This week we are featuring the work of Haeli Van Veen. Haeli is completing her Honours year at the ANU School of Arts in the Sculpture workshop after completing her BA (Visual) majoring in the Textile workshop there last year. The embroidery pieces seen in this article are the stunning works produced by Haeli for her major work last year!
Since commencing her studies Haeli has exhibited in may group exhibition including the Nets project, an international textile exhibition spanning countries and continents. She has was awarded an Emerging Artist Support Scheme Award in 2011 for her major work, has works for sale at the online boutique store Velvet Lane, and also received a highly commended by the American Tapestry Alliance for her work entered in Small Tapestries International.
All images in this interview are provided by and copyright of Haeli Van Veen.
Tell us a little about yourself and your arts/design background
Growing up in Canberra with my parents in the arts meant that every Thursday and Friday night I was dragged to another opening, running around among the grown-ups that are the thriving arts scene of our Capital, a pastime that I used to resent, and have now embraced as I began to study art myself. I grew up building dolls out of chunks of wood and tagging along on my dad’s visits to junkyards, finding new dress-ups in people’s rejects.
At 14, I started to work in the theatre, designing and making costumes and sets throughout my teen years. After a few more years of travelling and aimless wandering, I decided to bite the bullet and go to art school. I am currently studying at the ANU School of Art in Canberra, doing my honours in sculpture. I finished my bachelors’ degree in textiles in 2011.
What led you to use embroidery in your work?
One of the many summer holidays that I spent with my Oma down the coast, I began to go through her Simplicity sewing books from the 70’s. Being obsessed with the 60’s and 70’s as I was, I soon taught myself the stitches from the diagrams, and began to embroider paisley and floral patterns up the legs of my massive flares (needless to say, I had a very distinctive style throughout high school).
This ability to embroider was nothing more than a way to embellish my clothing, up until my last year of my undergraduate study, when I became fascinated with tattoos and their origin. I soon discovered the connections between tattoos and women, how the ritual of tattooing in many primitive cultures was almost exclusively for women. The connection between stitch and tattoo was cemented in my mind when I read about how Inuit women would tattoo their face and hands by literally stitching into their skin with thread that’s been treated with bear grease and soot. From there, stitching tattoos into ‘skin’ seemed to be a somewhat natural progression!
Could you talk a little on the process of creating your work?
When I learnt from my sculpture teacher, Simon Schuerle, how to use silicone and treat it to look just like skin a year earlier, I had wondered whether I could stitch into it. I spent several weeks figuring out how I could make the silicone a self-supporting canvas that I could stitch into. Eventually I found that layering two layers of tulle worked as a good support, because it didn’t fray, and then I was a case of building up the thin layers of the silicone and colouring to look like skin.
With the skin figured out, I then had to try to find a way to hold then skin in a way to stitch into. After trying to prop the wobbly skins against my knees as I stitched, I then decided to rig up a frame with clamps to secure the skins while I stitched into them. Due to the size of the frame, and the length of time I was working on the pieces, I ended up only being able to work slightly reclined in an armchair, positioned under the frame.
I tried many stitches throughout the process, and decided on a loose satin stitch and a backstitch best achieved the result I was looking for. Each large piece takes about 30 hours of stitching, and 2-3 days to make the skin.
Can you tell us a little about your inspirations?
I draw inspiration from everything around me. A lot of the tattoo images, I got from the old school tattoo designs in various books and archives, but I also found that anthropological studies and even textile patterns were great visual sources.
Looking at images and motifs that someone has chosen to permanently mark their body with is a fascination and personal experience. During the year of work, I travelled to Berlin to a tattoo convention, and, through getting some tattoos there myself, I came in contact with the Berlin tattoo culture. My interests, however, do not lie so much in the ‘fashion fad’ side of tattoos, but more in the primitive ritual, permanent motif aspect of tattooing.
I also identify a lot with Canadian landscape and animals, as well as much of their indigenous art, especially Inuit and Haida tribes. My work is currently drawing a lot on cultural identity, which still relates to the idea of tattoos, tribes, and heritage. The idea that by embroidering, I am carrying on a pastime of my Grandmothers and Great-Grandmothers gives me a sense of connection and identity that I felt I was beginning to lose.