Interview with an unusual artist – it’s all about transmission, tattoos, freedom and appeasement.
Photos protected by copyright – thank you
Interview – Claire de Pourtalès
Who are you, where are you from?
I was born in 1975 and grew up in Stockholm, Sweden. Now I live in Vaxholm, which is located in the Stockholm archipelago.
Both my parents painted a lot when I was little, and my dad is and has always been good at handwriting and texting. He worked with advertising and subtitled back when formating pages was made by hand. Both my grandparents on my mothers’ side, with whom I spent a lot of time and had a deep connection with, were very skilled craftsmen and encouraged me. My grandmother was a very skilled seamstress, and my grandfather was very talented as an amateur photograph, carpenter, silversmith… He made jewelry out of silver and devoted himself to printing graphics. So of course, they had impact on me.
What is your history with embroidery?
I have no lifelong history with this medium, I probably embroidered some work at school. As a child, I was more interested in drawing. I have always nurtured a great need to express myself figuratively/artistically. So, as a child, I drew, painted, played with clay and built with Lego a lot. I have also always enjoyed handwriting. In my teens, I spend much time doing calligraphy, watercolor, sketching and also painted a lot of acrylics (oil dried so slowly, haha…) I had a lot of anxiety in my late teens and there were many anxiety-laden paintings with body motifs for a period.
It was probably not until the late 20s that I seriously started embroidering. Then it was mainly cross stitch. I made a lot of tapestries with text that I edged with different ribbons and stuff. A couple of years later, I discovered wool embroidery with applications and then it was as if a whole new world opened up. To no longer be tied to a fabric and a stitch. Freestyle embroidery on a smooth fabric is like painting or drawing.
Which training had an impact on your art?
I have no traditional training in art sewing (“konstsömnad” in Swedish). In fact, I have never taken a single course in embroidery. Various art school studies in drawing, painting, sculpture, and printing (graphic art such as copper plate and screen print) and many years of work with newspaper formatting and layout – which is very much about empty space versus filled areas and balance – is what you could call the technical basis for my way of work. When it comes to embroidery techniques, I am self-taught. Technically, embroidery is really just one way of working, comparable to any other artistic/visual medium.
Why this medium? What does it bring to you that others don’t?
It’s no coincidence, as I see it. Embroidery is a slow medium, it gives me mental stillness because it forces me to slow down and makes me aware and present. It creates space in the mind by keeping thoughts and feelings at a distance. Embroidery has become an anchor medium in my life, a way to channel what is inside me and needs to get an outlet.
Have you always known you were an artist?
I have always felt and known that I have a strong need to express myself visually. I was sometimes told as a child that I had artistic talent, but I was never encouraged to become an artist since I was told “No, then you will not be able to pay your bills…” It probably affected me more than I could realize then. So, I grew up with the perception that an artist is a person who can support herself financially on her art. And since I could not do that, according to my surroundings (which became my own belief) I wasn’t able to be an artist.
It wasn’t until several years ago, when my sons were younger and one of them asked me what career I dreamed of when I was little. I answered that I wanted to be an artist. And he replied: “Wow, and now you are one, Mum”. In that moment he, unconsciously, challenged my old and self-deprecating belief and that led to a deep insight. So, when more and more people frequently started to view my embroidery works and titled me as an artist, I began to reevaluate that old self diminishing thought pattern from childhood.
There is a great need to title, define and name. And as I said, it all depends on how you choose to see it. In fact, all people can be artists in their field, whether it is about painting an art piece or dealing with people in your daily work as a nurse in a hospital. I think it’s partly about skill and mastering a medium. But above all, I think that an artist is someone who is dedicated to what she/he does and who creates something that other people can take part of and be affected by emotionally and/or spiritually.
How do you work, what is your creative process?
I never use detailed models / sketches. I usually describe it as an intuitive process. When I embroider, I may have vague thoughts and ideas about the final result, but I never decide ahead of time how the piece should look in detail. Partly because that would kill all the creativity and partly because I cannot work that way as it does not allow for ideas arising during the process. I plan a lot, but I do it during the process. I make many decisions along the way. For me, composition, color, and stitch choices are largely connected with thoughts, associations and insights that occur in the moment and during the process. For me embroidery (all artistic creation) is an ongoing process that has little to do with the mechanical completion of something already decided in detail ahead of time.
How is your studio? When do your work best?
Semi-messy and quiet. Right now, I have no directly presentable studio, the easel and my workplace are also my living room and my kitchen. But I have bought a very old house from the end of the 18th century which I am renovating. Upstairs there are fantastic rooms with astonishing light and high ceilings. In one of them I hope to be able to make a real studio in the future.
I work better when I’m alone and when it’s calm and quiet. During the day I have access to natural light, which is the best thing when working with different colors and shades, an area that has always interested me a lot. But in the evenings and nights, when you are admittedly referred to artificial light, you are on the other hand surrounded by a completely different calm and a stillness in which I also work very well.
I choose to spend a large part of my time on artistic creation because it gets me balanced. It’s like eating, exercising, going into the forest and sleeping. It’s an essential need, since I process a lot of inner stuff while doing it. In recent years, it has also become part of my income. It is both part of my job and one of my big interests.
Is there a piece you just cannot be parted from?
No. I try not get irresistibly attached to things. If someone wants to buy one of my pieces, that’s where it belongs.
What influences you?
The forest, nature, ornamentation, colors, visions and emotions, people, spiritual aspects, old stuff. I like things that have a long history.
Would you say you have “phases” where you focus on the theme or a range of colours, or a technique, an influence?
That’s probably the way it is. The artistic creation goes hand in hand with life and follows the shifts of life. I work on a theme, technique or with a certain material until I feel like I’m done.
Is there a message you giving us through your art? Or do you just need to create for yourself?
Of course, there is, but it is in the eyes of the beholder. I know what my works means to me but that is my private business.
Y a-t-il un message que vous nous donnez à travers votre art ? Ou avez-vous juste besoin de créer pour vous-même ?
Bien sûr, il y en a, mais il vient des yeux du spectateur. Je sais ce que mes œuvres signifient pour moi, mais ça, c’est mon affaire privée.
With which material do you like to work best? Where do you get it?
Right now, I work a lot with silk yarn and acrylic paint but also some wool and other yarn qualities. For bottom fabrics and applications, I work almost exclusively on a certain wool fabric called vadmal in Sweden (a 100% woven wool fabric that has been processed so that the surface is completely dense and smooth. The individual threads cannot be distinguished, and it doesn’t fray when you cut out the appliqués). But I use many different kinds of thread types and materials such as linen, cotton, wool, beads, mirrors, metal.
What is your connection with Folk Art? With India?
Folk art is our heritage. It is what people who are not “great artists” do to decorate their lives. Among many other inspirational sources, I’m drawn to certain Swedish and Indian folk painting and embroidery traditions. However, sitting and reconstructing old patterns and techniques down to the smallest detail, repeating and doing exactly as people before me have done, has never interested me. I do not see myself as an obedient steward of traditions. I do my own thing but at the same time I continue to build on a tradition of using embroidery as a visual medium of expression. When it comes to expression, motifs, mix of techniques, materials, and composition I have developed my own style. But, since I teach ordinary people who have embroidery as a hobby, one could say I contribute in a certain way to the maintaining of folk art.
Why do you love tattoo so much?
Tattoo art has always attracted and fascinated me. I had my first one as soon as I turned 18 with Sweden’s perhaps foremost pioneer in his field, Doc Forest. I made a small Indian sun cross and I still remember the atmosphere in the studio. Since then, I have continued to decorate my body. A tattoo is something very irreversible and permanent. I like that. Embroidery also has something permanent about it. You put so much time, thought, care and consideration into an embroidered piece. In some way the fabric is comparable and precious like a skin. Both are a needle craft on a cloth (skin or fabric). There is a clear relationship, and the working process also has many similarities when it comes to transferring patterns and pushing color/thread into a surface with a needle.
What do you teach? What does it bring you?
I teach free embroidery on wool with applications. Among other places and recurring at HV School (one of the oldest and most distinguished Handicraft and textile institutions in Sweden) and Sätergläntan (also an old and well-known institute for craft in Dalarna County, Sweden).
In teaching, I focus primarily on inspiration, form, color, technique, and composition. I like helping and inspiring people to start their own process and I attach great importance to individual guidance and supervision.
What other arts do you practice or love?
No others at the present moment. My work includes many different techniques such as embroidery, painting, printing, sketching, and drawing. I also do some layout work on commission and as a freelancer. Besides that, I often visit the forest, do yoga and meditate. I used to crochet a lot but no longer. I would also like to learn how to knit socks. I use those feet warmers a lot and continuously have a need for several pairs.
Why did you write your book?
To share my knowledge, experiences, and my way of thinking about free embroidery with others. I realized that I mastered something that others wanted to know, learn, and take part of. My intention was never to make a traditional how-to book for wool appliqué embroidery with set patterns and exact descriptions. I wanted to share my thoughts concerning form, inspiration, materials, techniques, and composition, so that readers should hopefully be able to start their own creative processes.
What is the story behind this publication? How do you feel about it?
I met the publisher by a coincidence in another context. She had seen several of my works and asked if I was interested in sharing my way of exploring and approaching this medium. The interest in embroidery just seems to grow explosively and it’s great. It was a very nice collaboration between me, the photographer, and the publisher for which I am very grateful.
Which artists do you admire particularly?
There are many. Among others Cait McCormack (USA, fiber), Jana Brike (Latvia, painting), Lisa Lach-Nielsen (Denmark, painting), Dzo Lamka (polish tattoo artist) and Amara Por Dios (Swedish mural artist) to name just a few. Their worlds of images appeal to me a lot.
What are your projects? Any special dream?
To continue to teach and interact with people who want to start (or continue) exploring this type of freestyle wool embroidery. It is fun to inspire others and get others in contact with embroidery as an expression and artistic medium. I know how much it means to me and how it enriches my life enormously.
It would also be exciting and fun to have another exhibition. I have participated in a number of smaller exhibitions, both solo and group shows but it was a while ago. I had planned for a large solo exhibition last year in Stockholm, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. So, I have about thirty finished pieces and it would be fun to show them. I often get the recurring question if, when and where people can see my work IRL (so it’s not just an ego thing :). Unfortunately, there are not many galleries that exhibit embroidery here in Sweden. I wish it was like in the US for example where talented artistic embroiderers exhibit at fancy cool galleries, haha.
But there is a means to everything that happens, so if it is the universe’s intention these works will be shown in an exhibition at some point in the future. Otherwise not. But let’s hope!
Karin’s book: English edition – Freestyle Embroidery on Wool, Pimpernel Press, 2020 (on Ebay )
In Swedish (the first and original edition) – Brodera fritt på ylle, Hemslöjdens förlag, 2018