Fibre artist Salley Mavor brings together decades of knowledge about sewing, colour, design, storytelling and children to create exquisite tableaux using just fabric and found objects.
If you belong to the category of people who tend to bracket needlework as another one of those pastimes of the retired set, you need only look at Salley Mavor’s intricate tableaux to see how misguided you are in your opinions. Salley Mavor’s unique needlework stems from decades of knowledge about sewing, colour, design, storytelling and children and shows us how this elementary form of surface embellishment can stand transformed in the hands of a true artist.
With great modesty Salley explains, “A needle is my tool, thread is my medium and stitches are my mark. I create 3-dimensional works of art that tell stories with needlework and found objects. I embroider, wrap, embellish and paint different materials and then hand-stitch them together.”
Salley’s pieces are presented as tableaux in bas-relief, with scenery, props and characters assembled on fabric backgrounds in shadow-box frames. This is not needlework as we know it in the conventional sense. As an alternative art form, Salley’s tableaux impress us with their high degree of skill, richness of detail and symphony of textures.
If you feel encouraged to follow in Salley’s footsteps, be warned that needlework of this type requires patience of the extreme kind. The fibre artist who appears to be blessed with ample reserves of this quality says, “I find a calm thoughtfulness in the time-consuming, repetitive handwork. Slowing down like this helps me figure out what to do next. Each new piece has its own unique challenges to work out during the process, and for this, I let my hands take the lead.”
Salley’s fascination with needle and thread started off in childhood when she and her sister would spend hours stitching outfits and creating scenes for their dolls. She reminisces, “I was especially interested in all things miniature and of coming up with ways to decorate and furnish the dolls’ environment.”
Relating her enviable childhood, the artist reveals that it was her mother who had a big influence on her development as an artist. She adds, “There was always time for art and I never heard her say no to an imaginative scheme. She would help us gather supplies and teach us whatever we needed to make an idea come to life.”
As an illustration major at the Rhode Island School of Design, Salley was fortunate to meet a teacher who recognised her talent and set her free to work with needle and thread as an alternative to the conventional pen and paper. Salley says, “I stopped trying to translate the pictures in my mind’s eye through a brush or pen and found that I was happier and energised while manipulating materials in my hands. I was no longer struggling to keep in step. With a needle and thread, I could dance.”
Salley’s artwork is widely photographed and reproduced in books, cards and posters. Her book – Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (published in 2010) is an exquisite collection of popular nursery rhymes beautifully illustrated with needle and thread. Salley reveals the book took three years in the making but was well worth the effort when it won the prestigious Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and the Golden Kite Award.
Although Salley draws her themes from Nature and fairy folk she succeeds in creating engrossing tableaux rather than just pretty embroidery. She quips, “I want my artwork to be a kind of narrative that viewers can connect to, but isn’t too cutesy or superficial at the same time. Total abstraction leaves me hungry for more. I have to fall in love with my characters in order to devote so much time to the process of creating them.”
Although her work has won awards Salley admits that the mainstream art world has yet to acknowledge her craft seriously. “The narrative and decorative style of my pieces doesn’t really fit into the abstract, conceptual contemporary art scene. And I suppose that writing instructional books opened me up to being characterised as only a teacher of doll-making techniques,” she says wistfully.
But she also adds, “Showing how to make these ‘cute’ dolls and illustrating story books may have compromised my status in the art world, but knowing my work has touched many lives is of more value to me personally.”
The fibre artist is now keen to exhibit her original pieces, so that more people can view the detailing and texture of her work up close. Brimming with fresh ideas for the future, Salley reveals, “I am working on larger pieces (24”, 30”), which take 4 to 6 months to complete, so it will take a few years to accumulate enough new pieces.” That’s certainly something all of us can look forward to now.
Text By Christabelle Athaide
Photographs Rob Goldsborough