try to wrap my brain around how to execute it.
Can you tell us about the source photos that some of your artwork is based upon? Who are the photographers? How do you connect with them?
About 98% of my work is based on photos either by my husband or myself. Sometimes I get him to shoot something specific for me, other times I creep through his archives and steal things.
A couple of my works are based on photographs by Kate Sweeney. She s a good friend of mine, an amazing photographer; she s shot me before, and been shot by my husband as well. Her work has an inherent romanticism to them that I m drawn to, compared to Aaron s style, which is a little more raw. I always ask permission before working on things, and make sure to properly credit the source when I m posting things online.
Aside from them I m hesitant to work other photographers since when I m using Aaron s images, I feel like the work is collaborative since we re always inspiring one another.
What attracts you to the particular imagery of the female form that is featured in many of your pieces?
I think it started with women since when I was in fashion school that s where I focused on designing, so I ve always been sketching women. As the medium of my art has evolved I ve just kept the focus on women. And then when I m creating work, it s been handy to have Aaron shoot me. The more I work on my embroideries it s become a way to celebrate the female form, sexuality and power.
Was there anything new that you had to teach yourself to do to make your artwork more complete? Any new skills or mediums?
I had learned a lot of hand stitching techniques as a kid, and in school, but I had to re-learn everything when I started making my textile pieces. A lot of it was experimentation that didn’t go anywhere, but allowed me to find my happy place: I love a simple 2-ply backstitch.
I also needed to learn how to properly finish my work. Most of it I just leave loose (no mounting/frame) since it’s easy to store, but when I’m showing, I just learned how to properly stretch a canvas, which looks much better than what I was doing!
I’d actually love to learn more classical painting techniques; most of what I know is just self taught/messing around. And I’m sure as my work evolves I’ll try to dig into different applique methods.
Finally, what are you currently working on or what new projects are you excited about in the near future?
First up is the first showing of pieces from my Accoutrement series in The Hive’s Stitch Fetish 2, curated by Ellen Schinderman. It’s a series of people and their sex toys. And while the idea started as a lark, the project has developed into a deeper exploration into exposing what is typically hidden. It’s also been as an interesting project to recruit people for as there a number of extremely sex-positive folks out there who don’t happen to own sex toys.
Another project that’s marinating in the background, is doing more animated embroidery gifs. I was able to convert a number of my pieces into gifs from my States of Undress series, and I love the life it gives to something that is historically textural but flat.
In 2013, Meghan s work was featured in several galleries in NYC, including 440 Gallery, Wayfarer, Porter Contemporary, TRA Gallery and the Brenda Taylor Gallery. She was also included in the The Unlimited Sex Sells Pop Up Shop, Museum of Sex, New York.