Ayla & Ellison
Monday, October 9, 2023
In progress textile portrait. Cotton thread, up-cycled clothing & melted children's crayons.
Completed First Embroidery Piece

This embroidery project started as an experiment during a teacher-training day two years ago! My district department chair brought in a facilitator who gave the group embroidery hoops, fabric, and a little tutorial. 

Here's the first line...
The first stitched line...initially pencil drawn. After this, I winged the rest by "feel".


Blocking in patches of color...
Trying, unsuccessfully, to "blend" color in the cheek structure...
Solved the "blending" problem by couching a new layer with different colors. This felt overwhelming at times --so many variables with color choice, thread weight, and texture variety!
Started thinking about how to finish...at first I planned to create a gradually shifting "dome" shape from one side to the other on a diagonal axis, but later I decided the piece would benefit from a vertical texture with a regular tempo to it, since the eye might need a place to rest after taking in all that variety in the face.
I thought the circles might kill me! The endless round and round of them was so slow-paced that it turned into an exercise in DEEP patience and dogged tenacity. I kept thinking of how I would have to master my mind if I were submerged under water with only a straw peeking above the surface to breathe. I'd have to find a way to be calm and persistant as I took tiny sips of air for hours at a time! And so it was with these damn circles!
Check out the back! WHAT?! All those knots & matted bits. You can see where I worked the hardest.

Aside from a brief flurry of stitches in junior high school, I had never tried embroidery, and I had no idea where it would take me. All I knew was that it immediately felt natural, even luxurious. 

And being luxurious, it seemed rich to indulge in it all the time. In fact, I only ever worked on the piece during vacations. But every time I started stitching, I had a little fantasy about making full-sized portraits with the medium. Of course, the idea seemed ridiculous, since it's so slow, so I always dismissed it.

Recently though, my daughter convinced me that I should give it a try: “Just look how much you’ve done since we’ve been sitting here, mom,” she pointed out. “If you spent three hours on it every day, you’d be able to make a whole portrait.”

And so here I go…

This next series will be an investigation into two concepts listed below. The first is an overarching exploration into my latest wonderings; the second, an anchor that ties together the subjects in each piece:

1) Things that take time
2) Biracial/bicultural identity

More about this as I go along…

Completed 1st Full Embroidered Portrait

There's truly nothing better than making concrete an idea in your mind. It seems quintessentially human, but what do I know --maybe other animals do it too? 

In any case, I'm sincerely satisfied with the outcome of this piece. Below is an illustration of the process with mostly pictures. Read the captions for tid bits from me.

Feeling out lines and areas...
Here you can see that I divided the canvas into 24 squares. The idea was to give myself some pacing structure: complete 3 per week & finish in 8 weeks. (But that's not really how it went down!). The other thing you'll see here is my reference image. I made it black and white so I'd only think about value, rather than color. That way I'd feel freer to select any color that called me.
Now I've done a lot of the face and am feeling daunted by the idea of matching the other eye, since I've forgotten quite how I did the first one! 
Here goes...!
It works out! They're as aysemmetrical as eyes are. I felt like I was tenderly coaxing my Mama onto the canvas in a weird, familiar way. Note the lines defining her chin & neck --I really like these. They're sort of gestural in the sense that they are so minimal & simple, but they say a lot about a person's years on the planet.
I'm dismayed by some of the things happening in the newly filled cheek: I don't like the rusty colored sideways "Y" and I have no idea how to fix it. In fact, I feel at this point that the whole thing lacks cohesion, and I spend a lot of time asking my mind how to make adjustments... What I do like, though, is that I've captured my mother's proud and dignified way in the world. Hanging on to what I DO like while also wondering about how to change the things I don't like together occupy most of the available space in my brain. Oddly, the idea that comes to mind, like internal knowledge or something, is to cut up my mom's old sweater - the one Lucia knitted for her when I was a little kid, and somehow integrate it into the piece. It feels like it will take courage...
But I did it! Amazingly, mom was able to locate it right away, and - since, like a true Buddhist, she has no attachments, so she willingly (happily, even) donated it to my project. Lucia was the mother of my dear childhood friend Paz. They moved back to Spain, their homecountry, when Paz and I were maybe 8 years old, and we lost touch. But every christmas, ALL these years, I have always put out the stocking Lucia knitted for me, with my name diagonally stitched on its face, and my mom has worn this sweater-blouse so often, it sort of represents her in my mind. It's what she's wearing whenever I think of her. I LOVE that I thought of immortalizing it this way. It doesn't fix the lack of cohesion in the face, but it boosts my morale, and I know I will find a way to fix that part later...
But somehow I have to make mom be wearing it! I try a bunch of different strategies to put it on her, so to speak...
I got the solution: somehow, adding the contrasting color & texture of the blue sweater underneath gave me a way to anchor the gray one on top. I start thinking about stuffing the sleeves to get a more 3D effect. A little seed is planted at this point --something for a future body of work. Something actually sculptural and fabric and portrait-like. We'll see if anything comes of that later...
Here I am fixing the face...I figured out how to do it: use the same "couching" strategy I used in the little, round embroidery (see the 1st blog post above). This requires a deep breath, and then just putting my head down & jumping in. The decisions I have to make are about color: which color will push this part back and pull that one forward? Do I want to set this part away from the others visually, make it brighter? Or do I want to blend it in, and make it softer? Do I need to warm up this spot? Or cool it down? But once a decision is taken, it lasts for a while --long enough to listen to a whole podcast. I made about 500 such decisions at this point, and so finished all the podasts on offer!   
Here's the process up close...
And here you can see the difference between the areas where I added layers of tick marks and the areas where I hadn't yet.
Adding background detail (our woven deck chair)
The hair needs beefing up...
But first, Mom poses next to the piece in traditional Ethiopian clothes. 
Then I add about 10 trillion strands made from yak hair yarn! But the process is fluid and meditative. I enjoy it. (Why yak hair, you ask? It wasn't important that it was yak hair; rather, it was the texture that was important, so I chose the yarn that was shiniest and stiffest among those that I had on hand. They behaved better than the soft ones, holding the curls better). You can see here that I added some blue wool threads to create some of the shadow I saw in the reference image --darker blue near the ear and neck, lighter blue in areas at the top and side. 
This detail shows the hairy fibers!
Close up of one eye...
And boom! It's done and hanging in an exhibition called Deeply Rooted at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago! What a thrill!
Sticking to the Plan...

This post is about the logistical parts of making my first full embroidered portrait. Above, you'll find images and explanations of the entire process, but first, a note about sticking to the plan:

I am astounded by this planning thing. It's a formidable power. I'm not traditionally a planner. I'm much more of a fly-around winging it type of sister. But by deciding what I want to accomplish in a given week, scheduling it all out ahead, and actually sticking to the plan, I feel...unstopable. It's amazing.

The downside is the thrashing I tend to give myself when I don't stick to it. Or the dread I have when I secretly tell myself I already know I won't do such and such, even as I'm writing it down. 

In that way, planning takes courage. You have to be wiling to risk falling short. Especially with al lthat we've got goin' on in our lives --kids, full time work, aging parents, housework, etc. But if you keep trying - even if it takes 100 tries, or 300, you'll likely stumble upon a solution unique to your obstacles, just like I did...

Curious about my Sunday planning flurry a month or so ago, my 15-year-old daughter asked what I was doing. After my explanation, she said she thought she could do it for me. So we devised a set of categories and criteria for each, and I started texting her list-items as they came to me.

All week long, she gathered my texts and plugged them into my Google calendar for the following week. And though that by itself is amazing, the shining side effect I hadn't expected was this: since she was watching, I couldn't let her down!

Now I do each thing on my plan, even though I often don't feel like it, because I am modeling for my child how to live in the world! (What would she learn from me if she scheduled my tasks and I blew them off?!)

All that was to simply say this: I am mega-productive these days because of a planning solution I so badly wanted but could not have imagined. In some sense, it fell in my lap, but in another, I created the opportunity for it to do so by trying and trying and trying, 52 weeks in a row. Had I given up in week 3, I'd have missed this awesome solution.

If you have a big project like this that you want to squeeze into your very packed life, keep trying! Eventually, you'll discover a path toward it. 

Right on schedule, I purchased & cut the wood 9/10
Because I'd need the needle to poke through the canvas right at the edge of the stretcher bars, I ripped each one at 45-degrees, then cut 45-degree corners. That solved the needle problem but made connecting & stabilizing the frame a bear because there wasn't much wood left along the inside edge where I could attach a corner piece. The miscalculation pushed my time window an hour over, but I was quick on everything else, so I still got it done.
I'd never used clamps like these before. Total Godsend. If you're trying to build a frame or stretchers, you'll be SO happy if you get some of these! (I promise --I've done it both ways!)
This is a long piece of hemp canvas, 53" tall, from Dharma Trading Co. (I do not have affiliate links or get any kickbacks --just sharing info). It cost about $20 & there's enough leftover for a few more pieces.
I used these pliers to pull the fabric taught (from opposite side to opposite side, around and around), while stapling with a plain old staple gun to attach the canvas to the stretcher. The total dimensions are 33.25" x 23.25" (84.45 x 59 cm). This size made sense for the place where I envisioned hanging the piece and the "landscape-oriented" composition I'd planned.
It's a bit dark, but you can probably make out the pencil sketch I did from the photo and the squares I superimposed ontop for pacing --the plan is to complete 1-3 squares on each of three working days per week, in 4-hour time blocks, for a total of 12 hours per week. There are 24 squares, so at that pace, I estimate I can finish in two months.
Here's the resource image I chose. Originally, I thought I'd compose a whole photo shoot, but as I thought more about it, I decided I wanted to capture her in a moment when she was just being herself. That way, the portrait would speak to its viewers and say all that mom would say, were she sitting with them. Here, the two of us were sitting on the deck, visiting among all the greenery, and I snapped this unplanned pic. It's JUST right!

Thans for checking out my blog, and stay tuned for the next post featuring my first stitches...!

Also visit my fitness website if you're interested in that kind of thing!

Painting My Mama with Thread

The hard beginning means planning.

But before that, before the beginning, there is the little glowing seed that one day materializes inside your solar plexus.

Parenthetically, If you Google "solar plexus," as I just did (to make sure it was actually a thing, of course) here's what you'll find: "[it's] a complex system of radiating nerves and ganglia...found in the pit of the stomach in front of the aorta...part of the sympathetic nervous system...." Impressive. Couldn't be a more precise description of the place where the little glowing seed takes root! 

seed in the old solar plexus

And even though it doesn’t use language, the seed somehow talks to you. It says, "Hey! Hey you! Pay attention!" But it's really easy to ignore, because at first, you can’t really understand it. It talks in parables. Or maybe something is lost in the transmission along all those radiating nerves and ganglia. Besides, it's voice is so small, and its glint so intermittent, that it really takes an additional force to amplify it. The force can be your daughter encouraging you, or a brainstorming session in your journal, or maybe a serendipitous road sign that says “Anything is Possible,” or something. (How often do these things happen? How many seeds go unheard?)

When it does happen, when an additional force does amplify an internal message, that’s when the seed becomes a blaring bullhorn! And then you can’t stop hearing it. It niggles and nags and nudges until you get to the hard beginning, even if hard beginnings make you anxious. 

So there you are, planning, and it’s taken you a while to get to this point because planning takes at least several degrees of courage. It’s the middle space between idea and reality. It’s the moment when your faith in the possibility of something swells above your fear of its cost (material or otherwise). And you risk calculating the how of it. And the how-long of it. And all the configurations and fractions of time, effort, cost, and obstacles in between.

For me, all that stuff amounts to the following steps with times & dates nailed down:

  1. Decide the time frame: Aug 14, 8:30-10am
    • When do I want to be done?
    • How many days per week & hours per day can I commit to it?
    • How many such time blocks exist between now and when I want to be done?
    • As a pacing device, divide the composition into that many squares (or some multiple if I think I can do more than one square area per day)
  2. Research & purchase what supplies are out there (types of canvas? types of thread?) - Aug 14, 10-noon
  3. Compose the portrait & take photos - Aug 31, 1:45-2:15pm
  4. Design the stretcher & its proportions - Aug 31, 3:30-4:30
  5. Print the photos in b&w (so I can use gray-scale & be free from color constraints), then tweak the composition with a view finder - Sept 1, 10:30-noon
  6. Purchase wood for stretcher - Sept 10, 8:15-9:30am
  7. Get the table saw out, cut the wood, & build the stretchers - Sept 10, 11am-1pm
  8. Stretch the canvas - Sept 10, 1:30-2:30
  9. Sketch the image, tweak, & Superimpose the squares for pacing - Sept 11th, 3-3:40pm
  10. Now...Ready...Set...Go --complete first square! Sept 15, 11:15am - 2:40pm

Fingers crossed, ya’ll...