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Studio Views: The Common Thread

sv_mavor_hands_wideblueFor as long as I can remember, I’ve felt that my pictures were plain and unfinished unless something real was glued, stapled, or sewn on to them. It still feels that way, and over the years I’ve found a method of working that allows me to explore and play with a variety of supplies and techniques. There is no set formula, but the common thread in my work is, well, thread. I embroider, wrap, and sew pieces of felt and found objects together, creating three-dimensional scenes in relief that are photographed and reproduced in picture books.

The term medium commonly describes the materials and techniques artists make use of, but I’m fascinated by another meaning of the word. Artists act as mediums, too, bringing forth and translating the ethereal into something tangible and worldly. For me, the creative process involves a constant jockeying between the intuitive and the pragmatic parts of my nature. My imagination is full of colors, shapes, and emotions that hover, ready to come alive through my fingertips. I find drawing useful for sketching out ideas and designing layouts, but I discovered a long time ago that I needed a more tactile experience to authentically express myself. Manipulating materials and stitching with a needle and thread by hand helps me communicate what I’m seeing and feeling inside.

Instead of a pen or brush, I use a sewing needle to draw lines with thread, which guide and articulate what I’m striving to show. The stitching is minute and delicate, but it’s strong enough to bind a collection of seemingly disparate parts together. I find a calm thoughtfulness in the time-consuming, repetitive handwork. Slowing down like this helps me figure out what to do next. Each new piece has its own unique challenges to work out during the process, and for this, I let my hands take the lead. Instincts, as well as careful observation, play a big part in selecting which objects to use. I have a large cache of driftwood, acorn caps, shells, and beads to choose from, and I delight in the surprises that appear when I add and take away items. The process is physical and invigorating as I organize and rearrange all of the parts, searching out ways to make my illustrations come alive. Some promising items spend a long time living in my studio before they are given a chance to show their stuff. In the end, all of the pieces need to have the right attributes to contribute to the whole picture.

The process of making art is like hosting a dinner party. You pick a theme, invite guests, cook a meal, and put flowers on the table. These are parts that you are in control of. Then your company arrives and the party begins. The party takes on a life of its own, and your role is to nourish your guests and keep things moving along, to make the event (or art) a memorable and satisfying experience.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Illustration. Click on the tag Studio Views for more illustrators.

About Salley Mavor

Salley Mavor received the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Picture Book for Pocket Full of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

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