THINKER/MAKER/HEALER

Interview with Rhian Swierat, embroider of memories

Rhian Swierat, artist and graphic designer living in Brooklyn, is a storyteller who uses embroidery on paper as her medium of expression. She creates abstract and innovative embroidered artwork that record her memories and experiences of places. Working with silk, cotton, linen, rayon, polyester and wool embroidery thread, Rhian incorporates painting and drawing in her poetically layered pieces.

Memory is emotional, a complex relationship with the self. Psychologically speaking, it is a functional part of knowing ourselves. In A General Theory of Love, authors Lewis, Amini and Lannon state that memory defines, creates, and holds a person’s mental world together. Memory is clearly essential for us to operate in the present and think about the future. It is also a topic of painful significance to me during a season of health struggles. It was traumatizing when I found myself unable to recall recent memories, childhood memories and as well as practical memories that allow me to get on with the day. Viewing Rhian’s artwork is personally meaningful and healing to me as someone who grasps in vain for slippery memories. Her creative process resonates strongly as a way to explore the act of remembering.

“Our lives are the sum of our memories,” says Joshua Foer in his TED talk on improving memory and how memory makes us human. He asks, “How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives by … not paying attention?” Rhian’s artwork invites us to pay attention to our memories. We are not fully conscious of our inner worlds. Some memories may be lost forever, but there may be ways to restore certain fragments of the past. Stitch by stitch, Rhian remaps and reorganizes, re-remembering and therefore strengthening the neural pathways that would allow a particular memory to be retrieved. In viewing Rhian’s work, I received courage to be newly curious about re-entering my own scant memories. One dictionary definition of embroidery is “elaboration or embellishment, as in telling a story.” I believe this work has intriguing potential for those who suffer from PTSD and traumatic memories. How can we retell ourselves our own stories and change the narrative of our lives? Rhian’s work stirs up a tangible hope and means of healing — her artistic process is a reflection, a meditation, and a form of meaning-making to meet the self.

NIGHT SWIMMING, 2014
polyester and rayon thread with graphite and colored pencil on paper (11" x 10")

Judy Ko: Can you talk about how you started in embroidery and what led you to start creating your embroidered memories on paper?

Rhian Swierat: My mom taught me to embroider as a child, and it’s been something that I always enjoyed doing and found satisfying to do on and off over the years. There is something about using a single linear item — a thread — to slowly fill in or define an area. It’s meditative for me.

I find memory and how it changes fascinating. For me, memory is totally tactile. Embroidering on paper came about with my wanting to mix drawing & painting with sewing. I tested different materials, fabrics and papers, and I found paper provided the best canvas to explore my process.

JK: Each of your pieces begins from a particular memory. How do you see pattern, texture and color as a means to convey memory?

RS: That question gets to the core of my process.

So many parts of a memory are intangible. Smell, taste, emotions, even textures, especially the tactile aspect, are hard to capture in a visual form.

My memories of a place are always a mix of senses — color, smells, the physical texture of a place — was it cold or warm? Rocky or smooth? Was I happy or sad? These ‘senses’ start to morph as I work to translate my memories into a visual form. For example, the memory is of a cold day on a rocky beach. That day might have had a blue sky, but in order to convey that coldness I would use a light, cool palette. I want the viewer of my work to see that coldness. Maybe I can clearly remember sand in my shoes — this becomes a rough textured stitch. Was there a sharp smell to the air? That would become a hard-edged repeating pattern that would spread and overlay the other elements on the page — since that is what smell does. It’s pervasive.

Using patterns, textures and color allows me to translate what can’t be seen into something visual to portray the intangible.

JK: This process gives you the space to return to and wander around your memories. Has embroidering memories been healing for you? If so, how?

RS: In a way, yes it has. This goes back to the idea of sewing as my form of meditation. I start by completely focusing on a place and time, pulling out the things I want to share. Since sewing by hand is not a quick process and it’s repetitive by nature, the memory solidifies into a visual, tangible thing. Not all memories are neat and clean or perfect. They often shift and change, and can even be affected by more current events. How I feel today can color something from the past. By translating my memories into visual form and literally taking hours to render them, over and over, they become something I can always reference. It’s better than any photograph since it combines all the intangible aspects. I often find myself remembering more as I go — having this complete focus allows me to find parts of the memory that were forgotten.

“I often find myself remembering more as I go — having this complete focus allows me to find parts of the memory that were forgotten.”

It’s also really interesting to go back to a place after sewing it. I get so wrapped up in the process and in my head — pulling these forms and colors out — to see the initial inspiration again can be a surprise. The smallest detail will have become so important, just because that is what I was attracted to at the time. Returning almost allows me to see more the second time around — I’ve already documented my initial impressions, I can now move on to the next level of understanding a place.

work in process

JK: Your use of techniques and textures delightfully draws us into the private world of each piece. Would you select a piece of work and share its story with us?

RS: Sure, I’ll tell you the story behind “rain & whiskey”. This piece is deceptively simple, just one style of stitch, a few green shades of thread and a punched-hole texture.

RAIN & WHISKEY, 2015
silk and rayon thread on paper (11.75" x 10.25")

This limited palette wasn’t what I thought I would use when I started working. I did many, many stitch and paint sketches, with a full range of colors and textures. Each sketch created distinct visual representations of my memory, but didn’t capture my emotional feeling of the memory when seen all together.

RAIN & WHISKEY, 2015 (details)

The inspiration behind this piece was a long weekend with friends in upper Michigan. I was there in the fall, the leaves were brilliant colors, the weather was stormy and gray and we were staying in a cabin on a lake. My initial sketches had the bright fall colors and dark stormy skies. Which were correct — I did see those things. But as I reflected on the weekend, I realized the core of memory was of comfort, of relaxing with friends and watching storms roll in across the lake while enjoying whiskey. I stripped down the forms and textures I had been sketching to the minimum. I wanted the piece to have a simplicity and serenity, and draw you in to notice the little details easily missed. The hole punches are the rain, how the storms would flare up and peter out. The green stitches are the reeds that were bent and broken by the storms in the lake. The four of us sat and watched the lake for hours — this was our view.

Unknown to me, as I started my process, was that the simple act of watching an event so rich in detail would ultimately produce a piece distilled to just two key elements represented by the thread and punched holes.

After I complete a piece, I tend to put it away for a while to have some visual distance. But when I do go back and look at them I’m instantly brought back to that memory which I find rewarding.

My work is very abstract so while I know viewers won’t instantly say ‘Ah, that’s a lake in Michigan’ I do hope they can get a sense of my emotion and the small details that inspired me, that it would transport them to new lands in their own inner worlds. So by bringing awareness to all details (emotional, large and small), I hope people gain a new and richer understanding on their perceptions and memories of an experience. That this continues to affect them long after they have seen my work.

JK: Thank you Rhian for sharing your work with us!


Check out more of Rhian’s work here: rhianswierat.com