Contemporary British artist Sally Hewett has single-handedly changed embroidery from a cute retirement hobby into a modern, provocative art form. This is Not Art caught up with her about hoop art, feminism and how with the best intentions, art is sometimes referred to as ‘Pure, unadulterated filth!’…
Your embroidery work is unconventional and challenging, both socially and aesthetically. What inspired you to create art about human bodies and beauty? Was there ever a point where you consciously decided on your themes?
I’ve always found human bodies beguiling. Even as a child I was intrigued by other people’s bodies: by the fat, the thin, the spotty, the old, the hairy, as well as the beautiful. And, probably like most people, my own body interested and alarmed me. So it sort of came naturally to me to want to make art about bodies. It was during the second half of my Fine Art degree that I started using stitch in my art – it wasn’t a conscious decision really. I was doing some embroidery as a means of escape from the intellectual pressures of the degree(!) and I was embroidering something like the centre of a flower using a little wooden embroidery hoop that I had inherited from my Granny. The transformation of this flower centre into a nipple was sudden and unintentional. It was suddenly there in front of my eyes! Looking back the embroidery hoop was a large part of how I was looking at the embroidery – it encircled the nipple like a breast.
I thought this was too rich a seam to ignore – I loved the disjunction between the subject matter and the medium. And everything else grew from there – getting more three dimensional as time went on. I wanted to investigate how much I could do with stitch and fabric in terms of sculpture, but I was also interested in how these pieces might be seen – how people would interpret them, the effect of using the embroidery hoops to frame them.
Your embroidery is very socially subversive and I imagine it divides audiences – what sort of reactions have the pieces garnered? Were they what you’d hoped?
Because of the way the embroideries began I didn’t really have an idea of the sorts of reactions I was expecting or hoping for, but yes, they do divide people. I have been told that I should be ashamed of myself; that my work is ‘Pure, unadulterated filth!’; that I’m sick and disgusting; that bodies don’t look like that, etc. On the plus side people have said they are wonderful, stroked them, giggled at them, laughed out loud at them, and, at one particularly celebratory private view, even licked one of them. Some people have responded to them by describing – and sometimes even showing me – parts of their own bodies, either to show me how much my work resembles their body or to show me how much more extreme I should be. Some of the most extraordinary and touching responses have been to the medical/surgical pieces. I had some misgivings about showing the mastectomy pieces, given that I haven’t had a mastectomy, and one woman in particular was very upset and angry about Ectomy being exhibited. But most responses to these pieces have been overwhelmingly and sometimes upsettingly positive, particularly from people who have had mastectomies, are in the process of treatment or have recently been diagnosed.
Your careful embroidery pieces must take an incredibly long time to complete. You’ve posted illustrations and paintings on your website (they’re lovely!); why did you focus on stitching and embroidery as a medium?
Yes, some of the pieces do take an enormous amount of time – particularly those with lots of french knots. I suppose I focus on stitch and embroidery because it’s what I’m good at and I know what I’m trying to do with it. I like how I have to slow down and spend time and I like how the pieces emerge, slowly coming to life. Often things happen without my meaning them to – happy accidents which turn out to be exactly right. The slowness of the process means I notice them and can take advantage of them. I suppose to some extent I use painting, drawing, carving, paper reliefs as a way of escaping from and getting a different perspective on my stitch and embroidery work. I do sometimes need a break from stitching. I suppose I don’t really think of the non-stitching work as art but rather as just something I do when I get stuck.
What’s your artistic process? Do you start with concrete statement or idea, or do you take your time to explore a concept before settling on your direction?
Well, a bit of both really. I sometimes have an idea which arrives fully-formed and is usually triggered by someone or something I’ve seen. These pieces can sometimes change quite a lot in the process of making. And for other pieces, like the medical/surgical ones for example, I do a lot of research and make lots of experimental pieces before I start on the final piece.
Are you a disciplined ‘9-5’ artist with self-imposed deadlines and regular breaks, or do you prefer to wait until the muse strikes before getting in your ‘zone’? Do you even have to be in a zone to create?
I wouldn’t describe myself as a disciplined 9-5 artist – more of a 11-7 artist. I’m not very good in the morning and a bit too easily distracted to work regular hours. I am very disciplined in how I make the pieces – in fact obsessive might be a better word – they have to be beautifully made and they have to work, which sometimes involves quite a lot of unpicking and redoing.
I think for me it’s important that I work as much as possible and do some work even when the muse is totally absent. If I stop working she might up and leave! If I don’t keep working when the muse is absent then when she reappears and I start to make something it’s much more difficult. So I suppose I work in anticipation of the muse striking.
A lot of your art can be interpreted as fiercely feminist in its depiction of all types of women and bodies. Do you consider yourself as a feminist and, if you do, what does being a feminist mean to you?
Yes, I do consider myself a feminist but probably a lazy one. I tend to take for granted a lot of the things which the feminist movement has achieved for women.
I think there’s an element of feminism in my work but I don’t think of it as fiercely feminist. Because I love all sorts of different bodies I’d like my work to be a celebration of all bodies whether fat or thin, hairy or smooth, young or old – both men’s and women’s bodies.
What are your plans for your next work? Do you think you’ll continue with the bodies and stitching, or would you like to try other mediums and concepts?
I think I’ll probably continue with the bodies and stitching work, but perhaps try to escape from the quilting hoops at least for a while. I am in the process of making some freestanding 3D work incorporating corsetry. It’s taking a long time and I’m not sure how successful it will be, but that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few months. And I also want to make some 3D pieces experimenting with scale and abstraction.