Photo by Bettina Matzkuhn.
Bettina Matzkuhn, "Basking," 2014
Bettina Matzkuhn, "Basking," 2014, fabric collage, machine and hand embroidery, mounted on stretched canvas, 36” x 36”
Embroidery seems a humble craft. Laden with a history of genteel female enterprise and shadowed by homespun thrift and practical domesticity, its tiny repetitions are an obsessive tribute to time’s passage. Each thread bridled by a single steel eye, each stitch a drop in a larger sea, embroidery rides its broken line, an interrupted journey in stop-and-start staccato.
If art is a nation, as Vancouver fibre artist Bettina Matzkuhn suggests, and craft a province, then embroidery, at least in her nimble hands, is surely a rural outpost where life unspools in sensuous splendour amid nature’s overarching beauty. While stitchery may lack the mercurial tactility of oil paint, or the intellectual heft of conceptual art, Matzkuhn’s dense creations invite touch, carry narrative and, at their best, explore ideas about time and place.
Photo by Bettina Matzkuhn.
Bettina Matzkuhn, "Schmetterling #1," 2014
Bettina Matzkuhn, "Schmetterling #1," 2014, fabric paint and hand embroidery on linen, pellon, 24” x 39”
For three decades, she has used the metaphor of mapping to consider how we understand environmental systems, appropriating symbols from weather maps, marine charts and the like, delineating land and water, wind and wave, not just as physical realities, but to create emotional and spiritual analogies for the human journey. “I’m fond of metaphor,” she says. “I think metaphor is the most powerful tool in the artist’s box.”
Photo by Bettina Matzkuhn.
Bettina Matzkuhn, "The Adjectival Coast," 2007
Bettina Matzkuhn, "The Adjectival Coast," 2007, fabric paint and hand embroidery, 44” x 52”
For her Weathering series, for instance, Matzkuhn worked with a meteorologist as she explored the visual language of trough and ridge, turbulence and haze, shower and sleet. She developed large butterfly forms based on a mapping format that unfolds the globe into an octahedron, creating poetic cartographies of articulated fabric replete with swirling stitches. The work evokes a sense of both endurance and the ephemeral.
Photo by Ted Clarke.
Bettina Matzkuhn, "Tides," 2011
Bettina Matzkuhn, "Tides," 2011, cotton canvas, hand embroidery, cotton thread, machine-sewn sail, hand-worked corners/grommets, sisal rope, stainless-steel tubing, assorted nautical fittings, formed wooden battens and cut plate steel base, 12’ x 9’ x 6’
Inspired by a childhood spent around boats with her father, Matzkuhn has also made 12-foot sails that use the vernacular of maritime navigation. They were shown in 2013 at the Grand Forks Art Gallery in the B.C. Interior. “They have battens in them and tilt slightly so they look like they’re actually going somewhere,” she says. “That was really exciting to see.” The work commands attention, Jennifer Salahub wrote in the exhibition essay. “While it is the aesthetic and physical presence of the four billowing sails and the seductive nature of the densely embroidered sail diagrams that first seduce the viewer, it is the concept, craftsmanship and detail that garner their approbation.”
Other projects include Magic Quilt, a 1985 animated film that featured an embellished map of Canada. Then, in 1998, Matzkuhn documented a 2,300-kilometre bike trip from Vancouver to Yukon, unwinding the stitched linear route in a narrow band at a rate of one centimetre per kilometre. Matzkuhn has embroidered many maps over the years. Some, like The Adjectival Coast, resemble historical documents. But instead of place names, this map features adjectives that describe people, words like garrulous, feckless or supercilious, all lined up like ports of call. “When you sail up to someone, you form an opinion of them, right or wrong,” she says. “And you don’t know what lies inland until you get to know them more.” Another map is The Romantic Archipelago with colourful descriptors like Deceit Passage, a narrow channel that separates the Isle of Misunderstanding from Indifference Island.
Matzkuhn, now pushing 60, learned the language of fibre craft at the knee of her mother and grandmother. Along with knitting sweaters and slippers, her mother would use odd bits of yarn to craft mice for Christmas mantelpieces. “Occasionally they would use a pattern, but only to subvert it,” says Matzkuhn. She has also studied historic tapestries – a favourite is the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot embroidered cloth that tells the story of the Norman conquest of England. “It’s riveting,” she says. “It has everything in there – pathos, humour, murder and mayhem, betrayal. That history of telling stories is very much part of the textile medium.”
The embroidered scenes in Matzkuhn’s next exhibition, The Inhabited Landscape, are decidedly less dramatic. The show, which runs May 7 to June 11 at the Alberta Craft Council in Edmonton, includes 14 wall pieces about the pleasures of hiking. Call it homespun sublime. In one, several people sit companionably on a rocky outcrop overlooking a verdant mountain valley. In another, a man consults a map. Matzkuhn incorporated fabric scraps to create geological features, whether shiny rayon linings for snowfields or scraps from men’s suits for rockfaces. She used a machine for much of the routine sewing, but took time to stitch details of the hikers’ faces and fleecy sweaters by hand.
The series is folksier than her weightier research projects, but Matzkuhn is not an art snob. She likes both streams of her practice, believing craft can be accessible and erudite, functional and conceptual. She attended art school and has tried other media – but always finds her way back to fabric. “Textile is the medium in which I feel articulate,” she says. “Different people have different ways of working, and that’s my language.”