Joke Lunsing: Questioning creative assumptions
In 2013 Joke Lunsing made a decision. To be kind to herself. To focus on her own passion for a while.
During her recovery after a successful operation for a stomach, tumour Joke felt she had been given a second chance. She realised that she had been suppressing and ignoring her innate desire to work with hand stitch for more than 35 years!
In 2015 she started work on a textile project named The Felt Beehive both as a means of feeding her artistic instincts but also with the aim of raising awareness about the plight of bees. She collaborated with more than 50 others to create a 4.5-metre beehive covered with felt in just one year. When that project ended, she started experimenting with eco-printing and textile dyeing.
In 2017 Joke registered on TextileArtist.org’s online course Exploring Texture & Pattern with Sue Stone. But she didn’t find the early stages of the course easy.
‘I quickly realised embroidery and hand-stitching were not comfortable for me due to negative experiences in the 70s and 80s. During those times, my father lost work as an independent tailor. I learned his craft was cheap and had no future and value. Of course, growing up as a tailor’s daughter, I was busy with fabrics, needle, and thread from a very young age. But I lost my interest and pleasure in the craft in the early 80s.’
So, when she began work on the course, she was insecure. She felt the samples she was producing were stiff and unimaginative.
But working through the creative challenges of the course, Joke soon discovered a love of stitching that had been buried for many years; embroidery helped enrich her textile work and started having a positive impact on her feelings of self-worth.
‘My father passed away in April 2018, at the age of 93. I feel I honoured him with my hand-stitching and realised he had given me the love, talent, and patience for hand-stitching. Thanks to the course, I discovered what I had learned from my father had not disappeared at all.’
In addition, hand-stitching has become a means of practising mindfulness for Joke; ‘It allows me to be focused and calm. I love being in the bubble I create when I’m hand-stitching.’
In this interview, which is part of a series featuring members of the TextileArtist.org community, Joke tells us how questioning assumptions about her creativity has been key to unlocking her artistic potential, how she is discovering her own unique visual vocabulary by combining felt with hand stitch and how self-imposed limitations have transformed her process.
A creative detox
TextileArtist.org: Tell us a bit about your history with hand stitch
Joke Lunsing: Growing up as the daughter of a tailor, fabric and thread were part of my childhood. As a very young girl, I learned to hand stitch and make clothes for my dolls.
As a young adult my love of process, form, colour, materials and techniques grew, and following the end of my formal education in 1987, I started working in the creative industry in 1989.
I developed concepts for clothing and gifts that were manufactured all over the world. But after 15 years my mindset began to change; I realised I no longer made anything for myself and I felt conflicted because the industry I was working in was centred around making more and more money and relied on evils such as child labour.
I decided to detoxify. I took everything related to that life (textiles, sketch books, materials) to the waste dump. Then I put my creativity aside completely and, for more than ten years, did nothing with the skills I had used in what I considered to be a tainted career.
You’ve talked about having negative associations with hand stitch. Tell us a bit about where those associations came from.
When I was 18 years old, my teachers told me that my textile work was old-fashioned and had nothing to do with art. At that age I was very sensitive to this feedback.
Also in the art world at the time, and amongst the teachers and students where I studied, Textiles were seen as the poor relation to drawing and painting. So I moved away from embroidery and started to work more conceptually, more abstractly in other techniques and materials
I started making jewellery; abstract forms of thick saddle leather. These were still sewn but had no other association with hand-stitch.
In the 80s when I began working in the commercial sector, negativity towards textiles seemed to increase. The craft disappeared from education altogether and much of the work began to be outsourced to countries with very low production costs. Textiles and embroidery became associated with bargain prices.
I remember thinking how sad it was that my father, who was a tailor, had dedicated his life to a skill that nobody valued anymore.
Conquering negative associations
How and why did you start to question those negative associations?
In 2013 my world turned upside down due to a stomach tumour. Luckily the operation to remove the tumour went well and I experienced a second chance during my recovery.
In 2014, after my illness, I made the decision that the time had come to take care of myself, to focus on my own needs. I realised due to work and family, my artistic talents and desire to work with textiles had been dormant for a long time.
I had to heal from deep wounds. And I instinctively knew the way to start that healing process was to pick up what I had left behind long ago.
In the beginning, I was stiff and insecure. But the artist in me was longing to be (re)born. I couldn’t fight it, no matter how strong my assumptions and judgements were. There was no way back.
So I turned to a course in felt, which propelled me into a textile-based project; The Felt Beehive. I collaborated with more than 50 others to create a 4.5-metre beehive covered with felt. The project was high profile and forced me into the spotlight as a textile artist. That was really the beginning.
My father passed away in April 2018, at the age of 93. I feel I honoured him with my hand-stitching and now realise he gave me a great gift that I had not always appreciated; the love, talent, and patience for hand-stitching.
Tell us a bit about your personal journey and why you decided to take the Exploring Texture & Pattern course.
When The Felt Beehive project ended, I started experimenting with eco-printing and textile dyeing. I was hungry to explore more and more techniques and to build upon foundations that had been laid in my childhood.
I discovered Sue Stone’s work in 2017, and I signed up for her online course Exploring Texture & Pattern, which is all about experimenting with a few simple hand stitches.
But the old negative associations of hand stitch and embroidery soon reared their ugly heads and I quickly realised that I wasn’t comfortable.
So, when I started the course, I was insecure and it all felt very stiff, as is very evident in the first few samples I made in module one.
But the more I persisted, the more I rediscovered how joyful hand stitching can be. And just a few months later, embroidery has helped enrich both my textile work, my identity as an artist and my feelings about myself as a person. It just fits.
The artistic possibilities of hand stitch
What were your key takeaways from Exploring Texture & Pattern in terms of process?
The most important lesson I learned in the course was to put aside my assumptions and to push my boundaries.
Every class presented me with a chance to challenge my own limitations. And every piece I made offered an opportunity to discover more about myself as a maker and more about the artistic possibilities of working with hand stitch.
What elements of making textile art did you struggle with and how has your approach changed?
I now feel at home with hand stitch. I apply it to my existing work and it has gradually gone from being a means of adding background interest to the the main technique used to express my vision front and centre.
In the early stages of the course, I was tentative and cautious, using just a few stitches sparingly. But when I started to push myself outside of my comfort zone I allowed myself to add far denser layers of hand stitch and have discovered that this enhances my work in terms of its beauty and complexity.
My work feels much more complete now. It is more ‘me’. It expresses far more of my own identity and has absolutely nothing to do with the negative associations of my old commercial career.
Developing my own style
Working within limitations in order to fuel the creative process is a core concept of the course. How did you find that limitations affected the way you worked?
It was a revelation to discover the possibilities of working within limitations and frameworks. It has made me far more focused and yet creatively free.
I’ve learned so much about the potential of materials and techniques by deepening my exploration of them through use of limitations as a starting point. It’s a way of working that suits me greatly and has allowed me to develop my own style and express a theme more fully.
And how has your work developed since taking the Exploring Texture & Pattern course? Has it changed in any way?
My work has been enriched and has become a much truer representation of who I am at this moment. I feel like my personal artistic voice has become far more refined and I’m now not afraid to work on a much larger scale.
My journey of discovery is ongoing and I learn something new with every piece I make, but, since taking the Exploring Texture & Pattern course, I trust myself and have far more creative courage.
A continual process of experimentation
What did you most enjoy about the course and what were the greatest challenges?
I really connected with the emphasis on keeping things simple and enjoyed following the lessons step by step. Each lesson fuelled my enthusiasm – the course became addictive!
I started making self-portraits in the course inspired by Sue’s style. Her process of experimentation opened all kinds of doors to possibilities.
I became more and more confident in my own ability as I practised, learned by doing, started over and over again, and crossed borders.
I think I improved by immersing myself and making a lot of stitches. I made the choice not to be afraid and it has brought me enormous joy!
What has been your experience of making textile art since completing the course and which elements of the teaching do you revisit when creating your work if any?
I have literally not stopped making textile art since finishing the course.
After all the encouragement from Sue and the other participants during my time as a student of Exploring Texture & Pattern and beyond, I’ve felt encouraged to keep going and make more and more artwork. I’m continually experimenting with new ways to express my vision through hand stitch.
I have been commissioned to make a large wall object with hand stitch and in the process of devising this piece, I’ve regularly been checking out the experimental samples I made during the course to inspire and inform me.
Creating within a framework
Tell us about a piece of work you’ve made that you’re particularly proud of and why.
I am really proud of one of the self-portraits I made.
In this specific portrait, I felt the freedom to really play with needle and thread, almost like a painter with a brush.
Can you talk us through how you create your self-portraits?
Before I begin work on a self-portrait I revisit all of the experiments and previous work I made during the Exploring Texture & Pattern course. I ask myself what I have made, as well as how and why I made it?
These questions ensure that I progress and that the next piece I make is another step on my voyage of discovery. They also help me gain clarity about the story I want to tell with my art.
I then set out framework to experiment within. The framework is always shaped by atmosphere, colour, technique and materials. The limitations that Sue set out during each of the challenges on the course have motivated me – they have helped give my process focus and momentum.
When I create portraits I try to only used materials I already had available. I buy nothing new if I can help it. This was another lesson of the course and once again connected to working within limitations.
For me, it is clear that all the portraits I have made reflect the changes in my process. I started with an Ice queen and my work has become warmer and softer. This has everything to do with the assumptions I had to throw overboard.
Creating a bubble of calm through stitch
Have you shown any of the work you’ve made and what has the response been?
I organised an open house in October 2018 and invited all the neighbours to see what I had made. The visitors were very curious and I received a lot of positive feedback, as well as encouragement to continue with my work.
The process of hanging my work around the house brought me a great deal of joy and satisfaction.
The open house also led to a commission to make a tapestry with custom embroidery, which I’m of course delighted by.
I’m also proud to say that a piece of mine is appearing in an exhibition on the island of Schiermonnikoog.
How do you see your work developing in the future?
I want to keep combining my felt work with embroidery.
And at the moment I’m looking for ways to enlarge my work. A wish is to make large canvases for public spaces and for a large living room.
I want to continue to balance the making of abstract and realistic textile art. I’m also not ruling out spatial 3D work.
In addition, hand-stitching has become a very important technique for practising mindfulness. I love to be in the bubble of calm I create when I’m stitching.
I know my journey with hand stitch will be a long one. There’s so much to discover. I’ve only just started.
For more information visit www.jokelunsing.com
Do you ever struggle with negative thoughts about your ability to create with stitch? How do you conquer that negativity? We’d love to hear your stitch stories in the comments below.