Joy Denise Scott: The poetry of stitch
Joy Denise Scott had two strong desires pulling her in seemingly opposite directions: making and thinking. She enjoyed sewing and stitching, and at one point, she started her own lingerie business. But she also felt a strong pull toward academia and a thinking life.
At first, Joy believed creative skills were inferior to intellectual skills. But when writing a social science doctorate thesis at Curtin University (Australia), Joy began to imagine how her two passions could coexist. During her daily writing practice, Joy reflected on how wordcraft and stitch are both concerned with the ritual performance of ‘doing’, as well as making meaning. And that led to exploring new ways to communicate her feelings combining poetry and stitch.
Having sewn and lived across four continents (England, Australia, United Arab Emirates, and China), Joy’s textile art has something to say about identity, culture, gender issues and ageism. And she’s found the confidence to now share her work, thanks in part to the support of her TextileArtist.org Stitch Club peers.
Sewing into the void
Into the breath
a meditation ritual
the silk dressed needle
rises and falls
gliding in and out
of the linen flesh…
I had used the metaphor of stitch when writing my doctorate thesis, so in early 2019, it seemed a natural progression to move from metaphor to actual stitchwork. I have stitched all my life, but I hadn’t been using it to translate my thoughts and ideas. I wasn’t sure how to start, so I turned to my textile artist friend and educator Anne Farren, who gave me the push I needed. Since then, poetry has been the trigger for my stitch work.
My passion to stitch to fill the between times of daily existence has become an enduring one. I would describe this inner persona as my stitching self. And rather than just writing memoir in the form of poetry, I am crafting my life stories with thread and cloth.
Both my poetry and stitch work have strong autobiographical elements. I reflect on feeling as a way of exploring the question ‘where am I in the scheme of things?’ My poems focus on grief, loss, alienation, difference and gender issues relating to age and expectations of ourselves and relational others. Both the writing and stitching have helped me heal and work through a lot of emotional trauma and angst concerning particular moments in my life.
There are times when I work directly from a poem, and there are other times whilst stitching I am reminded of a poem or a few lines of it. There have also been times when a whole new poem emerges from the work itself.
Loss of a dear friend
One of my favourite works is Stitching sorrow into flesh. It’s a portrait of my Chinese friend and colleague Chen Zeng Hao who died suddenly whilst I was living and working in Shanghai.
My doctorate and much of my poetry was inspired by the five years I knew Chen and my resultant grief of losing someone special within an alien culture. My not knowing the Chinese language and cultural signifiers made it difficult to process his loss, and they didn’t understand mine in return. There was a double edge to my grief in that I was caught up in a cycle of trying to reconcile something I didn’t quite know how to work through.
To that end, the portrait is double sided to represent both sides of grief and loss. China has a strong tradition of double-sided embroidery that is also known as two-faced embroidery. Mine differs in that I leave the threads loose on the reverse side, so there is a sense of something not settled or resolved.
The front depicts the humility and harmonious nature of Chen and frames him as a contemporary man enjoying the simple pleasure of drinking tea in the local tea house. The reverse side depicts my sorrow and the deep traditional Chinese roots that are hidden from view but very much present.
Although it’s more planned and representational than my later work, the process of designing and making helped me realise my interests lay in capturing the essence of feeling more than true representation.
I also created a small collection of poems in response to Chen’s passing in which I ruminate on my grief and sense of cultural disorientation. Those poems inspired my Grief Series and raise questions about how one expresses her authentic self when the rules of the game are unknowable. How can we really know another person? And where does my grief lie?
A foreigner’s grief
A gathering of yellow and white emperors
lean into the blackest of walls
Majestic heads slump
reduced by their solemn cargo
Once proud they
weep petals of words
A noble spillage
Making a bed of love
For the Grief Series: Wall of Grief, I had a strong visual concept from the beginning, as the poem to which the work refers provided a set of visual cues. But after creating a detailed layout, it took many stitch samples across two years before I was happy with the result.
From the start, I understood the backing cloth should be neutral and the stitch forms and colour palette restricted to grey tones with two shades of yellow for the flowers and petals. Seed stitches and French knots would be used to create texture, and a back stem stitch to outline the work.
My challenge was how to balance the subject matter’s different elements, so each stood separately in its own right but collectively conveyed my feelings of alienation and internalised struggle as a non-Chinese woman.
Indian painter Raqib Shaw’s online exhibition A Summer Among the Narcissi gave me the idea to float the segmented subject matter in negative space. I did this not only to convey a mood of peace and sorrow but to also suggest how Chinese floating space is used in traditional landscape paintings. I also happened to be taking a workshop with Sue Stone in TextileArtist.org’s Stitch Club that was timely. Sue helped me to isolate the background from the subject matter and consider its importance in its own right. She also taught me how a background can convey a particular emotion and ambience, which helped me design a more detailed layout featuring the value and use of negative space in the composition.
Reflections upon ageing
My Relic Series was inspired by a TextileArtist.org Stitch Club workshop with Jennifer Collier. Members were challenged to create a stitched 2D paper glove. I modified the challenge by drafting a full glove pattern using my hand as the model. During that process, I reflected on the fact I no longer had young, subtle skin, and my finger joints were showing signs of arthritis.
This made me think about the significance of ageing on the female body for both me and society. I was tapping into long-held anxieties about ageing that became exacerbated by Covid fears. So, once I finished the challenge, I felt compelled to further develop my thoughts on ageing and a sexagenarian body.
The act of stitching in its various expressions has evolved as an essential part of my identity. It’s not just a form of meditation or my central art form, it’s also an orientation practice that creates a sense of place wherever I find myself, emotionally and geographically.
The starting framework for both Relic Series: Feeling my way into meaning and Relic Series: What lies beneath my breast is mulberry bark. I dyed the bark with onion skins to represent ageing flesh, and then I worked embroidery and appliqué directly into the bark. Weaving stitches were then applied to express emotional repair, along with seed stitch to articulate the life force and wrapping stitches to represent everyday messy entanglements.
Feeling my way into meaning features a portrait of my hand. It’s a comment on the sexagenarian female body saying although contemporary society places emphasis on surface beauty and intelligence, there is beauty and meaning to be found in an ageing body’s markings.
And What lies beneath my skin is a portrait of my ageing breasts and is grounded in the notion of how feelings are intimately tied with how we experience the world. In this piece, I reflected upon cultural and social ways of thinking, the constraining nature of patriarchy and how these matters permeate the intricacies of my everyday experiences as a sexagenarian woman.
…threads and stitches of the flesh
arranged to unbalance the smooth tongue of fiction
uncovering the complexities of the real…
Trusting the creative process
I begin a work not so much focused on a particular story or memory but rather a sense of tapping into the unknown to uncover something I don’t yet understand.
Sometimes I just grab a couple of scraps of fabric and go from there. I let my hand and feelings guide me rather than beginning with a plan. This requires complete trust in the process, something I have gained through TextileArtist.org’s Stitch Club community where many makers place their confidence in the process of making.
It’s very much like writing. I put a few stitches there on the cloth, and they take flight. Seed stitches take on a kind of breath, flowing and changing direction and texture. I pause to change colour or thread or both, then maybe a French knot beckons or a bullion or chain stitch.
It takes nerve to trust the process. Often nothing appears to be going right, and then from nowhere, stitches start to fall into place, and the work takes on a life of its own. I call it waiting for the breath to happen.
Sometimes my work must sit for a while before I can fully appreciate the deeper connections between pieces. It would be more accurate to say I don’t necessarily have an intention to create a series, rather it inflicts itself upon me. There are times when I’m working on a piece when a realisation slowly creeps up that I am digging into something psychologically significant and deep. My Relic Series certainly came out of that headspace.
For a couple of years, I’ve been working on Real bodies have their lives stitched into them: Burial frock. For months at a time, I didn’t know if what I was doing was working, but the frock kept pulling me back in. I’m about to exhibit the frock as a work in progress, as I feel it is now speaking to me and can stand up to the public’s gaze and critical scrutiny.
Finding my tribe
I joined Stitch Club in 2020. At the time, I didn’t belong to any textile groups, and I didn’t use Facebook or other social media. Stitch Club provided a gateway into a circle of like-minded people, and I also liked how it was an international space. I discovered my tribe, which gave me the confidence to join local textile organisations, including the Western Australian Fibre and Textile Association (WAFTA) and British textile artist Jayne Emerson’s online group called The No Rules Society.
Early on, I was so concerned with having a finished product. I would undertake sampling, but it was always with a clear indication of where I was going. But after taking workshops in Stitch Club, I’m now much more intuitive and improvisational with sampling, allowing cloth, thread and stitch to take the lead.
This notion of stitching into the mystery of something, not knowing where I am going, has been liberating. Stitch Club has enabled me to break out of a self-imposed cycle of self-criticism which I call the ‘wild monkey on my back’.
- When you’re stumped for inspiration, turn to the written word. Joy uses her poetry for inspiration, but any favourite story or quote could serve as a starting point for your next piece.
- Think about how the background of your work can also contribute to the story you want to tell. Joy sought to have her ‘negative’ space complement the key elements of her work through colour and stitch.
- Use sampling to take the pressure off. Joy had to let go and learn that it’s ok to experiment and allow the needle and thread to take control. Not easy, but she ended up with wonderfully creative results.
- Find a group of like-minded textile lovers who can encourage you along your way. Whether online or in-person, two, three or more heads are always better than one.
Joy Denise Scott is based in Kalamunda in the Perth hills, Western Australia. She holds a master’s in arts business (arts and culture) from the University of South Australia (2005) and a PhD in social science from Curtin University (Australia, 2013). Joy has exhibited her work in Australia, including the Australian Textile Art Awards Exhibition (2022), and she was awarded Second Prize – Judges Highly Commended at The Australian Fibre Art Awards (2021).
Joy Denise Scott’s textile art was greatly influenced by the loss of a good friend. Learn how these other artists used grief and memory to inspire their work.