THREAD BETWEEN FINGERS

an Interview with Fiber Artist Lucia La Villa-Havelin

by Linda Simone

ISSUE TWELVE | SPRING 2019

I have had thread between my fingers most of my life.

—Lucia LaVilla-Havelin in an interview on guildtrip.com

Lucia LaVilla-Havelin was taught at a young age to knit, sew, and embroider. After creating art professionally for 40 years, Lucia aims to debunk the notion that working with thread is “women’s work.” She chooses subjects and themes not usually associated with traditional stitchery.

 

I recently had the opportunity to visit LaVilla-Havelin’s Lytle, Texas studio, where I found that Lucia is a wonderful storyteller who threads a unique story into each exquisitely crafted piece of art.

—Linda Simone

The Four Humours, 2006, needlepoint, beading, embroidery. Seale Studios

Linda Simone: When and how did weaving/stitchery/embroidery become your art medium of choice?

Lucia La Villa-Havelin: My mother was a great seamstress and knitter. I grew up in Rochester, New York, and worked with textiles since I was a young girl. In the mid-1970s I learned to weave and produced fine table linens. In 1980 I had to give up my loom due to back problems, which is when I started stitching one-of-a-kind art pieces, painting with thread.

 

LS: Hmmm. That calls to mind artist Grandma Moses who had to give up embroidery because of arthritis. She was urged by her sister to try painting, which worked out well! Were you nervous about switching gears? How did you prepare for this transition in your work?

Need Not Apply_2018_Hand embroidery_Seal
"AS I AM STITCHING, THE PIECE TAKES ON A LIFE OF ITS OWN AND I RESPOND TO THE IMAGE AS IT PROGRESSES."

It was hard to give up my loom, as it seemed part of my identity. But I felt a real freedom in being able to explore whatever image I wanted to, instead of being restricted by warp and weft. I didn’t do anything special to make the transition. I stitched some traditional needlepoint patterns and I remembered the peace and tranquility I felt stitching when I was a college exchange student in Copenhagen, Denmark. I then began to explore what I could do with a needle and thread.

 

LS: How do you approach a piece? Do you work from a rough sketch?

 

LLVH: I can visualize a piece before I begin. I know how I want it to look. I do a rough sketch and proceed from there. As I am stitching, the piece takes on a life of its own and I respond to the image as it progresses.

Need Not Apply, 2018, hand embroidery. Seale Studios

One of my personal favorites is a piece of yours that shows a woman dressed for a job interview and another woman tossing her application in the trash. Can you tell me more about this piece?

 

LLVH: For Need Not Apply, I wanted to honor my mother and tell the story of an experience she had while looking for work in the 1930s. She went to an office to apply for a job. As she was leaving after applying, she turned to ask a question and saw her application being thrown into the trash because she was Italian. I started with the idea of my mother leaving an office and turning back to the person behind the desk. As the piece proceeded, I had to decide on the proportions of the figures and how best to give the feeling of a personnel office. I made the secretary blonde to contrast with my lovely dark-haired, blue-eyed mother.

 

LS: What inspires your subject matter?

 

LLVH: I never have a lack of ideas, and I always research subject matter. For example, with To the American Table, I looked at photographs of migrant workers and the paintings of Jacob Lawrence. Many inspirations come from anatomy, science, nature, and political issues.

LS: How long does it usually take to complete an artwork? And what dictates the size you choose?

LLVH: It takes anywhere from three weeks to several months depending on the size and complexity of the imagery. I stitch four to six hours on most days. For me, stitching is meditative and centering.  The works are totally hand-stitched. The size depends on my original drawing and my vision of how the elements of the design work together.

LS: What is the greatest challenge for you?

 

LLVH: The challenge is how to transfer my vision successfully in two dimensions with thread. How do I express gesture and movement in the figures, or show distance and perspective?

LS: Are you currently working on any thematic series?

 

LLVH: I like to work in series. For the past year my work has been much more narrative. I am concentrating on stories about my family and me. The narrative works began after I was inspired by the work of Jacob Lawrence. I love his strong, graphic style and his bold colors. He uses shape and abstraction in a way that carries the story.

 

LS: Which of your own creations is your favorite and why?

 

LLVH: It is hard to say. Of my older work, I love the large anatomical pieces from my 3Rs series and The Four Humours. I am also fond of my marine life sculptures. These series were great leaps in my work due to size and content.

The 3Rs are eight feet high and combine several needlepointed pieces appliqued onto silk, with embroidered backgrounds to tie the elements together. The Four Humours are five-foot banners referring to the medieval ideas of elemental personalities. The appliqued needlepoints are taken from nature and put together to form a “figure” that represents each humour. My marine life sculptures were made from needlepoint and then formed into three-dimensional objects that were embellished with beads and wire.

 

Zero Tolerance, 2018, hand embroidery. Seale Studios

Parabasalid, 2009, needlepoint, beading, sculpture. Seale Studios

Ciliata, 2009, needlepoint, beading, sculpture. Seale Studios

Euglenobionta I,  2009, needlpoint, beading, sculpture. Seale Studios

Euglenobionta II, 2009, needlepoint, beading, sculpture. Seale Studios

Seven years ago, I had my right shoulder replaced (I am right-handed), and again had to find a new way of working. I started using embroidery exclusively, exploring everything from viruses and bacteria to endangered species. My most recent work has moved to the narrative and telling stories. Of these works, I feel strongly about two of the political pieces, Zero Tolerance and Child Soldiers. These pieces represent the sadness and outrage I feel about what is happening in our country and the world. The family stories are also favorites, as they honor my parents and relatives.

 

LS: Which fiber artists have inspired you and influenced your work?

LLVH: In the 1970s there was a groundbreaking exhibition of fiber art called The Art Fabric Mainstream. It gave me confidence in what I wanted to do. The artists who especially influenced me were Diane Itter, Ed Rossbach, and Tom Lundberg. Ed Rossbach was a leader in using new materials to express contemporary themes, and I love the delicate, detailed aspects of Itter’s and Lundberg’s works. I have always been drawn to finely made objects. Even my weaving was done with fine linen thread.  

 

My first major influences, especially with regard to color, were Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Henri Matisse. These artists, particularly Rothko, used colors in unexpected combinations. For me, his work brings forth real emotions. O’Keeffe has always been my idol; a strong woman making her art despite all else. She teaches us how to look closely at the colors of the world. Matisse surprises us with bright colors and myriad patterns put together in new ways.

3Rs Reciprocity, 2004, needlepoint, beading, and embroidery. Seale Studios

3Rs Reckoning, 2005, needlepoint, beading, and embroidery. Seale Studios

3Rs Reflection, 2005, needlepoint, beading, and embroidery. Seale Studios

"O’KEEFE HAS ALWAYS BEEN MY IDOL; A STRONG WOMAN MAKING HER ART DESPITE ALL ELSE. SHE TEACHES US HOW TO LOOK CLOSELY AT THE COLORS OF THE WORLD."

LS: I know that your works have won awards in numerous venues; please tell us more!

 

LLVH: My work has been exhibited in venues in New York, Texas, Arizona, California, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, and Virginia. The most recent exhibits include The Art of Labor at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles and Family Matters, a print exhibition in the winter issue of Surface Design Journal. I have won Best of Show honors, Best Embroidery Award, and have been awarded several solo exhibitions.

The House on Mango Street, 2018, hand embroidery. Seale Studios

San Antonio celebrated its Tricentennial in 2018. In honor of this, six San Antonio art organizations partnered together to coordinate a show called Common Currents, which was meant to illuminate 300 years of the city’s history. Each organizing partner chose two artists, who then chose two more artists, and they chose two more until 300 artists were named, after which each artist was given a single year of the 300 years. My year was 1984: the year Sandra Cisneros moved to San Antonio, and the year her famous book The House on Mango Street was first published. So I created a piece called The House on Mango Street, for which I stitched Cisneros’s San Antonio Victorian home. The house was controversial because she painted it periwinkle blue, a color that was not acceptable in the historic district she lived in. The venue where my work was shown was the Mexican Cultural Institute.

 

LS: If you had to boil your artistic philosophy down to one sentence, what would that be?

 

LLVH: Do your work, don’t let anything distract you from it, and always challenge yourself.

 

LS: Thank you for letting us into your process and your work, Lucia!

Lucia LaVilla-Havelin has been a working artist for over 40 years, pushing the boundaries of stitchery, using traditional “women’s work” in unexpected ways, while addressing contemporary subject matter. She has had numerous solo exhibitions in both Texas and New York State. Her work has been exhibited nationally in invitational and juried shows, including in California, Brooklyn, Arizona, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia. lucialavillahavelin.com

Linda Simone is a poet and watercolor artist living in San Antonio, TX. Her poems and essays have appeared in many journals and anthologies. Her debut poetry collection, The River Will Save Us (Kelsay Books, 2018), includes her painting “River of Dreams” on the cover. Her interviews have appeared in The Indiana Voice Journal (interview with artist Vera von Benckendorff-Smith), Valparaiso Review (interview with poet Kevin Pilkington). Her poetry book reviews have appeared in Woven Tale Press, Former People, First Literary Review-East, Red Paint Hill Review, and others. She is a member of San Antonio’s River Art Group. lindasimone.com

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