Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Rachel Biel, Textile Artist and Blogger, Tells Her Story

Rachel Biel

I was tickled and honored when Brenda invited me to be a part of Artists Tell Their Stories. I’m usually doing what Brenda is doing with this blog, helping other artists get their stories out. 

I run two sites that basically take up most of my time, TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List and Artizan Made. Daily, I am inspired by the work of others, people working with their hands, using their minds, reaching back into our collective histories and changing the world, a bit at a time, for the better. 

I believe that art, in all of its expression (visual, functional, musical, dance, etc.) is essential to the well being of this planet. Through it, we heal each other and ourselves. We learn, share, explore and ultimately offer an alternative to mass consumption in all of its beastly incarnations.

I was born with some talent and from an early age loved materials and experimentation. My parents indulged these interests and by the time I was a young adult, I had been exposed to many different tools and techniques: oil painting, water colors, wood working, ceramics, embroidery, sewing, soldering, photography, and on and on. I later worked with clay professionally for three years and loved it. 

Rachel working in clay

But, the costs and challenges involved with studio time, materials and all of that, led me to trade it in for the textile world. I made art hats, quilts, pillows, bags and all kinds of products which I would sell online through my shop on Etsy. But, I found that I really didn’t care for the production scene. I love the process itself, experimentation, translating ideas and seeing if they work, so I stopped for a while, as I built the online sites.

Last Fall I found myself feeling sad and realized that I needed to get back to making things again. I’ve never felt the need for exhibiting or really getting my work out there, but suddenly, I found myself wanting to focus on a body of work. I’m 53 now and maybe the warning bells are ringing: better do something before it is too late. 

I settled on a series of aprons that will have embroidered portraits worked into them. I will use the aprons to look at how they are worn and what they mean around the world: status, trade, virginity, wealth ... Almost every culture has some version and the materials and techniques used also interest me. I haven’t made any of the aprons yet, but I have started on the portraits, using old photos of my family. My goal is to make around 25 over the next two years. Each embroidery will take around a month to do, late at night, while watching movies…

Rachel's sister, Helen, kissing the Brazilian flag

Rachel at age 2

A little bit on the method I am using…  In a way, I feel like I am cheating. I change the photo in Photoshop to define the color areas, almost creating a paint-by-number design. Then, I iron freezer paper onto the fabric I am going to use, cut it to size and run it through my printer. The photos here are all 8.5 x 11 inches, to give you an idea of how big they are. I pull the paper off, iron again, and set it up in the hoop.

Polarized version of Rachel's Grandparents

It sounds easy, but it’s actually been quite challenging. The hardest part has been deciding what direction the threads need to go, especially on skin and clothing. Here’s how one set of the originals look:

I am thinking of doing about 10 family portraits and then another 15 involving social issues. We’ll see how it goes.  So far, I have been using cotton embroidery floss, but I also want to try wool for crewel and see how that feels. As you can see, the backsides are also pretty intense:

The backside

I find it fascinating to see what people come up with. We are living in a wonderful time where all kinds of partnerships are happening around the world. Many of the elders, the keepers of traditions, are dying and taking their knowledge with them. It’s very hard to survive as an artist in any culture and many of the young don’t want to follow in their parent’s footsteps. Yet, while local traditions may be disappearing as a way of life, others are stepping in to document, preserve and partner so that old ways can be expressed in new ones.

I don’t necessarily like everything I see and there is way too much junk coming out of the craft community, but everybody starts somewhere. Kits and crafty projects might be the beginning that then whets the appetite for more learning, innovation and exploration. I’m just happy to see anyone making something with their hands: bread, planting, music…  It’s all-important. And, we are all partners in this journey: artists need buyers/supporters and the world needs art. Right?

I do have a website, but it’s sorely neglected:

If you are on Facebook, that’s a good place to keep up with my stitching:

This is Week 8 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Rachel's story today!

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