As an art student, Michelle knew that she wanted to create but she wasn’t sure which medium to use. None of the traditional art mediums stirred any passion in her. Then one day while working at the public library she came upon books by Kaffe Fassett. “It opened a new world to me,” Michelle recalls. “I used the books to teach myself cross-stitch and needlepoint. I found my medium.”
Michelle grew up in a very uncreative house. “I am the black sheep,” she laughs. “I’m the only one who does anything creative.”
“I started to design my own patterns in 2000. I loved the medium but could not find anything that suited my style, so I created my own.” Michelle’s designs were mostly created without a graph. “Once I have an idea I draw it directly onto the fabric. I develop the picture while I stitch, making decisions about shading and colour changes as I go.” It is only with the geometric designs where Michelle design the pattern on graph paper first. “Geometric designs without a graph looks terrible” she admits knowingly.
Michelle designed a few cross-stitch kits which she sold online. She also did a few workshops with kids. Neither one of these were particularly successful. “I found teaching really exhausting. It just wasn’t me.”
Michelle also found that many people referred to needlepoint and cross-stitch work as a tapestry. It irritated her to a point where she decided to learn ‘real’ tapestry in order to demonstrate the difference.
“I enrolled in a TAFE correspondence course as I couldn’t find any class-based courses in Adelaide. It took my five years to complete and must have been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. These days we have YouTube, but I had to learn it all from books.”
But that is exactly what Michelle finds so attractive these days – the complicated nature of tapestry. The intrigue. The effort to plan a design and to figure it all out.
Michelle approaches her tapestry the same way she approached her needlepoint. Although she has an idea of where her work is going, it only really develops when she starts working. “It’s like building blocks – I work on one colour until the next colour overlaps then I change. With lots of shading, it gets complicated and I spend lots of time figuring out how to achieve the look I want.”
She is currently working on a series called Windows based on x-rays and MRI scans. It is a ‘secret window’ inviting the viewer into the core of what makes us human. A peek into our true identity.
The work-in-progress on her loom is based on an MRI scan from a dementia patient. It is worked in the patient’s favourite colours. Even though the patients stays anonymous, Michelle aims to portray a part of their personality. “People with dementia never lose themselves completely. They always retain a certain degree of self. I’m aiming to portray a combination of their current condition and who they were before.”
Even though Michelle only work with anonymous x-rays she still insists on telling the story behind the image. I don’t use x-rays from people I know, but strangers contact me to offer their images, and if there is a story I will gladly accept. Michelle has recently been offered a series of x-rays showing steel pins attached to a spine after a car accident, and someone offered an x-ray of her hand with a crochet hook poking through. “Those are interesting and I will work with them. But a surgeon recently told me he is clearing out his store room and I can have all his old x-rays. I politely declined.”
Michelle has been a finalist in several art prizes including the Port Pirie Art Prize (2016) where she was the winner, as well as the Emma Hack Art Prize 2016, and the Contemporary Art Award 2017. Her work can also be seen at the current Heallreaf 2 International Exhibition of Woven Tapestry in the UK.
“I don’t like it when people make a distinction between fibre art and ‘real’ art. Fibre is just a medium, the same as paint or clay and can be used to create either craft or art. I tend to enter non-textile art competitions. I want to be recognised as an artist, not a weaver or needleworker.”
But Michelle is an artist as well as a crafter. When she’s not working on her tapestries, she makes woven scarves. “I am happy to do both, but it is important to understand the difference and not to mix it up.”
She has three looms in her home studio. The first one is her tapestry loom, the second is an Ashford table loom where she weaves her complicated patterned scarves. Then there is the third production loom where she produces her plain-woven football scarves.
For Michelle weaving is a craft and a means to earn a regular income. For her patterned scarves, she uses vintage patterns dating from the 1800’s. It is complicated and slow going but in good demand.
The football scarves came about when she was asked by a friend to make a cotton scarf in her favourite team colours. The orders started coming in and now she produces scarves in most of the popular Australian football team colours. “My aim is to produce stylish products with colour combinations that are not always very fashionable,” Michelle explains.
Michelle loves the diversity of her work. She still has a day job but hopes to one day make a living from her looms. On her studio days, she spends her mornings weaving and her afternoons doing tapestry.
For someone who grew up in an uncreative house, Michelle did an excellent job of turning her own home into a creative hub where she can create to her heart’s content, producing works that are increasingly being recognised in Australia and beyond.
Visit Michelle’s website to find out more about her creative practice.
Ansie is a textile writer and editor currently based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She is a regular contributor to several international art and textile publications. Her textile blog, The Fabric Thread, will soon be relaunched as a textile travel blog. Her motto is: Talking Textiles - Crafting Community - Stitching Stories.