I first saw the work of Meredith Grimsley as I perused the inspiring pages of the Fiber Arts International catalogue- I enjoyed her piece and decided to research her more for my blog. I was surprised to see the rest of her work as it was aesthetically even more amazing in my opinion then the original work that drew me to her in the first place. As I looked at her work I of course loved it considering she makes incredibly gorgeous, detailed embroideries that deal with spirituality and more recently birth. As a new mama myself I truly loved her pregnancy self portraits and simply wanted to know more bout her as an artist so I was delighted to get the opportunity to ask the questions swirling in my mind directly to Meredith. Get ready for a poignant and elegant interview.
Where do you live? Does this affect your work?
I live in rural Pennsylvania. As far as this place having an influence on my work… it happens indirectly. Having grown up in the South, living in PA creates a longing in me that is reflected in my work. Further, the clean air, beauty and silence of the farmland that surrounds me allow me to access a place which is distracted by “hussle-n-bussle” of urban/suburban life.
Are you self taught or formally trained?
Any experience affects the work you produce. I am formally trained (BFA, MFA in fabric design) which allowed me to see fabric as a valid and vital art medium (I started out as a drawing/painting major because, as a naÃ¯ve 18 year old, I thought that was what all the real artists studied). With my first class in fabric as an undergraduate, I felt a harmonious hum inside my brain the first time I put dye to fabric. The sense of touch, familiarity to the body and a historic connection to the women in my family have all played a role in my commitment to the medium.
I fell deeply and madly in love with fabric and the processes involved — or perhaps my crazy love was re-awakened. When I was young, I taught myself how to make things with fabric long before I ever thought of being an artist. My mother sews endlessly and I was always lurking around her sewing machine and thread boxes making what I called “Franken-stuffies” — oddly shaped and even more oddly hand sewn animals and objects (like a stuffed banjo). As far as teaching fabric design at the college level in concerned, I enjoy interacting with students. I teach them this thing I love which renews my energy for my own studio practice.
What drew you to embroidery as an art form?
Like I mentioned above, the “Franken-stuffies” involved a lot of exposed hand stitching (which I can now identify as a rough hewn blanket stitch). I patched my clothes this way, as well, until I learned how to use a sewing machine. I recently became more involved with embroidery because I wanted to talk about obsessive, meditative process and to imbue a deeper spiritual discipline in my work. When I started working exclusively in fiber, my work focused on surface design and printing techniques. As I’ve grown, a sense of time, labor, evidence of the hand and ritual has emerged in my work. Fiber art is made from materials which are perceived to be delicate or fragile. Yet, when a work is made, the materials can withstand incredible physical manipulation, harsh chemical environments and piercing with needles and still remain strong — that is simply awesome.
Can you describe how spirituality informs and inspires your work?
Honestly, it just does. I don’t separate the two in my mind — kind of like you can’t separate breathing from your body. I’m not always successful at achieving spiritual enlightenment through my work and I’m not always completely present in the moment as I strive to be. Also, not every work is a study of religious spirituality but, every work is an exercise of the spiritual. I read, I draw, I reflect, I sometimes pray (I want to do this more often when I work but, am sometimes pulled away by my child, husband, work, cooking, etc), I sometimes sit in silence and I make. Even though I make the work, it is still mysterious to me – part of the universe or me I don’t completely understand. I guess I am still working it out and still being worked on by God.
This is an excerpt from my artists statement with a quote from Their Eyes Where Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Maybe this is clearer…
“There is a basin in the mind where words float around a thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.”
Recognizing my own sense of loss and gratitude, I discovered a spiritual need to create art work that reflects the balance, and simultaneous existence, of joy and pain in my life. By blanketing the surfaces of pieces with personal journal writings, Bible verses, images or patterns which reflect and affect my choices, behavior, and faith, a sense of identity and spirituality emerge. With my work evolving into symbols serving faith and sacrifice, I strive to understand and expose the need for, purpose of and cycle of repetition in human traditions, speech and relationships. I expose the warmth of spirituality and the loneliness that drives me to seek God. While acknowledging instances of misused religious fervor and manipulation of scripture, I strive to present, and represent, an open heart, forgiveness and humility. An individual’s history dictates each individual’s comprehension of his/her environment. Even though the mind and body may be alienated, the soul yearns for contact, fuels the imagination and searches for truth. I whisper about my own search with obscured text, pattern and imagery.
Please discuss the role of autobiography and self portraiture in your fiber pieces?
I make work about myself to examine personal experiences from an alternative perspective. I want to add beauty/joy to pain/darkness (because I’ve survived it) and I want to temper beauty/joy with something dark because darkness, in my experience, enhances and coincides with beauty. I can’t describe that easily on a generic figure or even about someone else — so it always comes back to me.
What are the challenges or difficulties in making work about spirituality and your relationship to god?
My own fears: to express my Christian faith and my own failings in faith (what I do to make non-Christians overlook the bigger picture of this faith).
How does the practice of embroidery affect the conceptual aspect of your work?
I explore the concept of chosen restrictions. Juxtaposing beauty and restraint, my work confronts my parallel questioning and celebration of spiritual practices. The “bindings” are a physical representation of the mental discipline- or choice – required of a religious individual. I see markings on the bodies in my work as a residue of choices made and actions taken. Almost like scars of permanent indentions in the skin of personal sacrifice. As I examined my own sense of faith, I began researching the origin on the phrase from Proverbs 7: 3 “Bind them on your fingers”. I discovered, in the Old Testament, four places which instruct the believer to physically bind words to the body in order to worship God. Deuteronomy vs. 6: 4-9, and vs. 11: 13-21, Exodus vs. 13:1-10 and vs. 13:11-16 all describe the Mitzvah, or God’s command, to lay Tefillin (more commonly translated as Phylacteries) by binding the arms and forehead with leather pouches containing scrolls of passages from the Torah. Although I am not Jewish, I admire the ritualistic discipline required of the men who practice Phylacteries. The prayers said while laying Phylacteries remind the participant to be grateful, prayerful, and to remember the order of the universe.
Although taken literally in traditional Jewish practices, my use of this concept and imagery considers a more integrated spiritual underpinning. Every stitch reflects moments of meditation over spiritual betterment, spiritual growth and a longing for grace. I blanket the surfaces with hand applied stitches in this methodical way to examine my own behavior, gratitude and faith. Although not directly related to my work visually, I have recently begun investigating the origins of the non-western tattoo. I am not interested in the mark on the skin but, as Jane Caplan tells us, in her collection of essays titled Written on the Body: the Tattoo in European and American History, the “markings become an indelible insertion of both the visible and out of reach [creating] a kind of exchange between interiority and exteriority- ‘a paradoxical double skin’”. I am captivated by the concept that the physical transformation of the skin also transforms the spirit of the individual tattooed. Equally, Faith is an interior belief, or trust, in that which is not seen but, becomes visible, or exterior, in a person’s character. Through visible patterns meant to both blend into and sit on top of the skin, I also create a second skin which protects and defines the wearer represented in my work. I investigate the duality of the invisible, yet recognizable, presence of faith in human behavior. The stitched patterns in my pieces embody my personal foundation of Faith which is “indelibly inserted” into my heart and mind.
What are the differences for you, as the artist, between the full figure works and the hands/feet works?
(Also see reference to Phylacteries above).
I found a photograph in a box of old things my mother had given me of a distant family member. She was a farmer in rural Georgia during the depression. Her life and work were hard and terribly uncertain. Yet, in her photograph, her hands, her face and her feet were steady. Her energy resonated with me not because of her posture, her face or her body. The feet and hand pieces seemed to be enough to describe finding steadiness in turmoil. The rest of the body wasn’t necessary for the particular focus on ritual that I was examining in works like “Lovely Bind”, “I’ve Washed and Eaten” and “Undertow”.
The full figure works are newer. They are slightly less about the “interior and unseen” aspects of my studies. They are a more poetic approach to direct sensory experiences.
Describe your studio and studio practice.
My studio is a mix of mess and organization. I have a large print table, Bernina sewing machine, dye sink, two flying pigs and books, papers, spools of thread and objects of inspiration floating about. It is my chaotic nest.
My studio practice was, at one time, more disciplined. Now, with a toddler, I escape during naps and when my husband can take him for a few minutes. My productivity is just now recovering after a year of my little one’s life.
You have a piece where the female body is shown pregnant, since I just had a child I wonder- Are you a mother? If yes or no How does this affect your work and/or studio practice?
Yes! I am a mother. I just had my first child a year ago. Practically speaking, he has affected my studio practice in that I have a lot of difficulty finding long stretches of time and moments of silence to work. Conceptually speaking, the entire experience was a spiritual journey which will be influencing my work to come. Talk about joy and pain!
How has your work evolved since you first began working with embroidery? What is the next direction or step for your work?
My newest pieces (yet unveiled) involve some appliquÃ©, digital printing and more machine embroidery. In my newest work, I am decoding the process of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. For the months of pregnancy and breastfeeding, I recognize now that I (or my spirit) was in an altered state of consciousness. I am reflecting on that bubble of time which created hyper-sensory awareness for me but, now that I am past it, feels as though it happened to someone else — very mysterious. Still contemplating…
Give us an idea of a day in the life of you.
Baby. Husband. Family. Prayer. Work. Artwork.
Where can we see your work? links, websites, galleries, shops, etc.
You can see my work in person at Fiber Art International. Because of my lack of productivity in the studio for the last year, I don’t have any shows lined up at the moment. You can see some of my work on the Bloomsburg University website and if you Google — lots of previous exhibitions sites.
I cannot wait to see more of Meredith’s work as it is so gorgeous and very evocative and her new work and direction sounds so good. Notice in the back ground of her at work picture the awesome looking work in process in the background!
Until next time keep stitching!
And don’t forget this call for work.
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 contributing to the online journal Hello Craft. Joetta lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, baby son, two cats, and a goldfish.