Saima Kaur: A young mother picks up a needle…

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For many of us, the idea of becoming an ‘artist’ while raising a young family seems an impossible feat. When could one possibly find the time, let alone muster any creative energy?

Textile artist Saima Kaur doesn’t have any definitive formula for making it work. But the fact is she did turn to stitching in the midst of raising children as an attempt to lay claim to at least one thing she could truly call her own.

Then when the pandemic pushed Saima to turn to social media to connect and share her work, her confidence as an artist further blossomed. An outpouring of positive feedback pushed the stay-at-home mother to realize she had indeed become an artist while keeping her household afloat.

Saima’s fanciful embroidery connects to her Indian culture’s myths and folklore in a refreshingly whimsical fashion. Relying upon bright colours and simple stitches, her stitching has a playful and almost escapist feel. And her inclusion of humorous text is a wonderful surprise.

Saima is sharing her adventure, as well as her techniques, that we promise will inspire. You’ll discover how Saima used social media to connect and capture attention for her work. And you’ll learn about her creative process, including use of stencils and cultural embroidery patterns that reflect her Indian heritage.

Saima Kaur is an artist and educator specialising in Indian hand embroidery. She has an MA in Museum Studies and worked in the arts and museums sector for 10 years before starting her freelance work. She now runs a range of community hand embroidery workshops, delivers talks and workshops on Phulkaris and creates her own artwork inspired by this textile tradition.

Saima Kaur: Mandala (Detail), 2010, 40x 40cm, Cotton fabric with hand embroidery in silk thread
Saima Kaur: Mandala (Detail), 2010, 40x 40cm, Cotton fabric with hand embroidery in silk thread

Letting muscle memory lead the way

TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?

Saima Kaur: I learnt cross stitch and basic embroidery in school in India. It was an extra-curricular activity I chose and loved.

I wasn’t able to continue when I moved to England at age 13, but I was lucky enough to participate in a short museum project lead by textile artist Munni Shrivastav in my late 20s. My muscle memory kicked in, and I seemed to remember a handful of stitches along with my love of embroidery.

I then created my first-ever embroidery pieces for the end of the project’s group exhibition.

Embroidery truly captured my imagination in my mid-30’s when I was at home with my children. I found it to be an intuitive, intimate and transformative medium. It allowed me to create something that was just mine. And it gave me the space to slowly express my imagination and build texture and design in the simplest way possible.

I had created a piece full of Indian folk designs that resonated with me to mark my older daughter’s birth, but I stopped making soon after, as life got more intense. I slowly started making time after we moved to a new town where my older daughter started special school, and I was at home with our second child.

I’m not sure how I found the time, but then we all find time to do the things that give our lives a little more meaning and a little more joy!

I created a sun embroidery to mark my younger daughter’s birth and then challenged myself to tentatively show my friends my work and to create three pieces as gifts for others. This included a couple of embroideries for a lovely local café who had always welcomed my children with calm smiles.

I also joined Instagram in 2017 and started sharing my work.

Although none of this is groundbreaking in any way, it required personal courage to show people my work, and it was a small step toward finding my creative voice.

Saima Kaur: Early 21st Century traditional Phulkari (Detail), Early/mid 21st century, approx 2 x 3 meters, Unspun silk thread on hand spun cotton ground
Saima Kaur: Early 21st Century traditional Phulkari (Detail), Early/mid 21st century, approx 2 x 3 meters, Unspun silk thread on hand spun cotton ground

What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?

I grew up in India where choosing fabrics for your outfits was the norm. The available fabrics were always clever in the ways they married colour and pattern. And this applied both to inexpensive and high-end fabrics.

Plain fabrics were often elaborately embroidered for special occasions, and more traditional fabrics were acquired through travel and tourism.

It was only when I moved to England that I began to appreciate the high level of skill involved in Indian textile traditions, and I missed them immensely. This love and appreciation further developed when I worked in museums and learned about world textiles. I worked as a Community Outreach Officer for Leicester Museums and then went on to do a short stint at Nottingham Contemporary.

For me, textiles are almost magical beings that drape and transform everyday life. They are things of functional beauty, skill and imagination.

Saima Kaur: The Absurd Gift, 2021, 25 x 22cm, Cotton fabric with cotton thread and paint
Saima Kaur: The Absurd Gift, 2021, 25 x 22cm, Cotton fabric with cotton thread and paint

What was your route to becoming an artist?

I had studied Contemporary Arts as my undergraduate degree and vowed never to be an artist. I had neither the skills, imagination nor confidence to take it further.

I only started calling myself an artist when I joined Instagram four years ago. This became an excellent way to build my confidence, share my work and make connections.

I hadn’t been able to teach face-to-face since the start of the pandemic and I was missing my groups—the connections, the stories, the creativity. I had also been thinking about how best to use IGTV, so I came up with the idea of ‘Tiny Teach.’ It allowed me to practice my teaching, share my skills and show myself to my audience.

I chose to do six short videos covering some embroidery basics and mixing in stories, as well as words of encouragement. I sometimes feel the basics, such as choosing a needle or using an embroidery hoop, are rarely covered and it is assumed people know already!

Although the videos don’t share advanced skills, I hope they encourage newbies to have a go.

I was especially keen to share stories from my women’s groups in the most authentic way, so I have a few sentences in Urdu scattered in the videos. This proved to be a fun and challenging mini project I could fit in during lockdown with the kids at home.

I started my art career in 2019 when I had my first solo exhibition called ‘Autism: This is me.’
It was an arts organization in the heart of Bradford called ‘Kala Sangam.’ They were very supportive in giving space to new and emerging talent.

That exhibition is very close to my heart, as it explores my experience of having a severely autistic daughter.

Saima Kaur: The Exquisitely Exquisite Tribe, 2017, 40 x 20 cm, Hand embroidery on cotton
Saima Kaur: The Exquisitely Exquisite Tribe, 2017, 40 x 20 cm, Hand embroidery on cotton

It had six wall hangings covering themes including ‘things people said,’ nonverbal communication, rage against the barriers to employment, the sadness of her going into care as an adult and sensory overload. It also included six pieces created by parents and caregivers with links to autism. These were created in a series of workshops I conducted in my daughter’s Primary school.

The exhibition is touring another venue in August this year, and I hope to create more pieces around the theme of community and inclusion. Examples of the work can be viewed on Instagram under the #autismthisisme

I had the embroidery skills, the arts background and a decade’s worth of experience working in museums, so this is where it all came together.

I am unable to participate in art fairs or formal work because of my care responsibilities, so creating art from home and in collaboration with like-minded creatives has been my route into making my art visible and more viable.

Saima Kaur: Still Bird, wriggling worm (work in progress) (Detail), 2021, 30 x 40 cm, Hand embroidery, cotton and silk thread with mirror
Saima Kaur: Still Bird, wriggling worm (work in progress) (Detail), 2021, 30 x 40 cm, Hand embroidery, cotton and silk thread with mirror

Tapping into traditional stitch

Tell us about your process from conception to creation

Ideally, I like to work on a piece at a time. I used to make embroideries fairly spontaneously, but I now work on a single theme or concept.

I start by creating a very quick sketch, then I create templates out of paper before drawing them out on fabric.

The rest is intuitive.

I enjoy working with a strong colour palette and high contrast, using a small set of stitches to build up texture and depth.

The most enjoyable part is finishing big areas and finally starting on the details.

I also love adding points of interest, such as ribbons in hair, shoelaces, red knees or a fringe on a dress which help me complete a piece.

I am happy to unpick if things are untidy or unbalanced, but I will not add to the piece once I deem it to be ‘complete.’

Saima Kaur: An Ode to Friendship (Detail), 2019, 20 x 25 cm, Hand embroidery, cotton thread
Saima Kaur: An Ode to Friendship (Detail), 2019, 20 x 25 cm, Hand embroidery, cotton thread

Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them

My chosen techniques are using a washable marker to draw designs on cotton fabric, and then I fill in the designs using stranded cotton in bold colours.

My favourite stranded cotton is DMC all the way! I love their colours and the softness of the cotton.

I mostly use chain, split, satin and a woven stitch shown to me by first generation women from Pakistani heritage. They couldn’t tell me its name in English (they called it a ‘simple stitch’), but it’s similar to a Cretan stitch. It’s a really clever stitch and excellent for filling large sections while being economical with thread. It has a wonderful woven quality that makes the stitches less prone to catching.

I often back my fabric with a thinner cotton to give it added weight.

I also tend to use a small 6-inch embroidery hoop to avoid hand strain, and I only work in small sections at a time.

My designs are mainly figurative, often with text and lots of patterns that are traditionally found in Indian folk embroidery. I have a fondness for stylized figures and peacocks which can be found in old Phulkaris and Rabari embroidery. I also love adding border made up of triangles or squares into my work.

The classic phulkari flower and swirls found in kaanths also often find their way in my work, although my renditions are rather clumsy compared to the neatness and beauty of the originals.

As I became more confident in my work, I started adding text – silly, absurd text that would make me laugh. I miss having colleagues, and freelance work can often be lonely So, I try and find ways to express the whole of me—daftness an’ all!

Saima Kaur: Sainchi Phulkari (replica) (Detail), 2007, 2 x 1.5 meters, Silk thread on cotton base, hand embroidery
Saima Kaur: Sainchi Phulkari (replica) (Detail), 2007, 2 x 1.5 meters, Silk thread on cotton base, hand embroidery

What currently inspires you?

Indian Phulkaris, Kantha and Rabari embroideries never stop inspiring me, especially those that are rich in patterns and symbols and that reveal an older social order.

I am currently inspired by the Selvedge podcasts, as well as their ‘Tea and Textiles’ talks on Instagram.

At the moment, I am on a ‘clothes diet,’ so I’m inspired by the upcycled clothing brands such as Raasleela, Lota and Doodlage.

On Instagram, I adore Karun Thakar’s textile collection, the Tiny Pricks and Domestic Dusters project. Artists such as Micheala Younge, Ninni Luhtasaari, Bisa Butler and Anya Paintsil also inspire me to view textiles as a form of contemporary art.

Saima Kaur: A Very Hot Day (Detail), 2020, A3, Hand embroidery on linen
Saima Kaur: A Very Hot Day (Detail), 2020, A3, Hand embroidery on linen

Ever-growing confidence

Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?

I am very fond of a piece I made for ‘The Shop Floor Project’ called ‘A Very Hot Day.’ It was the very last piece of the collection, and I had been trying very hard to get it done while caring for my children in lockdown and summer holidays.

I was tired, overwhelmed and bereft of ideas and couldn’t make this final piece work. I tried so many compositions and ideas, but none seemed to fit.

Finally, I chanced upon something that began to unfold in the most curious way. I created figures that slept on a ray of sunshine or leaned back into the sun—compositions I would never have even imagined but loved so much. It felt like the most peaceful, magical place to rest after such a hectic year.

Saima Kaur: Tutor Tales (work in progress) (Detail), 2019, 2 x 2 meters, Hand embroidery on cotton
Saima Kaur: Tutor Tales (work in progress) (Detail), 2019, 2 x 2 meters, Hand embroidery on cotton

How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?

My work has evolved from being pretty compositions with birds, to figurative works, and then to pieces that include text, humour and a touch of the surreal. I am a lot more confident in creating a range of work for different clients without losing the essence of my style.

But I want to return to creating bigger pieces that tell stories. Like so many artists, I hope to find that happy place between being commercially viable and creating ambitious community-focused work with a heart. I have my fingers crossed

Saima Kaur
Saima Kaur

For more information visit Saima’s Instagram

Saima managed to find her artistic voice while raising a family. How have you sought to find balance with your art and daily life demands? Let us know below.


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