Deborah Slabeck Baker: Black cotton embroidery
Deborah Slabeck Baker was first introduced to textiles by her grandparents, both of whom were talented needle workers. Born in Detroit, Michigan, Deborah pursued academics prior to raising a family and spending two decades teaching ballet. She now lives in Chicago, Illinois.
With her children grown, Deborah found her way back to creating textile art less than 10 years ago. Her work is heavily influenced by traditional needle arts and folk art, and can be seen on display at Yard Dog Gallery in Austin, Texas.
In this interview, Deborah discusses her first experience with sewing, her decades spent teaching ballet, as well as a long list of arbitrary rules she has set for herself.
Academics and the arts
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Deborah Slabeck Baker: My paternal grandfather was a tailor and taught me to sew before I could write my name. He would give me a scrap of fabric and a button to learn to sew. I remember making clothes for my Barbies from fabric I found in his scrap box. He also taught me to knit with an empty spool fashioned with four finishing nails. It created a crude knitting ‘machine’ to make cattails from yarn.
My maternal grandmother taught me to crochet at a young age and my mother and all my aunts were knitters.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I have always thought of myself as an artist but my art career has had a circuitous route. As a young child I was always drawing and creating. I was fortunate to attend an amazing private high school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Kingswood School Cranbrook was part of the Cranbrook community. The entire school was designed by Eliel Saarinen and is a masterpiece of architecture and design.
The school stressed academics and the arts. It was one of the only high schools in the US that taught weaving and had over 40 floor looms accessible to its students. I also learned to weld there. They had a ceramics department, too. My drawing teacher was very encouraging and probably responsible for me applying to art school, following high school.
I first attended The University of Michigan but transferred to The Center for Creative Studies in Detroit where I received my BFA in Fabric Design and Ceramics. In 1977 I moved to Chicago to get a Master’s degree at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. I worked primarily in ceramics there and also did a lot of drawing.
Following school I married and made no serious art for 25 years. I was engrossed in child-rearing and my husband and I completely rehabbed two homes. I was a lifelong ballet dancer and used dance as my creative outlet. Mentored by my ballet teacher, I eventually trained to become a ballet teacher and taught ballet for over 20 years. Today I still teach dance to special needs children through a theater program during the school year.
Finally, after my children were grown and out of the house, I began to make these small embroidered pieces. I didn’t really have a studio space, so textiles were a way I could create something and throw it in a bag to store and put away when I was not working. I have continued to work in this manner for about eight years now.
Black cotton embroidery floss on natural linen
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
For the last several years I have been making embroidered drawings using black cotton embroidery floss on natural linen. I really only use two basic stitches: satin and running.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I consider my work to be drawings with thread and think of them as visual poems involving wordplay, word association, double entendre, puns, rebus, encoded messages and symbols. They incorporate layers, pattern, embellishment, calligraphy, silhouette and x-ray, symmetry, and balance. Often about very personal narratives of love, romance and relationships.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.
I usually just work in my living room on my sofa. I do not premark my fabric and work directly on the fabric with the simplest of materials: needle and thread. I almost always begin with a word or title and create from there.
Traditional needle arts
Do you use a sketchbook?
I keep an annual scrapbook of sorts made up of a visual vocabulary of things I cut from magazines or rough sketches of ideas. I also keep a running list of titles.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I like and am inspired by all traditional needle arts. I recently saw a show about Shakers which inspired my most recent work of samplers. I also love folk art, outsider art, pop art, the Chicago Imagists, and Bend Gee quilts. Really all art and design interests me.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
I have fond memories of the first embroidered piece I made, because it started me back on my path of making art.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
When I first started back to work I gave myself arbitrary limitations, such as using only black thread on linen, no cutting out stitches, make it work, and start a new piece as soon as you finish one. I still follow most of these rules I made for myself, though I do give myself a break from making art now and then. I even cut out stitches occasionally, but try to make each piece work first. I am basically a minimalist.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Keep working. Each piece leads to the next.
What other resources do you use?
I try to see a lot of other artists’ work. I go to museums and galleries and often just search the internet looking for new art and artists.
Searching for new representation
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Linen, needle and embroidery floss.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so, where can readers find information about these?
I was a visiting artist at my alma mater Center For Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan a few years ago. I would certainly welcome any opportunity to speak or teach.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I am represented by two galleries in the US: Packer Schopf in Chicago, which unfortunately just closed its doors this month, and Yard Dog in Austin, Texas. Both of these galleries were recommended to me by art friends, who felt my work would fit in with their aesthetics. I am searching for new representation in Chicago right now.
Where can readers see your work this year ?
Keep updated on what Deborah Baker is up to here: deborahslabeckbaker.com
Deborah describes returning to her art after many years. Can you relate? What was your path to creating art? Let us know in a comment below.