A Call from the Ancestors: Picking up the threads

Hungarian Embroidery at Budapest's Folk Art Festival, August 2011
I'd like to write about threads, metaphorical threads, threads that one can pick up and follow. The threads individually come together and become part of a bigger pattern, a bigger piece. With these threads an embroidery piece is being sewn that tells a story.

I have been following personal threads of identity, authenticity, passion, connection and resonance. Sometimes I happen to find threads to follow. Other times I go searching for a colorful thread. I find it particularly magical when a thread finds me.  Another strand is sewn into my story, the work I am doing, the studies that I am pursuing and the life I am creating. This is a very personal journey and at the same time the embroidery involves bigger pieces of history, story and culture. It is the fabric of lives.

I found this quote about threads in a tapestry from a poem which describes my sentiments exactly:

"Every intention, interaction, motivation, every colour, every body, every action and reaction, every piece of physical reality and the thoughts that it engendered, every connection made, every nuanced moment of history and potentiality, every toothache and flagstone, every emotion and birth and banknote, every possible thing ever is woven into that limitless, sprawling web.

"It is without beginning or end. It is complex to a degree that humbles the mind. It is a work of such beauty that my soul wept...

"...I have danced with the spider. I have cut a caper with the dancing mad god.”
China Miéville, Perdido Street Station 

There was a time, in 2010 and 2011, when I worked with a mentor, Valerianna, who is an artist and friend at RavenWood Forest Studio of Mythic and Environmental Arts. I was looking to connect on a deeper level with my art practice. I needed perspective, a sounding board, someone I could talk with who understood what I was wrestling with. Questions about authenticity and identity in my art practice loomed large. The desire to create something meaningful and beautiful has been a driving force in my life. Creativity needs an outlet. A dialogue of meaning about authenticity, identity  and beauty is an important conversation that happens in my head as I begin new work. I think about these things and feel them out in order to bring forth something into the physical world. 


For a while, months and months, things were muddy, murky and not at all clear as I worked with my mentor, sketched and wrote in my journal. I was wondering if I was really making any progress? When will my vision for my arts practice become clearer? Will I ever be more confident in understanding the motivation for my creative work? Out of no where all of that changed.

Bobbie Sumberg's book, "Textiles", full of beautiful, intricate and colorful threaded embroidery was the catalyst pointing me towards the path I am on.  It stopped me in my tracks while perusing the shelves at the library in the winter of 2011. The book is full of textiles from all around the world. It contains photographs of some beautiful examples of Hungarian folk embroidery. As I briefly flipped through the photographs the Hungarian designs, colors and patterns struck me to the core. I knew I had to pay attention to this feeling so I took the book home with me.

The next morning I turned on the local college radio station. I began to look more closely at the intricate Hungarian embroidery work in the book. Unbeknownst to me, a polka show was on at that time. This got my attention. In between upbeat polkas, advertisements for local Polish businesses were played. I live in an area, the Pioneer Valley, with a large Polish-American population. After some time listening to the polka show and looking at the book I thought I'd look up Hungarian and Polish arts in western Massachusetts on Google. Low and behold a Polish art class was to begin at the Springfield Museum the next month. I signed up for it.

These seemingly small events lined up at about the same time and got my attention. The messages  coming to me were closely related to my heritage: the blood flowing through my veins. The hours spent alone in thought that winter morning, enjoying a book and listening to the radio woke me up. My Hungarian and Polish ancestors seemed to be gently shaking me, waking me up to what is there, what is here and what is in me. I was surrounded by eastern European stimulation that was sure to get my attention. Within 24 hours I awoke to a path. The path appears through a deeper connection with my heritage. The minor threads began an important journey that grow in different directions. I need to look forward, backward and be in the moment.

Lives are weaving together. My life with my ancestors, my living relatives, new friends and mentors. Threads of inspiration, love and longing drive me to read books, ask questions, look at images, learn the Polish language, create new art work, designs, paintings, paper-cuts and keep in touch with my relatives and the friends I met while traveling in Poland and Hungary. Stories and history are there to learn from and help me gain understanding. Places beckon me to return.

Perhaps, I've simply become aware of my place within a complex embroidery that has existed all along. The colorful threads continue to manifest, come together and take shape, weaving something I can recognize and see with some perspective. And yet a lot of work remains to be done. At times this is a wide and deep mystery. I'm left asking why.

I've always been attracted to strong colors and bold, graphic design, especially designs that connect with the natural world. For a while southwest and Mexican arts were a big inspiration to me but something was missing, a very personal connection.  I felt like a tourist. I didn't feel complete and my work didn't feel grounded. I needed to connect with something deeper.  Who am I? Why am I attracted to certain sounds, colors and patterns so strongly that I truly become awestruck? Why, musically, have I always been inspired by gypsy and eastern European music, violins, accordions, minor keys, edgy harmonies, singing and sounds of longing that pull on your heart strings? After looking deeply at the Hungarian embroidery in the textile book I realized what is going on. Aha!

The garments, like the man's mantle pictured below, wedding dress, bodices, hair pieces and many more items were sewn with such care, such love and such attention to detail. Flowers bloom in vibrant colors, patterns form a kind of rhythm of elements in the dress. The costumes exhibit such pride and joy for one's culture, one's life and one's connection with nature and the traditions of their region. The skill was passed on woman to woman, mother to daughter, grandmother to grand-daughter, generation to generation. These people lived such busy lives growing food and gardens, growing materials for their homespun linen cloth, making and mending clothing, doing household and farm chores, preserving food and the list of the hard work goes on. All this work was done everyday without the modern conveniences we have today. And it was still important to the women to spend time and attention doing intricately sewn handwork to make their lives reflect even more beauty. I so admire the skill and hard work that went into many traditional practices. I like the do-it-yourself resourcefulness that was a necessity in the past. I know I long to connect more to that kind of resourcefulness and I don't think I am alone. I believe my life is infused with more meaning when I can enjoy creating some of the things I use and need. The beautiful Hungarian and Polish embroidery I love to look at, the pieces my ancestors must have made and my drawer filled with doilies that my grandmother and great-grandmother made inspire me and reminds me of this.

My ancestors have been calling out to me. I've been looking for my own personal story, my history and the story of my ancestors. All along I wanted to deeply connect with my ancestor's traditions, lands, sounds, smells, foods, colors, plants, designs relating to the natural world. The Hungarian embroidery work woke me up to this reality. This is my quest. All along I was attracted to certain styles, music and aesthetic in relation to my personal heritage, my Eastern European roots. This led me to realize a vision, an adventure and a shift in my creative work.  I decided to take a trip of a lifetime to connect with my family and the land and villages in Poland and Hungary. All this has brought me much curiosity, depth and meaning to my creative practice and work. My experience continues to sustain and feed me.  I've created a line of gouache paintings and paper-cut designs which are available as blank greeting cards and archival prints. The graphic, bold designs and bright colors used in my work and inspired by eastern European folk embroidery feel right aesthetically and appeal to me. They are a wink and a nod to the beautiful embroidery designs that I find so lovely. So many more ideas and images swim around my head, waiting for when I have chunks of uninterrupted time in my studio and at my easel to explore, paint and cut paper. This is the rabbit hole I fell down two years ago and now there is no turning back. The journey is deep and vast. The more connections I make the more I want to know. One lifetime doesn't seem long enough to get to the bottom of my desire for understanding.

Hungarian Embroidery, Budapest's Folk Art Festival, 2011