The art in the ordinary
American artist Cayce Zavaglia is creating slow, raw, honest art through her ultra-realistic embroidered portraits, stitched with needle and thread, asking us to stop and see the beauty and the art in real everyday people and ordinary materials.
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Through a dedicated process taking up to seven months per piece, St. Louis-based artist Cayce Zavaglia stitches layer upon layer of thread through canvas employing what she describes as “a renegade approach to embroidery”. Building complex textures and graduated colours, rendering the finest of details in thread—a glint of light, a flyaway hair, a tiny wrinkle at the eye—the artist creates eerily lifelike portraits, her almost obsessive stitching creating the illusion of brush strokes in a classical oil painting.
Embroidery is an important aspect to Zavaglia’s art, she tells me, “Having a viewer question how something is made at the same time they are looking at a work of art is really important to me. When people realise that my work is embroidered, I want it to conjure up images of their grandmother sewing, or their aunt teaching them to sew, and from this place of nostalgia I want them to be transported to another place when they see the potential of such a humble material.”
Humility and seeing the beauty in the ordinary runs through every aspect of Zavaglia’s work. In recent years, Zavaglia began to see the beauty in the other, more humble side of her canvases when she turned one of her embroideries over, noticing the image created on the underside. From this she created her Verso series, officially presenting this raw side of her canvas to the world. This led her back to her initial training as a painter where she then produced a series of gouache and large format acrylic paintings depicting these verso images in paint.
“If I cut away all of the knots and tension the embroidery would be weakened and would eventually fall off of the fabric. It is my hope that by focusing on this other side that the viewer would have hope that their other side has the potential for beauty.”
Zavaglia explains, “This other side is rarely seen by others. It holds hurt, secrets, pain, joy, memories—a whole host of things. Universally it is a ‘mess’ but I believe this other side has the potential to be beautiful. In my work this other side is literally the source of strength for the front. If I cut away all of the knots and tension, the embroidery would be weakened and would eventually fall off the fabric. It is my hope that by focusing on this other side that the viewer would have hope that their other side has the potential for beauty.”
It is perhaps this aversion to presenting a perfect picture that makes her art so compelling. Zavaglia’s choice of subject, her family, no doubt adds to the raw honesty and depth of her work. She explains, “I am a firm believer that if we each thought about our own family, that within that you would find a reference to all the hot topics in art: race, religion, politics, gender identity and immigration, etc.”READ ALSO: Fashion for Bank Robbers
“Craft in the art world is gaining traction and respect like never before. I am going to keep making and expanding the ideas of craft in upcoming work to really hone in on the potential of art and craft being able to be present together within the same piece, within the same white gallery space.”
When I ask the artist why she thinks embroidery has been overlooked in the art world, she tells me frankly, “I think traditionally because it is ‘women’s work’.” I see yet another dimension to Zavaglia’s oeuvre: that championing the “ordinary” art of embroidery is also a quiet act of feminism, elevating the home lives of women and their crafts produced throughout history. She tells me, “Craft in the art world is gaining traction and respect like never before. I am going to keep making and expanding the ideas of craft in upcoming work to really hone in on the potential of art and craft being able to be present together within the same piece, within the same white gallery space.”Visit Cayce Zavaglia's website