Marie Bergstedt is a fiber artist whose work defies traditional categories. Always telling a story with her pieces, she uses whatever materials and techniques best tell the story. And there is always a story.
Tell us a bit about you and your path as an artist.
I was always interested in art. I kept my favorite drawings from elementary school. In sixth grade I made a toothpick sculpture and in seventh grade a fiber project that took over every free moment in my life. But that was the end of art in the regular curriculum.
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The emphasis in my school was on science and math, or you were considered someone who just looked for an easy “A” in art. I was from a poor and uneducated family. I liked and did well in science and math so I went the way of excelling in areas that were not my favorites when I chose high school courses.
It was very important to me to be seen as hard working, intelligent, and worthy of respect. It wasn’t until one week before graduation from college that I heard from a teacher of the one required art class, “My dear, you have missed your calling. You must study art.” I knew that was true, so I took classes and workshops on the side for many years.
During that time I studied all the basics of drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, art history, etc. My husband thought I was good at photography so I majored in that when I was at Wright State University and San Francisco Art Institute. But my husband’s job moved around the country and whenever I was close to getting a degree in art, I was gone before the diploma landed and the next place never counted many of my credits. So, on I went through the years still taking classes.
I did do some exhibiting of large hand-colored photography prints and I designed clothing and jewelry on the side while raising my daughter and working for 25 years as a development director. But the techniques I most loved from early childhood through all my employed life were traditional handwork: knitting, crocheting, hand stitching.
My overall inspiration was found in studying the life experiences of the people I knew, especially my wide circle of relatives and close friends. Through the years, when I was employed in development, I lived on a restricted budget to help me save for the time when I could support myself and dedicate my time to being a full-time artist.
I was able to transition beginning in 2006, working part time in development while I still could find at least 40 hours for art. It was in 2006 that I found out there were actual classes in fiber sculpture that I could take and everything started to move into place. I was finally able to integrate all of the art skills I had learned to create artworks in techniques that I believe best express my most meaningful statements.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?
There are definitely recurring themes in my work. One is that all the pieces are about people and human experiences. I do make objects sometimes, but they, too, represent a person. The subjects have ranged from history, to illness, to emotions, to aspirations, to whatever is on my mind.
Recently I have made several artworks sparked by current events. The commonality, however, is that I can always find someone in my circle of acquaintances who has personally experienced the issue. I use one of those people I know as the subject. I believe it is important to get permission from the person whose image I use. They have always been willing, even though they know my images are often not attractive. From there I work through the concern with my hands as I make the artwork.
I always aim to come to a positive presentation that can apply universally and encourage viewers to think. I mean to leave something, a little or a lot, on the edge, hoping this dissonance will stir others to find something in their experience that leads them to a story close to them.
What do you do differently? Do you have a “signature”? What makes your work stand out as yours?
Probably the thing I am most known for is working with lots of buttons in a sculptural way. There are a number of people who use buttons. But other artists do wall hangings or solid sculpture using glue, or stitch buttons in a flat mosaic pattern.
I hand stitch all of my buttons, overlapping and shaping. Under the buttons I do a simple painting that helps me with placing features and also helps keep coloring continuous in case there are cracks where you can see through the button work. I also often use padding of felt and batting under the buttons to shape the artwork.
The second technique I am known for is detailed embroidery. I often shape my embroidery pieces as well, using padding, stuffing, or threads sticking out from the base. Much of my embroidery is over non-woven interfacing or paper. I like to tear the edge rather than cutting. Then I use archival bookbinding paste to preserve and stiffen the work.
You combine different techniques and materials in your pieces. With so many possibilities at your disposal, how do you decide what is appropriate for a particular piece?
I decide what to use specifically for each piece. I try to select techniques and materials that I believe best match the person and the story I am relating. New and/or antique crochet suggest a connection with family and home, so I often use that.
The process of knitting is something I enjoy, so when it is an appropriate technique, I will use it. My crochet, knitting, and stitching are free-hand constructed and shaped to the piece unless there is an area where I want to use a specially-constructed doily.
I also use found pieces of used fabric or garments when they seem best. I am delighted that I am able to use most of the training I received in art school. For new subjects, I do my own photography. I collage images to have the hands, feet, heads etc. that I want from old and new photos. I paint and draw the images before I work them. And I am able to change direction if the method I started with doesn’t work for me. Having so many classes and workshops behind me leaves me with many options and never bored with techniques.
When you create a collection of themed pieces, do you begin with an overall plan for the series? Or does each piece emerge independently?
When I do a series, it is usually because I have a concern that is continuing to press on my mind. Only once have I ever set out to do a “series”. That was of the telephones my foster mother used throughout her life. Talking on the phone was her favorite connection to people, so I made telephones as a tribute to her life when she died.
Usually, I just keep on a theme as long as it is the strongest thought in my mind. Occasionally I need to leave the theme temporarily because I must complete a different specific piece, or my head and hands need a technique break. If the theme persists after the break, I go right back to it. Series fall together on their own and they are based on a thought theme rather than a technique.
What creative opportunities exist in fiber that are not present in other mediums, such as painting or photography?
Fiber is only my medium because I think it is the best method to express my stories. I get to use painting underneath my work and I use photography extensively. I am so lucky I have been trained in lots of methods. And I have a chance to use them all without most people having any idea.
Everyone should use whatever expresses their ideas best. I always consider my work as art and enter it in exhibits where it fits the theme even if the organization does not usually think of fiber works as fine art. I hope my artwork holds up for its ideas and also exhibits excellent technique.
How do you keep yourself accountable for creating new work that meets your goals?
I never think about being accountable. I just think about whatever issue is concerning me and work hard on it all the time. The goal is to do my best and I never get tired of pushing on.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I work right in my dining/living room. I live alone. For me, that is a great artistic advantage. I had a studio downstairs years ago. Now that is where I photograph my artwork and store some completed work. I love having my artwork in progress right out there when I walk by for any reason.
Whatever I am doing inside my house, I look at it, think about it, and go to it all day long. (Actually evenings and weekends, too.) I store many materials in bookcases and a dresser right in the living space. I keep materials that are large or less used in a storage room downstairs. When I expect company, I straighten everything up into a presentable state. The work table becomes a dining table. And I don’t waste a minute traveling to my studio.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Having studied many art processes and fiber techniques for a lifetime, I have the most tools of any of the fiber artists I know. I consistently use good cameras, brushes, paint, every conceivable color and type of thread/yarn, needlepoint canvas, lots of cotton and silk fabrics, good scissors, embroidery hoops, knitting needles and crochet hooks of all sizes, canvas stretchers and saw horses (for working from both sides of large pieces), paper cutter, sculpture wire, screens, wire cutters, light table, hundreds of needles, a sewing machine, and thousands of buttons.
Also essential are lots of books and the web for research. I need considerable office and shipping supplies like various papers, pens, pencils, boxes, foam-core board, bubble wrap, cutting knives, and tape. I am systematically cleaning out materials I no longer use, but those above I consistently use.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I listen to lots of public radio news and programs which I can digest and also work since it repeats several times.
I played audiobooks regularly for years, but titles from the library started to run out or have lots of damage and stopped running. That interrupted the story so I finally gave up.
Now, I often use long series on Netflix. If they are lightweight it doesn’t matter whether I follow them closely. I even put on movies I have watched many times before and never even listen or look at them once. Since I live alone, I need some company. For some reason, music makes me more anxious. I think I actually pay more attention to music than to Netflix and it distracts me from my work. Netflix usually just floats back and forth in the background.
How has your work changed over time?
Methods I use in concentration have changed but the theme of stories about people has been consistent throughout life.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
Every piece has challenges. If I start something that I understand completely, it will be boring, so I almost always have something that I have not yet figured out in every piece I start. I often use new methods that require a bit of engineering to make them hang or stand well. I like making adjustments that help me learn.
How do you seek out opportunities?
I have always referred to art calls for entries from various organizations across the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally. I learned to do that way back when I was taking art courses in the 1970s and it has provided me with a great many opportunities to exhibit in juried exhibitions, as well as a few invitational shows.
In the last couple of years, I chose the exhibits to which I apply quite selectively, trying to apply for more international exhibits outside of the U.S. and at organizations where selection is an extra challenge. Over the years I have shown my work widely and met some outstanding art leaders. Because of this exposure, and sometimes from connections I never expected, I received a number of invitations to exhibit, speak, or publish, especially during the past year.
Right now I am concentrating on finding opportunities that go deeper into areas I have begun in the past. For example, I recently applied for an artist residency that has a historical and people-oriented theme in the town where I grew up. I am also working to deepen my relationship to several great art leaders and international artists I have met.
How have other people supported or inspired you? Do you have a mentor?
Many people have encouraged me. I participate in three art groups and all of those members are important to my growth. I worked as an art assistant to Susan Taber Avila for about a year and both she and her studio mate Candace Kling have cared about my work on a continuing basis.
Carole Beadle has been an excellent teacher. Jim Arendt gave me my first fiber solo exhibit and a big boost of support. Kelly Liang and Professor Lin LeCheng of China have greatly broadened my opportunities. Garteth Bate and Dawne Rudman have been ongoing supporters in Canada and Linda Seward keeps in regular contact from London. Lisa Kokin was a hired mentor for me for a few months and continues to help with recommendations. Nobody stands out as “my mentor”. I listen to all of them. I value and consider their opinions but I am kind of a rugged independent with final decisions.
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed?
I don’t ever think about my creative ability. I just work.
If you could spend a day with any creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
I do spend time with fantastic creative people. I meet them at conferences and openings and art meetings. There are no stars. I do look at Picasso because he had the opportunity to work his whole life at art and he did so much with so many methods. I wish I had that but I did not, so I do my best with what I have.
For the next year I need a bit less rushing to meet obligations. I had a very successful year in 2018 and it took a tremendous effort to try to meet all artwork, travel and writing opportunities and invitations with my best efforts. I want less activity and more depth in my work and life for 2019.
What is the most valued thing you have experienced as an artist that you did not anticipate?
I find that attending conferences, seminars, and exhibitions where artists from across the world gather provides the most gratifying life experience I have in art. At these gatherings, that last 3-5 days, I have met amazing people whom I consider friends for life. I learn from them, continue to communicate from home and can’t wait for the next opportunity to spend time together. We work hard, laugh hard, and pull each other up the ladder of success.
Catching up with Marie:
Since we first interviewed you in 2019, what have you been working on?
I have been trying to keep my work fresh by incorporating a few different approaches into the way of working that I have already established.
I studied painting for many years when I was younger. When it seemed right for the subject I have included painting in recent work such as the red face in “2020 Vision: Keeping Six Feet Apart in Chaos” and the face above the mask in “Life and Death on a Shoestring”. The 2020 Vision also has dyeing, and stuffing beyond my usual. That piece recalls the most difficult day I remember during 2020 when San Francisco was engulfed in smoke from wild fires. That day was dark as night and the atmosphere red as blood all day long. It seemed like the end of the world and we still had to keep six feet apart with no solace in human touch.
I was also trying to put all of my Covid shutdown time to good use so I cleaned out some of my storage. I found the shoelaces that are all knotted and knitted on the mask of “Life and Death on a Shoestring” stashed in a long-forgotten cabinet. The head wrap on that piece is from a piece of cloth I dyed and stitched 12 or 13 years ago. That piece kind of brings together quite a lot of new combinations but I still have the intense button eyes that I often use in my work.
There are two pieces where I used hooks, eyes and snaps on manufactured felt. I found these notions also when I was cleaning during shut down. On Facebook I had read an article about using negative space in portraits so I tried it out and liked the portraits that resulted. I have a few of these metal findings left and hope to do another piece to make a set of three. Even though I had never used hooks, eyes and snaps before they are much like the buttons I employ in most of my work.
“Gentle Men on the Street” is a memorial to my brother Mikey and his best friend Thomas. They both died just before the Covid shutdown. I had done three other pieces about Mikey and this seemed like a good way to close. I used all my usual button techniques but I sat the pair on stained wooden stretcher frames because neither of them ever fit into a defined box. Their clothes are from some of my old clothing that is reworked.
“Dungaree Deviations” is a portrait of Jim Arendt. I, along with 19 other fiber artists from across the world, was requested to do a portrait of another fiber artist by curator Anne Kempton, Timeless Textiles Gallery, Australia. I chose Jim because he had invited me for my first fiber solo exhibit in his Coastal Carolina University gallery. Jim does all of his art in denim so I felt I had to work in denim to make his portrait. It was the first time I have used denim and probably will be the last because it was specific to his portrait. The clothes floating into his head are denim representations of his three children, and the knitted treadle sewing machine is a reference to his affection for fixing and using old sewing machines.
Interview with Marie Bergstedt posted March 2019, updated October 2021
We could only share just a portion of Marie’s work here. To see more, visit her website.
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