The Stories of Salley Mavor
My occupation is making things by hand. I have had a life-long fascination with little things and needlework. Toward the end of art school, I rediscovered my childhood delight in sewing and creating miniature scenes. Leaving traditional illustration mediums behind, but still interested in narrative work, I taught myself stitching and fiber art techniques to use in my illustrations. Manipulating materials in my hands with a needle and thread was so much more satisfying than rendering with a pencil or brush. I found that I could communicate my ideas more clearly this way and that my hands would direct me in a compelling way.
My early pieces were soft sculpture, and then turned flatter, with raised figures and objects on a fabric background. I coined the term “fabric relief” early in my career, in 1982, to better describe my evolving method. My 3-dimentional pictures resemble miniature, shallow stage sets, with scenery, props and characters telling a story. I embroider, wrap, appliqué and paint different materials and found objects to create scenes in relief, with figures imposed on an embellished fabric background. My work is decorative and detailed, full of patterns from nature, all sewn by hand. I am self-taught in needle work and have learned through trial and error, as well as plenty of practice. I’m not as interested in method as I am communication. I think that in order to best tell a story, my artwork must be executed with skill, so that the medium contributes to the message and doesn’t distract.
"Jack and Jill" from Pocket Full of Posies
For the past 20 years, I’ve been working in the field of illustration, making artwork which is photographed and printed in children’s books. It took about 10 years to develop a technique to the point where I felt confident enough to illustrate a picture book. I continue to experiment with different materials and methods until I find a compatible combination that translates the ideas and pictures in my mind into something tangible. After my work is photographed for use as illustrations, the original pieces are mounted on stretched fabric and framed under glass in shadow boxes, ready to show and sell as individual pictures. The original fabric reliefs collages from my newest book, Pocketful of Posies, are touring around the country.
Pocket Full of Posies Cover
Working on Pocketful of Posies was a lengthy (3 years), but joyful experience. When I’m stitching and manipulating materials, and the process is going well, I almost feel transported into the world I’m creating. It’s a refuge from the chaos around me and a way to gain control of something in my life, even if for a short while. Working with a needle and thread is therapeutic and I can easily spend a whole day making one little prop, like a miniature basket out of coiled wire and embroidery floss. One of my favorite activities is sifting through piles of fabric and drawers full of beads, charms and interesting tiny natural or man-made objects I’ve collected over the years. Each new piece has its own unique challenges to work out during the process, and I let my hands take the lead. Instinct, as well as careful observation plays a big part in selecting found objects to use. Since each page in Pocketful of Posies illustrated a different rhyme, I was free to add one-of-a-kind items from nature, such as curvy pieces of driftwood. I didn’t have to repeat characters and show a consistent environment (as is usual for a story book) and felt liberated. I could bring into play a more eclectic combination of materials, without worrying about finding matching items of a different scale.
Mavor Kids, 1963
The middle of three children, I lived with my parents, sister and brother in the small village of Woods Hole, Mass. on Cape Cod. Growing up in our household was like living in a busy hive, with art projects, materials and equipment close at hand. My mother had a big influence on my development as an artist. There was always time for art and I never heard her say no to an imaginative scheme. She would help us gather supplies and teach us whatever we needed to make an idea come to life. We lived in a perpetual state of clutter, with the technique du jour in evidence all through the house. One day, Mom had the children clear a path through the living room so that our father could walk through. For Mom, part of the fun of making things was the physical thrill of interacting with the materials. Her batik room was a Jackson Pollack of spattered dye, where she would busily apply hot wax on the fabric and dip it in dye pots. Our world was full of creative possibilities and I’ve dedicated Pocketful of Posies to the memory of my remarkable parents, Mary and Jim Mavor.
Salley with doll, 1976
I became an illustrator kind of by accident. I’ve known since a young age that art was my “thing”, but I didn’t imagine a career in illustration. All of the books I enjoyed as a child were drawn or painted and although I loved to draw, I was more attracted to working in 3 dimensions. Crayons and paint were never enough for me and I had (and continue to have) the urge to sew, staple or glue real things to my pictures. I can remember lying on my living room floor looking up at all of the objects around me and having the thought that all of these things, furniture, lamps, rugs, curtains, were some form of art. “Someone designed all of this”, I marveled. Art wasn’t just a framed painting on the wall. It was snowing outside and I imagined nature as an artist, too, making beautiful snowflake designs.
Detail from “Rabbitat” 2011
Looking back, I have early memories of sewing and constructing things as a child. I would spend hours sewing outfits and creating scenes for my dolls. Once I figured out how to sew on snaps, a world of possibilities opened up. I was especially interested in all things miniature and coming up with ways to decorate and furnish my doll’s environment. I can remember making a tiny bathroom and looking around the house for shower curtain material. It had to be plastic and water repellant, regular cloth would not do! I took a pair of scissors, went into our bathroom and cut a small piece out of the shower curtain. It took a while for my mother to discover that the corner was cut out, but she was quite open to sacrifice in the name of art. She was an artist herself and created an atmosphere in our home where art and making things with one’s hands was important. In our home, learning how to make things was not only looked upon as fun, but there was also an unspoken high regard for handwork and beauty. Art was not looked upon as an “extra” and my mother instinctively knew the benefits of creative work, that the process can engage the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual parts of oneself.
Detail from “Jerry Hall, he is so small”, Pocketful of Posies 2010
In a term paper about art education for her master’s degree in 1965, my mother wrote, “The student should be encouraged to find his own way, but this does not mean the void of laissez-faire. Children need a structured exposure to many ways of seeing, doing and thinking. To teach art, the teacher must be an artist. By having confidence in their own abilities, teachers will be able to sensitize children to want to learn and care—not just problem solve. Through intuitive discovery a child will find himself, what he believes and be really free, even in a computer society. By giving students something to do—learn and contemplate what they can understand naturally—will give them the values needed today.”
"Go to Bed First” from Pocketful of Posies 2010
Years later, in art school, I rediscovered my childhood fascination with working in 3-dimensions. I majored in illustration, but I never thought I’d make actual illustrations that could be reproduced effectively. At the Rhode Island School of Design during the 1970′s, there wasn’t an obvious major for someone like me, who was interested in many different materials and methods. I didn’t want to limit myself to a particular discipline and was attracted to the illustration department, with its focus on communication, rather than certain processes and mediums. Just as other schools are divided by subject, our student body was separated by technique and I regret not mingling with people in other majors. Other possible matches, like the sculpture or textile dept. were too specialized for me.
At RISD, the sculpture dept. seemed to me like an all boys club, with its swarm of black clad, chain-smoking young men who produced large, austere metal sculptures, the kind that are now rusting in public places. Even the more female dominated textile dept., with its concentration on fabric design and weaving, was too narrow for me. All I knew was that total abstraction left me hungry for more and I wanted my artwork to be a kind of narrative that viewers could connect to, but wasn’t too cutesy or superficial. In the illustration dept., I could use any materials I wanted, as long as my artwork solved the assignment. I used this time in school to teach myself different ways of working and showed an overwhelming interest in fabric and sewing. I’ve never taken a class in any kind of fiber art or sewing (accept for 4H class in my childhood). I don’t think I would have made a very cooperative embroidery student, given my tendency to resist conformity and an urge to “color outside of the lines”. I just figured out stitches by looking at diagrams and sewing an obsessive amount.
While a student, I started making and selling a line of fabric pins (grapes at left). One day during class, I was listening to a critique, sewing some peapods, when my teacher, Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges, noticed what I was doing. She looked more closely, asked me a few questions and said, “Why don’t you do this kind of thing for your illustrations? Try sewing them.”
With that simple encouragement, I stopped trying so hard to communicate the pictures in my imagination through a brush or pen. Given permission to work outside of the usual illustration mediums, I found that I was much happier and energized. I was no longer struggling to keep in step, but with a needle and thread, I could dance. For some reason, I’d been under the impression that in art school, one does “serious” fine art and I’d kept my interest in sewing and handcrafts underground. I rediscovered the joy of creating and learned to trust my hands and gut feelings to help work out challenges.
Fairy Poster (available on Etsy)
As well as illustrating children’s books, I have written a how-to book for adults, Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects. The book gives step-by-step instructions for making little dolls and other items made of felt. For almost 10 years, I designed, put together, and sold fairy doll kits through my company, Wee Folk Studio. I discontinued the kits in order to have time to work on Pocketful of Posies. In between book projects, I make pictures for myself, like Self Portrait: A Personal History of Fashion (2007). It’s a spiral time-line of my life, from birth to age 52, with a doll representing each year. My husband and children appear in the years when we are physically bonded and my hair shows gradual graying.
Salley with "A Personal History of Fashion".
When I fell a ladder and broke my wrist and could not stitch, I was desperate to find a substitute to keep myself occupied. Fortunately, a few months earlier, I had started a blog. I couldn’t sew, but I could type little stories with one hand and add photos to go with them. Over several months of recuperation, I transferred my creative energy to composing blog posts. I became keenly aware of how my sense of well-being is linked to being involved in some sort of creative activity on a daily basis. During the winter, I reflected on my career and wrote blog posts about my artistic development and influences. It is rewarding to hear from readers who know of my work through my books and to know that people are interested in what I have to show and say.
Detail from “Dusty Bill from Vinegar Hill” from Pocketful of Posies 2010
As for the future, I am planning on taking a break from illustration and make more personal artwork. I’ll still work in 3-dimensions and stitching like crazy, but lately my muse has been calling and urging me to try a new approach. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing, but I figure that if I’m going to expand my horizons, now is the time.
Born in Boston 4/14/55, grew up in Woods Hole, MA, lives 4 miles away in Falmouth, MA (Cape Cod)
BFA from Rhode Island School of Design, 1978
Married to engineer Rob Goldsborough, 2 sons, 24, 27