“Pinky’s work has always aimed at revealing edges of the mystery of life, aging and death, particularly in relation to the human body. Pinhole, with its unusual perspective and glorious array of mistakes, seems suited to her particular investigation of our being. Often surreal, the images that she prefers exist on the edge of the dream world.”
What made you decide to embroider over pictures instead of using other creative outlets?
At age 50 I went back to graduate school and studied photography and got my masters in it. It was really wonderful and I was using pinhole cameras, which allows for lots of odd things to happen and is always a process like a performance. My sister was diagnosed with cancer and at the time she was dealing with it I usually worked on large images around 32 by 40 inches and it took a lot of energy to produce that kind of work. It wasn’t necessarily me trying to process anything about her, it was just easier for me to sit and do things with my hands. I’ve always worked with my hands; I used to knit and crotchet. My aunt who was blind taught me how to crotchet. My sister and I also made our own clothes when we were growing up so I’ve always loved to sew. I had a postcard from Mexico of the Virgin of Guadalupe and over the image were stitches. I thought it was a cool idea so I pulled out my photographs and stitched on what I photographed. It was something I could do and be comfortable with that was different from doing my regular photography.
Did you find it therapeutic?
I did but it wasn’t my intention when I started doing it. It was like I was coming back to myself on some level. I make music also and I’ve always said that that was my soul but when I started sewing I felt like that was too. My sister and I played two pianos together, cello and violin.
What other textiles have you explored or would like to explore?
I’m 80 years old and I’m on a binge of trying to figure out my timeline. I cannot remember which grandchild was born before the other or which hurricane happened before the other. I did a little book but it wasn’t satisfying to me so I basically created fabric for hanging mannequins something similar to that Japanese Boro method where they sew pieces of fabric on top of each other. Right now that’s what I’m intrigued with; creating these dresses that hang down. I have one of my grandmother’s corsets so I used it and found some others that were similar that I could use and made timelines over the fabric. I’m excited about it. It has photography in it but it’s not all of my photographs; they’re family pictures that were taken by other family members. I’m fortunate enough to have had a grandmother who took photographs at the turn of a century with an old camera that used glass negatives. I’ve got pictures that go back into the 1800s so I’m able to pull those out which are pretty amazing.
And they’re still in tact?
Photography has a life span and eventually it fades away. Luckily the photos were kept in the dark and the family put them together in albums. I have a lot of the negatives and can reproduce them. With technology I was able to re-photograph them and blow them up to be bigger so I can use them in my work too. I don’t know whether I’m going forward or backwards.
Maybe you’re doing both and coming back to middle somehow.
That’s what I’m thinking. My initial idea was to make the work come across the mannequins like a spiral hanging down from the ceiling to come back to meet. To me life is kind of like that, a spiral and it reconnects with itself at various points when something happens and that’s exciting to me.
Where do you get all the mannequins from?
I have some good friends that like to give me things and one friend in particular had a whole lot of them. She collects old damaged dolls but moved to a smaller house and had to give up the mannequins because she didn’t have enough room for them. I was lucky enough to inherit a bunch of them. The ones I’m working on right now are ones that I actually made out of papermache and covered in old dress patterns that I have. I’m from a family that doesn’t throw away anything so I’ve got a lot to work with.
You’re so productive! How long does each mannequin take to make?
Well I’ve been working on this project for about six months at this point and I’ve got two that are almost done and I’ve got one in process. It’s hard for me for me to say how long it takes really. I don’t think in terms of how long my work takes, I just work whenever I can, a little bit here and a little bit there. It’s not about being commercial, I’m doing these things really for myself and I’m happy when people want to see them. I can put them out somewhere but that’s not what this is all about for me.
It’s somehow my expression of my journey through life.
How does making these personal embroideries make you feel? They’re obviously personal because they’re your works of art and personal because they deal with very sensitive topics in your family.
One of the main things that I felt had to do with the fact that once I realised what my sister was going through and I began going to the doctor with her. Seeing these anatomical books really intrigued me. I was interested in how it looked. I’ve always been intrigued with the human figure anyway but to see it internally for me gave me energy because I was exploring what’s under the skin. What I don’t know and can’t see but know exists. During a five-year period my son was killed, my sister died from cancer, my parents died and my best friend and collaborator also passed away; I went through a period of a lot of death. I think I’m very comfortable with the idea that we live a while and then we die. Little tiny things will come up and the tears will come but I don’t spend my time moaning about it.
And dwelling on it. You’re really strong. Was it a conscious decision to use colourful threads? Death and being unwell are difficult topics and you could’ve easily gone in a dark direction.
Well that came from the post card from Mexico. I lived there for five years and two of my children were born there. I love all the bright colours from there and that was an influence. Also in the anatomy books the illustrations used colours with different organs. I thought to myself the other day that maybe it’s because I’m getting old and my old eyes might like the bright the colours! My photographs were all black and white and I hadn’t dealt with colour before but I do love how they look in particular juxtaposed with the photographs. It adds a dimension.
Where do you get all the threads?
(Starts laughing) Every time I go anywhere with friends and there’s a store where there’s yarn or embroidery I pick up a few colours that I think are interesting. I do have friends that say “give it to Pinky” if they’ve got extra that they don’t want. I’ve got quite a collection of threads that people have passed along which is lovely. The colours I’m using for the dresses and mannequins are very muted and more earthy and natural colours.
Do you stitch on the dresses for the mannequins?
Yes I attach the dress part to the corset and then I place it on the papermache mannequin so they can be draped. At one point I thought about laying the fabric against the wall but I love the idea of the dress hanging instead. It takes a lot of time and I wouldn’t say I’m a hermit but I do like being by myself and I’m very happy sitting by myself while sewing listening to audio books and music.
I’m the same. Have you always enjoyed your own company?
Yes, very much so. Having four children and now I’ve got five great grandchildren so a big family. They don’t live here but I get to see them and enjoy all that without it invading my own space.
How did you manage feeling that way when you had to look after your children?
I think at that point the art work wasn’t so important to me. We had a great time with my kids. We were in Mexico for a while then we were back in the state of Georgia for a while. When my husband and I divorced that was when I ended up going back to graduate school. Very often what I did during that time was go up into the garage attic and would either write books or work in journals. I think it helped me to find my space.
To have some you time. Have you always had a creative background?
My mother majored in watercolour in college for fine art. She made wonderful abstract work. It was interesting because our work was different but I valued her perspective on what I was doing I would always ask for her opinion. My grandmother, her mother, was a photographer but I only found that out when I was getting my degree in photography. My sister was an incredible musician, she played piano and violin. The arts have been valued in our family in such a way that I felt supported.
Were only the women in your family artistic?
In the older generation I would say yes. I’ve got a grandson that has a design company where he creates stage sets. Another grandson studied and now works in film in California. It’s another version of the same thing. My daughter and granddaughter also make childrenswear and sell on ewmccall. It’s adorable.
Would you ever sell your work?
I do sell some; sometimes it’s not really anything that I think is sellable for the general public. Right now I’m working on a series that has to do with reimagining what home means and for me it means the body. What’s on the inside like the heart. Also recently I worked on an installation about being a blind photographer. Obviously you can’t really take an installation to the market anywhere but then I began making some pieces showing what I thought it would be like if I was trying to make photographs as if I was blind and couldn’t see what I was doing. That to me is really exciting and I like those two projects. Selling isn’t my goal but it’s a plus!
What’s you’re working space like?
I designed it myself and it’s 40 by 40 square feet. I sectioned off a part for the kitchen and a part for the bedroom. Basically I leave tables up so I can work when I want. I created an area on my porch where I can make homemade paper and other things that I want to incorporate into the process. I love combining photographic stuff with homemade paper and stitching.
Layers of techniques.
Yes that’s a good expression. I may borrow that from you.
No no, keep it. It’s yours.
What haven’t you worked with that you’d like to do?
That’s interesting you ask. When I collaborated with my friend that died I did a lot of work with clay but it wasn’t something I felt comfortable with. We did combine it with photographic emulsion and made some really beautiful images with that. Actually what I’d love to do now that I’ve been trying lately is film-making. People have said that my work has a narrative to it. I haven’t quite mastered how to get the computer process going yet. I could get really seduced and enjoy doing film and playing with reality. The learning process gets my juices going.
Do you think that learning something new takes you back to childhood like being innocent and not knowing?
Partly yes. I love the not knowing. It’s very playful and not being too serious about things is part of my journey.
How do you motivate yourself? Is it easy to get up and start working?
I don’t feel like it’s work. I’m doing stuff I really want to do. If I have an exhibition coming up or a reason I have to finish a project, that makes me want to work faster. There’s a guy from New Orleans coming to choose work for an exhibition and I really want to finish the timeline dresses so he can see them. Other things like the weather motivate me. When it’s cool outside I like to work on the porch. Going out and doing the plaster moulds for the mannequins has been a fun excuse to go out more. I’m having fun doing what I’m doing.
That’s really inspiring. Have you always worked in the arts? Have you ever had a 9-5?
The reason we lived in Mexico is because my ex husband was teaching at a Presbyterian seminary there and I taught music, bible and things like that. I worked in the church doing lots of different workshops. I do like teaching. In Alabama I created something called Pinky’s Portable Pop-up Pinhole Camera and Darkroom, it was a camper I pulled behind my car and when it opened up there were bellows on the side. You could go in and see the world upside down and backwards which is how the camera works and also how your eye works. I went to schools to show students and teach them about it. I’ve done a lot of that kind of teaching. The teaching field has been the other side of my work.
What part of Mexico did you live in?
Mexico City the area of Coyoacán. The Presbyterian seminary was across the street from Frida Kahlo’s blue house.
Oh wow, I’m jealous!
This was in the 50s and I didn’t even know who she was at the time. I remember walking in the house around the time they opened it to the public and I thought to myself that the person who lived in it was amazing! I couldn’t believe it. Our house was half a block away from where Trotsky was assassinated so it was very culturally rich area. My ex husband travelled a lot and I stayed home with the babies so after we divorced I went back to Mexico and travelled around Oaxaca with my ceramicist friend Kitty Couch. We travelled there once a year for about a month each time. She lived in North Carolina and wanted to get out of the cold. It was wonderful.
I heard that each town in Oaxaca has a special skill. Do you know if that’s true?
Yes, each village has its specialty. There are so many craft things going on there and I can imagine that it would influence anyone. I’ve got a friend getting ready to go to the Day of the Dead and the drama around it is amazing.
Have you been to any other countries that have inspired you?
When I studied at the University of Georgia there was a programme called Studies Abroad and I was able to go to Cortona in Italy to study for three months there. That was where I met my friend Kitty too. The whole course was based on art history and during the weekends we went to different cathedrals and places. During the week when the course was taught the teacher referred to these places. I’d like to see Greece, Spain and maybe parts of Africa.
Last question, where does the name Pinky come from?
When I was born in Pittsburg Pennsylvania my hair was very red and the nurses called me Pinky Boo Boo and it stuck but thank goodness they dropped the Boo Boo. I used to think it was unsophisticated but someone would call me by it and people would catch on.
It’s a good name; especially for an artist.
I’ve grown to like it.
You can see more of Pinky’s work here