Lisa Woolfork 0:10
Hello Stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together.
Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I am your host, Lisa Woolfork, and I am so glad to be here today. And as I say every week, this is a very special episode because this episode is taking place the exact same week that our guest, Simone Elizabeth Saunders, is here with us to talk about unicorns and a few other things. But Simone is an artist, a visual artist with a background in theater. She comes to us from the Mountain Standard Time. And we are so glad to have you here today. Simone Elizabeth, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 1:15
Hey, thank you, Lisa. Thank you so much for having me.
Lisa Woolfork 1:18
This is incredibly exciting because I am speaking to you today, this week, and this episode is going to come out on Wednesday, March 15th, which is just two short days before your first U.S. solo show at the Claire Oliver Gallery. Can you talk a bit about the show about the title and what brings you here, to the U.S. for this beautiful work?
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 1:42
Absolutely. I am so thrilled to be bringing my work across the border for my first international solo show with my gallerist. And, you know, the show, Unearthing Unicorns, it's just about that. It's really taking these gems, taking these narratives of Black womanhood, of strength of joy, and uplifting them. The unicorn, to me, represents everything dazzling and magical and all dreams come true and, really, the purity of what it is to be human and to shine your light. And so there's two tapestry series that are within the unearthing unicorns show. We have my one series that is literally based off of the historic unicorn tapestries from the 1500s. And that set of tapestries sits at the Met cloisters in New York. So if someone wants to come on down, see my show, and then hit up the Met and to compare and contrast. And then the other set of tapestries that I have are the Four Queens, and so that, again, is really exemplifying womanhood and joy and power. And so those two will be in conversation with one another, those two series, and I just can't wait. I can't wait to open those doors and have viewers come and experience it.
Lisa Woolfork 3:05
It is incredibly exciting to think about the way that your work continually invites us to reimagine the past. The way that you think about history, not just local history or recent history, but you go all the way back to the 1500s, and you find Black beauty there. Can you talk about this style of looking back to the past for which many of us do not have a memory beyond that which we have seen in images, many of which don't reflect Black folks? What is it like for you to look back at that time period and find a reflection of Black women there?
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 3:46
Exactly, and it's not even finding that reflection; it's putting that reflection in myself, you know? Because what it really stems from for me is I'm a daydreamer. And I have that theater background. And I went to a Royal Conservatory training program, where a lot of the training was set in that era. So we studied works by Shakespeare, and then by Molière, and all these great classical artists. And so for me to learn that language, to step into those roles, there was so much beauty in it, but there was the disconnect because the roles that I played exclusively white. To really have that adopted into this colorblind casting and that notion of putting the Black body within that was something that was invigorating to be holding these spaces in that time because you know, Black bodies existed in that time. They were before us. And so for me when I went to art school and dove into the visual arts and in particular the Renaissance, and, you know, artists like Caravaggio really stood out to me. And then fast forward to the Art Nouveau era. And all of these artists that did these dazzling portraits of women, and they were so mysterious and yet seductive and vulnerable all at the same time. And for me, that is who we are as Black women, and to be portrayed with the fierceness and contrast with the softness is really what I dive into when I go back into the Renaissance to put the Black body into these narratives. And so it is so interesting for me to do the research and then to also bring a contemporary lens with different symbology embedded within. I can keep going like this is something that I will forever be inspired by. And I'm just getting started.
Lisa Woolfork 5:40
I was hearing that, you know, you've created these tapestries, these collections that are in powerful engagement in conversation with each other, but you are not at the end of the conversation. It seems that you are very much at the beginning of that conversation. Can you talk a little bit about the contrast you describe, or what what I've heard in the contrast, you described between the softness, as well as some of the hard parts, the difficulty, the things that are difficult or hard? What I hear in that might be a way that you could explain to us about tufting itself? Like what does it mean to create a tapestry? What kind of physical elements or physical labor is required to create the visual art that you do, because it's a rug, and the fiber itself, is soft. But in order to put it in there, it requires a punch needle or some use of a tufting gun, or it just sounds like beautiful, soft, lovely, you know, very comfortable warm fibers and this beautiful, beautiful illustration and also a hard mechanical device. And you have to put so much I'm sure of your physical body into just that part of the making. Can you talk a little bit about that balance? Or do you describe it as a balance of the process itself?
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 6:56
Yes, absolutely. You really hit it there. So the punch needle, I started with the tufting gun, I shall say that's the tool that I saw. And I was captivated by it because it looks like a handheld gun. Although I describe it as a handheld sewing machine because you feed the bulky yarn through it, and my loom is vertical. So you stretch the cloth across the canvas that it's a frame, it's a wooden frame that has curve and tacking all along the edges. And then you stretch the monk's cloth or the primary rep warp across it tight like a canvas. And so from there, I use the tufting gun. It's like a paintbrush, but I manipulate it with both hands. So it is quite arduous, like It's taxing on my body, on my shoulders, on my wrist. I was drawn to the power and the rigor behind it. And then in conjunction with that, I use the punch needle. And the punch needle was invented in 1881. And so this tool has been around for a long time, as opposed to the tufting gun, which came about in the 1950s. And so, yes. And the punch needle was very dominant in North America, especially in white households.
Lisa Woolfork 8:10
So can you explain what is a punch needle? Because I'm nodding, y'all. If you're a Patreon subscriber, you get to see the video of lovely Simone Elizabeth and lovely Lisa having a conversation, and you see me nodding vigorously, like I know exactly what my new friend is talking about. And let me just be honest, I do not. I do not know what a punch needle is. These questions are based on some actual research. I'm like, "Oh, punch needle and tufting are two ways to do this." I do not know what a punch needle is. I've seen a tufting gun because I'm a nerd, and I love notions. But now I'm thinking maybe I need a punch needle. So can you explain a little bit about what that is?
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 8:47
You should get one. It's fun. They're made for bulky yarns, or back in the early 1900s they were predominantly with strip small pieces of fabric. So the needle itself, like the base is just for your hand to fit around. And then the top of the needle is about two inches long, but some of them are as small as one inch. Some of them are longer depending how long you want your thread, your yarn to be pushed through. And so you push it through the cloth and bring it back, and then you push it through the next set of weaves, like within your canvas.
Lisa Woolfork 9:23
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 9:23
So it looks a rug on the other side. That is exclusively the punch needle. However, not to confuse everyone, but the tufting gun has two mechanisms. It's the loop pile, which is what I use predominantly and almost exclusively. And then there's the cut pile, and the cut pile has the scissors. So the mechanized tool will push the yarn in and out but it'll cut it as it pushes it through.
Lisa Woolfork 9:50
Oh my gosh.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 9:51
Actually, just a U within the fabric, so it's plush on the other side.
Lisa Woolfork 9:57
Wow, wow. It sounds like you're making more than one thing at a time. It seems as though like...that the top or what you consider the front or the back, depending on what you choose, like either way, you're making two different artworks at one time.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 10:11
I mean, it's not unlike embroidery, though, where I do have to work from the back. So I have to remember when I'm within my process to flip my imagery before I start the process.
Lisa Woolfork 10:23
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 10:25
To turn my frame to look to the front to see how it's coming along.
Lisa Woolfork 10:30
That's really wonderful, especially when you consider how arresting some of your imagery is. Like, I think so much of it, like I might see a piece, and I am absolutely drawn in. I'm like, stop, pause, look. It seems like there's not really an initial looking for your pieces. It's like when I look at them, I see it, and then I lean in to see more, like, because I find the first impression so striking, especially the art nouveau style, which is interesting, because I don't know much about Art Nouveau as a genre. And yet, it seems as if your choice is to go back to the distant past and bring them to the present really does close a gap between what we thought we knew and who we actually are. Because it seems like, at least for me as a viewer, I see these beautiful Black women, I see our natural hair, I see all of these things in your work. And it's like you're telling us or inviting us to remember the history that's been denied us. Can you talk a bit about what does it mean to create, strand by strand, piece by piece, thread by thread, these remarkable collections of history and beauty all at one time? Like, that's the thing that I just find so striking overall about your process and its outcome.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 11:58
Thank you, I appreciate everything that you just said. And just to take it back to the soft yet the powerful of the machine and also of the content, it is very arresting for me when I'm putting these pieces together, when I'm in the process, I allow for a huge sense of spirituality and really honoring my ancestors and those who came before me. Because a lot of them were rooted in those domestic craft-like work. And so for me to invite them to see, to be imbued in the threads means so much to me, and even in the coming together of the colors, you know, it's not a material. It's not like a paint where I can blend a green and a yellow--you can't do that. So the coming together and the nesting of threads, to me, is also such a spiritual connotation of our histories. Me reaching out to this sisterhood to this wide, vast diaspora that is not just in Canada. It reaches over to the U.S. It's global, you know, and to bring us all together. So for you to mention that when you look at my work, you have to take it in because it's really important for me to consider all the nuances, the dynamics of the pattern, even the pattern to have symbology. I do a lot of symbolism of femininity. I reached back into Egyptology often and will have those. And even the dynamism of color and the emotion that exude. And so sometimes when I put two colors together in a pattern, it takes me so long to decide because you really need to know the emotion or what it's going to draw, what it's saying, what it's speaking to. And so the process for me is really a personal, personal journey. And it's really a beautiful way for me to speak my voice for me to dive back into my histories and honor my ancestors. And at the same time to reach out and to connect with women.
I think you're doing that so beautifully. And I'm glad that you mentioned your heritage. And I was wondering if your topics, the stories that you tell--I'm really curious about how does this approach to your definition or approach to the diaspora from your Canadian heritage or Jamaican heritage--how do all of these influence the way that you talk about community, place, even the natural landscape, dramatic Rocky Mountains and expansive prairie. All of these things are present in your work. How do you hold all of that together? Or how do you pull all of this together to coalesce to help shape your vision and approach overall?
Absolutely. When I started in the theater world, what was really pertinent to me and to the other four Black women who started the Afro-centric theater company called the Ellipsis Tree Collective, and it was first of its kind in Western Canada. This was like around 2010.
Lisa Woolfork 14:58
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 14:59
Thank you. And so what really is the initial impetus for me is to see a reflection of me within these histories and also in a contemporary lens within these spaces, within these museums and these institutions. Because when I was doing theater, again, that notion of colorblind casting did not exist. And so for being cast as the help. We were being cast as the prostitute. We were not getting these leading roles. We wanted to see a reflection of that, of us, on the stage. And so fast forward to me then transitioning to set design, and then transitioning to the visual arts. And it's that same drive is to have that reflection of my community of who I am, and bringing my experiences, my love of the theater, my love of the vast prairie skies, and things that I find beautiful and that are an elixir to my life, that I then share my joy in all of these nuanced pieces. But then at the same time, my work really got recognized in the horrible, the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. And though there's also modern, contemporary notions of speaking truths that are also embedded in my work as well.
Lisa Woolfork 16:19
I see that as well. And what I'm taking with me from what you mentioned, was the idea of the theater itself being a combination of reality and illusion. That, you know, you have real people on stage acting out real scenes or scenes that have been crafted from reality to reflect reality. And yet, when you go to a show, you know that you are going to a performance that's designed for a particular impact, right? And you shifted all of that from the stage to set design. And now onto these stunning canvases. And I want to return back to the word you used "elixir."
Black Women Stitch and the Stitch Please podcast is grateful for all the support that made Sew Black possible. Special thanks to our underwriters, Spoonflower. Thanks also to Moda for generous sponsorship. Thank you, Bernina, for your wonderful support. Thank you also to Amtrak for partnering with us. Special thanks to those who shared resources to equip the space. This includes AccuQuilt, Aurifil, Crimson Tate, Sew Easy, Ruby Star Society, Free Spirit Fabrics, Kai Scissors, thank you, thank you, thank you. Special thanks to Focusrite for making the lab recording possible through the donation of an audio interface, the Focusrite 18-i-eight. Thanks to The Bridge PAI for the initial funding. And thanks also to the Modern Quilt Guild for their generous support. Thank you all so much for making this possible.
You use the word elixir like an elixir for your joy. I'm not sure if that was the exact phrase that you used. Because when I hear elixir, I think spell. I think magic. I think medicine, sure, you can call it medicine. But there's something about mixing together something that is meant to give you this sense of peace, of joy. Your tapestries are doing that very thing that is, in some way, a form of casting out your vision, almost as if it's a net and pulling people in toward you, right? And that's one of the things that's so powerful about a tapestry, that it's different from a painting, for example. Of course we know paintings have dimensionality, but the texture of your pieces themselves feel so lush. And I love the way that you create the lushness of Black beauty. And I think that one of the reasons that your work has exploded in these last few years with the Black Lives Matter movement is because more people are starting to realize that Black Lives Matter is more than a call for equity and justice with policing and police abuse and anti-Black violence. It's also a call to existing in the fullness of ourselves and that your work is about that aliveness, that fullness. Audre LordE described it as "Blackfullness," like a form of mindfulness but Blackfullness. And ever since I've learned that term, Blackfullness, I see it everywhere. And so there's a Blackfullness about your work that is so warm. And just a reminder, just a reminder that despite all of it, despite all of the ugliest, despite all of the harshness and the anti-Blackness and the things that we are supposed to contend with, we can also choose to relish in our love for one another, for the sisters of the distant past that we've never even met or never even knew. And yet we can be a testament to them.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 20:15
Lisa Woolfork 20:15
Right. I think that that's what you're doing. I think that is exactly what you're doing. And you do that with, you know, the kind of the physicality of the tufting, the physicality of the punch needle, but also the way that you choose your colors, and that each of your colors is telling a story. And as you're deciding, I'm sure you're like, Okay, well, this color is doing this and this color's doing that. What will they do together? Do you have a sense of color that you often see, like, okay, well, I know that these two will work well. Or when I put these two together, it might yield this reaction. How does color work for you? It seems as though when you put something down, it's down. Like I don't know how easy it is to untuft something. I hate picking out sewing machine stitches. Like you would think that this was like the worst thing to happen to me. I'm like, "Oh my gosh, it's gotta be a better way. Let me start over." I mean, I really hate it that bad, the unsewing. How do you decide like, okay, these are the colors I'm going to commit to, and what happens when it's like, I'm not so sure, let me revise?
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 21:15
Firstly, to remove the thread, it can be a difficult process if the threads are overlapping. However, if the threads are in little clusters on their own, it's okay to remove it. There might be a little bit of degradation, like a spacing in the cloth, but I still redo it. But to bring it--yeah, color is life. Color has so much vibrancy. And I do have that foundation, you know, in art school. So I know my tertiaries. I know what complements each other. So that can be a starting point for me. But also, it's understanding the connotations behind color. You know, what colors exude joy when you look into the sky? What's happiness? What's anger? And so they're very emotive as well. So it also relates to the tapestry and what the tapestry is saying. So for example, one of my unicorn tapestries, all four of them, are associated to a time of day. And so I mean, that initially will start me with my color palette. And then from there, there's movement. And within the work itself, when I look at the floral and the fauna, I try not to repeat a color. So if I'm invested in a certain pattern, I try not to use the colors again. Just for me, when your eye moves around the tapestry, I want that color wheel, just that vibrancy of color. And so I find if I can really focus on different colors and different areas of the tapestry, that it doesn't become muddied and it really helps the eye to move around.
Lisa Woolfork 22:52
I really love that description of the eye moving around because it describes, I think, maybe what I was trying to get at when I look at your work that it's not possible. These are not pieces you glance at. These are pieces that I can imagine, you know, at the show this week, if someone is walking by, it is not possible, I don't think, to just walk by, glance, and keep going. Like this is absolutely an invitation to a form of visual engagement. Like you said, when the eye moves, myself as a viewer, when I look at it, I look here, I look there, I look there, I look there, I look there. I'm looking at all the different things. And even though I do not have the training in art school about how colors are meant to move, I'm still able to follow the story because of your guidance. Because you have the skills to know what's meant to move. So you can create or have created something that people can then easily step into and also participate in. It makes it seem kind of like your work is picking up in some ways on even like a form of call and response, which is really popular in Southern African American church traditions of going back and forth. That, you know, you lay down something on the textile, and then the person who is watching or looking at it comes with their own responses. Have you ever had a chance to watch people view your work? And what is that like as someone who is the artist and you're like, "Okay, this is what I thought I was doing. This is what I've done. Okay, I'm here, it's there. It's out in the world. And now I'm watching an audience or a viewer experience it"? Tell us about that.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 24:24
It is absolutely incredible. The solo show that I had last year here, in Alberta, at Contemporary Calgary, and then the space itself had a bench in the center of the room. And I was fortunate enough that I wanted to go visit these works quite often. And so I would sit in the room to take in the queens and the goddesses. And when people came into the room, and the walls were painted black, it really emphasized and emulated the colors and the power of these gazes that are coming towards you from these women on the wall. And to watch people engage, it felt like it was outside of myself. It really feels like each of these works that I imbue with these very particular narratives, like each work has its own story. And I bring that from my theater experience that each of these goddesses and these ancestors that I'm creating in these tapestries, they are communicating something specific that I have imbued into them. But the relationship that it has with the viewer is unbeknownst to me. You know, the symbology and the colors and the patterns that I use, I want them to touch people. I don't create work that I want to go over people's heads. You know, I want to engage with it. And so it was such an incredible experience, especially watching families and young Black and brown girls coming in and spinning and twirling under the works, because there's a lot of movement to the works as well. And their want to touch the textile, because our velvet threads and sparkly threads. I just feel so grateful every day that this is how I found my voice and that this is how I'm able to share my experiences and narratives that I want to see out into this world.
Lisa Woolfork 26:11
I really appreciate that. And I love that description. I'm just imagining now these little Black girls, little brown girls twirling like seeing themselves. You know, as a kid, going to a museum is not the funnest thing you can do. But when you get to see yourself as a mermaid, when you get to see yourself as a goddess, when you get to see yourself as a unicorn, when you get to see yourself, there is something to be said about being seen by a sister in a format you'd never imagined possible. Especially for little girls, little people to see these huge images that are taller and held up higher than they are and to have that be a background for their own joy. You know, they're like, "I can do this movement that I see on the tapestry, see?" And it becomes even that much more than an image. It becomes that kind of true reflection. It allows folks to see that which is possible. And that's another one of the reasons that I think that the way that you have recovered some very early, early history and found us there and put us there reminds me of just so many ways that we can play. So many ways that we can express our joy in the fullness of that joy regardless of what someone did or did not intend for us. That matters not because you know we have boundless creativity right now. And we can use that for our own freedom, edification, and liberation. And that is what you're doing. And that's why I think your work really did pick up in this time of heightened Black visibility in some ways and unfortunate hyper visibility in others. Just the comfort of the fibers themselves, you know, the velvet ones, the sparkly ones, all of these seem to be part of a larger narrative of beautiful Black limitless creativity. And you are doing that all the time. And now we get to see it right here on U.S. soil in your first U.S. show. Coming down from Canada all the way from Alberta to get to New York City. What are you excited about? About your work being at the Claire Oliver Gallery and having folks being able to come through and see it?
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 28:23
Being in New York, first and foremost, is such a gift. It's absolutely surreal. I cannot wait to witness it there. And to be in Harlem. Her gallery is a figure there. And they've really integrated within Harlem when they made the move from Chelsea quite a few years ago. And so to be there, and for the community of Harlem to come and see these works is just going to be such a gift. And for me to see these works hung together and to feel them in conversation with one another. My frame itself is 70 inches by 70 inches. And so I work with one piece at a time. And then when I finish it, I've been sending them off to the gallery. And so the joy for me and for my entourage who's coming with me from Calgary...
Lisa Woolfork 29:13
I love it.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 29:14
...to witness them hung together, like I can't even manifests what that feeling's going to be, but it's going to be joyful and filled with love.
Lisa Woolfork 29:23
And I love the way that you're describing it. It's a reunion and a union at the same time. Like you've created these pieces, and then okay, this one's fit. Okay, she's ready. She's ready. She's ready. We're gonna put--let's box her up. Make sure she's well cared for. Make sure she's going to the right place. She's off. Okay, we got receipt. She's there. But you've not seen it hung, and you've not seen it hung next to the other works. Do you think about your works as siblings, as sisters? Do you think about them as separate pieces that are having a different type of conversation? What is that like when you are crafting works in a group?
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 29:58
That's a very good question. So when I started my initial series of tapestries, I really just focused on that individual tapestry and the voice that it had and the narration that was portrayed within it. But I definitely think of them as a sisterhood. My first two solo shows here in Canada were called Unity. And yes, Queen Latifah, nod to her.
Lisa Woolfork 30:22
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 30:24
It's whether I'm, you know, drawing back in time in the historical canon or doing a contemporary lens, it's all about a sisterhood. It's all about honoring our ancestors, those who came before us, those who are here now, those who are yet to come. And so for that connectivity, again, it's an elixir. It's about love. It's about showing Black women, even though often a lot of these tapestries have these histories embedded in them in these kind of dark undertones sometimes, I really flip that with the color and the narration to show the softness and the grace and the joy and the vulnerability which is important to tell. And so yes, although the series, in Unearthing Unicorns there are two distinct series that are sisters. They are definitely sisters, they're a series. I do think of all of my works as siblings, as extensions of me, and as extensions of viewers to be shared.
Lisa Woolfork 31:25
Simone, I'm going to ask you the last question that we ask everybody on the Stitch Please podcast. The slogan of the Stitch Please podcast is that we will help you get your stitch together, we'll help you get your stitch together. So I'm going to ask you, what advice would you give to our listeners to help us get our stitch together?
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 31:43
Advice! Do you? Do you? I think people thought--they ask me how did you get into tufting? What made you start to do portraiture? And it was for me, what I wanted to see, something I wanted to explore. I didn't know how it would be received. I didn't know how the outcome was going to be. And so just allow your creativity to run wild. And what is most important for me is not to put yourself in a box. Me reaching back into the historical canon of the Renaissance and Art Nouveau-- those are personal loves that I had, but then I tie it in with my theater and with modern-day music. I listen to a lot of Alicia Keys and Nina Simone and Georgia Smith, Queen Latifah. And so sometimes their lyrics inspire me. Just be inspired by what inspires you, not what you think that you should be putting out in the world, because everyone's voice is unique, and you deserve to be heard.
Lisa Woolfork 32:40
That is fantastic. And on that note, we are so grateful to Simone Elizabeth Saunders for being with us all the way from Canada. And you all can check her out. And if you are in Harlem this Friday, this Friday, you will get to meet Simone Elizabeth Saunders yourself and to see these stunning pieces. Y'all, this is something that you would want to see in real life. The images are striking, the images are rich and evocative. I can only imagine what it would be like to walk in there and to see these pieces on a wall. So if you are in the area, please do stop by the show. It starts on Friday and goes through May--what day in May, Simone?
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 33:21
So the show itself is from March 17th to May 13th. The gallery is open. It's closed Sundays, Mondays, and then on Friday from six till eight p.m., come on through. I would love to meet you all. I'd love to have a conversation about art, and experience the Unearthing Unicorns.
Lisa Woolfork 33:41
Y'all, do this. Listen, listen, listen. Thank you so much, Simone Elizabeth Saunders, for being here today. This was a true delight. Thank you.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders 33:51
Lisa Woolfork 33:54
You've been listening to Stitch Please, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you joining us this week and every week for stories that center Black women, girls, and femmes in sewing. We invite you to join the Black Women Stitch Patreon community with giving levels beginning at five dollars a month. Your contributions help us bring the Stitch Please podcast to you every week. Thank you for listening. Thank you for your support, and come back next week, and we'll help you get your stitch together.