Patricia Brown: From rags to stitches
Eighteen years’ worth of old artist’s paint rags and a camper van were the stimulus for Patricia Brown to find a new craft that she could do in a small space.
Having purchased the whole gamut of colours in the DMC embroidery floss range, Patricia spent several weeks merging with the essence of her rags and then set off on her travels, with an eagerness to stitch, despite many years of absence from the craft.
With inspiration along the way from different stitching styles, artists and even a spiritualist choral group, Patricia taught herself to integrate her gestural approach to abstract painting into her hand stitchery. It resulted in her Remnants Series of stitched textiles.
Patricia is an Artist Member of State of the Art Gallery in Ithaca, New York and is known for her exhibitions of drawings, paintings, collages and mixed media assemblages in galleries and museums across New York. She taught visual art in New York State public schools where she was awarded Art Educator of the Year. She has co-authored a book, Traveling Through Glass, with her close friend and poet, Lisa Harris.
She now works as a creative art coach and educational consultant in the visual arts.
In this interview, Patricia describes her journey from fine artist to textile artist. She shares her insights as the transformation of her rags into artworks became an exploration into her truest self and the Remnants Series came to symbolise the unseen value of the underprivileged people of America.
Stitching – and switching to a new craft
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Patricia Brown: Recently my husband and I purchased a small camper so we could explore the world of birds in Florida during the winter months. In this adventurous spirit, I embarked on a new craft that I could carry. I hand-sewed small birds from old handkerchiefs, and embroidered little felt badges of the birds we were admiring throughout our travels. My confidence in making art through stitching grew as I drew and crafted each bird. I did not have to know a library of sophisticated stitches to be successful; I could apply my drawing and painting skills. I enjoyed the stillness, working with one little stitch at a time anywhere I wanted.
I researched approaches to embroidery beyond the “sampler” roots I had been taught as a child. I discovered Boro cloth – a form of hand-sewn mending done by Japanese peasants in tending to clothing passed down through generations. In Boro, layers of indigo patches hold threadbare fabrics together, to preserve the garment so it can be worn over and over again. Repair upon repair created design from necessity. What had been a sign of poverty, became an object of beauty. I was never particularly good at making the “perfect” stitch my 4H leader wanted; Boro freed me with its simple, often uneven stitches, which appeared haphazardly placed.
I looked for a starting point in stitchery that was truly mine. I knew that I enjoyed working on found fabrics because they already held energy. I looked around and remembered that I had been saving my painting rags for years. I just could not throw them away as I found them striking apart from the paintings they helped to create. I pulled them out and quickly placed embroidery hoops in places that drew my attention. I filled the studio with these colorful rags. I experimented with various sizes and placements of the hoops, letting the rags dangle off the edges. I was exhilarated knowing I was discovering something autobiographical and historical while simultaneously revealing something new.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I grew up in a very creative rural household; the hand made life was highly valued. My father was a creative farmer, builder, artist, gardener, and cook. My mother filled me with stories. My mother, grandmother, and aunts were constantly sewing, knitting or stitching clothing or decorative pieces. My grandmother sewed my Barbie doll clothes.
Quilts were handed down from many older generations. All family members pitched in to create our holiday decorations and gifts.
My most memorable interest in fiber was macrame – I made belts, owl necklaces, plant hangers, wine bottle holders, and decorative hangings for all of my friends and relatives. I can’t say that I saw all this creative work as art; it was how we enjoyed life and shared with others.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Most of the strong women in my life were teachers. In high school, I took several art classes and in my senior year became a teaching assistant in the middle school art class. I began to see the importance of my creative upbringing and went to college to study art education.
I have guided thousands of children in developing their creative lives. I spent most of my career at the high school level, where my goal was to help each student develop personal ideas through a series of related artworks. I constantly researched new ways of working to support the processes of each individual. While teaching, I challenged myself in the same way.
Every summer for ten years, I studied with artist mentors Timothy Hawkesworth and Lala Zeitlyn through drawing workshops at Art New England. They emphasized painting from the heart, being in the moment, entering the canvas bravely and sincerely, and trusting how the body responds. As I worked, I asked myself: “Am I lifted by this approach?” And If the answer was yes, I kept going.
While stitching the Remnant Series, I have been reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book, Women Who Run With the Wolves with a group of artists. Each fairy tale calls for us to examine various challenging archetypes within ourselves and in the culture. Through this deep understanding of character and metaphor, I was able to look at my paint rags as narrative symbols.
From rags to textile art
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
In the Remnant series, I integrated my gestural approach to abstract painting into my hand stitchery. My old splattered, smudged, and torn paint rags contain dynamic markings that record years of my studio practice. These paint rags were once worn as t-shirts – from a vestige of shows and events that I had been a part of eighteen years ago (Remnants 1 and 2). They hold traces of paint that stained them as I smudged, wiped, smeared, and removed paint from the surfaces of abstract paintings. Sometimes I can identify specific paintings to the rags that helped to create them. These rags performed functional tasks such as cleaning my brushes, hands, tabletops, easels, and clothing. I used them over and over again and stowed them away in a paint bucket, not sure what I would do with them.
Years later, these rags are my teachers. I have an agreement that, as I stitch, I will follow each rag’s structure and design. I accept the rag “as is” and never add paint to it. Each rag demands a different color scheme and an animated approach to the direction, length and shape of each stitch. In honoring the formation of each rag, I locate beauty in what would ordinarily be discarded.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
The first step in each Remnant was to determine the area to focus on within the hoop. I looked for the section of each rag that lifted me with its dramatic line, shape and color relationships. I explored many strategies to decide how to let the fabric drape off the rim: hoops within hoops, multiple hoops, fabric hanging straight, and hanging off to one side. I played with the captured remnants in my studio for weeks before making final commitments. Eventually, the specific composition held a certain interest, tension and felt right – I kept going.
The second step was to find the color scheme that worked best for each Remnant. I purchased every one of the 400 colors in the DMC embroidery floss collection – the choice of a very particular color was vital. It was like getting my first 64 box of crayons as a child. I wound all the floss on bobbins and stored them in plastic containers. When selecting colors for a rag, I surrounded the rag with these containers and began pulling colors, gathering a ring of colors for each rag. At one point I filled my entire studio with rags and their corresponding bobbins, each a unique color scheme. I sat with them for weeks before the stitching began. When I show this work, I hang up a Remnant Bobbin Rack and invite viewers to match the color bobbins to the Remnants, encouraging them to look very closely.
Once I selected the color scheme, I gazed at the paint markings within the hoop and looked for the big picture. What kind of movement dominated? What was the counter-current? What required big marks? Small stitches? What direction did each stitch require? What areas needed stitching? What areas should I leave alone? How did this focus area interact with the rest of the rag outside of the hoop?
I began with the design aspect I wanted to emphasize, then all other stitches supported it. This is exactly how I paint. Once I see a big picture, I work spontaneously trusting each small decision along the way. I revel in stitching – the real joy in this “one little stitch at a time” process.
Occasionally the big picture in a rag suggested an image in the real world to me. In Remnant 11, Overlook Falls the color scheme and the long vertical format with small angled hoops looked like a waterfall to me. I worked with this idea to complete the image, letting the threads flow out from the bottom.
What currently inspires you?
A few years ago, I saw Chiharu Shiota’s Traces of Memory at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. In her overwhelming yet delicate installation, I found the thread of her story and the power of thread to voice the story as I walked through this house full of haunting rooms.
More recently I found Junko Oki, a contemporary Japanese artist who stitches in an embellished Boro related style. Oki says, “When you are stitching, you can go sideways if you like. Even if you end up with a tangled-up thread, you don’t have to cut it off, you can leave it to create a new pattern. In other words, the path is endless and you can keep on going – no turning back.” I am amazed by Oki’s raw, spontaneous approach and work to incorporate this freedom into my Remnants.
I presented the Remnant Series in a show titled “Textures” at State of the Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY. Through research, I discovered that “Text”, from the Latin verb Texere, means to weave and intertwine. My friend, novelist and poet, Lisa Harris, a constant inspiration to me, says, “Words are chosen and discarded, lined up, rearranged or thrown away while I work to create textured landscapes for the reader or listener to enter. Readers or listeners participate in a symbiotic relationship with the words a writer crafts, creating pictures in their minds.” I invite viewers to create mindscapes through my abstract arrangement of colorful threads and gestural stitches.
Vibrating with colour
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
I stitched Remnant 4: Jubilee while on tour with the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, a choral group dedicated to the preservation of Negro spirituals. We traveled down to Goldsboro, North Carolina, the birthplace of civil rights leader Dorothy Cotton, to honor her life in her hometown.
Dr. William J. Barber, II and Greenleaf Christian Church community welcomed us. Dr. Barber spoke passionately about spirituals coming from “… the depth of the spirit. As you sing them, they breathe hope into you, they put into you a faith in ultimate justice.” As you sing you turn “the minor key into a major key – a major key of triumph, defiance, calm and confidence… These songs must be sung with the whole body, ears become eyes, eyes become ears. These songs were sung in mass meetings before the descendants of enslaved Africans marched and were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, They sang until they were changed until they became one person.” To sing fully was to “worry the line, hang around the line – put a little something extra in the line. By worrying the line you grab all of the soul, the pain and the hurt, everything and put it in that song. These songs produced miracles.”
I stitched for two days on this paint rag as we drove south, simply following the colors in the cloth while I watched the landscape change outside the window. On the return, I “worried” the colors. I spontaneously stitched darker, lighter, brighter, duller, complementary, and analogous colors that hung around the colors present on the rag. I layered in the energetic loving spirit of singing together, Dr Barber’s words, and the palpable joy of everyone present as we honored Dorothy Cotton. I worked until the colors vibrated in the same way as the church did while we “sang out and marched on.”
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
When I began this series last spring, I was stitching into colorful rags considering the design elements. Over time, I began to understand how these scraps of cloth related to me personally, narratively and symbolically. I have a history of interacting with these t-shirt/paint-rags since 2001. They are a part of me, and I am a part of them.
With certain Remnants, I recall studio experiences and paintings that had been forgotten. Most artists would have discarded these – their cleaning cloths – as rubbish, but I could not. Transforming them into artworks became an exploration of self, a way of finding beauty in each remnant was an act of finding beauty in myself. I found beauty beyond the surface – it was in history, story, memories, smudges, marks, scars and hidden places.
Once I was able to see myself in the Remnants, I was able to see others. While working, I often listened to the daily news, cringing at our leadership’s poor treatment, rejection and belittling of “unwanted” people. My stitched rags began to represent the “dregs”, “fags”, “rubbish”, “leftovers” and “cast offs” of our society – who all deserve to be recognized and cared for. Now I stitch hope for all to be seen for their inherent beauty. To spread this message, I offer “Remnants are Beautiful” stickers to gallery viewers.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
One does not have to be expert to embark on the journey that leads you into a new medium. The skills and ideas that you know from other ways of working give you a unique vantage point in approaching new processes. When I was able to think of stitching as drawing and painting with colorful thread, I was free to engage with embroidery in my own way.
Research leads you to unexpected places. An essential part of my art practice is continually looking for ideas. My Pinterest boards are filled with thousands of images that lead me to museums, artist websites, online magazines and blogs that keep me informed and inspired. Pinterest is my daily newspaper. The world is captured in my embroidery hoop.
Follow any lead that excites you. Sometimes what may start out as a small gift, an observation, or a tiny bird, can lead to an entire series of work that lifts you into a new direction. What at first may be unknown territory, becomes a path into yourself and back out into the world, into yourself and back out into the world, making you both the needle and the thread.
For more information visit www.soagithaca.org/artists#/patricia-brown
Do you have something to say about the techniques, materials and processes used by Patricia – let us know by leaving a comment below.