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Texan Women ‘Paint with Thread,’ Showcase Embroidery at UTSA Art Gallery


Eleven Texan female artists challenge the notion that embroidery is simply “women’s work” with the exhibit, “The State of Hand Stitch: New Embroidery by Texas Artists,” now on display at UTSA through Aug. 9.

The art varies in size, textures, subjects and materials, but is united by the common thread of needlework. Walking into the gallery, one is immediately overwhelmed by the saturated colors and unusual materials of more than 40 pieces of artwork. The composition and themes vary, but each piece is undeniably emotional and deeply personal to its creator. For example, where Lucia LaVilla-Havelin uses single stitch to illustrate scenes out of her own family’s oral history, Sue Anne Sullivan employs thick wool and felt to create colorful, challenging abstractions.
Scott Sherer, director of the UTSA Art Gallery, said the diversity in themes and materials used by the artists appealed to the selection committee because it challenges visitors.

“The artists follow a range of abstract and representational modes, with exquisite detail and bold compositions,” Sherer said. “Across the exhibition, viewers are challenged and pleased with the dynamic relationships between intimacy and bold statements.”

LaVilla-Havelin has been creating art with needlework for over 40 years, first learning to sew from her mother, then working professionally with a loom, and finally creating works of art with fine embroidery. She said in the last few years, more mainstream artists are using needlework and recognizing it as an art form.
LaVilla-Havelin stitches scenes from family stories. Here, she recalls the time she broke her ankle while bird watching at Big Bend and was confronted by roadrunners. - LUCIALAVILLAHAVELIN.COM
  • LaVilla-Havelin stitches scenes from family stories. Here, she recalls the time she broke her ankle while bird watching at Big Bend and was confronted by roadrunners.

“I think this is one of the reasons why it’s coming into vogue more, it’s a quiet time, it’s very centering,” LaVilla-Havelin said. “It allows you time to listen to yourself and to get away from all the technological noise and everything that’s going on so quickly in our world.”

LaVilla-Havelin said she keeps her hands busy whenever she can, already planning out her next project. “I was always kind of painting with thread,” she said. “I really love being able to create something while holding it in my hand.”

LaVilla-Havelin said there are not many male artists in Texas who are known for their embroidery skills, and the medium has long been considered female-dominated, though this is slowly changing.

Julie Johnson, associate professor of art history at UTSA, said contemporary artists such as Kiki Smith and Ghada Amer are beginning to use embroidery more often in their work as a way to subvert the patriarchy. For example, Amer embroiders images of nude female bodies in pieces that look abstract from a distance, and the meticulously stitched figures can only be seen up close.

"[Amer is] putting together these two systems that collide with each other because in high modernism, domesticity was completely rejected, anything associated with femininity," Johnson said. "There are many, many artists who are using embroidery in subversive ways."

Though none of the pieces in "The State of Hand Stitch" were explicitly subversive, they displayed uncommon and expert use of textures.

"There was very creative use of thread," Johnson said, especially in "the study of the Rembrandt etching. There has been a big liberation of how you use thread to express things in weaving and tapestries and embroidery."

Also on display are works by Debbie Armstrong, Beth Cunningham, Jane Dunnewold, Janis Hooker, Barbara Lugge, Kim Paxson, Miki Rodriguez, Mary Ruth Smith and Pamela Studstill.
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