Spotlight: Gwen Lowery, Machine Embroiderer and Textile Artist
Gwen Lowery is a textile artist or a fiber artist or a machine embroiderer or all of the above! Her most recent mission has been to capture the motion and colors of the aurora borealis. She designs on paper and computer, and then uses a 15-needle commercial embroidery machine to create the segments that make up the large pieces. She is intrigued by how thread creates texture and reflects light off the surface.
Tell us a little bit about you and what you do.
I make (mostly) large scale machine embroidered pieces, some 3D, some 2D.
What led you to machine embroidery as a medium?
I studied with Gail Harker when she was part of the London City & Guilds program. We experimented with so many fiber methods and media, most of which were really exciting (and some that didn’t interest me at all! That’s actually important because one needs some boundaries and focus!). But somehow, machine embroidery and the ways I could blend threads seemed to resonate for me. I’ve continued to work with it.
How has your work changed over time?
I started out using a home sewing machine to do small pieces. I quickly realized that that limited the size of the work I could do. So I stopped by my local sewing machine store and discovered a long arm quilting machine, which I bought in about 5 minutes because it solved my problem! Then I discovered the commercial embroidery machine, which led my art in a different direction. I still use all machines, depending on what I’m doing and what finished look I want.
What are your earliest memories of making art?
Getting Cs in second grade art…which told me that I wasn’t an artist. Which always bothered me, so I was determined as an adult to learn more about art and design.
What inspires you to create? What led you to auroras?
I played with aurora design ideas and yearned to create an aurora something for about 10 years, though, before I came to a solution that worked for me to capture what I wanted. In the meantime, I was working with lightning designs. Shaw Storm, based on lightning and shown below in the long arm frame and painted on canvas before stitching, was the second piece created using the long arm machine.
Natural phenomena and patterns seem to attract me. Anything larger-than-us, such as aurora, lightning storms, sunsets, huge rock formations intrigue me. Also intriguing are patterns in nature or in man made things. I’m particularly inspired by the colors in the auroras and that it is such an ephemeral thing.
In your aurora series, your work is in panels that combine to make up a whole, yet panels can stand alone as works of art. When planning your work, how do you leap from the whole to parts, then back to the whole?
I design the whole piece. The reason for the panels is because of the size limitation of the commercial embroidery machine. My aurora pieces are all made using that machine. The largest segment size I can make is about 20 x 21”. Since the aurora pieces are all from 4ft to 8 ft (or even bigger…just finished one that is 16’ long for a show in Durham, NC), I have to divide the work into segments, which are sewn into panels. Not all panels and segments work alone, but some do. I have created a series of what I call singles, that are individual, interesting segments that do stand alone as a piece of art.
From initial spark to the final stitch, which part of the process do you most enjoy?
I love starting a new project and I love the sense of completion when I finish. When I finish a piece, I never know if it is any good or if I’m just so happy to be finished. The work in between is just work…doesn’t mean that I don’t like it, but it is a process with steps that I have to get through to finish and then I get to play with a new idea.
You didn’t ask, but the part of the process that I least like is sewing the segments together and cutting the batting that goes underneath when they are mounted. It is boring and I’d rather be working on something new.
Tell us about your studio. Where does the magic happen?
My studio is huge (2500 sq ft…bigger than my house) and bright! I was looking for something maybe 1000 sq ft (yes, that is still huge, but with the large equipment I use and the big pieces I create, it is so nice to have the space), but when I walked into my space with all its windows, I couldn’t resist.
What are your favored/most used materials? Why do you use them?
Rayon thread! I love the sheen and the way the color and reflection of light changes as you move and as you change the direction of stitch.
Are there indispensable tools in your studio? How do they improve your work?
All my machines. My work wouldn’t be what it is without them. I don’t know that they improve my work, just that they create my work. And my computer since I digitize the work created on the embroidery machine, and also use it for other design work. Other than that, I could probably do without almost everything else, although I don’t want to.
What plays in the background while you work? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
My husband shares my space and always plays music or something. I mostly ignore it.
Who or what has inspired/influenced/empowered you?
Gail Harker had a huge influence because through her, I learned about design. My vision went from “I just want to create my own embroidery designs instead of buying them at the store” to visualizing so much more.
Barbara Lee Smith continues to inspire me. I love her work and the feedback and comments she has given me over the years. With so few words, she can help me see in a different way without seeming to direct me.
How do you deal with creativity blocks?
I sew clothes. After a while (could be days or weeks), I get impatient to get back to art. I can’t seem to make clothes and make art at the same time. And my art does not appear in my clothes.
What piece of work makes you most proud? Why?
I don’t know that any do. Each piece is its own challenge (or I wouldn’t do it), and once it is finished, I pretty much dismiss it and move on. So I don’t bask in proudness about much of anything.
Where can people see your work?
I have a solo show in Auburn WA at the Auburn Community Center Gallery running from August 29 through October 9.
A group show with Northwest Designer Craftsmen at the Washington State Convention Center up from September 29, 2018 through January 6, 2019
A solo show in the Semans Gallery in the Durham, NC Arts Council building, up from Nov 9 to January 6, 2019.
Or they can contact me. Always happy to share my work!
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
No, I don’t teach or lecture…can’t think of anything anyone would want to hear.
What are you working on now? What do you hope the next year will bring?
I just finished a 16’ piece for the Durham show. I’m working on new designs based on the marble quarries in Carrara, Italy. I like the angles, shadows, and reflections created in the quarries. I have new ideas for auroras, ideas for creating 3D pieces based on beach findings, including bark and large ice blocks on the black beaches in Iceland. As I’m writing about this for you and reflecting on all the things I want to try, it makes me so impatient to just get going!
What I want the next year to bring is time to work. Much of my time in the last two years has been spent helping my mother through health and other issues. I want/need to have the time to create a new body of work!!!
Shot of my studio space: Foreground shows the printout from digitizing the piece. I use the printouts to edit the design and to make sure it flows. I digitize without the dark background, then add it as a last step, with one final check of the design after adding the background.
Mounted on the back wall are 23 stitched segments of the 30 total segments that make up the 16’ piece.To the right are the shipping crates for the aurora towers and coronas.
On the left just in front of the windows is the long arm machine. All you can see is the light fixture that is attached to the machine.
All segments completed and stitched together in panels, but not yet mounted. To the left is the long arm machine.
Completed aurora, with mounted panels. Finished size is 54” x 16 feet.
15 needle embroidery machine at work.
Long arm machine with a 7’ x 10’ piece based on our visit to the marble quarries outside Carrara, Italy.
On the other side of the wall created by the crates hangs one of my corona pieces, as well as several towers.
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