The 30-year old Toronto-based artist creates massive fabric collages out of hundreds of scraps of felt, thread and ink, painstakingly cut out, then stitched together to create works of art that torpedo the barriers between art and craft.
The otherworldly imagery each canvas depicts seems almost tailor-made to accompany a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Yet they are far from being derivative; each piece tells its own story, where human emotions are symbolized by animals and nothing is quite as it seems. Despite their dreamlike quality, there is always the hint of something terrifying lurking beneath the surface. Speirs says her work is purposefully vague so people can read their own experiences into the imagery.
Speirs is just as much of a storyteller as she is an artist. Her process is more akin to that of a writer; coming up with a story first, then finding the imagery to serve her purpose. Once the story has run its course, she comes up with mysterious cursive truisms that describe the work, like a folk art Jenny Holzer.
In the Medieval times, women stitched and weaved long tapestries to immortalize their stories and history, depicting everything from bloody battles to unicorns with beards. But read into them closely and you will find as much symbolism and plot as any Chaucer novel. The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the clash between England and France at the Battle of Hastings; The Unicorn Tapestries were commissioned by French royal Anne of Brittany to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII.
Speirs’ work brings to mind fairy tales but more with an element of the macabre, like Baba Yaga and Hansel and Gretel. But Speirs herself is a worried about sounding grim. “I always sound so serious in interviews!” she exclaims with a giggle.
We met up at Canvas Gallery on Dupont Street, located in an industrial-looking spot of Toronto. There we congregated around a piece of her art that featured playful swans nesting amongst forest foliage with eerily tall birch trees looming overhead, to discuss her art and process.
So you were saying that your work takes a really long time to complete.
I can’t make a piece in a day. That piece [titled They’ll Never Find Us Here] took several weeks to make because each piece is hand cut and then stitched together. So it’s all these layers and processes. All the leaves are cut out by hand as well. A lot of it is, I make a bunch of things for it, see if I like it, what is missing, what needs to be added. They can take anywhere from two weeks to make to three months to make.
You’re not a prolific artist?
It’s not a speedy process. I don’t think it ever will be. The nice thing is nothing ever sits around, it all sells pretty quickly.
Did you go to art school?
No, I’m self-taught. I wish I had gone to art school. At the same time, I wonder if I would have stumbled into what I make had I gone to art school or not.
So how was the process? How did you start making art?
I’ve always made it, ever since I was a little kid. My mom sews a lot, so she had lots of scraps of fabric and I would play with them. I would start to glue them to things, and cut them into shapes. It was kind of just something I played with as a kid. Then I was working a full-time job, and I had to do something creative so I started working on art at night.
The funny thing is, I got accepted to Queen West Art Crawl based on a piece of art I submitted, then thought; “I’ve got to figure something out and make more art based on this style. I should probably make bunch of other ones like that.”
Your work has this fairy tale aspect to it, so I’m very curious about how you incorporate stories into your work.
I think fairy tales serve as a metaphor, and I love that. The whole idea is that you can make it applicable to your own experience. With fairy tales, what is being told is usually not the message they want you to get.
The work is about storytelling, for sure, but I like it to remain abstract so you can adapt it to your own personal experience. Some people want it to be really literal. If you’re going to compare it to a fairytale, you can’t take it literally.
Which comes first, the imagery or the words?
The imagery is usually really loose and abstract at the beginning. I’ve had people say to me my process is a lot more like a writer than an artist. People look at it and say “well that’s not art if you’re going with a literary process.” But I don’t think the two are really different, I just mush the two together. The caption usually comes up as it is developing towards the end.
I like it to be vague. I like it so someone looks at it and it raises questions for them, makes them think a little bit. I’ve read a variety of different folk stories, some Canadian, some American, but when I go up north – my husband has a cottage there – and I usually like to bring them when I go up there and read them in this really peaceful, it’s good for the imagination
You’re creating away from the world.
It’s where I usually get most of my inspiration for pieces is being there and just thinking about being secluded and the different stories I come up with.
So how does your artwork reflect your take on the world? A lot of it seems to come from a dark place.
Sometimes when I’m making a piece, its usually reflecting on something I’ve gone through and turning it into a story and making it abstract through the viewing. So it kind of takes an experience and makes it more magical and beautiful and expressive than it was. Everyone has those dark moments in their life. The work is actually to make sense of things that have happened.
That’s not to say I’m sitting there and loathing the world, being angry and brooding. But if can take something that is negative or baggage and express it in a beautiful way, you’ve kind of beat the system. You’ve made sense of it and made it become something valuable.
At the same time, I did a piece once that had tigers pacing and a baby in a crib on the same floor as these tigers pacing. When you see a threatening tiger in the same room as a baby, people respond to it and think I’m dark. But its them who are automatically assuming. That’s not happening in the pieces! You’re going there.
I read in an interview that your work was inspired by traditional female roles. Can you expand on that?
Traditional female roles are something that comes up for me every day. Every single day women struggle with what part of what they do is legitimate, what is frivolous and what is valuable. I really enjoy taking women in traditional female roles, and male roles as well, and depicting them. Also, I’ve always been fascinated by traditional handiwork and how valuable it is.
That’s kind of what you’re doing.
Yes. And what a huge contribution it is to have these life skills that some people shunned, or considered too traditional! I just think of how amazing they are and how respected they should be. How enjoyable they can be when you really appreciate them for the craft that they are. Also, how it’s not really considered legitimate art. The ability to embroider well or sew something is not a legitimate art form, all these crafts.
Craft is almost seen as perjorative to art.
It’s not really taken seriously at all. So I like taking those things and putting them into “serious art.” Some people would look at my work and go “that’s craft work.” But its serious art and is getting into serious shows. But really when you look at it, it’s embroidery and sewing and cutting up and decoupaging.
You can find out more about Rachael Speirs and her art on her website at www.rachaelspeirs.com.