Zeng Qiaoling "Memories"

A Look at Outsider Art: “The State of Hand Stitch” by Linda Simone

The term “outsider art” refers to art which is learned in a setting outside the formal academic arena. In The State of Hand Stitch: New Embroidery by Texas Artists, an exhibition at UTSA (1604 Campus) through August 9, 2019, many of the 11 participating fiber artists were taught to embroider at a mother’s or grandmother’s knee. The exhibition includes works by Debbie Armstrong, Beth Cunningham, Jane Dunnewold, Janis Hooker, Lucia LaVilla-Havelin, Barbara Lugge, Kim Paxson, Miki Rodriguez, Mary Ruth Smith, Pamela Studstill, and Sue Anne Sullivan. Here is a sampling of some outstanding pieces on display.

Just as a thick paint applied in wild brush strokes is the undeniable mark of Van Gogh, hand stitching is the mark of the maker in fiber art. These artists transform what some might call “homespun” work into fine art that packs an emotional punch. The exhibit demonstrates the wide range that exists in textile art today by presenting pieces that vary greatly in scale, subject, and style. 

Selecting key details and employing clean and exact single stitches, Lucia LaVilla-Havelin weaves family histories and 21st century social commentaries. Her Zero Tolerance makes a powerful statement about the current crises of families separated at our southern border. The Rio Grande River divides the cloth and separates a grieving mother from her crying child while two disembodied hands threaten. The tableau of Need Not Apply relates a painful experience the artist’s mother had in the 1930s. The reason, “Italian,” is clearly stitched on the job application peeking from the trash. Although set in a different era, the times, dress, and nationality can easily be swapped out for prejudice that continues today. 

Lucia LaVilla-Havelin Zero Tolerance 2018, hand-embroidered, 12” x 12”. Photo: Seale Studios.

Lucia LaVilla-Havelin Need Not Apply 2018, hand-embroidered, 11” x 11”. Photo: Seale Studios.

Debbie Armstrong calls stitching “a link to my grandmother.” Her large pieces invite the viewer to step closer to appreciate her delicate embroidery. In one example, Texas Tamale, Armstrong reflects on the confluence of Texan and Mexican cultures, which meld despite a contentious border. Her intricate arrangement of large and small squares and rectangles are embellished with finely detailed iconic cultural images—The Sacred Heart, a Dia de los Muertes skull, cacti, fiesta-colored flowers, and Frida Kahlo, to name a few.  

Debbie Armstrong Texas Tamale 2017-2018, mixed media-embellished quilt, embroidered, 101” x 77”. Photo by the artist.

Front and center in each of Beth Cunningham’s pieces is dress as a symbol of the exterior life of women—a sort of tabula rasa on which unspoken interior thoughts are now give voice through the media of thread. In Thoughts Unspoken – Love, an appliquéd white dress on colorful floral field is covered with adages and quotations, e.g., “I just want someone who will never stop choosing me” and “I fell in love with the way you touched me without using your hands.” Some text also hints at the darker side of love. Cunningham’s art becomes a receptacle for piles of collected quotes. She signs every piece with the image of her dog, Mr. Tibbs. 

Beth Cunningham Thoughts Unspoken – Love 2019, muslin, embroidered, single strand cotton, silk threads, embellished, buttons, beads, botanical references, appliquéd, silk organza overlay, 26” x 22”. Photo by the artist.

Kim Paxson combines and layers hand-made wool felt as canvas for embroidery that reflects the natural world as well as troubling social issues. Within a silver metal frame sporting two suns, Paxson’s Climate Change: Too Hot. Too Cold. Too Distract. comments on today’s most pressing ecological threat. Her stitchwork depicts people peering out windows, screaming, and running from unnatural heat, whipping winds, and cold blue snow. Within vintage glass ashtrays, she frames pieces such as Out of Step, in which a single-stitched yellow and red foot is symbolically severed in half. 

Kim Paxson Climate Change: Too Hot. Too Cold. Too Distracted. 2016, Artist-made wool, silk felt, hand-embroidered, twisted cord, repurposed metal tray, 23” x 12”. Photo by the artist.

Kim Paxson Out of Step 2017, artist-made wool, hand-embroidered, cotton thread, vintage glass, 5.25” x 5.25” X 1.25”. Photo by the artist.

Sue Anne Sullivan is obsessed with wool felt and hand stitch. In Close Quarters, she combines jewel-colored silk thread and silk ribbon on a rectangular loom, then wets the wool so that it contracts and shrinks. Her technique imparts the suffocating feeling of being hemmed in, underscored by a belt-like boundary whose loops could almost resemble nooses. 

Sue Anne Sullivan Close Quarters 2017, artist-made wool, felted, 17” x 9”. Photo: Searle Studios.

Using discarded textiles Janis Lea Hooker sets up an interplay between time-worn cloth, mending, and a variety of techniques such as Japanese boro—where textiles have been mended or patched to create  something new and whole from pieces and scraps. In Garden of Earthly Delight, a trio of Japanese women float and dance in flowing kimonos among lotus blossoms and pastel leaves. The detailed stitchery of faces and background shapes is beautiful and arresting, right down to the butterfly in each woman’s hair.                

Janis Lea Hooker Garden of Earthly Delights 2017, whole cloth quilt, paper, glue stencils, silkscreened, dyed, hand-embroidered, embellished, 36” x 31”. Photo by the artist.

Barbara Lugge’s painterly landscapes and portraits are brought to three-dimensional life with traditional and self-created stitching techniques and an expert interplay of shadows and hues. Representative is Peace Portrait, Bob Marley in which amazing straight stitches using beige and yellow ribbon and thread shadowed with purple bring the iconic Reggae singer to life. Study of Rembrandt Etching captures the subject’s unmistakeable expression in stitches that behave like a cross-hatched drawing. 

Barbara Lugge Peace Portrait, Bob Marley 2009, hand-stitched, silk ribbon, cotton thread, canvas, 21.5” x 17.5”. Photo by the artist.

Barbara Lugge Study of Rembrandt Etching, hand-stitched, cotton thread, canvas, 2009, 17.5” x 17.5”. Photo by the artist.

The approaches, subjects, and choice of materials represented in this exhibit are as unique as each individual artist. At the same time, all are unified by the repetitive motion of pulling threaded needle through cloth. In viewing the exhibit, one appreciates the diversity, delicacy, boldness, and artistry of thread as paint and fabric as canvas.

Linda Simone is a poet and watercolor artist living in San Antonio, TX. Her poems and essays have appeared in many journals and anthologies. Her painting, “River of Dreams,” is on the cover of her recent poetry collection, The River Will Save Us (Kelsay Books 2018). Her interviews have appeared in Indiana Voice Journal (with artist Vera von Beckendorff-Smith),  Nat. Brut (with fiber artist Lucia LaVilla-Havelin), and others. She has written poetry reviews for Woven Tale Press, Former People, First Literary Review—East, and other journals. She is a member of San Antonio’s River Art Group.


  • Sue Anne Sullivan says

    August 19, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    Thank you so much for a wonderful article about our stitch show! Very well done and we all appreciate the exposure.

  • Beth Cunningham says

    August 28, 2019 at 8:25 am

    Linda, It's so gratifying to see our show through another's eyes. Thank you for the insight into the heart of our exhibit, and the time you have invested in expressing the artist's intentions. Brilliant article.

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