Marjorie Coleman’s imaginative stitched textile works reflect an impressive accumulation of experiences and interests. She has been a significant contributor to the ‘contemporary’ or ‘studio’ crafts movement, which developed in many countries, including Australia, from the 1950s. It is fascinating to now investigate how she became involved and what has influenced her along the way. She graduated, for example, in 1949 with a Bachelor of Arts, Honours, in psychology, at the University of Western Australia, yet found her way to studying painting, drawing and textiles at the Claremont School of Art in 1974 – and hasn’t stopped since!
What was going on across this time? Around Australia, courses in art schools and technical colleges had increased in scope and number, postwar migration schemes brought in experts trained overseas, and many connections were made with those in the contemporary crafts world as it developed elsewhere. Australian craftspeople set up local, state and national membership organisations across all craft fields, through which they could correspond, meet and work together. Significant was the establishment of state (such as Arts WA) and national funding bodies, notably from 1973, the Australia Council for the Arts, which offered a range of grants through a number of boards including a Crafts Board, while the infrastructure of specialist dealer galleries, supportive philanthropists and museum and gallery collections also strengthened. There was a great deal of interest in establishing crafts centres as places of training and support, including the Fremantle Arts Centre in Western Australia in 1973, while education opportunities further expanded through TAFE colleges, colleges of advanced education and eventually universities.
Work in textiles evolved considerably during these decades; many artists increasingly used stitching and weaving techniques to not only create contemporary personal interpretations of familiar forms and functions, but also responded to changing ideas about art, craft and design through sometimes making sculptural forms and installations. From an initial involvement in quilt-making, Marjorie immersed herself in many of these opportunities, clearly interested in expanding her artistic horizons. Following a 1979 design course with Penny Whitchurch in Perth, for example, she carried out independent research at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. In Australia, she attended workshops with key people across the country, in a wide range of textile-oriented challenges including dyeing for embroidery with David Green, painted dolls and soft sculpture with Mirka Mora, quilting with Barbara Macey and Sonya Lee Barrington, surface design with Joan Schulze, machine appliqué with Marianne Spandjert, setting up suitcase exhibitions with Jan Irvine, experimental fibre with Heather Dorrough and a masterclass with Diana Wood Conroy. These have no doubt contributed to her current self-description as ‘stitcher of ideas’.
During these years, she also tutored in workshops and summer schools for Edith Cowan University, Albany Arts Council, the West Australian Quilters’ Association and the Embroiderers Guild of Western Australia, as well as for organisations in Melbourne, Tasmania, Sydney and Hawaii. She was one of four artists to oversee a community project to produce six large wall quilts for the Avon Valley Arts Society in Western Australia in 1993, and was invited to judge the members exhibition for the Australian Quilters Association in Melbourne in 1994. In 1995 her contribution to the field was acknowledged through her inclusion as an Elected Fellow of the Crafts Council of Western Australia (now FORM).
It is not surprising then, to discover the extent of Marjorie’s exhibition record. Earlier solo exhibitions include Discourse in 1991 and Timeline in 2006 at the Fremantle Arts Centre, and Following the Thread, Let the Cloth Speak, in Perth in 2019. From the late 1970s she has been well-represented in group exhibitions across Australia including the significant national touring exhibitions Quilts Across Australia in 1988 and Under the Southern Cross, to Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the UK in 2001–2003. She has also carried out some commissions, including a quilt representing the Perth region for the Bicentennial Authority in 1987, while her work is held in the National Gallery of Australia, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and the Holmes à Court Collection in Perth.
In bringing together a collection of her works from over 50 years, Marjorie Coleman – Lyrical Stitch not only demonstrates her innovative pursuit of ideas but also provides a wonderful record of a continuing professional commitment to textile art – and to Australia.
Marjorie Coleman has long been one of Australia’s most respected quiltmakers, acknowledged as a pioneer and leader in the field. By the 1970’s she was established as a national ground-breaker in the making of contemporary quilts with a strong Australian identity, featuring designs based on native flora and fauna.
Beyond the influence of her extraordinary body of work, Marjorie has contributed much time and energy to the advancement of the field. Many have benefitted from her teaching and from her involvement in the development of exhibition opportunities in formal gallery spaces. Always willing to offer an encouraging word, she has informally mentored many a younger maker.
However it is through her art that Marjorie speaks most powerfully. Her textile works are the product of a sharp intellect, astute observation, and empathy with her subject matter. They invariably exhibit fine craftmanship, but this is subjugated to their purpose as a means of self-expression.
As a young woman with an arts degree and honours in psychology, Marjorie found voice for her feelings in poetry, potent musings on matters of personal import - family relationships, theological mysteries and the beauty of familiar flora and fauna. Then she found a new voice in stitched cloth and the poetry ceased, no longer necessary.
Many decades later Marjorie is still finding new means to give voice to her ideas. She describes all her works as explorations, with a constant tension between discovering new, often unconventional, materials and processes whilst submerging these into what the piece is saying.
“I want to master technique and then forget it. When it is the how of the piece that first draws attention rather than the what, I feel that the piece is disappointing and will eventually pall.”
Latterly her interest has turned from the quilt medium to the predominant use of stitch, sometimes as line, sometimes as blocks of colour, but always following her personal narrative.
“I fancy that the stitch stands as something like the alphabet: not existing in its own right unless and until it serves the greater purpose of conveying something beyond itself.”
Now in her nineties, Marjorie continues to produce new work, stitching for her own enlightenment, with a strength and vigour that belies her age.
“I regard myself a stitcher of ideas. To work on an idea in whatever medium is fulfilling and even exciting; there is no space for boredom or unhappiness.”
These late works, largely stitched on linen or silk organza, are restrained, often delicate and sometimes ethereal. They are introspective, drawing on a lifetime of experiences and ideas and reflecting Marjorie’s passion for the bush and the underwater world. The same Australian native plants and birds that appeared in her early work are still present. There are also the sea creatures, such as the weedy sea dragons, familiar to Marjorie from her many years of snorkelling among them.
One work might ruminate on the inhabitants of a limestone wall passed on a ramble, another might explore the habits of water birds observed over the seasons at nearby Lake Monger. Bush birds might join Marjorie in searching for the Tree of Life.
What remains constant is Marjorie’s intention to reflect her life as a contemporary Australian, living in this place at this time.
look down, slow,
to the draw of a hand-pulled thread,
drawn down, along.
The broken line.
To see Marjorie Coleman’s work is to be reminded of many things: the wondrous light-filled opening sequence of Jane Campion’s Keats biopic ‘Bright Star’, with sweeping close-ups and the exquisite sound of a needle drawing thread through cloth; time spent in the presence of the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries. For this is what art does: it reminds us – bringing us back into relation with other exquisite moments in time, allowing us – momentarily, the joy of reliving them.
Coleman stitches a language in threads drawn from her mind, marking out memory, experience, intuition, and joy. Her drawn motifs are wrought onto translucent cloth sheaves. Fine thread marks are built into barely fashioned forms and laid onto textured territories. It is as if sheet-after-sheet of silk organza – starched by its retained sericin – and already rich with stitches, has been tenderly pulled from the wax tablet of her mind. Colours develop as dots of light flicker and flit, shifting along with the cloth, seemingly suspended and only momentarily caught. Like a fleeting moment of light captured photographically – slightly out of focus – equally, enervating and evanescent. The embroidered animal, plant, and human motifs in Coleman’s work somehow both absorb and transmit light, refractions from threads illuminating the way forward. A quest, in Colemans work, reminiscent of “À mon seul désir” in the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries. This series of tapestries depicts five senses – taste, hearing, sight, smell and touch through scenes of plants and animals along with an elusive sixth sense, a profound desire for love, where “À mon seul désir” portrays will, desire and yearning. Why else is stitching wrought over again, in a slow intimate unraveling? The pace of the unfurling narrative is akin to a slow accumulation of stitches; and hand stitch is ever bound by an antiquated duration. Coleman’s quest-like approach to her studio practice is equally evident in her pursuit of influence and comparison through workshop classes and personal museum-based study. She has carefully distilled a knowledge of stitch structures into her own dialect, influenced but not dictated to by traditional quilt-stitching methods like Kantha, and running stitches for bonding layers of cloth together. This distillation has resulted in a purity of method, defined by sets of simple stitches that interpret and illustrate – lifted apart from the need to quilt and, instead, determined upon the need to narrate.
Although rendered from deeply personal experiences along the continuum of her own life, Coleman’s stitching and its insatiable quest for expression is understood more fully when placed in the context of the evolution of contemporary stitch practice in Australia during the 20th century, inspired by stitch artists from the United Kingdom. Constance Howard, through her teaching at Goldsmiths College, University of London (1947–1975), and her international lecturer tours and prolific publications on stitch was, albeit indirectly, one of those influences. Howard’s well-documented shifting of the concept of stitch, from pattern-based ‘embroidery’ to fluid and imaginative ‘drawing’ – elevated drawing and decreed that stitch was drawing with thread. Tellingly, Howard, like Coleman was trained in drawing as a visual artist first, and this philosophical difference can be clearly seen in her legacy, through the primacy of drawing, and the ability of artists like Coleman, to use embroidery as a tool for drawing. Howard’s personal challenge was to shift the perception of stitch from pattern to drawing. Crucially moving contemporary stitch practice away from guild-influenced rule-following and precision, to independent stitch ‘interpretation’. Stitching veered away from the formal application of a strict, predetermined method to a language open to interpretation. Coleman’s link to Howard was David Green (1940-), who was taught by Howard at Goldsmiths and in-turn traveled to Australia to run workshops, then returned permanently to teach (1978–2010). According to those influenced by him, there is no ‘softly-softly’ approach to stitch with Green; he advocates original interpretation. Thus, it can be seen that subversive practice models confer the courage to listen more closely to one’s inner voice: and it is the intimacy of such listening which compels us as viewers of Coleman’s work.
Coleman’s practice as a deliberate pursuit of influence and comparison, demonstrates a quest-like seeking fueled by an ever-attentive curiosity. Coleman’s thoughtful work is illuminated by deep emotional intelligence and the universal metaphors within her personal stories. As Jane Hirshfield reminds us, “perhaps for something to be found, the only thing that matters is that there be searching” [or stitching].
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