Sally Hewett and Meghan Willis will change the way you see yourself.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been horrified of showing my body hair. My dark brown hair makes a very obvious contrast against my pale skin, which led me to being in third grade the first time I waxed my legs and arms. It was painful and embarrassing but nothing compared to what happened whenever somebody commented on it. I often wonder when this idea of removing all the hair from our bodies, except the one on our heads, became a synonym to hygiene or beauty. I know that for other women there are different parts of their body that cause them shame or nerves. But why does this affect us in this way? Is it possible we need to see things through a new perspective?
I recently came across several embroiderers on Instagram who use this medium as a way to counteract the toxic ideas of society over women’s bodies. It’s interesting that this art form, that used to symbolize a different kind of femininity, is now the one bringing forth new perspectives on gender. Two artists whose works interested me because of their use of their imagery and artistry were Sally Hewett and Meghan Willis. Each has a very unique esthetic and narrative, and both were kind enough to speak with Cultura Colectiva about what drove them to these medium as well as the stories that they’re interested in presenting.
But first, how can we describe this kind of work? Is is a sculpture or a craft?
"Acid Attack," Sally Hewett
“It could be described as craft but I am really using embroidery and stitch as a vehicle for making the body parts rather than as an end in themselves. What I am doing, or at least trying to do, is to capture the associations and connotations that attach to the crafts of embroidery and stitch so as to include those in my work.” –– Sally Hewett
"Betty," Sally Hewett
“My mood can come out a lot in each piece. I also just want to show as many different people as I can, help people express themselves through collaborating on art.” –– Meghan Willis
I asked both artists how the construct of femininity comes into play in their work. Can a traditional art form be the tool to deconstruct a concept of what it means to be a woman?
"Caesar's Arrival," Sally Hewett
“If the construct of femininity is concerned with women being expected to look and behave in particular and limited ways –pretty, slender, flawless, etc.– then my work is addressing the issue of femininity.” –– Sally Hewett
"Convolvulus," Sally Hewett
“It's the building block for sure. Taking variations of nude, making it about the female gaze, using a traditional feminine medium to create. Also, a number of pieces are based on self portraits, so building my own identity into each piece.” –– Meghan Willis
I tried my hand at embroidery when it was part of my all-girls school curriculum. But after giving my mom one-too-many horribly stitched tea cozies for Christmas and Mother’s Day, I gave it up. It just seemed that my hands were incapable of creating something beautiful. As time has passed I’ve realized that patience and practice can make even the most destructive hands, like mine, be able to create. Perhaps if I’d been presented with a different idea of what to create, instead of doing pink flowers on a handkerchief I could’ve done something a little cooler, then maybe I wouldn’t have failed so badly. This, of course, was the reason I asked Hewett and Willis how they found themselves doing embroidery.
"When the Milk Comes In," Sally Hewett
"Petals," Sally Hewett
“It wasn’t an intentional process! It was just a lucky accident really. It was while I was doing my Fine Art degree –I was doing some embroidery as an escape from the rigours of the course and I was embroidering some flowers. As I was embroidering the centre of a little flower using a small group of French knots suddenly, before my eyes, that little group of stitches turned into a nipple! The embroidery hoop surrounded the nipple like a breast. I loved the disjunction between the materials and the subject matter. That was the beginning of my journey.” ––Sally Hewett
"Vasomotor Instability," Sally Hewett
“Despite my subject matter, the embroidery process is still very traditional. I typically use a simple backstitch, to create solid lines. This is one of the first stitches you learn when you're first learning how to sew by hand. Even my materials are very traditional: linen and cotton thread. The leather and acrylic aspects are definitely parts that contemporize my work.” –– Meghan Willis
“I’m interested in telling the stories of particular bodies, their history and experiences. So the bodies that interest me are those that have lived and that show their history through things like stretch marks, scars, cellulite, disease, surgical interventions –the body as documentary.” –– Sally Hewett
"Crocodile Teeth," Sally Hewett
"Kickass," Sally Hewett
“It interests me that when the body renews its cells it doesn’t replace old cells with new, perfect cells but with a copy of the old damaged cell, as if it is saying ‘Mustn’t forget that time she fell over in 1967.’ And then there are those bodies that have been intentionally altered by exercise, tattoos, scarification, as well as by more extreme interventions –plastic surgery, fillers, etc.– the body as novel.” ––Sally Hewett
"Dermatillomania," Sally Hewett
Finally, the topic went to the subject of the female body in art and media. Has it become a public object for anyone to use and dispose of? Can art have a hand in returning its humanity and dignity?
“I think it can start with female identifying and non-binary artists. Female bodies by female artists can control the narrative more. It's part of the reason I love selfie culture. It's the content creators that are reshaping what bodies look like in the media.” –– Meghan Willis
"Flutter," Sally Hewett
“What I’m most interested in is how we see things and how we interpret what we see. Why do we see things as feminine, beautiful, ugly, disgusting, etc.? Is it purely a social construction or is there something inherently attractive or ugly about some bodies and some bodily characteristics? Or is beauty in the eye of the beholder as they say?” ––Sally Hewett
"Janet," Sally Hewett
"Sore-i-as-sis," Sally Hewett
"Georgia May," Sally Hewett
“There are some pieces I’ve been trying to make for years and have never been successful. One thing I really want to make –and I’ve had lots of constructive suggestions from lots of people– is saggy breasts. I’ve made a recent attempt using millet, but I’m not really happy with it. I did make a quite successful saggy breast many years ago. I used a water filled balloon inside the fabric and it sagged beautifully. The problem is that the balloon weakens and bursts if it’s not replaced regularly.” –– Sally Hewett
"Possible Side Effect," Sally Hewett
Both artists present us with a renewed perspective on what a body can be. Instead of the usual “should-be” narrative, they open the conversation to imply that there is more than one way to exist and live. Our bodies are not machines; they’re not identical, and they can oppose what others might believe is perfection. Perhaps what art can do is to show how we can find beauty in what is often seen as imperfection.