Natalie Fisher is a self-taught needlepoint artist from Sydney, Australia. Her work has been exhibited in traditonal galleries and museums but also in non-traditional spaces like Persian Rug showrooms, mosques and Islamic arts festivals. She has been published in Inspirations Magazine, Textile Fibre Forum and Islamic Arts Magazine. She has also been a designer for Ehrman Tapestry, London, the largest worldwide distributor or needlepoint kits. Last year Natalie published her first book, Ghorzah: Islamic Architecture in Needlepoint.
We talk to Natalie about the art of stitch, finding a connection with Islamic pattern and needlepoint as a tool for connecting communities.
What was your journey to becoming an artist specializing in textiles and needlepoint?
I began needlepoint when I was 13 when my aunt gave me a beginner’s kit for my birthday! I just loved the feeling of pulling the wool through the holes. This hobby continued into my adult life, when I began to experiment with my own designs.
Did you formally study and train to become a needlepoint and textiles artist?
I have no formal training in textiles or fine art, although I studied colour theory and design principles as part of my first University course, Landscape Architecture. Understanding those fundamental theoretical principles certainly helped me, but I am entirely self-taught when it comes to needlepoint and textile art.
How did you start working from photographs as a reference point for your works?
When I was young I wanted to venture beyond the needlepoint designs that were available as kits, as the images didn’t excite me. I wanted to stitch subjects that were more interesting and meaningful, so I started designing a series of giant flower blooms from my own photographs. I was really drawn to the challenge of trying to interpret the subtle shades of colour found in flower petals that you can see from a macro photo of a flower, and stitching it as a large impactful artwork. It was such good fun and I became quite addicted to the process! Then, I used this same approach when I started working with Islamic design.
How do you create such realistic images with stitch?
It all starts with a really good high res photo. From that photo I select a palette of wools, always including a range of shades for each colour. The wool I use contains many fine strands that can be pulled apart and then reconfigured, which I do using different shades of one colour. It’s a very fiddly process, but I change the grouping of colour shades in the needle throughout my works to create the realistic effect in the finished needlepoint. Another way of thinking about it is that I use and mix wool as a painter may use paint.
What inspired you to weave Islamic architecture and pattern into your work?
Travel! Over the years I travelled quite a bit and felt drawn to countries that were home to beautiful Islamic architecture. I have such fond and vivid memories of gorgeous architecture I’ve seen on my trips to places like India, Morocco, Turkey, and most recently, Uzbekistan. I’m particularly drawn to the decorative needle work at many significant sites in these countries. I see the tile designs and just feel compelled to sitch them!
Why did you choose to focus on Morocco and Uzbekistan to create your body of work?
There was something about Moroccan tile work that kept drawing me back to the country, which I’ve now visited three times. I just loved the colours and designs and thought they would make such gorgeous needlepoint projects.
Then I visited Uzbekistan in 2019 and was fascinted by how different the tile work was to Moroccan design, yet still just as beautiful. The designs were more floral and flowing, with strong Persian influence. They have been my inspiration for the past few years. But the more I learn, the more I realise how extensive and exciting the world of Islamic art is and how fascinating it is to learn about the similarities and differences of designs in various countries. I think my next areas of inspiration are likely to be designs from Turkey, India and Afghanistan.
What materials do you work with?
I like to use pure wool, with no synthetics, but I sometimes also use coMon. My pieces are stitched on needlepoint canvas, which is a material with lots of little holes in the surface, ready for wool to be pulled through. I use different types of canvas depending on what I am trying to achieve. The more holes to an area, the finer the work and the more detail one can achieve. I usually work on 12 count canvas (12 holes to an inch), but also sometimes on 11 and 10 count. I’m currently experimentng with 7 count, which gives a thick, textured finish, is a much faster process but compromises on the finer subtle details.
What is your creative process from ideation to creation?
I am drawn to architectural motifs I’ve seen on my travels. I trawl through photographs to find the best image. I decide on the finished size I would like and the level of detail, which determines the canvas 'hole count’. I then print the image, trace the pattern, enlarge it to the finished size, trace that onto blank canvas, select the palette of yarns, and stitch in a freestyle way, referring to the original photo for guidance. Then, my favourite thing is to travel back to the original site with my finished needlepoint piece and take a photo of it in front of its wall of inspiration! I’ve done this in Morocco and Uzbekistan. And the lovely thing about this is that it often attracts locals and we end up having really nice conversations about the process and about their local culture.
On average how long does it take for you to create a work, and what size and scale are they?
All of my works take many months to complete, if I stitch for a couple of hours most days. I really love working on a large scale. The average size of my major works are about 1m squared. But I’ve also started venturing into the 3D space and created a few sculptural installation pieces, including a life size Moroccan door and fountain. To create those large 3D installation pieces I’ve used oversized wool, which are too large to be stitched, so I pull them by hand through giant holes on a vegetable garden cage from the hardware store.
Why do you choose not to use a frame?
I don’t use a frame for my larger works as I find it inhibiting. I like to travel with my pieces, folding or rolling them up and putting them in my travel bag. I don’t like to be confined to my studio to create a piece. I just find it more freeing to work off a frame, and then I stretch them into shape at the end, because, invariably, due to the sloping of all of the stitches, the canvases distort in the process. I see it as part of the framing preparation stage to stretch the large pieces back into shape before going to the framer.
You have exhibited your works across the world, can you tell us more about your experiences exhibiting and share your most memorable moment?
In 2017 I exhibited my work in the United Arab Emirates as part of the Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival. This has been an absolute highlight of my career. It was so excited to be in this event with international artists from all over the world, and to have been welcomed so warmly as a guest in Sharjah by the organisers. One of the highlights was the opening event when the Sharjah royal family came around and visited each and every artist, toured their exhibition and asked us about our work. It was just so exciting and such great fun. All the artists spent two weeks in Sharjah as part of this event and it will always be one of my most treasured memories.
Can you tell us about the Silk Inroads community project you worked on. How did it come about and what is the intention behind the project?
The Silk Inroads community project was my first collaborative community project. It came about because I became aware of government grants that were available to work with communities and I thought about how much fun that would be. I took the project to Wagga Wagga which is a regional centre five hours drive from Sydney and has been welcoming immigrants and refugees from countries along the Silk Roads for many years, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, China and India. The aim of the project was to celebrate cultural diversity through the creative translation of Islamic tiles into needlepoint. It was also designed to learn about the significance of the Silk Road, and to work with members of the diverse communities in Wagga Wagga. We all had fun interpreting some of the gorgeous tile designs into needlepoint, and prepared a body of work for exhibition. We ended up with a wall of 90 stitched Islamic tiles. The project was funded by the NSW State Government.
How many community members are involved in Silk Inroads and how have you found the experience teaching people needlepoint skills?
More than 70 members of the local Wagga Wagga community were involved in the project. Most had never stitched before, although there were some accomplished stitchers in the group. It was such good fun working with them all, particularly with those who didn’t think they’d be able to finish their piece and who were so proud of themselves when they did, and saw it on exhibition. I found the whole process so exciting and rewarding.
What are your hopes and aspirations for your work?
I would like to run Silk Inroads in other communities, as I have had so much interest from people in other parts of Australia, and across the world, to participate in such a project. I will continue to stitch my own major works, but I have aspirations now to use needlepoint as a way of creating cross-cultural collaborations. It’s a really powerful thing to be creative with other people around something that enables us to learn from each other, and for participants to tap into their own cultural identity in the process.
What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you?
If my recent experiences running Silk Inroads is anything to go by, the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture is so bright. Muslim and non-Muslims connect with Islamic art, which is diverse and excitng. Islamic art offers a powerful way for people of different cultures to share history and culture. It art has such broad appeal, it offers beauty and optimism. It is endlessly interesting and uplifting. I can’t wait to see what the future brings.
For more information check out www.artweave.com.au
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