Keeping her mind and heart open to the creative possibilities during life’s challenges keeps artist Michele Pollock on the hunt for new ways to express herself. When a neurological disorder sidelined her usual way of working, she discovered that the artist in her could thrive if she stopped to listen to her hands, then embraced the new path.
How did your work evolve from machine stitching on paper to adding hand embroidery stitches?
I’ve had a winding road to where I am now, spending a lot of my childhood making things. I taught myself embroidery with little stitching kits bought at the local Kmart. Then I learned to crochet from my grandma, wrote lots of poetry and endlessly played with construction paper and glue.
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But I was also good at science and math. So I went to engineering school and got a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. During that time, and for the first few of the 10 years I worked as a product development engineer, I didn’t make art or write poetry. But I missed it intensely; I didn’t feel like engineering was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
So I went back to school, pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. I was writing mostly poetry, and really wanted to make physical objects that could house the words. That led me to study hand bookbinding at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, where I learned all kinds of bookbinding, box making, papermaking and printing techniques. Then I began making artist books and collages again in my spare time.
When I was hand binding a Coptic style book, I had an “Aha!” moment – I was sewing into paper! I picked up a collage I was working on, then dug out my old DMC embroidery floss, and starting sewing. Then I dug out my old sewing machine – I had taught myself to machine sew when I was a child, so I didn’t know what you “could” or “couldn’t” do with it – and started sewing into the collage. I was hooked!
For a while, the sewing was abstract and pretty basic. Pretty quickly I moved to free motion sewing, teaching myself from books and practice. So I experimented with different kinds of paper and thread, machine tension and speed. Then I was able to create more and more precise lines. Soon I began to use small bits of paper, outlining them as I lay them down in layers, creating images through paper appliqué. Over the years, my work grew more intricate while I incorporated three dimensional elements, small buttons and found objects into stitched paper sculptures.
In 2008, I opened Lost Lake Studio in the woods of Brown County, Indiana. I was making framed stitched paper artwork, handbound books, plus functional stitched paper work including bookmarks and notecards. And I participated in juried art fairs, sold out of galleries and opened my home studio each year for a studio tour. I spent a lot of time walking in my woods and photographing the trees, flowers, mushrooms and moss. Then I used the photographs as the basis for patterns for my stitched paper work.
But life doesn’t always cooperate. In 2018 I began to suffer from neurological symptoms. Then it became more and more difficult to free motion stitch on the sewing machine, and hand binding books became impossible. Cutting and controlling tiny bits of paper became harder and harder. I could only sustain work for a few minutes at a time; it was impossible to make the work I had been doing for more than a decade. I’m not going to lie – it was difficult to adjust to. For a while, I retreated into myself, and stayed out of the studio for months on end.
In early 2020, I was diagnosed with a vestibular disorder and Functional Neurological Disorder, and I understood much better why the work was so difficult. But the urge to make things with my hands, to be creative, was still strong. So I began thinking about what I still could do. I was walking daily in the woods, photographing tiny things I found: moss and mushrooms and lichen. I found, strangely enough, that I could do hand embroidery for hours even though I couldn’t sew on the machine for more than a few minutes at a time. So I innovated again.
I began in 2019 to make small forest floor images, finishing the pieces with hand embroidery. When even that became difficult, I began to embroider directly into my forest floor photographs, experimenting with fine art photo papers and prepared canvas in my archival inkjet printer. I started with small photos of moss, adding texture and depth and framing them under glass. Then I moved onto moths, using French knots, couching and satin stitch.
Most recently, I’m experimenting with three-dimensional paper sculptures of moss and mushrooms and forest floor leaf litter. That involves a tiny amount of machine stitching, but lots of hand embroidery. I house these Forest Reliquaries in antique boxes and jars, and I can imagine a whole collection of them displayed together like a cabinet of wonders.
What are your favorite embroidery stitches and how do you use them? Do you have a preferred type of embroidery thread? Pearl, six-strand? What’s your preferred fiber content?
I use a LOT of French knots. Because of the rich texture and mottled colors you can get by packing knots close together on a surface, I think they’re my favorite stitch. I also use satin stitch for moth bodies, split stitch for stems, daisy stitch for certain kinds of moss and whichever other stitches (historic or invented) I need to mimic what I see in nature. I use six-strand cotton embroidery floss so I can vary the weight of the thread. That depends on the texture I’m trying to mimic. And I sometimes also couch other fibers onto the surface.
Do you plan all of your embroidery projects out ahead? Or do you let the needle and thread guide your journey?
I plan the embroidered photo projects by choosing the photo, cropping, printing and hand cutting to create a balanced design. I do all of my photo post-processing in Photoshop. And my great archival inkjet printer lets me print all of my own photographs. But I embroider intuitively. The photo and my memories of what I saw on the forest floor guide me as I build the texture and match (or change!) the colors I see in the photograph.
My stitched paper work begins with a drawing, which I use to make pattern pieces for the paper appliqué. I plan the design, but make all color and pattern choices during the journey of the work.
My new three-dimensional sculptures are entirely intuitive. I experiment with making tiny mushrooms, then arrange them in the work as I go. Moss embroidery is done intuitively as well, and I work until I feel the piece is “done.”
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
I’m always thinking about what I want to make next. But that can actually be problematic. I have to stay disciplined enough to finish what I’m working on before I start that next great idea. A lot of the time when I’m not making things I’m thinking through how I might create something I’ve envisioned.
When I start on a new project, I give myself permission to “mess around” for a while on the workbench; then I play with paper and glue and needle and thread. I try to reproduce what’s in my head. (This “prototyping” is probably the closest I come to engineering work today).
These little practice pieces most often don’t amount to much, and I’m okay with that. Somehow they always seem to lead me to a new technique or method of making.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like? What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
When my husband and I moved to southern Indiana in 2007, I had a chance to start my studio from scratch. We converted the entire upstairs loft area of our house to studio and gallery space, with custom shelves along the walls and a custom workbench and sewing table.
I’m a very messy worker, and the kind of work I do results in lots of papers and fibers, found objects and framing materials lying around. I was careful to create storage systems (function, not beauty, was the aim) that allow me to have everything I need at my fingertips.
Most important? My spring-loaded Fiskars scissors and PVA glue. Plus my bookbinding awl (for pulling loose fibers to the back of the project) and bone folder (for assistance in gluing the layers together before or after embroidering).
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I do have a sketchbook/journal of sorts. In it I record ideas, bits of poetry, project layouts, to-do lists, supply lists and anything and everything else. I prefer graph paper for these journals; they are definitely not works of art in themselves, but functional places to unload my brain.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Sometimes I like to work in silence, but most often I listen to podcasts or audiobooks while I work. I have such eclectic tastes! Literary fiction, science fiction, nonfiction – and such a strange variety of podcasts, from poetry (Poetry Unbound) to short stories (New Yorker Fiction podcast) to science (Science Friday) to spirituality (On Being) to podcasts that impart strange bits of knowledge (like 99% Invisible, Ologies, Emergence Magazine).
What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
Nature has inspired me for years. I live in the woods and try to walk daily in the forest. It’s my spiritual place and where I rest and recharge. All the strange and beautiful things there fascinate me endlessly. It’s been amazing to walk in the same place day after day for years, to see it change over time, and to still discover new things even after all these years. I can’t imagine I’ll ever be “done” with it.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
My favorite artists are those whose work feels like a continual exploration. I love Kiki Smith, with her hand craft work married to more traditional mediums, such as bronze sculpture, and her installations. Dario Robleto, with his intricate reproductions of weird old things, gives them new meanings. I love the organic embroidery of Meredith Woolnough. And I love Joseph Cornell’s strange boxes.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
Sewing into paper can be quite a challenge. Whenever someone who sews sees my work, the first thing they want to know is how I managed not to tear the paper. I’ve spent the last dozen or more years in continuous experimentation. I’ve learned how closely I can put stitches together, how tight I can pull on that thread, and whether or not I need to back the paper I’m using with muslin fabric. I have to throw things out sometimes because the paper does tear or shred. But as the years have gone by, that happens less and less often as I’ve developed a “feel” for it. This is why it’s such a challenge for me to teach others to do this work – it’s all intuitive.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Everyone has creativity. But I think of creativity like a muscle. If you don’t use it, don’t practice it, it will atrophy. Creativity breeds more creativity.
How do you get unstuck creatively?
I honestly can’t remember ever being stuck. I’m always looking at art, reading, and writing down ideas. I write poetry inspired by visual work, and make visual work inspired by and incorporating my poetry. I recommend keeping a list of projects you’d like to do someday “when you have the time”. I’ll never have enough time to do them all.
Where can people see and purchase your work?
My work is at several galleries in central Indiana:
I don’t have an online store. (I live in the woods and my internet is terrible!) But people can always message Lost Lake Studio on Facebook. Or they can email me directly about work they see on my Facebook page or website: [email protected]
Interview posted December 2020
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