Petra van der Steen: A contemplative occupation
We first came across Dutch textile artist Petra van der Steen’s wonderful work in the book Textile is Alive. Petra uses a combination of machine embroidery and recycled materials to create of her eye-catching pieces. She states on her website that ’embroidery is good for man’ and we most certainly agree.
In this interview Petra tells us about how she used her art to come to terms with the loss of her father, her love for biology and ethology as well as unexpected influences.
A tremendous discovery
TextileArtist.org: What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Petra van der Steen: Needlework was a thing I hated in primary school, but I loved to draw. My mom was very creative with textile, and in her needlework magazines I discovered that you could convert drawings into embroidery. That was a tremendous discovery; I was unstoppable. From that moment I designed embroidery patterns on squared paper. Afterwards I worked more unrestricted, as a 13-year old I embroidered my first denim suit covered with birds and flowers. So I was able to wear my own drawings on my body. Afterwards the fascination disappeared to make way for new interests like photography.
What was your route to becoming an artist? (Formal training or another pathway?)
In 1987 I went to the painting department of the art academy. After a few years I was tired of the technique; I started to photograph scarred human skin and presented these photographs three-dimensionally, all very formal and rigid. At a certain moment I started to sew these photo’s together and made pillows of them, looking for something soft. It started to bother me that, because of the vulnerability, the art couldn’t be touched. I was looking for something tangible and approachable that wouldn’t take up too much space.
In 1999 I travelled through South Korea and became fascinated by Korean embroidery; very refined and colourful. There in the mountains I had plenty of time to think about my life and work, and decided that from then on I would only make works that came from within myself, and ignore the developments in art.
Soon after I visited an exhibition about Japanese internment camps in the Second World War. There I saw that people, imprisoned, made beautiful personal needlework with next to nothing.
Those two experiences, I think, have been decisive to pick up my old love. I started to mess around with needle and thread; it started with embroidered tattoos on used textiles. Along with the tattoos came texts that I made up, or sentences I’d heard and had stuck in my head.
Attention for crafts
Then my father died. A way to come to terms with that was to embroider by hand his head on a bath towel he had used.
I had been working on that for months: it was a contemplative occupation. From then on I embroidered human beings; in all types of situations where there’s something wrong. I thought I was self-willed, but in the same period renewed attention for crafts arose in the art world.
Grayson Perry’s first solo show at the Stedelijk Museum made a great impression on me! It was weird, cruel and sweet all at the same time. There was the rise of Berend Strik who made very interesting embroidery and Michael Raedeker who embroidered his paintings. Around the same time some close artist friends and I started making exhibitions in which we showed that textile is a serious medium. We wanted to break lose from the frumpy image that surrounded textile art.
Love for material and technique
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I gave up on hand embroidered work; it became too labour-intensive. I became good at embroidery/drawing with the sewing machine. The sewing machine became indispensable, and I also love the sound it makes. I have a small comfortable studio on the waterfront with a view of boats and birds passing by.
Everything came together, more or less; my love for material and technique, and in particular the subjects I can express with them. After my text works, images inspired by film, portraits of disabled people etc. I became occupied with another old love – biology, and in the main ethology. Animal behaviour has always fascinated me, maybe because of my father. It seemed as if he could talk to animals, less so with humans…
For a couple of years I worked on a project called: This is the man, this is his animal. They are IA pictures of scientists and their laboratory animals, and ornithologists and their ‘prey’. In these I try to catch the tension between animal and human.
In my latest works animals, and particularly birds, play a more prominent role; besides beauty, it’s also about showing a personality. I get my inspiration material mainly from popular scientific literature.
I hardly ever use feminine themes; in my opinion there are enough artists working on that. What can you add to Louise Bourgeois?
Sense of freedom
Which other artists do you admire and why?
A lot of artists have influenced me; in the nineties particularly Robert Gober and Mike Kelley. They played with the subconscious and the tragedy of being a child. The way they worked gave me an enormous sense of freedom; it didn’t matter what medium you use to tell a story or to convey a feeling.
You won’t believe it, but for me Piet Mondrian has always been the biggest; his quest for purity was for me a lightning example. Gijs Frieling (a Dutch painter) let his mother embroider a couple of works of Mondrian in miniature. I love them, and wonder what Mondrian might have thought of them. Maybe he would have seen the funny side of them.
Someone I have rediscovered is Eduard Vuillard; his use of colour is phenomenal. What interests me is that his characters become part of their environment. This inspired me in a couple of later works.
How has your work developed since you began?
I departed largely from the drawn line and have sewn works that are made up exclusively of planes; all built up out of old textile material. I can’t throw away anything and use each and every little thread and piece of cloth. The textile I use comes mainly from thrift stores. It also fits my principle to produce as little waste as possible.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
Books I recommend:
‘Cha Su’, Kunst der Koreanische Stickerei (collection Museum Korean Embroidery)
‘Waanzin is Vrouwelijk: La Folie Au Feminin – Madness is Female’ (Work from the Prinzhorn collection; art from the early twentieth century by psychiatric patients, published by Museum Ghislain, Gent)
‘Wearing Propaganda: Textiles in Japan, Britain and the United States, 1931-1945 (Published in Association with the Bard Graduate Centre for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture)’ (textiles on the home front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-1945)
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My sewing machine and computer.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I guide outsider artists in a ceramic studio, a very interesting and inspiring job. Find out more at: wijdedoelen.nl
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I’ve always exhibited in art spaces and galleries where I feel at ease, and have never specifically searched in the textile corner. I always found organising shows with other artists or offering exhibition concepts very pleasant because you have more control. Unfortunately, I can’t find the time for the latter at the moment.
Where can readers see your work this year?
Hopefully I show in Riga this autumn in a group show called ‘Typical Dutch’, but it’s not 100% certain. Last year all the shows I hoped to do were postponed or cancelled – art in crisis. And for over one year I haven’t shown at a gallery, any suggestions?
For more information please visit: petravandersteen.nl
If you’ve enjoyed this interview with Petra or have any suggestions regarding exhibitions let us know by leaving a comment below