I must admit I am mesmerised by the textile works of Karen Richards. I first came across her through another artist friend of mine (Vicki Mason – you can find my interview with her here!), and was just a tiny bit amazed by the breadth of her practice, and the depths of her skills.
Karen’s most recent large scale pieces use a hi-tech reflective thread which is machine embroidered to create a lacy vignette, which includes trees, water plants, orchids, creepers, shrubs and more. This was made as part of an exhibition called Flora Non Evidens, which was a show commenting on the vulnerability of some Australian native plants. Karen was lovely enough to send me a catalogue, and I can tell you, the show was incredible!
The reflective thread is dull grey in normal light, but shows as bright silver when illuminated directly in dark spaces. Along with common species constructed from normal thread, it was utilised to highlight delicate flowers throughout the vignette that were otherwise invisible in daylight. The whole effect is stunning and truly lovely. Karen describes it like this –
“This is a light reflective installation of machine embroidered endangered plants from around Victoria. Visitors to the installation must wear a head torch in order to illuminate the embroidery which flares silver and disappears as the light moves. The beautiful and elusive quality of the image is intended to reflect the fleeting nature of the plants themselves many of which are vanishing, and may never have been seen by anyone apart from scientists specialising in the field.”
Her worst experience as a maker was when she was making a lace stop motion animation, Secret Forest for Love Lace. “I had never made a stop motion animation before and it seemed simple – especially when I made a 6 second trial film for the selection process.”
“Toward the end I had 10,000 photos and I quickly realised I knew nothing about editing, that I had no story and that my computer just wasn’t up to it. I was pretty stressed. I got my graphic/web designer friend Tim to help with assembling the final file.
“Tim suggested what I had done was the equivalent of him making an eighteenth century ball gown with a hammer and nails.”
Digital machine embroidery, as used for Flora Non Evidens, has allowed Karen to open up the scale of work achievable by one embroiderer, such as being able to make the hundreds of leaves which can sit together to make a tree. And while she appreciates this advantage and finds it satisfying, her true passion still lies with free motion machine embroidery. “Whereas digital embroidery is controlled – it has no surprises – with free machining you are creating the work in the moment just like painting or drawing.”
Her smaller scale works are richly narrative, colourful and whimsical. Sometimes these take the form of small wall pieces, and she also produces work for purses and small brooches. It is her little snippets of sketches on brooches that I find the most intriguing, for their odd collection of miscellaneous ideas and suggestions – bar codes mix with bandaids, fish, smokestacks and trees.
Originally doing a degree in politics and sociology after finishing school, Karen decided she couldn’t face a career in the Bureau of Statistics; it was always a battle between making things and having a stable job. “In my mid twenties we discovered that my brother and I had a 50% chance of having a degenerative disease and this motivated me to think seriously about what I really wanted to do with my life. I went to RMIT and studied Textile Design, majoring in weave but have worked more as a textile artist using embroidery rather than a designer over the last 10 years.”
“Even when I was at Uni the first time I was making things, going to craft markets and consigning stuff to galleries. I think this gave me confidence about my work – that I could sell things.
It also showed me the reality of the time that goes into making things vs what they can sell for.
“I did work in the public service for 6 years and the job got me through studying at RMIT.”
Karen currently teaches in the Studio Textile program at South West TAFE, and is also a long-time member of the Melbourne-based textile art and embroidery group, Hurrah! She has exhibited extensively and won numerous awards, including the PFAFF International Embroidery as Art Excellence Award in 2009 for her piece Ruined Forest, and the Australian Cotton Expo Machine Embroidery award for her piece Minhamite, also in 2009.
You read more about Karen and see more of her work on her website, karenrichards.net.