Mary Vaneecke is a fiber artist with a passion for social issues and making a difference with her work. From small art quilts to curating a huge installation of 23,000 pairs of baby booties to draw attention to the infant mortality rate in the US, Mary is always working on something creative that will make the world a better place.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I would have to say it was an evolution. I went to my first quilt show probably about 25 years ago. Because all I knew was traditional quilts, I expected a lot of Sun Bonnet Sue quilts, and I slept under a Sun Bonnet Sue as a kid. So the incredible range of work at this local show, from traditional bed quilts to photo realistic wall art, really blew me away. The personal stories of the quilters were moving, too, when they described making a quilt for their son who had been in Desert Storm, for instance.
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners. Your purchases via these links may benefit Create Whimsy. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.
Several years later, I participated in a round-robin quilt project with my sister Nanci, where each member of a group adds to the other members’ quilts. It was fun and gave me the courage to make quilts of my own. A couple of years after that, with a few quilts under my belt, I wanted to make a career change, and decided to quilt for clients. So I bought a new longarm quilting machine and the rest is history, as they say.
What inspires you to create?
Inspirations are everywhere. They are in the headlines of my morning paper, and I have a series of social justice works to show for that. I can also find inspiration in the big picture of a landscape, and in small compositions and details. Poetry, history, and literature inspire much of my abstract work.
And there is inspiration in the characteristics of the fiber medium itself. It is a challenge to look at something that is the opposite of fabric, say a building or a rock formation and think about how to depict it in fabric.
Why textiles? Why surface design? How did you get started?
To some extent, I think working with textiles and fabric was less intimidating than a medium like sculpture or paint, for instance. I knew how to use a sewing machine (thank you, Nana!), and found constructing quilts with their straight seams to be much easier than setting in a sleeve on a jacket. Piecing fabric had its limits, though, and I realized that I should study surface design, dyeing and painting on fabric to get the effects I wanted. I have had the privilege of studying with great artists/teachers like Jane Dunnewold and Elin Noble.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work?
I do work in series, and the overarching theme in my work has to do with chaos. How humans need to control it, and then how we largely fail at it. Should we give up trying? Should we choose our battles? Can we find beauty in chaos? These are the kinds of questions I explore.
I am in the middle of a series made of silk organza. I love the transparency of the fabric, the different ways it takes different dyes, and the way colors change when you layer fabrics. How you can fold, drape and manipulate it other ways. I’ve stitched, cut, burned, painted, and torn quilts, all in the service of art.
Social justice issues are important to me and righting wrongs is just another way of controlling chaos. So I have a series I call ‘Subversive Stitching’ that explores a range of topics, from Black Lives Matter, to border and immigration issues, and subjects like the Flint water crisis. When viewers’ feedback tells me that my art can make a difference in the way they think about a subject, there is nothing more gratifying for an artist.
Tell us about The Mourning Project. What is it all about? How many people are currently working on it, and is there room for more?
The Mourning Project is a huge community art project I started after reading about the infant mortality rate in the U.S. We have the worst IM rate in the developed world and I wanted to make a ‘little elegy’—a pair of baby booties—for each American child lost before their first birthday each year. Then I looked up the number and it was 23,000 babies every year! It is just a huge, heartbreaking number, and an issue that should unite all Americans.
So, I am asking a few thousand of my best friends to make booties to create a huge art installation, a 38 by 38-foot picture of a heart with baby footprints in it. The installation plan calls for 14,000 pairs of white booties alone. If you can knit, sew or crochet, then you can embellish the booties in any color you like.
Our last installation at the March of Dimes March for Babies in Phoenix was cancelled due to COVID-19, but we have a digital installation that is updated regularly. To date, we’ve collected more than 11,000 pairs of booties and hundreds of makers have contributed to the project, but we still have a ways to go. Create Whimsy readers are welcome to participate! So get your guild involved and help make a difference in little lives. Learn more about the issue and how we can solve it by clicking here. There are also links to free baby bootie patterns. Make yours as simple or as intricate as you like.
Ultimately, I want to get time-lapse drone footage of an outdoor installation, and hope that the exhibition can travel before the booties are donated to organizations like March of Dimes that serve babies and moms. It is all in the works as we close in on the 23,000-pair goal.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I am incredibly lucky to have a great dedicated studio space. Right now, I call it Bootie Central. My studio is a little over 600 square feet, so it accommodates a longarm machine, shelves full of books, supplies, paints and dyes, fabric and work tables. Also, I can dye fabric outdoors most days of the year. It is my domain and my happy place.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
I would love to talk to the artist and activist Faith Ringgold about her amazing and incredibly moving work. She created the ‘story quilt’ as an art form and continues to be so influential today. It is in part because of her that textiles and contemporary quilts are increasingly being seen as fine art. Textile artists owe her such a debt.
Do you belong to any artist organizations? What groups do you belong to and why?
Artmaking for me is a solitary activity, but I enjoy being around like-minded people who are doing different things with the medium. In artist organizations, I can network, share new techniques and share my work. I am a member of the Studio Art Quilt Associates because their traveling exhibitions are a fantastic way to display my work. If you don’t have an MFA, they offer lots of helpful information, such as how to write an artist statement. Their exhibitions can be competitive to enter. One of my pieces (Chopsticks and Edamame) went to venues on four continents as part of a SAQA show.
Art Cloth Network also offers traveling exhibitions, and a chance to form relationships with other working artists. My hometown (Tucson) is a great place to make art. My friends in the Fiber Artists of Southern Arizona are my local peeps who meet to talk about and share our work with each other, as well as in the community. I am lucky to be a part of such a tightly-knit group of artists.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
I guess I would have a few recommendations. The first is don’t let your inner critic stop you. I usually have a phase with every complex piece where I doubt myself and the way the work is going. So I might consult a trusted friend for critique and then power through and see how I feel once I think the piece is finished. Then I usually feel much better about it once it’s done, and I never would have completed it if I’d listened to my negative self along the way.
Don’t let the fact that you don’t have formal art education stop you. You can get the skills you need to create what you want outside of a college or university. Read and take workshops and find good teachers who encourage students to find their own voices.
Also, think of creativity like a muscle. Use it or lose it. When I can’t be in the studio for long periods of time, I try to practice a visually creative activity every day. It might be taking a composed photo or museum visit or analyzing a ‘color palette’ in front of me. These activities will apply to my work in some way.
Interview posted September 2020
Check out our interview with Jane Dunnewold on Create Whimsy.