Joetta Maue: Stitching Ordinary Beauty
Pam, the Office Administrator in the American version of the TV show ‘The Office’, is said to have uttered the best line in any series finale: There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that the point?
Whether or not those final lines are indeed the best in TV history, American textile artist Joetta Maue offers definitive proof the statement itself holds true through her imaginative embroidery pieces. Joetta believes in the power and beauty of the ordinary, and she combines photography, drawing and stitch to help us all see what she sees.
Whether cuddling a baby whilst making dinner, staring at a broken window shade or even the simple act of getting up in the morning…all are honoured through her use of stitch on found linens. Even dust is celebrated!
Joetta offered us an insider’s look into both her philosophy and techniques. Her route to textile art is quite interesting, and she explains how drawing and photography inform her work. She also shares her thoughts about sprinkling text in her work, and the new directions in which ‘the ordinary’ is taking her.
Joetta has a long CV filled with solo exhibitions across the globe. She has also been a featured artist in many publications, she teaches her own workshops, and she held a residency at the Penland School of Crafts. Her work is currently on view as part of the traveling exhibit ‘Crafting Democracy’. And she has a solo show this winter at the Transit Gallery at Harvard University.
Like coming home
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Joetta Maue: I was initially attracted to embroidery for conceptual reasons. I was trying to end a long-standing body of work that had to do with trauma, and I wanted to make one final piece to complete the work.
I felt embroidery was a perfect medium due to its meditative quality and the physical act of stitch and the idea of suturing—all in connection to ideas of healing.
I ended up teaching myself to embroider to make the piece. I embroidered 75-100 small pieces of red satin with words that connected to the act of healing, both physically and psychologically. This became a wall installation that was installed at the Sol Koffler Gallery at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design).
I expected this to be a “one-off” piece, and then I would return to my primary mediums of photography and printmaking at that time. But I was hooked.
I often describe it as feeling like coming home: the tactility and familiarity of the cloth and thread…the slow, sometimes passive labor of the stitching…and the hours of quietly sitting with my work.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I studied photography and installation initially, and my greatest early artistic influences are still based in those realms. Very early on I fell in love with Sally Mann’s body of work ‘Immediate Family’ and the photography of Uta Barth. I love how their work takes ordinary moments, environments, and people and makes them rich with beauty and reverence.
I think due to my very traditional and ‘ordinary’ Midwestern upbringing, I longed to see art that I could relate to in a physical way, but my personality and intellect is always striving to understand and celebrate the mysteries in life and existence. Therefore, work that speaks to both of these is most moving to me.
In graduate school, I fell in deep love with the drawings and writings of Louise Bourgeois. I have studied her life and her work in-depth but am still only enamored with the smaller, more intimate, work that she made. Her raw honesty and strength in her writings and ‘Insomnia’ drawings still bake my breath away.
I also find the paintings of Joan Mitchell to be stunning. And if I could live with one piece of art, it would be a large painting of hers. Her use of color and line quality is stunning and hits you right in the gut. She makes these monumental expressive paintings, and then they have the most simple and banal title. The mystery of this is fascinating to me.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I started to take art classes in high school and pretty quickly knew it was my world. My school has an excellent art program, and I was able to take photography as a sophomore. As soon as I saw my first photo develop sitting in the darkroom tray, I knew this was what I wanted to study.
My undergraduate was a traditional photo program. I resented all the ‘foundation’ drawing courses I had to take, but I loved the technical development of colorwork and conceptually thinking about imagery. It was only in graduate school that all those drawing classes started to be valued, and I began to work in a more cross-disciplinary fashion.
My program was very interdisciplinary. Even though I had a photo focus, I was encouraged to work in and take classes in many mediums. And I worked with painters and sculptors every day. I sort of fell into making textile-based work, and I identify more as an artist than a textile artist.
Embroidery and found linens serve the conceptual story and conversation in which I am interested. They are tools for me as an artist. But my writing, photographic and drawing practice are equally important.
I have been in many ‘art worlds,’ but in the end, the one I need the most is the one where I am alone in my studio walking around inside my brain.
Found linens bear witness
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
For my textile work, it varies a little bit. Sometimes I start with the idea and have to look for my image. And sometimes the image arrives (in my mind), and I have to then just make it.
But it all starts with a photograph. Usually, an image that is beautiful in form, but that, as a photo, does not quite land.
I then select the found linen to hold the piece. I might be looking for something aesthetic in a piece or emotion or fragility or sense in the linen. I used to use the linens more as a decorative framing device, whereas now I am usually looking for some kind of ethos or witnessing.
I then project the photograph onto the linen and turn the photograph into a line drawing and stitching ‘map.’ This used to be a pretty tight drawing that I followed exactly. But now it is much looser, and I make decisions in the moment of stitching.
Then it’s about color. This tends to happen in series. I have done actual full color, all black, all white, muted and minimal. But generally, it has to do with what I want the focus to be in the work.
Then I stitch and stitch and stitch and stitch and…
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
I love embroidery because of its slow labor and the ability it has to be a very nuanced line. The quality of my line and drawing has become more and more important to me as my work matures, and embroidery is literally able to be a drawing with thread.
I am interested in the labor of loving, mothering, living and caring for the domestic space, and embroidery can be an actual moment of labor on these thoughts. It can also represent the love and commitment I am interested in meditating on as it takes so much time, love and follow-through to complete the large scale works that I create.
I work with found linens, as they bring a witnessing of the spaces and relationships that I am exploring to the work. It is also important that my materials remain in the everyday experience, so I tend to only use ‘used’ linens and cotton/linen materials. I do not want things to become too precious but instead remain approachable and about our daily existence.
What currently inspires you?
My constant muse is light. I follow the light. This allows me to see things in a new way or in a way I would normally overlook (such as the dust on the windowsill or the pile on the floor).
I am particularly fascinated by dust at the moment—how it dances in the air and light shafts. It is literally made up of us—our skin, our hair, our clothes, our food.
Last year, I started to collect the sweepings of my kitchen and make high-resolution scans of them as documents from which I am currently making highly detailed drawings. This is a new, more abstract direction, so we will see where it goes.
I am also always inspired by daily life and its gut-wrenching complexity and beauty. My current life is full of the act of mothering, partnering and caring for all of this, so my work explores these themes.
But my work changes as my life and my relationship changes. Therefore, as my children age, my partner and I age, and the way that I am exploring these thoughts and ideas will change. I am attempting to invite more ambiguity into my work and allow more room for the viewer’s experience.
The importance of drawing
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
The work ‘Waking With You’ is a very important piece for me, as it is the first life-sized piece I did. I had a vision for it as the anchor piece of a solo show I had scheduled. I had to learn and problem solve a lot in the process of making such a large piece.
In the end, it was a great piece for my development as an artist. The process really pushed me technically and led me into an entirely new direction for my work leading to what eventually became the ‘The Sleeper Series’ which has been an important body of work for me.
‘Waking With You’ also really connects my love and use of text with my love of the narrative portrait.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has become more and more focused on the drawing quality of the stitches and less specific in the narrative. I did not originally consider myself as someone who really knew how to draw. But drawing and the subtly that your line can bring to a piece has become really valuable in my studio practice.
I have been working to open up the narrative—by being specific, but also ambiguous. I do not want the work to be about my life and my story. Instead, I want it to be a mire of the universal experience of humanity, womanhood, and at times, motherhood.
Technically I go back and forth between things, sometimes stripping away elements and sometimes building things up. At the moment, I am trying to figure out how to capture the expressiveness of my line quality and the open nature of my drawing style in my embroidery work. I am exploring different textures of threads and am hoping to emulate a quality that charcoal gives.
My studio practice is also involving more and more drawing, and I would like to make artist books that allow me to combine the photography, textiles, and drawings into one intimate object and idea.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
I think it is quite important to understand why you are drawn to textiles and why you are using them. This adds more depth and meaning to the choice of textiles and cloth. In the contemporary art world, this is meaningful.
I also feel that all rules are meant to be broken. To me, the most interesting artists using textiles are breaking down the traditions and barriers of the medium, even in the same process of exploring and honoring the history.
For more information visit www.joettamaue.com
Joetta celebrates ‘the ordinary.’ So how do her interpretations of daily life affect you? Let us know below