There’s an idea that I’ve been kicking around in my head for a long time –about twenty years, actually - and when the San Francisco School of Needlework put out the call for their ‘Out of This World’ exhibition, I knew it would be perfect, although I had no idea how it would change and grow before it was finished. This exhibit asks us to turn our eyes skyward, and will be filled with beautiful works of celestial (and extraterrestrial) origins. I can’t wait to see what the other artists submit – the quality of work is always astounding and I’m honored to be a part.
Photo courtesy of NASA
I got my first pair of glasses at the age of nine, and saw the moon and stars for the first time that night. Before that, I thought our knowledge of the moon’s surface and phases came exclusively from telescopes, as the moon was nothing more than a vague and hazy spotlight to my eyes and the stars were completely theoretical. The Man in the Moon, I figured, was probably a joke about Buzz Aldrin. I didn’t get it.
In some ways, I still don’t- not really. Looking up at the moon for the first time I decided that its dappled pattern sort of looked like a rabbit curled up, and the Moon Rabbit has stubbornly stayed with me through the years. I have been unable to really convince anyone else that the moon looks like a rabbit, and they have been unable to convince me that it looks like a man’s face. I was surprised and pleased to find that other cultures see a Moon Rabbit – it’s widespread in East Asia as well as mentioned in Cree and Aztec stories. I wasn’t able to find out exactly how the Cree or Aztec saw the rabbit in the moon, but in researching the Chinese belief my vindication was slightly dampened. They saw the Rabbit in the shadows of the moon instead of filling the face like I did. So it’s a slightly different Rabbit, but a Moon Rabbit all the same.
When I first read the prompt for the Out of this World exhibit, I knew it would be the perfect chance to do the Moon Rabbit justice. How to portray such a strange and mystical subject was going to be the difficult part. Pointing out the features of the Moon Rabbit on a clear night has never worked, and tracing the Rabbit over a blown-up photograph made things even worse. The Rabbit would need a more stylized approach if it could be done at all. Much of my embroidery is very representational, so this would be a challenge in several ways.
I love the formal, flowing lines of Art Noveau, and my first introduction to it was in an illustrated book of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales just a year or two after I got my glasses. It was my first real book of fairytales (not the saccharine, cleaned-up modern versions of them) and I was hooked. The art, the stories – I stayed up through the night at a friend’s house and devoured the entire book while the others were asleep. These were the stories I was looking for; these were the shadowy hints of magic that I loved in other work. The Moon Rabbit would fit right in. I could imagine it as a full-page illustration alongside the beautiful, terrible Snow Queen, the Steadfast Tin Soldier, and the Little Match Girl. Now I had not only a subject but a style.
Art Noveau is known for its flowing lines and asymmetric, organic (yet conventionalized) forms, often contrasted with ornate circular or arched frames. This stylization is one of the reasons I chose goldwork; the structure and limited forms of the metal threads require a very different set of techniques than shading multiple colors of embroidery threads. (Goldwork could more technically be called 'metal thread embroidery'; the metal threads and wires involved do not have to be gold in color). Metal threads don’t blend into each other like cotton or silk; each thread stands separate and distinct.
In this case my palette would be very simple – pure silver. The interest would come from the different textures and shapes I could create in the composition. I had a vision of the Moon Rabbit, ornate, sculptural, on a midnight blue ground. It would shine with reflected light like the moon itself.
Immediately I ran into problems. Every problem I encountered has led to a more colorful solution. To begin with, there was no midnight blue silk to be found in a suitable weight. As I learned with the Journey Talisman project, black would be too harsh. All the blues I found were clear medium blues or royal blue – hardly fit for a night sky. However, I did have leftover silk dyes in turquoise, deep blues, and purples from a spinning project as well as a cavalier attitude towards the difficulty of silk painting. I bought white silk and got to work.
Silk painting is fun, I found - especially if your goal is nebulous color with no form or subject. As a background, all I really needed was good, dark color. A bit of texture would be an added bonus. The traditional lines of gutta percha resist would be too distracting (and too difficult to do well), so the only resist I used was a handful of salt for texture. When my rather enthusiastic application of dye started to puddle, I used that tendency as a focal point from which the colors would appear to emanate. I had found the point that the moon would sit.
Steaming my silk to set the color was difficult, but just possible with an improvised canning pot. Unrolling the silk after it had been steam-set was the moment that this project really got exciting. The colors were deeper, richer, and more textured than I had hoped for. Instead of a simple midnight blue, I now had a background worthy of a fairytale illustration. The Moon Rabbit would need to be reworked a bit to have hints of pink and blue so that it could harmonize with such a brilliant ground fabric.