Photos – © Marie-Renée Otis
Text – Marie-Renée Otis on questions by Claire de Pourtalès
My encounter with embroidery
When I was 6 years old, I started taking drawing and craft classes with the Sisters of the Congrégation Notre-Dame in Baie Saint-Paul, Quebec. We did pyrography, papier maché, mosaic, ink, embossed leather and a lot of other things. These classes had such a big impact to the point where I quickly knew that I wanted to continue my studies in the arts. I went to Quebec and in the cursus there was a material exploration course, we worked with wood, clay, metal, glass and fibers. I fell in love with fibers.
So I went to the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières (between Montreal and Quebec) because there were high-wrap tapestry workshops, like the Gobelins.
The training in high-wrap weaving taught me, among other things, to look for regularity of stitches, equal tension, some control of the thread, which would later come in handy in embroidery. To continue handling fibers, to rest from weaving for hours, I started to embroider on my own. And thus, prolong the pleasure of handling silks, wools, cottons. I e embroidered on coarse canvas first, then on finer canvases until I adopted the Penelope canvas.
If we compare with the weaving which progresses one line at a time and for which everything must be planned, in embroidery I could embroider on the left, on the right, up, down and throw the thread in all directions. It was the great freedom that I liked about embroidery, and that I still appreciate.
Importance of landscapes
The fact that I was born in Quebec is a great chance. We are at peace, free to express ourselves, to pursue studies and to circulate as we wish. An additional chance was to be born in Charlevoix; this touristic region is appreciated for the beauty of its landscapes: the union of the old mountains of the Laurentians and the majestic St. Lawrence River. And even more so, lucky to have been born in the village of Baie Saint Paul, first a valley protected from excessive winds by protective mountains and a bay whose very pronounced tides fill or empty the flats twice a day.
But what is remarkable is that the topography of the region was created by the fall of a meteorite 350 million years ago. We live in an astroblema, on the scars of this cataclysm which weakened the earth’s crust and causes us frequent small earthquakes.
I know these landscapes well and I love them. All my life, on foot, by bike or by car I went them. I admire them, I draw them and I embroider them in every way. We recognize in all the backgrounds of my drawings the sinuous lines of the mountains. The mountains blend in with my characters; there is no separation. They are sometimes mountain women, sometimes women whose hairstyles are mountainous or women whose whole heart is entirely filled with these landscapes. Certainly the landscapes marked my childhood and influenced my art.
Can you tell us about your experience as an embroiderer in Korea?
I stayed for a month in South Korea, in Seoul in 1999, with a textile artist, Ms. Young Ok Shin. I remember the magnificent bright colors of the traditional costumes, the animation in the markets and the streets, the modernity of the city, the high-speed trains and the crowded subways and that it was necessary to go very far in the countryside to see people riding bicycles.
I will not forget the workers in the textile factories and the deafening noise of the embroidery machines; the abundance and variety of materials that could be purchased locally. I remember the many museums we visited. From large modern institutions to a tiny museum that boils down to a wardrobe in a private house. I remember the government aid that traditional artisans received and the huge workshops where we could watch them work, unlike contemporary artists.
I admire the great respect Koreans have for their elders and especially for the living national treasures: the elderly who have practiced, protected, promoted and kept Korean traditions alive all their lives.
Being around Ms. Shin taught me several things: the great pride and curiosity she had for her culture. She took every opportunity to visit temples, salt mines, paper and pottery craftsmen, exhibitions of all kinds and guided tours of historic sites.
Mrs Shin warmed up before getting down to work to create her magnificent, very contemporary tapestries: she “played” with all kinds of materials: shards of ceramic, paper, colored ribbons, etc… It fostered a state of creativity.
The last lesson Mrs Shin gave me comes down to one word: work, work, work.
Can you tell us about your experience as an embroiderer in Bangui?
I made 3 trips to Bangui in the Central African Republic to work in an art school. I came back with two powerful feelings: The first: that of gratitude for having hot and cold water in my house, at will. The second is a feeling of admiration for the artists who work despite the immense difficulties of procuring materials and tools, and living in a dirty and polluted city.
Most students and employees at the School of Crafts had to walk long distances, sometimes on an empty stomach, enduring the scorching heat and stress (at the time I was there) of a seventh attempt coup d’etat.
I was able to bring back African objects that can be recognized in my embroidery: beautiful cotton spun by hand, by the old women sitting on the red earth in the public markets, among flies and children. There are cowries of different sizes and spools of thread bought in public markets that I always use with emotion. And many other things.
You, who have followed various training courses in several countries, do you see any links in these practices? Or are there strong differences in approach?
Yes there are technical differences and the tools vary, as do the teaching methods, but the goal is the same: to lay the threads in an aesthetic and solid way. For example: to lay the golden thread the Spanish use a Broca while the Japanese use komas. Tools of different shapes but which play the same role: to avoid manipulating the gold thread too much with our hands.
The differences in the ways of teaching embroidery: sometimes the images and the materials are imposed so everyone is embroidering the same thing; elsewhere it is much more free. Sometimes the teacher is very present and works in front of us, elsewhere they just glance at our work and it is their assistants who do the technical demonstrations. Then the teacher’s personality comes into play. Some people are generous and give lots of tips and advice, while others only pass on the minimum required. It is always ideal to go to schools or workshops for lessons. These are the little details that make you learn a lot: in which country, which city, how the workshop is set up, the documentation center and the collections to which we have access, the study pieces offered, the timetable, exchanges with staff and with other students, shared meals, everything becomes an opportunity to learn how others live and how a culture works.
Since the pandemic a large offer of internet courses has been offered, it is absolutely not the same cultural immersion, but at least we can continue to learn.
I saw that you used porcupine quills*: was there a desire to return to these sources or was it by chance?
To follow my desire to learn original embroidery techniques, I contacted a woman from the Algonquin tribe. In Quebec and in Canada, we are fortunate to have several Aboriginal communities who have developed unique approaches. With the beautiful Algonquin Woman we worked with porcupine quills, moose hair and white spruce root.
*Read our article about Arctic Embroidery
It was the use of white spruce root that impressed me the most. Of course, you had to go into the forest, identify the right species of tree; at the foot of the tree, pack the moss and dig the soil to release the roots and access the finest rootlets. Once the outer film is removed from the rootlet, you are left with a flexible fiber, ready to be threaded on a needle and which is sewn as easily as a cotton thread! The difference is that, once dry, embroidery stitches made with white spruce root will not move and will stay in place indefinitely ensuring the sturdy embroidery. The difficulty with this technique is the supply. Without the enlightened support of my teacher, how can I get beautiful rootlets?
The hardest part was working with the moose hair. Put in a small bundle to make pompoms, I couldn’t make them look nice.
So it was mainly with porcupine quills that I made my experiments. We could dye them in different colors, play with the natural hues of white and black, or cut them to keep only the white part.
I embroidered several small snakes, harmless snakes that I loved to stitch on birch bark to get as close as possible to the raw materials of nature used by the natives.
My creative process
All my embroideries begin with a sketch. I have several notebooks full of drawings and I refer to them often. These are pen drawings, without added color, which sometimes make sense, as if their story was complete and sometimes they are drawings without tail or head, all mixed up. I will extract a character from this mishmash and this will be my starting point to invent a new universe.
Once the design has been transferred to the fabric, I open my cabinets and boxes of materials and I choose the colors, threads and objects with which I will work. I try to have an inner vision to imagine the finished embroidery. My vision is not precise for the whole embroidery; however as soon as I have a certainty (for example: the clothes will be orange) it is enough to start embroidering and gradually the whole work will be built around this certainty.
I like to do research in embroidery. Trying things, playing with combinations of materials or techniques, creating assemblies of materials. And add elements of nature: feathers, butterfly wings, starfish. I like doing small series. Ideally to explore a way of working, I do three works in the same way. And then I move on.
I regularly return to a more traditional embroidery: figurative drawing and needle painting technique, as if I wanted to check that I am still able to “embroider well”.
Do you have a favorite technique, or materials that speak to you the most?
I like “regular” embroidery cotton. It works well, I can easily compose colors that are not available on the market by mixing the strands and it stays beautiful all the time. To make colored backgrounds on a Pénélope canvas, this is my favorite material. On the other hand, to dress a character, I preferably choose shiny, metallic threads with pearls and jewelry. It is the touch of wealth, nobility, elevation and spirituality that I want to give to my characters.
But my preference in all categories is the mixture of materials; find on the same needle silk from Tibet, wool from Guatemala and cotton from Korea! What happiness. The mixture of cultures, the abundance that brings these beautiful materials to my studio, the connection with people who work or live or travel in these countries, this mixture fills me with satisfaction.
The choice of techniques is exactly the same thing: there are some which are easy, effective and I use them commonly: the couching, the French knot, the straight gobelin… And then, to create surfaces with particular textures I will draw on what I have learned: vertical Russian-style couching, Japanese-style crossed threads, additions of purl like in England, the couching of gold thread like in Spain and cover the gold thread with color as it was done at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe.
Do you work on several embroideries at the same time or always one at a time?
If I come back from a course or a trip, if I receive new materials, I will definitely be tempted to start several embroideries at the same time. I sometimes do. Because there are too many ideas that are germinating in my head, I want to make them as quickly as possible or at least, start an embroidery so as not to lose my idea. Working on several embroideries at the same time allows you to vary the pleasures. Even if it takes longer to finish them off. And then there is the advantage of giving them more time to think. A little bit on one, an hour on the other and all afternoon on the third. And gradually one after the other ends.
The most difficult is not to embroider several works at the same time but on the contrary, these are the periods when I have no embroidery in the works.
Why have I been embroidering for over 40 years?
I embroider for 2 reasons: the first is to participate in the Beauty of the World. The second reason is to uplift my soul and the souls of others.
Participate in the Beauty of the World:
- By using beautiful materials; soft fabrics, shimmering threads, pearly pearls …
- By mixing pretty colors; bright reds, sparkling golds, gradations and surprising chromatic mixtures …
- By choosing particular techniques. Rare techniques like jumped gold that we have known since the 1400s or very common and easy-to-use techniques like couching…
- By illustrating themes that inspire me: the landscapes of Charlevoix and the great archetype of Mother Earth or no theme at all, just playing with materials…
You see, concretely this is how I participate, very humbly, in the Beauty of the world.
The second reason to embroider is to uplift my soul and that of others, here is how it manifests.
- I lift my soul knowing that I am here, now, embroidering this stitch, and doing it with happiness and gratitude
- I lift my soul using materials that come from all over the world, because that just makes me feel connected to the rest of the world
- And I feel a strong sense of abundance when I look at my cabinets filled with beautiful materials, so varied, so precious. The majority of them come to my workshop thanks to the generosity of people who are sensitive to what I do
- I lift my soul by resuming, by perpetuating old techniques. I then continue a very, very long tradition of embroiderers through the centuries, because the history of embroidery is intimately linked to the history of humanity and there has never been a break. I am part of a great human chain.
- I lift my soul in the very act of repeating the gesture, of multiplying the stitches one by one, by hand, patiently, in a gesture that forces us to slow down and internalize; the practice of embroidery is akin to the practice of meditation. The heart, the mind, the body, the hand, the spirit are synchronized.
- I also lift my soul to draw the river, the mountains of Baie Saint-Paul, it is the place of my roots
- And if ever these are imaginative designs that I interpret in embroidery, then I draw from the extraordinary sources of the unconscious, personal unconscious and collective unconscious and at that time it is the collective soul that expresses itself .
Raising the souls of others is also my goal but it is done outside of my power, outside of what I can do.
- All I want is that what I put in my works to be felt, perceived, felt by the people who look at and rub shoulders with my works
- May these people be happy for a few minutes. May they feel good, light, at peace
- May my artistic embroidery give them the idea of creating themselves, of participating in their own way in the Beauty of the world. Whether my works inspire them or remind them of happy images, that they feel good looking at them and thus their souls uplift a little, a lot.