Bobbi Meier, April 2018
It all began with a trip to Mario Frutos Upholstery Shop in Berwyn. I needed to learn how to “tuft” for a sculpture I was making and he was recommended to me by my friend, Sabina. Piled high with chairs, fabric, and sewing paraphernalia, the tiny shop was filled to overflowing, with a small clearing in the back that had just enough room for Mario and his supplies. He was working on reupholstering antique chairs and had tossed some original needlepoint seat coverings to the side. Always on the look-out for possible materials to use in my sculptures and installations, I asked if I could have them. To my surprise he said they belonged to Sabina! They had been part of her mother’s dining room set and now she was having the chairs re-covered. He said she wanted to keep them. I called Sabina to let her know I was interested in the tapestries if she decided she didn’t want them, and about a month later they were mine.
Immediately tacking the hand-crafted remnants to my studio walls, they waited a long time for me to begin experimenting with them. I was curious how the history of Sabina’s chair coverings and my interventions to these tapestries would become intertwined. I was thinking about the history of the cloth. Where it lived, how it was used, what cat left their odor and hair embedded in them? Who sat on them? How many dinner conversations were they part of? Sabina and I are the same age and I could imagine her family and mine seated in their formal dining rooms. When our mothers were setting up house in the 1950’s, home decor was clean and modern, yet these tapestries hearken back to a Victorian era. Her furniture was surely handed down, as was the case in my home. My mother inherited 1920’s era furniture from my great-grandmother; a massive Victorian couch, lugged out of great-grandma’s apartment after she died. Solidly built, a repository of many memories, and it was free.
I remembered trips from our 1960’s row house in Baltimore, to my grandparent’s brick Cape Cod house in Hartsdale, New York. My sister and I were young, and visits to Grandma and Grandpa always included Sunday dinner with our New Jersey cousins. Adults in the dining room sitting at the Duncan Phyfe mahogany table with beautifully upholstered seats, kids at the white and red 1940’s metal table in the tiny kitchen. We were happy to have our own place and not listen to boring grown-up conversations. Our dad would somehow always manage to join us and laugh at our silly knock-knock jokes.
Once my mother made Jackie Kennedy’s White House Christmas dinner from a magazine article she had kept from Redbook or McCalls. We had moved to Illinois with no family nearby and this was her way of keeping Christmas special. Mom and Dad were trying so hard. So hard to do what? Experience life above our middle class for a moment? Be like the Kennedys, even though my Dad was a die-hard Republican? There was not a kids table for this dinner, we all sat together in the dining room at my mom’s cherished Heywood Wakefield maple table. How is it that family histories, dinner conversations, and emotional memories are entangled in the threads of these tapestries I have now inherited?
After removing all of the remaining rusted upholstery tacks, and a trip to the cleaners, I reversed the tapestries to abstract the needlework. The inside is out. An unanticipated metaphor! Wrapping the tapestries on an oval canvas in my studio I am reminded of cameos and portraits of long-passed relatives. I encircle the canvas with a bulbous, stuffed border made of pantyhose and remember being jealous of a girl who sat next to me in biology class in 7th grade who already had breasts and was allowed to wear stockings to school.
Thinking of Miro and Kandinsky, I begin to embroider on the surface of the abstracted needlework, layering colored thread and veiled material onto the surface. I continue to stitch on top of the antique inverted cloth, obscuring the original imagery, and remember when I was a child beginning to draw. I would sit in the family room of our split level suburban home with the World Book Encyclopedia on my lap, drawing a bird, a robin, from the Bird Species of North America page. Fifty years later, I sit with my embroidery on my lap in my family room in a Victorian home in suburban Chicago.
I am remembering the 60’s decor of my childhood home and considering women’s labor. My mother and grandmother always had a handmade needlework project under way. Crocheted afghans, intricate lace doilies, knit sweaters for the grandkids, mittens every winter, cross-stitched baby quilts, embroidered tea towels, hand sewn prom dresses, a very special needle pointed piano bench cushion, all were part of their repertoire. My hand is aching and my fingers are tingling as I complete another session of hand stitching. I earned my badge for needlecraft when I was a girl scout in 1967.
I understand Sabina’s hesitancy to relinquish her precious heirlooms. I still have a hand knitted black and white sweater vest my mom made for me when I was 12 years old and cannot let it go. A transference of energy is being released from me into the needlepointed canvas and I hope I am performing an act of importance. I don’t know who made the original tapestries, perhaps Sabina does. She has been too ill to meet with me. I’m worried about her. I think of her as I embellish her once-prized objects.
I wonder if Sabina was a girl scout?