I am blessed to have grown up surrounded by art. My mom is an artist, meaning that my house is filled with her paintings hanging on many of the walls. My very first gift was a pair of paintings that she created for me to celebrate my birth—they are painted a soft pink with fabrics of butterflies and flowers collaged onto the canvas:
I sometimes take my art-filled home for granted. It’s ridiculous, to be honest. How could seeing so much beauty every time I walk into my living room become commonplace?
When I do take the time to study my mom’s paintings, I am astonished by their complexity. Her work is unusual, both in its physical components and in its themes. Most of her paintings start out as white canvases or wooden panels. She will then apply her first layer of paint. Then, another, and another—this time a different color. After that, she may move on to adding pieces of fabric that she has collected. My mom loves to celebrate cultures from all of the world, and she purposefully searches for textiles and fabrics that come from different countries. A particular piece may include parts of a Victorian lace doily from England, a sari from India, and a piece of Chinese silk. She always looks for handmade fabrics, usually ones that have taken women an unthinkable number of hours to create yet are now sitting unused in someone’s drawer at home. Once my mom has cut, sewn, and glued on the fabric, she usually moves on to bead work. As with the textiles, my mom collects beads from all over, recycling them from old necklaces, vintage earrings, and even antique belts. My family always groans when we pass an estate sale by the road, because we know there’s a good chance my mom will want to search it for beads. Once she has chosen the beads she wants to use, she will then sew them by hand into the fabric. This is usually the most time consuming part of her work, but it adds such a unique three-dimensional effect to the finished product.
My mom’s pieces vary in size, color, and shape, but they all possess the same special presence. This, I think, comes from the spirit behind the work. The point of her paintings, my mom has told me, is to elevate the work of women all over the world. These are women who spent their lives sewing, embroidering, weaving, and creating without being recognized as true artists. Their work was often highly underappreciated. On her website, my mom says: “Discarded doilies and remnants of embroidered fabrics are a source of inspiration to me; by rescuing them and recycling them into my beaded paintings, I hope to honor and collaborate with the creative spirit of past generations of women from around the world whose handiwork has often been ignored because it was not created to be displayed in a gallery.” http://www.bethyazhari.com/about.html
With so many paintings currently hanging around our house and in my mom’s studio, I thought that this assignment would be the perfect opportunity to do some in-depth research of one her works. As I searched the house for a piece that particularly spoke to me, I was struck by a certain one hanging right by our kitchen: “Lace Study #4.”
I chose “Lace Study #4” partly because it is my favorite color (blue) and partly because I know almost nothing about it, except for its name and its age (about two years old). Because of my lack of familiarity with this painting, I thought it would be interesting to list my first impressions and to analyze why this piece is so appealing to me.
“Lace Study #4” is not a huge painting, unlike some of the other pieces my mom has created over the years. Using a ruler I tracked down in my kitchen, I found that it is a perfect eighteen inch by eighteen inch square. It hangs from the wall like a diamond and is surrounded by a solid black wooden frame. This frame is unusual because its sides do not actually touch the border of the painting. Instead, it leaves an inch or two of space, giving the painting a light, “floating” effect. One of the aspects I love most about “Lace Study #4” is its soft, almost dainty aura, and the juxtaposition of the dark frame against the powder blue paint and delicate lace contributes greatly to this feeling.
An interesting detail I noticed quickly about this painting is that it has no beads sewn into it. Touching the “canvas,” I realized that it was not a canvas at all but a wooden panel. It seemed an interesting choice, I thought, to choose a hard wooden block instead of a supple canvas. Wouldn’t that take away from the gentleness of the piece? Then, thinking back to the name of the piece and its specific reference to lace, I realized that the wood is actually an important aspect. Because it inhibits the use of beads, the wood allows the fabrics and lace to be the star of the piece.
I am drawn to this work not only because of its soft colors but also because of the symmetry and the sense of depth it displays. Every piece of fabric is mirrored in all four corners of the piece so that you could flip the painting in any direction and it would appear identical. This uniformity gives me a feeling of zen and balance, adding a calm strength to the gentle piece.
The dark paint in the background of the painting adds another important element, giving it another dimension. Because the painting has no beads, I would think that it would lack the normal three-dimensional effect of my mom’s work. However, like with the black frame, my mom has painted round, indigo-colored shapes in order to create a stark contrast against the intricate blue and peach lace. This causes the lace to pop out and adds a complexity I find very enticing.
At this point, there isn’t much more I can deduce from the piece by simply looking at it. It’s time I get some exclusive, behind-the-scenes information from the woman herself: the artist and my very own mom, Beth Yazhari.
First, could you explain what your intention was in creating the Lace Study pieces and why “Lace Study #4” is meaningful to you?
I am really drawn to the incredible intricacy and diversity of antique lace patterns. Over the past several years, I have done a lot of reading about the historical importance of lace and have come to have a deep respect for those who labored for many months or even years in order to create a complex piece of handmade lace! My lace studies are a way of exploring the unique geometry and almost infinite variations of lace structures; I enjoy rescuing abandoned specimens of stunning handmade lace and embroidery at estate sales and transforming them by using them in my paintings. I give these textiles new life by painting them and often reassembling them in complex new formations on canvases or wooden panels.
An important aspect of your work is your use of textiles from nations all over the world. From which countries did you find the various fabrics in this piece?
“Lace Study #4” has an intricate layered composition that features delicate fragments of textiles from several countries. In addition to the lace edging of an antique wedding handkerchief and a variety of other pieces of finely tatted lace and embroidery from America and Europe, there are bits of sari fabric from India, finely embroidered butterflies rescued from the edges of vintage napkins from China, and tiny quilted squares from a miniature wall hanging that I believe to be from Guatemala.
When I look at “Lace Study #4,” I feel a sense of peace and calm. Is this the mood you were going for, and if so, which physical aspects do you think contribute most to the painting’s tranquility?
I agree that there is a serene feeling to this piece, and I think that the dominantly cool color theme and symmetrical composition create that. Viewers have often compared my paintings to mandalas because they tend to be intricate and symmetrical and to radiate a peaceful energy. While creating “Lace Study #4,” I rotated the square wooden panel in order to orient the piece as a diamond. This, along with subtle asymmetry within the initial layers of paint, lends the painting a certain dynamism.
Although you didn’t use your standard stitching and beading with this painting, I did notice that you hand painted stitches in some areas of the panel. I have seen you use this technique in other works, but what is the reason for it?
About five years ago, I was juried into a show that gave me the parameter of working on wooden panels rather than on canvases. I normally do lots of my own hand embroidery on my painted canvases, but for these three pieces I had to think of a way to reference women’s handwork without actually being able to stitch through the panels. Midway through this series (“Homage to Needlework: Trompe l’Oeil # 1, #2, and #3”; 2013) I happened upon the meditative technique of using a very small brush to paint “stitched” outlines in the negative spaces around my painted motifs. I was very pleased with the result and have used these tiny stitches to create patterns in the backgrounds of many of my paintings since; they have a similar feel to the intricate outlines of echo quilting that I am drawn to on antique quilts.
While viewers often marvel at the sheer number of tiny painted stitches in my pieces, I enjoy the process of painting them; the repetitive motion makes me think not only of the act of embroidery but of the creation of Aboriginal dot paintings. I am also intrigued by how effective they are at fooling the viewer’s eye; unless you are very close, it is almost impossible to tell what is paint and what is a piece of vintage stitched fabric that has been collaged on the panel or canvas. In a variation on this theme, I have recently been using small brushes to create intricate loops of painted “lace” in a new series of lace studies. Just as the painted stitches are difficult to distinguish from actual embroidery, these lacy backgrounds are extremely hard to differentiate from the fragments of antique lace superimposed on them, which creates all sorts of intriguing possibilities!
Finally, if you were to describe this painting to someone in three words, what would they be?
That’s a hard one! I would have to choose intricate, for sure. I think harmonious and energetic might be the other two; this piece is an interesting combination of delicacy and power to me.