Spotlight: PM Neist, Textile Artist and Embroiderer
From her early, pre-Kindergarten artworks to her textile work today, PM Neist rebels against conventional approaches. With focused intention, the Houston-based artist tells a story with every unique stitch, revealing the pride in craftsmanship that her French upbringing reveals.
Were you always creative? What was your first experience with formal instruction, and do you still have the work you created then?
I was extremely lucky to be allowed to be as creative as I wanted to while I was growing up in northern France. My parents enrolled me at the local art school, which at the time focused on creativity of expression more than technique.
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I also had a very close relationship with my grandmother who taught me how to sew. She could be demanding; she would rip apart the things I did not do well enough, but I never resented her approach. I was greatly influenced by both the artisanal movement of the late seventies, which focused on craftsmanship and conservation and the punk rebellion of the early eighties when all rules got rejected and we ripped our fabric and held seams together with safety pins.
I don’t care much for formal art instruction. Less structure works better for me. I learn through mistakes, experimentation and independent research but yes, I still have my sketchbooks from the formal arts classes I took. And I have my two embroidery samplers that I made in the second grade. Our teacher would play classical music while we worked on our stitches. It’s one of my best childhood memories!
When did you know that you were becoming – or already were – an artist?
I have been an artist from as far back as I can remember, which is pre-Kindergarten when I found this great big piece of torn colored paper. I glued the entire thing all at once on a dark background and declared that it a policeman on a horse. The teacher called me lazy and had me redo the assignment but I knew with absolute certainty that she was wrong. For me, art has always been a form of personal resistance.
How old were you when you moved from France to the U.S.? What were your goals when you made that important change?
I came to attend graduate school in the US, met my first husband, married and started a life here. There was no plan. Things just happened, but I saw potential in the fluidity of this country. Europe has a rigid class system that is difficult to escape from. Here in Houston, almost everybody is from somewhere else which I find exciting. Even though this is a very large city, there is a provincial quality to it. After thirty-six years, I have made many connections. This is my life now.
Is your approach to your work more French or American? Is there a difference?
American people tend to see the French in me while the French think I am American. I am informed by both cultures and I draw a lot of inspiration from history, especially the late antiquity and early French medieval period.
In the US, people focus on business as opposed to craft. Right now, I am working almost entirely by hand. I am upcycling hats, for example. It can take up to 8 hours to embroider a hat with a complicated design which in the French artisanal model, is normal and I think, appreciated.
French people adore trading names of artisans who create in small batches. Craftsmanship has value, which takes time. In the US, it’s all about volume. When I embroider a hat, American people want to know where they can buy three more of the same hat. Volume and convenience become the value.
What is the appeal of creating with fiber?
I love the ambiguity of fiber. I can create art as well as functional objects, be both artist and artisan. Also, our world is awash in fiber. We consume so much of it in the form of clothing and household goods, there is an abundance of raw material. I create with mostly used or vintage material.
When starting out, how did you develop the ability to learn from mistakes rather than giving up?
I make mistakes every day, on every piece of work I produce. Mistakes are absolutely essential to the creative process. Every handmade stitch is a mistake. There’s no way to be perfect, which is the beauty of it.
I have two practices regarding mistakes. The first is that, no matter how I feel about a piece, I commit to finishing the work. This helps me push through the “not-good-enough” phase and tackle the mistakes as they come by either by changing the design, undoing some of the work, or just letting go.
The second practice is more formal: I make tons of samplers that I keep in big binders. Each sampler includes a written self-critique answering four questions: What works and what does not? What is fantastic and what is truly awful? I never write the critique immediately so there’s always a bit of distance between me and the work.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? How does its organization contribute to your work process?
I have a home studio, and I am very lucky to be living in an older house with lots of light and space. I have several workspaces. My main studio occupies the majority of the second floor which includes an embroidery room with lots of natural light and a very large design room with a flexible furniture arrangement. I also have a smaller studio in a detached structure in our garden. I use that space for messier work such as larger scale printing.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I keep my workspace very flexible because I am always rearranging the configuration of trestles and tables to fit whatever project I am working on. I keep most of my supplies on two sets of Ikea shelving in baskets and I am adamant about keeping my thread and fabric where I can see them all the time. Overall though, I don’t keep huge stashes. I like working with the limitations of what’s at hand.
I do mistreat a lot of irons though. So I have to buy new ones regularly.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I never listen to music, which is funny since I am now remarried to a musician. I do listen to podcasts. “Dressed: the History of Fashion” is an all-time favorite and a superb resource for research. So is “Unravel”. And I love listening to “Sewing Out Loud”. A mother-daughter team produces it – tends to be more technical but a whole lot of fun.
When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I never end up stitching when I travel but I do carry my sketchbook with me everywhere. And I take lots of photos. The last time I was in Paris, my family had to put up with me taking pictures of the chairs at the outdoor cafés. The current fashion is for café chairs in woven plastic patterns and I couldn’t get enough of them!
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I keep lots and lots of sketchbooks and refer to them all the time. I also draw on index cards. Twenty at a time, I will line them up, make a random mark on each one of them, draw from there and write down a tiny story for each. I also carry my sketchbook with me when I visit a museum exhibit. I sketch what interests me and I write down my notes next to the drawing. Later, I refer to the sketches to design new work.
What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I have a very wide range of interests. For example, ceramics work and tile designs, especially from the late antiquity and early medieval era, inspire me. Right now, I am also spending a lot of time researching female embroiderers from the late 70’s and early 80’s. There was an explosion of creativity at that time, and I am gathering lots of information on form and technique. Earlier this year, I was also researching the simplification of form in 1920’s garment construction. That simplification was balanced by extraordinary embroidery and the garments are very relevant to the concept of no-waste design.
And yes, I do tend to work on series, although no two pieces in a series can ever be the same; that would be boring to me.
How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?
I am lucky that I never have to worry about being blocked. For me, the opposite is true: I have lots and lots of ideas all the time. I have special sketchbooks devoted to “parking” those ideas for later so I can focus on completing a project before starting a new one.
In general, I let things happen. I start with the material that I want to work with, dive into my sketchbooks for inspiration and go from there. I generally have a rough idea of what I want but I don’t write it down formally. So I let the project evolve and mature over a period of time.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
My work is never neutral. There is a story in everything I do, either graphically, or explicitly. So I incorporate text and storytelling, such as a portrait that includes four feet of hand-embroidered text. I also make hundreds of hand-drawn and embroidered gift tags, each being a tiny story in itself. I am lucky to be very prolific, especially with so much handmade work.
Does your work have stories to tell?
How do you prepare yourself for a session of creative work?
I don’t. There is nothing magical about it. I sit down every day to work and create regardless of the outcome or how I feel that day.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think we all have the ability to be creative but a lot of that creativity gets tamped down along the way. We think we have to perform. We feel bad about our mistakes. And we compare ourselves to others we think are better or further along than we are. When that happens, we stop.
At the core, I think the most important thing we can do is give ourselves just a bit of space to experiment with complete freedom from judgement. Technique doesn’t matter so much as relaxing just enough so that we can express who we truly are.
I also think it’s very difficult for women to find the time to be creative. Many of us work and raise a family at the same time. I learned to draw by carrying my sketchbook on airplanes and got into a lot of trouble for drawing people during corporate meetings. I really worked hard at fitting my creative time in every nook and cranny I could find.
What are you working on now, and what is next for you?
In 2019, I had the chance of being selected for the Artist Inc incubator program here in Houston. The program, sponsored by the Mid America Arts alliance, supports artists in the development of their full-time art career.
Earlier this year, I took a sabbatical from corporate work to develop a body of work, apply for residencies and submit past work to shows. Then Covid happened and most visual art opportunities vanished.
I am pivoting to a small-batch artisanal business model that focuses on quality handmade pieces. Quality versus quantity. Every week, I create new pieces and send an email explaining how I made the piece and what it’s about.
For millions of years, people knew exactly where their possessions came from and how they were made. Now most of our stuff is mass-manufactured and imported for cheap. What I make is absolutely unique.
The hat you buy from me is made just for you. There’s only one of it. It carries part of my story, then it carries part of yours, because you wear that hat to do things that matter to you. This is the big difference between intentional creation and volume production.
Right now, I am developing a loyal following. It’s rewarding work. I can’t help but think I have found my place in this big great marvelous world of ours.
Interview posted June 2020
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