Sew the Body Sews: Threading Space/Time/Matter

Jan Johnson

Floating sort of in this—not in you, but being connected. I liked what Jill said about that. I wanted to ask you if I could walk amongst you and prick you with a needle, take a thread, and sort of do a simple hemstitch. It’s something that I use to go in and out of your thread—in and out of your clothes. Then I’ll drag it to the next person and then on and on, so somebody’s going to hold it. If you don’t, I won’t prick you, but if you don’t want to be stitched in, I can just skip over you. I’d love it if you want to; if you don’t want to, just hold your hand up. So I need someone to hold the thread. I was talking about this with my colleagues; we were talking about the Fates and the person who’s bringing the thread. So I have my work on here. In the first slide is a slide that is an embroidery.

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Now my works are on gifted works, too. And I’m always working on pieces of cloth that were given to me. And this is a cross-section of my brain. So, I have really bad headaches. You’ll have to help me pull this along. So this is a cross-section of my brain and I learned to embroider from my grandmother, so I imagined the lower right hand side as my grandmother’s brain. She had Alzheimer’s, so her brain was losing its ability to function so it sort of became an on and off, black and white. I do this little chain; I stitch this chain that goes up in between, and my brain is connected to that. So, there is sort of my brain in the left hand quadrant, and out of that grows these roses. My grandmother taught me the stitch of the roses, and the third little section up at the top is my daughter’s brain. So, I imagined these three brains coming together. Let’s go to the next slide.


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That’s a close-up; that’s where we are connected. And out of that sprouts these roses up in the top left, so I see myself as bringing on this tradition of sewing. Then, the next slide:


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it sort of makes this pattern, these diagonals interlacing; it’s like a cosmati pattern, and then her brain is up there on the right forming. So this is “Ring around the roses, how to fall down and learn to get back up again.” Alright, let’s go on.



So this is another cross-section of my brain; this is a little doily sampler. I looked at a cross-section of my brain. I imagined what my brain—I was thinking about her as a sewer—what her brain [saw] and where do you keep that, where do you keep that color? I wasn’t actually looking at it. I love that video that Rachel shows, but I wasn’t really looking at what my brain looked like, I mean, but what the colors looked like. But I imagined into it. And this is called, “Crack open the head, and show your lover the beloved eyes,” and the eyes are down at the bottom. Alright, next slide:



Then I began sort of charting my world, so this is a “Chart of you, me, the baby, the guest and god.” And god’s sort of in the center, and I became this ship down at the bottom. My daughter and I are right there on this left hand side, and we are looking at the globe, so I imagined her as always like I am going to show her the world. Let’s go to the next one.


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That’s her and that’s us, looking at the globe. And she’s a little chicken; she’s a rooster. And we are under the stars. This was taken from a navigational chart. The next one:


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And there’s sort of like “who’s sleeping in this bed?” So there’s these roses sleeping.

Then, that’s me as the boat.


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This slide is kind of blown out. But I began to take that ‘X’ form and really move in on that.



Now, you can’t really see this, but it has what’s called the trapunto effect. When you sew—if you don’t really know if you are working on a sewing machine—you can kind of make it pucker up. The next one came out kind of central hollow, so it’s hard to see these.


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This one’s very pink and white.  And here in the next slide is us again.


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That’s me looking over this globe—and you can’t really see here—that’s a form of my daughter, her silhouette. I began using that ‘X’ form again and again, and it has this central sexual quality and having that the center as being like where things all rotate around, so I was thinking about relationships and male and female.


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And these were also given to me, so it has this tatting around it using the forms. The colors of this are orange, so I don’t know; I’m on fire. And it’s called “Endless Knot Untangle.” And if you are working with sewing and a sewing machine, sometimes you kind of feel like you are going blind. And this one is about “The eyes go blind.”



It’s a line from a Rumi poem.


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And this one is about, more about that sort of twisting and turning of your brain. It’s called “God can be funny.”


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I took that form—there you will see it in a teacup—inside the teacup is the original ‘X,’ and I stuck it in there. And this is from an embroidery I was researching at the Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts. It’s called “My hours, so fades my hours, look on these flowers.” So I used that idea, the idea of beauty and making something that lasts and lasts and lasts, as stitching can do, as I became really interested in looking at stitching from the 1700s, 1800s, and 1500s.



And thinking about how my practice—I’ve studied painting and drawing and I see my works as drawings and paintings—but yet wanted to use these stitches that were in some ways gifts and patterns, what we’ve been talking about today, stuff that you learn. It’s haptic technology that you continue over and over, and it can be very therapeutic for art therapy. These are me, and this is counting stitches, where every stitch that you make on one side of the cloth looks the same on the other side.



This is blackwork, or in this case it’s redwork. And this is forming around, and these are how the pattern is coming around. Every time I make a stitch in, it comes back out on the other side, but it’s supposed to look the same on both sides.



I’m still using those flower forms to sort of make the drawing.



Then, inside that—I’m pulling that out, so there’s the needle coming up, and I’ve just finished that.





They take around 8 hours just to make that one, that one little thing. I’m looking at this sampler in Scotland.



I’ve been doing a lot of research in Scotland. This is a sampler from 1821, and here is the actual.



This is the piece—and sort of my process—so I’m laying a lot of thread out there. I’m looking at that. This is an appliqued handkerchief inside there. And I like this, over to the right, this is more to Jen. It’s another pattern; it’s like the same pattern repeated.



And this is a cosmati form from a floor of the Campidoglio in Rome. I was thinking about that as sort of like the center of the universe or the center of power and working that way with sort of counting those threads in and out, in and out, the idea of sort of up and down, like my brain is like a computer almost. But having that be also the heart of things.



And there’s my heart again, so I have stitched in a lot of things.



Looking at where I get my imagery, these came from curtains when Rachel and I were in a hotel room. [We saw] these curtains and that form and just [said], “Oh, the folding of time!” like going in and out and just seeing how that had this it’s my photograph. There’s a couple photographs of that.




And then it looks as I am planning my embroideries. I’m going to stop here, ‘cause I think I’ve got a knot, but I have this embroidery with me.



And here’s the folding in and out. So let’s go forward one stitch. And here’s the front side:



Now the backside is up here [and] is that side. (Here, can you show that again?) Sure. I’m going to pass these around.

Here’s the front side, and that’s the curtain there, and there’s the backside. And here it is again, so you can go forward.



I wanted to work this all in greys. And these are some different stitches that sort of form this isometric grid.



So see how these are all connected and wondering where I’m going to get these, go forward with these?



My research is looking at other needleworks, thinking about time and space, and incorporating that in there. I’m going to pass these around. So I also brought this. This is called an embossing. I teach printmaking; I do printmaking as well. So, I just run the embroidery through the press with a piece of paper over it and I get my stitching, and then I can work on this to sort of figure out what I want to do next. Then [the pattern] I stitch with is on the sewing machine. So I am going to pass that around too so you can see that part. So as I am thinking about all these things and how this relates to other work that I am doing.



Simultaneously I am out in the woods, walking around in Scotland, gathering lichen, looking at purple, and thinking about purple dyes. There’s a piece called “The Pursuit of Purple” and [it is about] how difficult it was to get these purple dyes made. And at the same time I am doing all of these works and these works. Let’s move forward.



Here’s an embroidery started with paper, cut paper, mounted paper, and acrylic and stitching.



So I was trying to make the nature, make [the art] look like the nature, like I was tring to make it look like my brain or what I thought that meant. I had taken part in a performance piece of an action in Scotland, a Joseph Beuys enactment, thinking about eating and being in the land, and giving back to the land. Go to the next slide.



This is in Scotland where we are in the moors.



And this is Sue Maris with her son James, and she is carving the gelatin and she is going to place it back into the moor. And she’s got some margarine that she is going to put back into the moor. So I’m thinking about that relationship of giving back to nature, and she is working with her son.



This is another: the next image is Mary Queen of Scots—[I’m]thinking about her son, so [there is] more Scotland imagery. This is her depicting herself as the she-dolphin with the umbilical cord (and baby dolphin) who became King James, which, in the Marian Hanging, they actually cut the piece and it’s no longer shown as it was originally designed, but it shows her just as the dolphin with this piece that someone came and appliqued with another sea animal. So, it’s not even as it was intended.



This is her mother as the phoenix.



And [here is] Mary Queen of Scots, so I feel a lot of times my work is just I’m doing this work and this work, and Mary Queen of Scots [is] getting her head cut and how can I ground myself?



So I am going to Scotland to make butterflies, and here I am making the body of the butterfly.



And here’s the wings of the butterfly. And I am thinking about [if it is] a butterfly or is it a moth?



[I’m] thinking of Van Gogh’s death moth, death skull moth, and here’s my moth:



And here’s my butterfly, so which is it? So it became a sort of 3-D event. And I will pass that one around. So again it is sort of the same with what Elena said –if you know your hands are dirty, don’t be touching my piece but otherwise… So there’s a little skull, and am I making butterflies or am I thinking about just being a fairy?



How can I become this sort of innocent [by] having this just ‘making’ aspect [present in my work?]



My daughter is making these fairy embroideries. There she has got her drawing, and we color-traced it.



And there it is again, and it’s beside mine with my skull and mine is about folding time and where I exist in time.



And this is the jacket and there she is the fairy, and she’s touching the flower. This is a jacket that I am working on, which has a front and a back. So I am going to show you. I brought the jacket today and this is another aspect of this performance. I never try the jacket on. So it’s a jacket that was my grandmother’s, and I’ve been making this for a show.



So it’s my grandmother’s jacket, and on it are my daughter’s drawings [from] when she was five. It’s really rather a dowdy sort of jacket but she… I can’t imagine like wearing it where you’re [tying up the bow]. This is like a dressing gown. I can’t imagine really wearing this, but I guess she did. On it, these are like hearts on my sleeve; these are all drawings that my daughter made. And she was very attached to breastfeeding so I put these giant flowers here and then the fairies are touching those. I also wore these and decided that I’d be a little sexy and make the underwear since this was not something that was part of the jacket. So my daughter made these hearts and they weren’t quite right. They were two parts connected and it looked like a phallus and a vagina, so I thought “Oh well, that’s kind of what you have to have in order to raise a child,” so I located them strategically there.



So I want to end with that last slide, on the back is, of this is a totem that [my daughter] made inadvertently. She didn’t realize she was making them. On this it looks like my grandmother’s hair, and my mother’s hair, and then my hair and then hers. I saw this drawing and thought, “what a fantastic drawing.” I knew that that’s where I wanted to locate it: on the spine. Above that, she made this little flower fountain and out of that is coming hope or—I don’t know—beauty.

Right now, I am working on the petals. This is where the wings were. The petals will go on the back and will attach like the butterfly wings. They will be more three-dimensional there. And I’ll be more finished with the jacket. I wanted to end on that idea of the totem of generations, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be my grandmothers’, [the totemic space] just feels like where you are always building.

Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics presents “Sewing is Writing is Body is Sewing” as part of the inaugural [DIS]EMBODIED POETICS Conference, occurring in conjunction with the Kerouac School’s 40th anniversary. The panel was given in October 2014.