Spotlight: Susan Brandeis, Textile Artist

Lost Language II Ancient Teachings

Spotlight: Susan Brandeis, Textile Artist

After 35 years of creating, exhibiting, teaching and writing about textile art, Susan Brandeis is as enthusiastic as ever about creating her own visual language and helping others do the same. Inspired by her environment, she creates complex works of art with fabric and thread.

Susan Brandeis

Tell us about your path to becoming an artist.

The seeds of my creative life were planted early; but, professionally speaking, I was a late bloomer. My life has been full of people and experiences that have influenced and inspired me; ultimately they have shaped my creative development. When I was a child, I was surrounded by talented people in three generations of my family: quilters, sewers, embroiderers, knitters, tatters, gardeners, designers of military insignias, photographers, painters, writers, musicians, woodworkers. Few were professionals; all communicated the joy of the devoted amateur.

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Most importantly, I learned enthusiasm for making (anything) from my mother and grandmother; I learned the importance of making things correctly and with care—”fine craft”—from my father. I learned to stitch, sew, knit, and crochet about the time I went to elementary school. There, like just about everyone in the 1950s, I added crayons (used with vigor!) to my “artistry.” 

Throughout public school, I played around with the visual arts and took lots of classes and workshops. But I actually put more energy and time into music. I played the piano and sang in choirs at church, high school, and early college. It was really not until after my undergraduate degree in home economics that I began to realize that I could take seriously the textiles I made and could express ideas through them. 

That realization led me back to school (from a job as a medical librarian)(don’t ask) for remedial work in the fine arts and textiles (all those studio and art history classes I would have taken if I’d originally had an undergraduate art degree). Then came a Master’s in art education, and (finally) a Master of Fine Arts in textiles. I was a sponge for every textile technique I came across, enthusiastic about learning everything I could about creating beautiful and well-designed works. 

The Intentional Thread

Your book, The Intentional Thread: A Guide to Drawing, Gesture, and Color in Stitch, is like a graduate course in embroidery. But the results are anything but traditional. What are the top three lessons you want readers to take away?

I wrote this book to share my knowledge about design and creative expression, and my passion for all things textiles, especially the uses of the threaded needle. But the most important lessons I think the book contains are these:

  • Only a few basic embroidery stitches are necessary to make eloquent and expressive work
  • Each person makes stitches in their unique way, which contributes to personal expression
  • Anyone can invent new ways to use stitches to tell a story or express an idea. 

My book should be a starting point for the readers—a way to think through how they want to stitch, make marks, or draw with thread. Stitching is line work, stitching is drawing, stitching is painting. But it’s a very special kind of line and drawing and color deployment with its own unique characteristics and potential. The results are in individual hands.

2011-2012 _Forgotten Pages_ Series Grouping 1,
Forgotten Pages Series Grouping 1, 2011-2012

What is it about working with textiles that appeals to you? Why not water color, ceramics, beadwork or wood carving?

Because I have a degree in art education, I had the chance to “dabble” in a lot of other media, including watercolor, oil painting, ceramics, jewelry and metalwork, printmaking, and photography. But none of them grabbed me like textiles; and I had already been doing (not very sophisticated) textile work ever since elementary school.

Once I had my “Aha!” moment, that this was what I wanted to do professionally and could be a vocation as well as an avocation, I just jumped in full force and never looked back. I’m not sure that anyone can articulate the core of a life’s passion; it’s something so embedded in the psyche and the personality that it’s just “a given” in one’s life. For me, there is something wonderful and treasurable in that very indefinability.

What I can say is: I love the feel and flexibility of textile materials in my hands, the potential for dynamic and diverse coloration, and the potential to make either two- or three-dimensional forms in infinite variety. Practically speaking, I can add the benefit of their portability during the working process. I can drag my stitching with me just about everywhere and do it contentedly in diverse surroundings. 

2014 _Desert Spring_ detail
Desert Spring, detail, 2014

What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work?

I am inspired by the world around me, which may seem trite or simplistic, but in fact, aren’t we all inspired by the world in which we live, this fantastic and infinitely diverse Earth? It is a matter of what particular aspects of it dazzle our eyes or ignite our minds. For me, natural landforms and plant materials were both the inspiration and subject matter of my large-scale wall work for several decades. I did a lot of on-site field work to collect visual materials for later development in the studio. My camera and my sketchbook were my best documentary tools. During one of my last in-depth site visits, I fell in love with petroglyphs. This eventually led me to look at other kinds of marks and symbols: ancient scripts, universal symbols, palimpsests, labyrinths, mazes, faux texts, and eventually, even book forms.

I believe that these images and subject matters depended on my state of mind, time of life and personal experiences. Although there may be connecting threads throughout a creative practice, what appeals at one time will not at another. 

Change is a sign of growth and maturing in our visual language. For example, as my mother slipped into dementia, slightly indecipherable marks, symbols and text resonated for me; it seemed to give voice to all the non-communication in my life. I research, experiment, document, and create, in part, to understand my life, the world, and how the two connect. It is a search for balance and belonging. Somehow the inspirations all come together in my mind. It is my job to make sense of them visually so they become a form of communication to other people. 

With that said, no artist can control how other people interpret what they see in her work. I know what’s in my mind when I make the work; but viewers bring their own experiences and dispositions when they see it—and that’s OK.

I have sometimes wondered if there is something “wrong” with making beautiful things, in view of the very un–beautiful things which humans are currently doing to this planet and to each other. I have sometimes wondered whether my work is “relevant” in any broad societal sense, or “merely pretty”. But I find the luscious tactile qualities of textiles to be poorly suited to making overtly “political” imagery. A few artists are able to transcend (ignore?) that limitation, but I’m not one of them. So I make what I feel compelled to make, and hope there will always be people who appreciate it.

Susan Brandeis 1998 _Perpetua Detail
Perpetua 1998, Detail

Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?

Do I ever!! Yes, indeed, I am so glad you asked this. My sketchbook is the place I develop my vision as an artist, take leaps of faith, jot down the ideas in my head, make notes to myself about the details, and sketch out potential compositions to ponder. I use the sketchbook to refine the work I’ll eventually make.

Honesty compels me to add that the sketchbook also contains ideas so untenable that they’ll never see the light of day as finished—or even started!—textile works. But that’s OK, and it’s part of the purpose of keeping a sketchbook at all. It’s a place to dream, imagine, sketch the ideas in my head without censure, no matter how good or bad. I then have a record of what I was thinking, and the ability to review the ideas, and choose some to develop at any time in the future. 

I believe there are magical connections––or at least the possibility of them––between the brain and the hand wielding a pen or pencil. For me, the hand has to move for the ideas to flow and develop. Does the sketchbook help my work develop? “Help” is not a strong enough word; my sketchbook is an essential step to making the best work of which I am capable.

Susan Brandeis Chanson du Bois 1989
Chanson du Bois 1989

How do you make the leap from a few basic embroidery stitches to the visually complex fiber art you produce?

I suppose the immediate answer is “a lifetime of experience and experimentation”. It certainly didn’t all happen at once.

I observe that I move and grow sort of slowly, finding my way from one experience to the next, then looking back to “connect the dots”.  And I accumulated a lot of “dots” over the years; they added up to more than the sum of the parts. But, from another point of view, I see all the textile techniques as “tools” to use as a means of expression. 

It was my job to learn the basic techniques well when I was a student, to solidify my mastery of their complexities and sophisticated applications as an adult artist, and to employ them with increasing eloquence with each new work I invented. I think I am still on that path; the work gets more and more complex, my insight continues to grow, building on the foundation of past work and experience.

And my perception of my own work has changed over the years. The work I did so long ago in graduate school, which represented such a breakthrough from what I’d done before, later embarrassed me. The work I made 20 years ago is not the work I choose to do now. And if I were inclined to re–do that work in the present, I’d probably do it differently. The surest way to achieve this “leap” is to do a lot of work. Just keep working, all the while examining what succeeds and what doesn’t. 

Lost Language II Ancient Teachings
Lost Language II Ancient Teachings, 2011
2011b _Lost Language II-Ancient Teachings_ detail
Lost Language II, Ancient Teachings, Detail, 2011

Do you have a favorite stitch? What is the most unusual ground you have stitched on?

I don’t have a favorite stitch. I love them all, each for a particular purpose or collectively for their individual contributions to the final expression. But I believe one could use only one stitch and exploit and manipulate that one alone into a whole body of work. In fact, I have a good friend in Seattle who has done just that—concentrated a huge body of her artwork on the French knot, and made witty, beautiful, painterly works for 40 years.

I believe that materials contribute enormously to the final expression of a work of art. So far, I have not felt compelled to choose many non-traditional, non-textile grounds to express the ideas in my professional body of work. Perhaps this is because I identify with the craft of making textiles—with mastery of materials and expertise with the tools. With that said, I do experiment with materials like metal meshes, brown paper, handmade papers, and plastics in my sampling. That could change any time, and I am open to experimentation and where it might lead me in my finished artworks.

When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?

What you describe in the question is the difference between an intuitive creator and a cognitive creator. I see myself as a blend—I am a craftsman by material, an artist by idea, and a designer by process.

I gather my ideas through intuition, through brainstorming, by keeping my eyes open and accepting inspiration when it arrives. But the intuition is tempered and nurtured with a cognitive process of developing alternatives in thumbnail sketches; refining compositions in small colored drawings; choosing specific materials and techniques for expressive potential; and making the works with careful thought and attention to craft. 

Thus, I feel that art, craft, and design—the intuitive and the cognitive—are inextricably intertwined in my work, my practice, my thinking, and my life. And I do not like the distinction—the wall—which the art world so often tries to interpose between itself and what it considers to be “only” “craft.”

How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?

Having a dedicated workspace is a huge step toward taking oneself seriously as an artist. Practically speaking, it’s also a place where meaningful concentration and attention to detail can happen. 

I cannot work in a mess; I need my studio surroundings to be clean, orderly, and tidy, and I need the room itself to be white so that it doesn’t alter my color perception. Some people are able to thrive in the midst of friendly clutter, but I can’t. For me, the only “messy” thing in the room should be the particular work in progress. 

I am really organized about the storage and accessibility of my materials and tools; I want to know exactly where something is and be able to put my hands on it immediately. Therefore, my thread drawers and boxes are organized by type, fiber, and color; my boxes of fabric and yarn are sorted by fiber content and color. All bins are labeled on the outside for easy identification. My sewing machines and smaller tools are kept clean, handy, and ready to use. All of this allows me to clear my mind and concentrate on the work at hand without distraction, or stopping to search for something, or cleaning tools at the last moment.

Once a work gets to a certain point in its construction, I can do the planned hand work just about anywhere—while I sit and talk to others, watch TV, ride in the car, or travel by train or plane. I simply need the quiet and calm of my studio for the generative parts of the process. I love my current studio, in an upstairs “bonus room” in our house (with its own walk–in closet, now lined top to bottom with shelves!) for its quiet, serenity, good storage, and nurturing atmosphere.

Susan's Studio

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

I know that my investment in high quality tools has helped to make my work better over the years. So I am willing to spend on them because I know they’ll return the investment in dependability, endurance, and precision. 

I have a Bernina 930 sewing machine from the 1980s—metal housing, metal cams, solid construction, and beautiful stitch quality. Built like a tank. It made possible a huge variety of free-motion sewing, embroidery, and construction over the years. It enabled me to achieve the beauty of the expression I sought. 

I use mainly Bohin hand needles (from France but usually available online in the U.S.) for the same reason. And I use thimbles dipped in liquid rubber that grip the needle securely. I use quality hoops—a large Hardwick Manor quilting/embroidery hoop and smaller Edmunds embroidery hoops that allow tightening with a screwdriver. These all make a huge difference in my ability to control materials.

I have a range of fabrics that I love—softened linen, silk noil, silk organza, silk organza mesh, simple soft cottons. Depending on my current purpose, any of these can be dyed or printed before the actual work begins. They offer wonderful surfaces for stitching, allow complex lines to be constructed with thread, and they needle easily. As a matter of personal preference, and because the natural environment around us is already overrun with human-made non-biodegradable plastic materials, I use mainly natural fiber threads—cotton, silk, rayon, linen—and I particularly like variegated flosses and sewing threads from Valdani and Weeks Dye Works. I also have a unique inventory of cotton, linen, and silk fabrics and threads that I have dyed and/or printed myself over the years.

2012 _Spiral Unbound
Spiral Unbound, 2012

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? What kind?

I mainly work in silence when I’m in my studio—in part because it allows my mind to flow more freely when other sounds or words aren’t intruding. Occasionally, depending on what I’m doing, and whether it’s repetitive (which doesn’t require so much brain concentration), I’ll put classical music on my player—Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, solo guitar, solo harp, piano. This is always instrumental music alone, because I find that words (and singing) are intrusive. For that same reason, I don’t listen to audio books or watch movies when I’m developing ideas or doing parts of the process that require concentration and precision.

When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?

Yes, I do stitch when I travel. 

For years I did on–site field work to collect inspiration for developing large works when back in the studio. I would fly to the destination and take day-long hiking trips to collect materials. Then, I concentrated on drawing and photography to document the landscape, and my travel kit was heavier—large sketchbook and tools to draw, SLR camera and lenses, and kit for hiking. But I don’t do that kind of field work anymore. More often I travel by plane and train, or by car. 

During the years when I was making large-scale work for the wall, I often added a layer of hand stitching at the end. I would carry large pieces with me on car trips to work on while my husband drove. But, after I shifted to small-scale works, I could carry the entire compositions with me to develop “on the road”—stitching in waiting areas and hotel rooms, in the car or on trains. But I find airplanes too confining for stitchery—not enough elbow room unless the plane is not full and there are empty seats nearby. (I might feel differently about stitching in the air if First Class was within my budget!)  

Just recently, I assembled what I am calling my “Traveling Art Studio” to carry along on a series of Amtrak train trips my husband and I are taking around the country. I envisioned these supplies as a means of sharpening my vision, capturing inspiration, and documenting the many places through which I will pass—at the same time making “finished works” on the road. This approach is different for me—and is possible because of the way we are traveling. On a train there is room, and time. These works are not something I’ll sell. They’re simply a “stitched” diary of collected memorable impressions, my version of “The Amtrak Tapestry”.

This “traveling art studio” had to be lightweight since I am small; I need to carry it in my day backpack (along with other essentials). It consists of a 4.5” x 7” Moleskine “Two-Go” journal (facing pages are blank on the left and ruled on the right) for quick sketches and written journal entries; a 3.5” x 5.5” Moleskine watercolor sketchbook; a pencil case with a selection of colored pencils, drawing pencils, a ball point pen, an ink pen, a pencil sharpener, an eraser, a fabric glue stick, a plastic template (1.5” square) and a flexible 6” plastic ruler. 

In addition, I have a single 1-gallon zip-lock plastic bag of embroidery supplies: a 6” selvage-to-selvage strip of silk noil with squares or rectangles stitched down the middle of it—open frames for small compositions; several snack-size baggies of embroidery floss, sorted by colors—warm, cool, and neutrals, black, grays, and white; two thimbles (different sizes); packet of needles; a few pins; and small scissors (for car or train travel) or nail clipper (for potential use on an airplane).

I have now used this “studio” on two train trips, one in England, and one on the East Coast of the US, each 3 weeks in duration. It worked just wonderfully. In England, I would collect material during the day and stitch in the evenings. But, in the US, where the distances and the train rides are longer, I found I could also stitch on the train. 

Between trips, I “re-stock” and adjust to prepare for the next kind of landscape I will encounter. In particular, I added a few extra colors of thread and colored pencils after the first trip. For the next trip across the Great Plains I am adding a portable (miniature) watercolor set with a refillable water brush (eliminating the necessity of carrying a water cup), and a baggie of baby wipes for clean-up.

For me, this is a new way to travel and make art at the same time. I am having a great time with it.

2000 _and the earth was wild with leaves
And the earth was wild with leaves, 2000

Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?

The most challenging piece I ever made was a 9-foot (high) x 28-foot (wide) public art installation piece for an office building lobby almost two decades ago. Large works for the wall had always been my strong suit, but in my experience “large” had previously meant 4’x6’ or 5’x8’.

Truly huge work was a truly huge challenge. There was no way I could possibly have made a single piece of those dimensions. So I broke it into identically sized panels which would hang, closely spaced, sequentially in a row. (That was an additional installation challenge.)  No matter how fine your design or thorough your preparation, there comes a time in the making process where the sheer quantity of fabric necessary to handle for a huge piece is overwhelming—it fills the arms; dwarfs your equipment, body, and tools; fills the studio; and seems to be everywhere at once. Whatever you do, you have to do over, and over, and over because there is so much space to fill. And such work is always startlingly public—exposed for everyone to see, to criticize, and to love or hate.  

I made this piece alone; I had no studio assistants to help with the hundreds of hours of hand screen printing, dyeing, and assembly. Partly because I couldn’t figure out how to direct such assistance. At a certain point, the enormity of the task and the public nature of the commission occasionally left me weeping on my studio floor, wringing my hands, and wondering why I had ever accepted this commission. 

Who got me through it was my husband. He spoke encouragingly and told me I could do it. That all my professional experience had prepared me for that moment. (It also helped that he took over running everything else in our life.) That was the outside help I needed most. I needed someone with confidence in my skills to peel me off the floor and get me going again. I simply had to have my “melt down,” then pick myself up, put one foot in front of the other, honor my (very elaborate) contract and deadline, and continue with the plan. 

The piece was a success; the process was a huge stretch that changed forever my notion of what I could accomplish. Doing it gave me a kind of artistic confidence that I could not have earned in any other way. Since all of this was happening before the advent of digital printing (almost every bit of fabric in this commission was dyed or printed, and often over–dyed and over–printed, by hand, i.e., my hands), its completion was soon followed by a visit to “Carpal Tunnel Surgery Land.”   

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?

I think everyone has creativity inside them, but it may not manifest itself in the visual or performing arts. It can come in so many forms, in so many walks of life and disciplines—the sciences, technology, math, history, literature, teaching, caring for a home or children, social work, community volunteering. 

Each person just has to find that personal bit of creative genius, then embrace and nurture it. People who don’t believe they are “creative” can learn to draw, to paint, to create artworks, to sing, to dance, to act in the theater, and to participate in the arts in whatever way suits them best. The quality of their work will depend on their innate talent (something I cannot define and no one can teach). But also their effort, practice, and discipline.

All the really good artists I know are very disciplined, they work at their craft, they practice. Many times finding one’s artistic voice is not the problem. Pining for our own work to resemble that of another artist, whose work we admire, can be a major stumbling block. Accepting and valuing our own voice, while working to improve it, is the true challenge. 

When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?

I don’t know that I remember exactly when I realized I was a creative person. I probably felt it when I was a child—but then I think all children just assume they are creative. Adults just educate it out of them (unfortunately). So many people grow to adulthood thinking that if they cannot immediately sit down and make masterpieces, then making artwork is not possible for them. 

I think my own abilities dawned on me slowly as a young adult, probably in my 20s. I certainly was still knitting, needlepointing, drawing, and stitching at home as a hobby. My day job in a library was not especially “creative”. However, it appealed to my love of organization and attending to detail. But on the job, everyone came to me if they wanted help with projects requiring invention, drawing, color sense, or illustration. Because “Susan knows how to do that kind of stuff”. I slowly began to see myself as others saw me. That encouraged me to take more art classes (at night). Then eventually I received enough support from teachers to return to art school full time. 

It was a wonderfully powerful process that continues today. I don’t think most creative people really see themselves as “different”. But I suppose we are different in a rather naïve and crazy way. I think it took me many years of being “in practice” and achieving what seemed to me to be appropriate levels of mastery before I really thought of myself as “an artist”. Meeting my own standards for that title really happened to me in my 30s. It was after lots of work, practice, failures, experiments. Then inclusion in juried exhibitions, some awards, and public acceptance of the work I was producing.

How do you deal with creativity blocks?

Everyone has highs and lows of creative energy, for all sorts of personal, health, and social issues. And, we all face creative blocks—times when ideas don’t come, when our vision fails, or when we just cannot create. When I am doing personally expressive work, just for myself, I face down a block by doing something else. So I read, write, swim, cook, garden, go to plays and concerts. I do anything but try to push harder. I just wait for the motivation to re-surge, and then I hop back in to play.

However, if I have a commission or a professional deadline, I may not have that luxury of turning away. That is where my cognitive design process and skills come into play. I do my visual research, and use formal brainstorming or mind mapping techniques. That starts the ball rolling in my sketchbook. Then I do dozens of thumbnail idea sketches; I arrive at a few that are good enough to refine and pursue.  I just keep going on another level; it often sparks the more intuitive thread that I lost, so I can pick it up again.

As I write these words, I am in fact experiencing, well, not exactly a “creativity block”. But it’s a period in which I just don’t feel “compelled” to make. I retired from 35 years of university teaching, then wrote the book; it all left me rather depleted. So I just don’t feel like working in the studio now—at least not to produce anything to show publicly. Although my ongoing stitched Amtrak travel tapestry is a sign that I’m not really closing up shop.

Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?

Although I retired from the bureaucratic life of a large university, I didn’t retire from the desire to teach. I consider teaching as simply a form of “sharing” and “helping” others to find their own way. That is the principal reason I wrote The Intentional Thread, to try to share what I’ve learned about design and expression through stitch, and to coax and encourage other people I’ll probably never meet in person. I do still love working with students of various ages in short course or workshop situations. Although I have to strictly limit their number, usually just a couple per year. Because of my book, I’m focusing on (and mainly getting invited to do) workshops about “stitching as drawing”. Workshops already scheduled appear on the News page of my website: https://susanbrandeis.wordpress.ncsu.edu/. My still-active university e-mail address is the best place to contact me: brandeis@ncsu.edu.


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