Jane Kenyon: Surgical Thread

Jane Kenyon

“Colour,” Canadian artist Jane Kenyon confirms “is everything in my work.” While this observation is not an unusual comment for an artist devoted to embroidery, Kenyon’s interpretation of colour, and the embroidered structures her colours find themselves stitched in, are unique. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Kenyon “grew up in a family where women were always knitting and stitching.” From childhood, textiles were an interest, but life first led her to medical school. After a decade working as a doctor in family practice Kenyon left the profession to make what had long been an interest in textiles into a career.

“Art was always pulling me”, she explains of her career change. Taking “every class I could find” Kenyon had, by 1997, completed her City & Guilds Art and Design Embroidery Certificate. The decision has proven well justified. Today, Kenyon’s works on paper and canvas, as well as textiles, have found homes in corporate and private collections in Canada and America. She is represented by four galleries in North America, including the Jane Sauer Thirteen Moons Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she recently held a solo exhibition of new work from her lichen series.

The trajectory of Kenyon’s career may sound remarkably straightforward, but a few twists and turns have presented themselves along the way. She arrived at embroidery after a spell as a weaver, a craft she admits led her to thread and an exploration of colour that continues to define her work today, but structurally was not the prefect match. With the benefit of hindsight she recalls that while weaving she found herself “always painting the warp” and returning to paint and canvas to “escape the restrictions of weaving.” A pivotal moment occurred during a three-day workshop with Jan Beaney who introduced her to free stitching. Kenyon took to the process immediately and has had little time since then to look back.

Over the past two years Kenyon has focused on what she refers to as thread painting: “the creation of cloth with stitch only.” Unlike the regimented warp and weft of weaving, thread painting “requires a foundation (stabilizer) on which to stitch that can be dissolved at the end of the project. Working in this way, I am essentially drawing and painting with thread, instead of using other traditional painting mediums.” The desire to “paint with thread” is not an uncommon sentiment within the embroidery arts. Practitioners such as Alice Kettle have articulated a similar relationship to their chosen materials, possibly because of the variety of structures embroidery affords. But while Kettle first trained as a painter and then transferred her skills to embroidery, Kenyon’s education in medicine provides a different perspective for her work.

Lichen in particular populates Kenyon’s most recent explorations. “I am exploring the microscopic world in my current imagery,” she explains. It is a world that seems to be central to an education in the sciences. The structure of cells, disease and the world magnified behind the lens of the laboratory microscope spring to mind, a world full of clues if not answers to the health of the human body. Kenyon’s explains that her attraction to thread painting lies in “exceptional detail and texture that are not possible with any other technique.”

But rather than appropriate imagery, Kenyon works directly from her own photographs, adapting her macro images in Photoshop to find the composition and colours she desires. When I suggest that there could not be a more ‘textiley’ surface than lichen and she concurs, explaining that although lichen is a recent focus of her textile work, it has been a photographic long before she began working seriously with textiles. At times these works look to depict underwater images of coral and caverns, ideal for the protection of jewel coloured sea creatures. There is also a sense of softness to the surface imagery, almost spongy, as one would imagine a mushroom or toadstool. Shapes bulge and cup, with dark interiors that absorb all trace of light. The rounded softness of the lips and edges of these ambiguous forms are rendered with an eye for the complexity of colour. Elsewhere spiny fossils come to mind, or sun bleached driftwood.

Technology also plays a role in the creation of this work. From a distance the eye finds it difficult to acknowledge the multitude of colours that comprise each image. Scale is crucial. The macro lens of the camera allows us to see things differently and focus on details the naked eye struggles to discern. While the lichen series explores incredible detail, the final pieces measure up to metre high and wide. As a result, we are confronted with foreign landscapes writ large. The computer is also crucial to the development of this work. Colour is separated into bands and blocks that begin to suggest maps or charts possibly even aerial views of distant landscapes. The sense of precise colour separation shares similarities with Rowena Dring’s large quilted landscapes, which are also created with the aid of the computer. In both cases, the world that we are presented with is both natural and unfamiliar at the same time, depicting things we may have seen but not scrutinised. Introduced to Kenyon’s vibrant world of minutia, we are once again reminded that nature is both wiser and far more creative than we often acknowledge. Kenyon’s sharp eye does some of this work for us, charting organisms we have failed to notice, suggesting maps of surfaces we have yet to explore.

Embroidery magazine (Sept./Oct. 2007: 12-15)

image: Jane Kenyon "Lichen 7"