You have surely seen on Instagram these reproductions, often monochrome, of ferocious-looking fish, animals in turtlenecks or delicate insects embroidered with a few stitches. All this menagerie of threads was born under the agile fingers of Eliane Sainte-Marie. Meet the artist.
Photos – © Eliane Sainte-Marie – photos protected by copyright – thank you
Interview – Claire de Pourtalès
Tell us a bit about your embroidery journey …
I have always been very interested in the arts, but I had neither the talent nor the motivation to practice it. On the other hand, I am used to walking for hours on a beach to collect every shell, feather, fish skeleton that I find interesting. I have a whole collection of display boxes in which I put my treasures together. Like a cabinet of curiosities.
Embroidery is different. You can think of it as a hobby, or a craft, so you feel less pressure to do something original, innovative or purely artistic. Over time, however, my approach became clearer and I can now situate my work between crafts, textile arts and scientific illustration. But, above all, it’s because I like it. I can’t imagine quitting embroidering.
I started to embroider when I was 20. When my mother moved to Montreal, I moved into her apartment in Trois-Rivières. She had left her embroidery material there and I decided to give it a try. I didn’t embroider a lot at that time, barely one or two projects a year, mostly ornamental designs, linens. I started to embroider more “seriously” a few years ago when I embroidered my first fish.
I never really learned a technique or stitches. I looked at books, of course, but I was rather trying to get at the result without considering the technique or the procedure. I am not very comfortable with the manuals books!
I have always been fascinated by natural science illustrated plates (I don’t know where it comes from. My brother also shares this interest, as a biologist, from a scientific point of view, while for me it’s purely the artistic or aesthetic aspect that interests me). Over the years, I have tried to reproduce these engravings and illustrations, first with monochrome threads, then with colors. At first I only made fishes or insects. Then I was asked if I could embroider a bird, then an animal … At first, I was sure I couldn’t. My first attempts were indeed not great! But I kept trying, I developed some tips, a way of using colors and textures, until I got hold of a unique form of technique that I would be hard pressed to describe or explain! It’s like an illustrator’s job, actually.
I spent an enormous amount of time consulting natural science books, scientific expedition reports, consulting visual archive sites on the internet, or looking at animal photos. I remember a lot more than I can embroider, but it allows me to understand how a fish is made, how a flower is made, etc. Then I choose the most interesting pieces of my research and I trace my model.
I like sturdy fabrics that hold together well and withstand an amount of tightly spaced stitches without wrinkling or tearing. I also embroider with sewing thread to be able to keep things smaller and more detailed.
I try to never work on more than one embroidery at a time, because I rarely go back to a started embroidery to complete it. I have many examples in my baskets and drawers …
I usually stitch in the morning and in the evening. In silence, with the radio on, listening to an audiobook, with people around me or alone. It doesn’t matter. I am fortunate to have a workshop in my house, which I use above all to store the material, to frame my work, to store the embroidery. It’s very rare that I get there to stitch. I prefer my chair where I have everything close at hand and where I feel less isolated.
How did you come to sell your works?
I was a little puzzled. I had embroidered a goldfish that I posted on my Instagram account and a friend asked if she could buy it. And three other people said they wanted one too, if I accepted. So I started to offer embroidery for sale. And it worked quite well. I created a Facebook page and that’s how l’Atelier* was born. Even now, even after having sold hundreds of them, it all seems improbable to me, but very gratifying. Still, it’s great to make something that someone wants to own or give as a gift.
On the other hand, there are embroideries to which I am specially attached, or that I stitched just for me. For example, my first fish. I put several dozen hours into each one and they are part of my house, of my decor. There is also my little collection of pigeons, in my workshop, which I call “the office guys”. I could hardly explain why, but I don’t want to let them go at all.
* L’atelier de l’Épinoche (The Stickleback Workhop) / The name comes from my love of fish. The stickleback is a tiny fish that I really like, with its thorns, like needles on its back. This discreet little animal builds a nest for itself to lay its eggs in. A fish that is capable of building something, I find that wonderful!
“Twelve angry animals”: why, how this theme? Why did you dress them?
The Twelve Angry Animals series came from an early hare embroidery that looked so contemptuous it was easy to anthropomorphize. So, I naturally thought of dressing it up. I could have embroidered or sewn its garment, but my mother, Johane Guilbault, knits so well that it was obvious she would do wonders. So, I selected animals that had an interesting expression (angry, obtuse, haughty, etc.) and had them dressed. The name of the series came spontaneously, hijacking the well-known title.
I laugh a lot when I embroider. I’m especially happy when the expression I want to render works. I realized lately that I tend, by imitation, to adopt the expression of the animal when embroidering it. Which makes me laugh all the more when I realize that I’ve been looking angry for hours.
You are also a bookseller. How do you combine the 2 professions?
Yes, I am first and foremost a bookseller, co-owner of the Exèdre bookstore. This is what takes up most of my time. Now that embroidery is taking more and more place in my life, I’m wondering how I manage.
The two can be linked, when I think about it. The publishing house Alto (a publisher that I love) commissioned me to design the cover for one of their books in 2019. It was quite intimidating to find my embroidery on the shelves of my bookstore! It’s probably the contract that most helped give me a sense of legitimacy, if you will. To recognize my work as an embroiderer as interesting enough to print on a book.
How is the pandemic going for you?
The effects of the pandemic have not been so bad for me. Obviously, I miss my friends and family.
In the first days of the first lockdown, in March 2020, I had a lot of time at home, so I decided to embroider one Quebec wildflower per day. Some kind of herbarium / containment diary / calendar. It was really very calming, it made me feel like I was waiting for spring imagining the flowers that would sprout when we could go out more freely. Soon people started buying them, making special requests and commissions for me, so I didn’t hit the thirty embroideries I wanted. A lot of people discovered my work at this time.
What are your projects?
Continue to stitch! I received a lot of commissions following the broadcast of a capsule produced by the Fabrique Culturelle of Télé-Québec on my work, so I have a lot, a lot, a lot of work. I’m also working on an exhibition project, in collaboration with another artist, but I will be able to say more in the coming weeks …