Over the past few weeks, between other short-term projects (as seen on my Tumblr), I’ve been steadily building up a new embroidery project. The seeds of it were sewn a year ago, when I went on vacation and stocked up on embroidery threads in moody, rich colors- greys, blues, and purples, tinges of bronze and green and dust, the colors of a thunderstorm roiling overhead, the dim shades of a bruise fading over time. I didn’t know what I was going to use those colors for, but I held on to them anyway, cotton and silk and wool, just waiting for the right time to pull them out.
I’d also been mulling over a pile of old photos, wondering how best to turn them into something embroidered. It was sort of strange, I reflected, to stitch random people from my past without their knowledge. I couldn’t think of a good reason to do it- why would I want that project? What would be meaningful about it to me? The photos, dimmed on the computer and printed out, sat in a pile in a drawer in my studio with all my other half-finished- or even half-started- projects.
Moody thunderstorm colors and faded pictures of the past. When the click between the two finally happened, it felt totally natural.
When I was growing up, my mom kept hundreds of photos in shoeboxes, always waiting to put them into albums, but always getting behind. Now that digital cameras are omnipresent and it’s possible to take so many pictures without the fuss of physical film and processing, I find myself sitting on an even larger hoard of electronic images, stretching from now back to my first year of college.
Every so often, I find myself paging through them, looking for a certain image or trying to remember a particular time. When I was in college, I took pictures of everything I could find to take pictures of, and they are all still there, snapshots caught in time, just as they looked the day I took them. Friends dance at an impromptu art party, share food at a potluck, simply stand and look at me with my camera. Faces fill the screen; some have changed over time, some have not. Self-portraits abound, many shots taken to try and get the perfect angle to show off a new nose piercing or haircut. People I cared for very much and still care for even after so much time and other events. So many moments.
That was college- and that was years ago, now. College was a special time, a golden time. It was a time I made friends despite my lifelong struggles with social anxiety and shyness. It was a time for so many moments of discovery and growth, for stepping into a new world and encountering new possibilities. Those were the best years of my life.
Or were they?
Looking at old photographs now, during a time in my life when everything is changing and full of uncertainty, I recognize the temptation to idealize the past, and the razor-thin line between fond memory and consuming preoccupation. I dream of the past- old loves, places I called home- and wake up so troubled. I want to live in the moment- it’s important to my mental health and my future that I live in the moment. But the past calls to me with its siren song, begging me to get lost in memories that are no longer even sharp and accurate. My moments, my memories, are disintegrating, and I am trying to cling to them more than is good for me.
So I am stitching over old photographs, distilling them to their essential lines and gestures, remaking them in the moody shades of a stormy sky. When the guiding paper is torn away, what is left? Only an outline- only that sketchy, clouded, photocopied, dogeared memory, so far removed from the moment that it used to be. I am stitching slowly, forcing myself to immerse myself in memory for a little while. My stitches depict something, but as this project evolves they will also obscure with layering and quilting, adding depth and texture, clouding the image as memories are clouded by time.
Practically speaking: what I’m creating is a memory book, a photo album of sorts, but also the opposite: a forgetting book, a recognition of the passing of memory, a way of exorcising the things and times that haunt me so that I can better appreciate the present moment and the new paths of the future. It’s likely to end up in scroll form, rather like a long, skinny patchwork quilt covered in embellishment and embroidery- a book that rolls up like a sleeping bag, a book that can be neatly self-contained and set aside in a place of honor, a book that can be held and hugged and cried on if necessary.
So that’s what I’m up to right now. I would love to hear your thoughts.