Simone Elizabeth Saunders: Stitching for the sisterhood
Drawing on her Jamaican heritage and connecting with a global sisterhood, Simone Elizabeth Saunders creates imposing large-scale narratives using only a punch needle and a tufting machine.
Passionate about fine art but disappointed by the lack of Black representation in the history of art, she draws on images and symbols reminiscent of those found in the Renaissance and Art Nouveau, and interprets them through the lens of Black feminism.
Simone’s work is rich in colour and pattern. Flora and fauna play essential supporting roles, leading the eye around the composition as well as contributing to the narrative through symbolism. Colour, too, is key in conveying mood and emotions. Using her previous theatrical experience she draws you into the story, revealing layers of meaning – just as a drama unfolds over several acts in a play.
In her mid-30s, after a successful career in the theatre, Simone decided to take a gamble and return to university to pursue a career in the visual arts. Intrigued by the tufting gun and its potential for drawing with colour, she took to this popular crafting tool, teaching herself how to paint with thread. Hand tufting with a punch needle or tufting machine is now her medium of choice.
Simone’s work involves plenty of research, planning and referencing historical works of art. However, once the tufting gun is in her hand, she will often improvise and play with colour and pattern, responding to the piece as it unfolds. Using a rich mix of yarn, velvet and metallic threads she creates a visual landscape rich with symbolism, flowers, animals and insects in her portraits, which honour her heritage, ancestorship and the uplifting of Black women.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders: I showcase narratives of Black womanhood illustrating our joy, strength, resilience and vulnerability. Art history, and the Renaissance and Art Nouveau periods in particular, have deeply inspired my work.
When studying at art school, I was completely enamoured by works from these periods. I loved the way femininity was captured – such whimsy, romance and grandeur of storytelling. However, there is a major omission from the history books: a proper representation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) people. Art history is dominated by a white perspective.
I take my love of the concepts from these eras, together with the themes and stories, and replace them, creating my own narrative and style. By drawing, sketching and collaging new characters and worlds, a gaze or a gesture from an image online can inspire the story.
My previous career in the theatre taught me many skills and I bring that dramatism into my textiles. I use storytelling and character development to enrich each artwork. For example, I became inspired by the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries (c.1495–1505) and I went to see them at the Met Cloisters Museum in New York. I was amazed by the overall grandeur, as well as the detail within the storytelling, and at the same time saddened by the persecution of the beloved unicorn.
I researched the fable and flipped it on its head – creating my unicorn to represent all that we hold dear: our morality and love. I developed my heroine, Verchü (a phonetic spelling of Virtue), to appear before the pomegranate tree within the hortus conclucus (an enclosed sacred garden) where, in the original fable, the unicorn has been tied and kept for centuries. This is where my tale begins – a series of four textiles, depicting Verchü and the unicorn’s escape to freedom.
Once I have developed the beginnings of a new work, I draw it on my 178cm (70″) square frame, and start tufting.
Storytelling through symbolism
Symbolism is embedded within my textiles. I use it to drive narrative and ideas of Afrofuturism in my creations.
As well as art history, I might be inspired by a story or a Shakespearean character, or I might draw from contemporary events. These details are all treasures embedded within the work. They invite the viewer’s eye to dance around the work, engaging with each nuance. It’s important to me that each of my textiles depicts a narrative, like a play, rooted in time and character, and devoted to elevating Black women.
Most of my works stand alone, although they may be a part of a smaller series, but they all stand together as one collective. The works lean into the diaspora of the Black community – the call to a sisterhood. Each of my works takes me on a journey of ancestorship and honouring my heritage, to uplifting womanhood and showing our strengths, joys and resilience.
A symphony of colour
I am a lover of colour! Colour is key, igniting emotion and a way in which to balance and enhance each textile. But there is a vibration to be aware of: before starting a new work, I decide which colours will dominate and take the lead. I have a large collection, which I build and replenish as needed.
I choose my colour combinations carefully in order to balance contrast and vibrancy. I want them to support and intensify, rather than mute one another out.
While creating, I engage with as many colours as possible. A single colour is associated with a mood and enhances emotion. When colours are brought together within the canvas – nestled together – they create a melody. As I hand punch the colours, I witness their individual vibrations settling together – it’s truly a magical thing to orchestrate.
The allure of threads
I am drawn to textiles because the tactility of the threads is so inviting. The different textures of the yarn are incredible: metallic, acrylic, wool and velvet. They accentuate the piece in a way that using another medium doesn’t allow.
Textiles have this beautiful parallel to life. Individual yarns are threaded and woven together to create one piece – in the same way that our lives weave together.
I also admire the slow and patient process of the punch needle and the dedication that is required to create each work. It truly is a labour of love, and I find the texture rich and the legacy of these works most rewarding.
I recommend starting with the punch needle before moving on to the tufting machine. The tufting machine will require a larger frame, whereas for the punch needle you can start on a smaller frame. And it’s good to play! Draw your design on the cloth with a marker and use it as your guide. It’s a resilient technique – if you make a mistake, it’s relatively easy to remove the yarn and start again.
Drama in textiles
I love the theatre. I particularly love acting and the ability to immerse myself into another life and world of a new character is riveting. However, as a career, I found myself at the whim of others.
Everything – the theatres, the timing of shows and what was available each season, the directors – was outside of my control. This was combined with the reality of casting and auditioning. So, although I was running my own theatre company, I wanted greater autonomy – to be a creative person in control of my own destiny and be vibrant with my whole being. Visual arts showed me how I could get that independence, and weave together my skill set and love of the theatre.
I embrace every moment of my life and the journey that’s brought me to where I am today. Every experience has shaped me. From where I grew up in the prairies in Canada, to learning the piano, to my dance training, to my theatre experience, to working in the restaurant industry, to travelling the world and living in Toronto. It is all a part of me. And I feel a calling to honour my heritage. I acknowledge my ancestors, a deeper history that I cherish and I draw from.
Colour and pattern play a key role in Simone’s storytelling. Like the conductor of an orchestra, she chooses colours to evoke a particular mood and emotion. Why not experiment with using colour more intentionally to create your own melody.
- Notice how different colours evoke a particular emotion and use this to enhance a particular mood in your work.
- Decide which colour you want to dominate a particular piece of work.
- Experiment and see what other colours enhance your lead colour. What colours make it sing? Play with varying proportions and intensity of the different colours and their combinations and notice how that affects them. Don’t forget the ‘dull’ colours that are essential to show off the ‘stars’ to their best advantage.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders is an international artist working in Mohkinstsis, Calgary, Canada. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Distinction from the Alberta University of Arts (2020). Recent exhibitions include Unearthing Unicorns at Claire Oliver Gallery in Harlem, New York (2023), and UNITY at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto (2022) and at Contemporary Calgary, Canada (2021). Her work features in the collections of The Mint Museum, North Carolina, and at Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Artist website: simoneelizabethsaunders.com
One of the key themes in Simone Elizabeth Saunders’s work is the Black African diaspora. Textile artist Sabine Kaner has made work about the UK ‘Windrush Generation’, a term used to describe individuals and families arriving in the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971. Find out more about Sabine’s work and how her textile practice helps her to sift through her experiences in Sabine Kaner: Stitching life experiences.
Storytelling is central to Simone Elizabeth Saunders’s work. She pays attention to the landscapes in which she sets her figures, using colour, pattern and symbols to reinforce the narrative and lead the eye. Why not try introducing your own storytelling motifs and symbols into your work. Share what you discover in the comments below.