By Joetta Maue – I am not sure how or when I came across the artist Sally Hewett’s work but as soon as I did I wanted to know more. I love how her work is both meaningful and humorous. She manages to make us laugh at our bodies and all of its beautiful flaws as well as contemplate & question the standards of beauty our culture perpetuates.
Read on to learn more about her sculptural stitching. BE WARNED nipples, butts and body hair on view…
Tell us a bit about your background?
SH: I have a BA in Law, have worked mainly in University administration and in the National Health Service, and now work full time as an artist doing the odd bit of typing to help feed myself.
Are you formally trained in craft and fibers?
SH: I have a BA in Fine art from the University of the Creative Arts at Canterbury. I haven’t been formally trained in craft and fibers. I was taught to sew and embroider mainly by my grandmother who was an upholsterer, by my aunty who taught needlework and by my mother. I have a large collection of fabrics, handmade clothing and underwear, embroidery silks etc., which I inherited from my grandmother some of which I use in my work.
If you had to describe your work in 3 words what would they be?
SH: I don’t think I can do that but someone once called it Pubism.
The Great Unwaxed
Most of your recent work is about body image and ideas of beauty, can you talk about how you came to this work?
SH: I have always loved bodies, particularly bodies which have their own unique beauty. I often see bodies with characteristics that I think are beautiful but which their owners do not and which they would change if they could – like David Bowie having his teeth straightened, which was a travesty I think.
For me all sorts of bodies can be beautiful whether they are fat or thin, old or young but I feel that enhancements don’t make beautiful bodies they make standardised bodies. When I started working with fabrics and stitching it was mostly about me delighting in both the materials and the juxtaposition of embroidery and body parts, but that led on me to work which is to some extent about the current obsession with body image. I think that to some extent I discover what my work is about as I make it or even after I’ve finished it.
Do you consider you and or your work feminist, why or why not?
SH: I am a feminist in the sense that I recognise how important the women’s movement has been in improving the lot of women, at least in some cultures, and how important it is to maintain that improvement.
I don’t think my work is feminist in the sense that Judy Chicago’s or Sarah Lucas’s is but I think the way I use my materials – materials which have a social and political history associated with women – and my subject matter give it a feminist slant.
How does working with embroidery/stitching affect the conceptual aspect of your work?
SH: I think the disjunction between the use of embroidery/stitching and the depiction of the parts of the body that I choose means that most viewers are not expecting what they see. Some people are intrigued, a few are disgusted and many are amused. Humour in art is something I find interesting and appealing. I think for some commentators work which is humorous is automatically thought not to be real art. But we can thank the wonderful Grayson Perry for challenging this prejudice.
What drew you to stitching?
SH: I was drawn to stitching partly because I’m good at it(!) but also because fabrics, embroidery and stitching have all sorts of associations and connections that make them a very rich medium.
How did you come to the sculptural quality if your work? Can you tell us a little about how you actually build the work?
SH: I really think of myself as a sculptor. I have always loved any sort of relief work – medals and coins, ancient Egyptian carvings, stumpwork, Rodin’s Gates of Hell, Matisse’s Backs. The first embroidered piece I did was a small nipple on a flat background and everything else grew from there.
For the heavily padded pieces I stitch wide ribbon across the inside frame and then use a strong fabric like cotton or linen for the backing and soft, stretchy fabric for the front. I then put padding – usually foam or polyester filling – between the two layers, put this into the frame and manipulate and stitch to get the shape I want.
Sisters under the skin 2 (Painted Lady)
Why do you choose to use the actual embroidery hoops as your frame, what role does this play?
SH: I like the fact that the hoops constrain the work inside them and form a boundary with tight skin inside and loose skin outside. The hoops have an aesthetic and a practical purpose: aesthetically, the design hasn’t really changed since they were first used so the hoops refer back to the history of embroidery and stitching; practically, they actually hold the work together as well as framing it.
Can you tell us a little about your lip series?
SH: Most of my pieces feature erogenous zones. Lips are erogenous and can be very expressive. In the first series I was experimenting with whether I could embroider lips which had something of that expressive quality – whether I could make them sulk or smile or smirk. Grace, black lips which were shown on Mr X Stitch a couple of years ago, is a tribute to Grace Jones – I had been looking at some photographs which showed her wonderful lipsticked lips. Sugar lips (lead image) is a nostalgic piece looking back at eating doughnuts as a child when we tried to eat them without licking our lips. It spoilt the doughnut.
Why have you not done more male bodies, is this of interest to you?
SH: I think both the framing and the loose fabric outside the frame are more in-keeping with female bodies than with male and I think the historical references are mainly female. But I am interested in male bodies and plan to do more in the future. I have made a piece called Golden Balls based on Victoria Beckham’s pet name for David – but it’s not quite as I want it yet.
Puts hairs on your chest
What is the next direction or step for your work?
SH: I have recently started making a series of samplers and I want to expand and develop these. I am also starting a completely new series of 3D pieces using underwear and corsetry as a constraining mechanism with flesh being forced out of the tight underwear.
What do you struggle with most as an artist?
SH: I am always in danger of being seduced by the materials and making something just because I have found some beautiful fabric or have seen a beautiful bottom. And I sometimes come across an artist who I think is so wonderful that I wonder what on earth I think I am doing. To escape from these downward spirals I usually do something entirely different like painting or wood carving which helps to give me a new perspective on my stitching and embroidery.
What else do you spend your time doing?
SH: Walking, visiting art exhibitions, reading, films, badminton, yoga, theatre, cycling (watching more than doing), visiting Harley Davidson shops, road trips in France. Only incidentally do these inform my work. I often work out how I’m going to make something while I’m walking along the seafront in the pouring rain.
Joetta Maue is a full-time artist, writer, and curator with a focus on the art of the needle. Her most recent body of work is a series of embroideries and images exploring intimacy and the domestic space. Joetta exhibits her work throughout the United States and internationally, and authors the critical blog Little Yellowbird as well as regularly contributes to Mr. X Stitch and the SDA Journal.