Winner of the Young Masters Emerging Woman Art Award, and also awarded highly commended 2nd prize sponsored by the Artists Collecting Society of the Young Masters Art Prize, Amanda McCavour is our WIA featured artist. McCavour is a Toronto-based artist who works with stitch to create large-scale embroidered installations.
WIA: What are you doing today?
Amanda McCavour: I voted in the Canadian federal election then walked to my studio. It’s a sunny fall day so I took the long way here. In the studio I’m splitting my time between making some tests and samples for a new project and adding some pieces to an existing installation work that will be installed next week for a solo show in Cobourg, Ontario.
This afternoon I will head over to the Toronto Public Library where I’m Artist In Residence. My residency is funded by the Toronto Arts Council and this program brings artists into library spaces to interact with the public and the library collection. My residency focuses on stitching and DIY culture. I’ve been hosting workshops on hand and machine embroidery as well as mending. Today I’ll be hosting a workshop for fixing and trading halloween costumes. I think it will be a lot of fun!
WIA: Tell us about your creative process.
AM: I use a sewing machine to create thread drawings. By sewing into fabric that dissolves in water I build up stitched lines on a temporary surface. The crossing threads create strength so when the fabric is dissolved, the thread drawing holds together without a base. With only the thread remaining, these images appear as though they would easily unravel and seem on the verge of falling apart, despite the works ravelled strength. I am interested in thread’s assumed vulnerability, its ability to unravel, and its strength when it is sewn together.
I have been working on a series of installation pieces based on my rental apartments since 2010. These pieces are flat embroidered life sized couches, chairs and items found in my apartments that are shaded to create the impression of that object. They are then hung from the ceiling and arranged in layers to create the impression of an interior. I am interested in the vulnerability of thread in relation to ideas around home, as both things feel temporary and fragile. Making these pieces requires me to re-visit, remember and re-create spaces that I called home but are no longer mine.
In my newest installation, “Poppies”, I explore the fleeting nature of this delicate flower by rendering and preserving the moment of the poppy in bloom, in thread. Shifting the perspective of a traditional garden, viewers are invited to walk underneath the poppy field. I invite the multiple associations of the poppy and its symbolism, from sleep, to remembrance, to death. This surreal moment suspended in time looks to garden spaces while also suggesting the repeat patterning on floral fabrics or wallpaper.
I am interested in the properties of thread, its delicacy, how it can be a line. I’m interested in how embroidery can relate to touch and how my work is an accumulation of time and material to create a final product.
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work.
AM: I split my creative time between my studio and my apartment. My studio is a small space with four different types of sewing machines. Most of my supplies and storage is there. It’s helpful to have a space where I can get messy and leave things out. I also like to work at home and I have a small desk where I do some finishing work and computer work.
Another part of my creative work is teaching. I host workshops at conferences and guilds and teach at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. Teaching for me is directly related to my studio and professional art practice. I find that the problem solving, creativity and exchange in the classroom feeds directly into my own work. It is energizing to make work with others and I find this a welcome change to some of the “alone time” I spend in my studio. There is a spark to working with others that I can take back to the studio with me.
I travel to install my work and this is also creative. When I’m installing work, the gallery becomes my studio. Each time I install a work it’s different, the pieces respond to the architecture of the spaces they are in.
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
AM: The series based on the rental apartments I have lived in. I recreated objects that existed in these apartments, like chairs, side tables and other nick nacks out of thread, mimicking the space in my old home like a stage set or enlarged shoe-box diorama. This series was one of the most exciting projects because it was the first time I brought my embroidery to a larger scale to address architecture. Each item of furniture was made at a 1:1 scale and this shift from the scale of the hand or sampler to the scale of the body and architecture was very exciting. The objects act as a trace or record of a space that used to exist. Part shrine or monument, the thread drawings act as a tribute to a room that once was.
I think creating something physical that references the intangible satisfies a desire to keep what is no longer is some solid way. These spaces, although created and obviously not the real thing, will keep living on.
These works are 3D objects that have been flattened and rendered like a drawing using the sewing machine and different coloured threads to create the impression of depth. The room installation pieces are, in many ways, a lot like a drawing in that there is an ideal place to stand, but installing my flat embroideries in space allows people to move around the work and really see its flatness. I think that something interesting happens when moving around the piece when it is installed in a way where there is space between the embroideries. When you move around the work, specifically, if you are looking at the work from the side, it sort of disappears and the image falls apart. Then, as you continue to move around the piece, the scene comes together again.
The other aspect of this is that these sculptures or drawings are a sort of synthetic space. The flatness of the pieces lets you know that this space isn’t real. It feels false, like a stage or diorama. I have drawn things from a fixed point of view so if you see these from an angle, you are aware of how flat they are, and how unnatural the space actually is.
Both of these things were important to me as I think that they relate to the concepts in the work. The piece changes as you move around it, like it is coming in and out of focus as you move round it. This emphasizes how memories can fall apart and come back together again, and highlights how unstable homes and living spaces are. Secondly, highlighting the synthetic, made up and not real way that the piece is made and displayed, reminds the viewer the art piece is a copy or interpretation of a space.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
AM: For as long as I can remember I have been drawing and crafting things out of paper, glitter, glue, plastic beads and string – material exploration. It interesta me that folding and cutting paper can transform a blank sheet into a snowflake, or that knotting embroidery floss can create a patterned bracelet. It is these shifts in materials that drives me to make work.
I came to using sewn lines through an interest in drawn line. In 2006, I took a drawing course at York University with Professor Michael Davey, where drawing was defined simply as line. I thought the threaded line would be interesting to use because it was similar to drawing on paper but had more of a presence. Finding links between the fibers of the body and fibers of cloth sparked my first series of work with embroidery. This shift in materials, from lines made on paper to embroidery, marked a turning point in my practice.
In this same class, I thought that it would be interesting to make a drawing that only existed out of thread, with no base, and I needed to find a way to do this. That is where my interest in the medium began.
I didn’t really learn the technique of working with water soluble fabric. Instead I had a visual problem or challenge for myself that I wanted to solve. How do I make a piece that only exists only out of sewn line? What materials would allow me to do this? How much thread is needed to hold a work together? And later on, what does the material mean and what is its relationship to the image? I have always loved drawing, and when thinking about line in its simplest sense, I began to think about how threaded line appears flat but is actually a sculptural line. It was this artistic discovery and questions along with my interest in making that have pushed my into my current career- being an artist!
WIA: What are you currently working on?
AM: I’m at the beginning stage of a large project that will be 3 stories high. I’m excited and nervous about this opportunity. It will be the next big step for my work and will increase my work’s scale even more. The piece will be based on plant specimens from the Wisconsin State Herbarium. These small specimens will be large, measuring at least 12 feet high.
The lace-like installation will contrast the heavy marble brutalist interior creating a floating, dream-like environment. These specimens, now gigantic, will create a preternatural transformation invading the space of the Museum. This installation will be built with oppositions in mind contrasting detail and transparency with large solid spaces, lightness with the weight of the architecture and the organic with the built environment.
Keep an eye out for the exhibition, it opens September 2020.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
AM: I usually listen to podcasts. One of my favourites at the moment is 99% Invisible.
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
AM: I like to explore line and specifically sewn lines in my work. I think about thread and its 2D and 3D implications – how it appears to be two dimensional but it is actually sculptural. Stitch is used in my artwork to explore various concepts such as connections to home, the fibers of the body and more formal considerations of thread’s accumulative presence. I explore embroidery’s duality – its subtle quality versus its accumulative presence and its structural possibilities versus its fragility. My work speaks to themes of memory, environment, colour and line.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
AM: I would like for people to notice the detail and delicacy in the embroideries. I often build my installations by repeating small units hundreds of times to create a larger impression or feeling in a space. Working this way allows me to focus on smaller parts and assemble them into a whole. These pieces are often suspended from the ceiling from individual threads. I want viewers to notice the movement in the work and the currents of air that affect the subtle movement of the pieces.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
AM: I am interested in the properties of thread, its delicacy, how it can be a line. I’m interested in how embroidery can relate to touch and how my work is an accumulation of time and material to create a final product.
I like thread’s fine nature. Creating images and installations out of embroidered parts allows me to create ephemeral and transparent pieces that are both in a space but also seemingly on the verge of not being there. They are relatively light which allows them to move slightly with the air currents in the room which adds to the installation pieces.
I like how thread can remind you of touch. We feel fibres often, they are right next to our skin when we are wearing clothes. I like how when I use an embroidered image that this might be in the back of people’s mind, that looking at an embroidered piece also becomes about this memory of touch, of touching something soft.
I like the history of use related to fibre, how, although my pieces are not functional, they still carry with them a reference to functional things, napkins, blankets, pillows, hankies, gloves. Some of these things relate to covering the body, to comfort in the home, to cleaning up messes. I find all of these associations to be very interesting.
Another thing that I think is really interesting about fibre is how strong it is. Although the work appears to be quite delicate, it actually has a lot of strength that is created through the intersecting sewn lines. The raveled strength of the work is quite surprising. Im sure I will probably find more reasons to be interested in thread as I keep working with it.
For practical reasons, I like how I can roll and pack up pieces made from fibre. Most of my installations can be brought as my carry on baggage on a plane – so they pack down very small. Almost like breathing in and out, these pieces can expand to fill whole rooms and then contract to fit in a small rubbermaid bin that gets stored underneath my sewing table.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
AM: A sewing machine!
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
AM: I think that there are a lot of things that influence my work. I really like diagrams of hands and exploded views of objects. I have had a Visual Dictionary for a long time which contains lots of interesting diagrams to look at.
Most recently, I have been researching pressed flowers specifically from specimens in the Wisconsin State Herbarium. These flat flowers are so interesting to me – I’m interested in their patterns and their delicacy.
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
AM: I think that the history of embroidery is largely work that was done by women and I think about the way that techniques were passed down through women teaching women. I think about this connection to history often.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
AM: When I lived in Philadelphia, I loved visiting the Fabric Workshop and Museum. I loved their model of bringing in contemporary artists and collaborating with them on printed fabric and an exhibition.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour
AM: So hard to choose but I think it would have to be green!
Facebook: @Amanda McCavour: Artist
(a not-for-profit initiative of the Cynthia Corbett Gallery)