Published  16/11/2015

Cayce Zavaglia: ‘I have always wanted my work to be about the portrait and the process. I strive to keep these two aspects of painting in balance’

Cayce Zavaglia: ‘I have always wanted my work to be about the portrait and the process. I strive to keep these two aspects of painting in balance’

The artist talks about painting, embroidery, close relationships and how her studio practice develops through time


Cayce Zavaglia (b1971) is an artist from St Louis, Missouri, who introduced embroidery into her paintings when she was expecting her first child. Zavaglia’s embroidered paintings are hyperrealistic portraits of family members and friends, made with meticulous precision and attention to detail. Each embroidered portrait is set against a solid, non-patterned background painted in acrylic. Trained in a classical painting technique, the artist attempts to replicate a brushstroke with a stitch, mixing different threads according to techniques of colour blending learned while at school.

Despite Zavaglia’s classical representational vocabulary, she welcomes experimentation and change, expanding the limits allowed by classical portraiture by introducing various media into the realm of the genre. Photography joins embroidery as another crucial element of Zavaglia’s portraits because, unlike a classical painter, she works exclusively from photographs. The artist’s proclivity for portraying people she trusts as beautiful, strong and timeless found a counterpart in the embroideries’ reverse, where facial features become obscured by unwanted threads and knots. Zavaglia found an inspiring metaphor in the discovery of this reverse image, as it indicates, for her, the unseen and unpolished side of the human psyche. Apart from opening up the reverse side of her embroidered paintings to the viewer by displaying them on stands in the manner of sculpture, Zavaglia also found a way back to painting by focusing on this reverse side and documenting it in her hyperrealistic style in various stages of completion. She spoke to us at the opening of her solo exhibition at Lyons Wier Gallery in New York.

Natasha Kurchanova: What’s your background? Did you start as a painter? How and when did you begin making embroideries?

Cayce Zavaglia: I grew up in Australia. My embroidery pieces stem from a work I made as a kid, in which I embroidered an image of a sheep station out of crewel wool. Something about that work resonated with me, and it never left me. I studied painting in undergrad and grad school. When I was pregnant and starting a family, I did not want to be around turpentine, varnish and chemicals any more, and kept thinking about that first exposure to embroidery. I wondered if it were possible to sew a portrait, and eventually tried it. I made a small self-portrait. I chose crewel wool for this first piece to reference this embroidery from my childhood, but the image was too small and the wool was too thick. So, I had to play around with the scale and experiment with technique. I’ve been making the embroidered works for about 14 years now.

NK: How do you make your works? What’s the process?

CZ: Because I was not trained in embroidery, in the beginning I did not quite know what I was doing. I practised “renegade embroidery,” making up my own stitches and relying on my background in drawing and painting to use thread as a drawing tool and attempt a portrait. I start each portrait with a photo session and choose the image I want to work from. I transfer that image on to linen and overlay a detailed drawing of each shadow and shape. The backgrounds are painted in acrylic, sanded and distressed, before the sewing begins. Each piece prepares the ground for the next in terms of technique. With each portrait, I see the potential of the medium and how thread can mimic the way brushstrokes are layered in a painting to evoke flesh, hair and cloth. These two [she indicates two works], Raphaella in Her Winter Coat (after Alex) and Martina, are done with thicker crewel wool and the smaller works are done with one strand of DMC thread [DMC is a manufacturer of threads and textile-related products].

NK: Hyperrealism was your style of choice then?

CZ: I have always been drawn to the figure and photorealism. I did figurative painting as an undergraduate and in graduate school. I was always a little apprehensive about making a direct portrait of a friend or family member. As an undergrad, I would do collages, which represented someone I knew. In graduate school, I decided to paint portraits of the people in my life. In these early paintings, I tried to incorporate more of the body; people in them had huge heads with little bodies and big hands. These images had a bit of humour to them. In the embroideries, I decided to strip away all the gimmicks and just do a portrait of someone I knew against a minimal background.

NK: You mentioned that when you began making embroideries, you drew on the canvas. Was this a literal comparison? Did you actually use a pencil to sketch a portrait and then trace the line with the thread?

CZ: I have always transferred the image on to the linen, so that it acts as a kind of under-painting. Essentially, I am obscuring the image while trying to build it anew. The image is there, but I also draw details in and then draw with the sewing and thread for all additional information as far as colour, texture, line, etc. Some of the areas I sew in one pass, and other areas require two or three layers until they achieve the level of detail I desire. In a sense, I am using the thread like a pencil and sew where I once would have drawn a line or crosshatched an area.

NK: You paint portraits more or less in the same format: they are all shoulder-length, of individual people or couples. What’s the idea behind this form? Did you ever paint anything other than portraits, or paint them in a different format? You mentioned that you work a lot with photographs and never directly from a live model.

CZ: I always focus on people I know. I represent them gazing directly toward the viewer and cropped below the shoulders. I don’t know why, but I love the simplicity of this approach and its reference to historical portraiture. I haven’t felt compelled to include more of the torso or hands. I have always focused on portraiture, although I have lately wanted to sew flowers in the same technique. I like working exclusively from photos because this method allows me to work alone in the studio without distractions.

NK: In relation to their look, I wanted to ask you about their melancholy. You have mentioned that you wanted your images to have a narrative, to tell a story of the people they portray. To me, this melancholy conveys a certain mystery, a story behind each face.

CZ: I don’t think of these images as melancholic, but I definitely do tell my sitters not to smile during photo sessions. I think a frozen smile in a work of art is kind of creepy, and would be even creepier sewn in thread. I have always wanted my work to be about the portrait and the process. I strive to keep these two aspects of painting in balance. When I am presenting a portrait to the viewers, I also want them to notice how the piece was constructed. The narrative emerges out of the combination of content and form. Now that I am turning the embroidery around and painting on the verso a more abstracted portrait, I am broadening the potential narrative and the story behind each face.

NK: The embroideries are called “recto” and “verso,” and in this exhibition you also have paintings, to which you returned rather recently.

CZ: The name of the show, About-Face, references both the face and my studio practice of turning embroidery around and looking at the other side. The backs of embroideries and tapestries have traditionally been hidden from the viewer. My studio practice now encompasses sewing the embroideries – recto – and painting the backs of my embroideries – verso. A few years ago, I turned one of my embroideries over and, for the first time, saw the possibilities of a new image, indicating a path for my work that had long gone unnoticed. It was the presence of another portrait that visibly was so different from the meticulously sewn front image, but perhaps more psychologically profound. The haphazard beauty found in this verso image created a haunting contrast to the front image and was a world of loose ends, knots and chaos that could easily translate into the world of paint.

This discovery led to a “return to paint” in my work and the production of a series of intimate gouaches and larger acrylic paintings of these verso images. Both the gouaches and the large works are included in this show. It is the first time I have exhibited these in New York.

NK: Could you tell me about this exhibition? Which period of your work does it cover?

CZ: This exhibition contains gouaches, embroideries and paintings. All the work was made this year, with the exception of the gouache pieces, which I exhibited last year at the Contemporary Art Museum in St Louis. They were made in 2013-14. They are my transitional pieces from embroideries back into painting. I never considered them studies, but now that I’ve moved on to the larger paintings, they do read as studies. I had wanted to return to paint for the longest time. Turning the embroideries over and noticing this “other” side was the perfect avenue to introduce paint back into my work.

NK: So you came back to painting after working on embroideries, and your gouaches helped you in this transition? In what way has embroidery influenced your painting?

CZ: When I started sewing, it was a bit frustrating because my palette was limited. To create an illusion of a colour that does not exist in thread, I had to lay down a colour, sew another colour on top of it and dot it yet with another colour. This turned into a sort of pointillist approach to embroidery. When I returned to painting after doing the embroideries for 14 years, I found myself dotting certain areas instead of mixing the colour. With these two paintings [she indicates two works], Rocco Verso and Greg Sr Verso, I wanted to be explicit about how my embroidery influenced my return to painting. So I decided to exaggerate the dots and use stencils to create them, making them look almost like stickers on top of the painting. I like that this technique made my painting look like pop art and Australian Aboriginal art, with which I grew up.

NK: You had a couple of museum exhibitions recently. Could you tell me about them?

CZ: Last year, I had my first museum solo exhibition, at the Contemporary Art Museum in St Louis. The show was called Recto/Verso. It was there that I exhibited the big paintings for the first time. My intent was to show all big verso paintings. However, because I was relatively unknown in St Louis, I thought that they would not tell the whole story of how I had made a return to paint in my work. Then I chose to exhibit a similar show of work in this exhibition and included embroideries, gouaches and large-format paintings. I’ve been with Lyons Wier Gallery since 2008, but this is the first time I’ve shown the large paintings in New York. They were very well received. I sold Rocco Verso within the first hour at the opening night.

NK: Is there a painting in this exhibition the story of which you want to share?

CZ: The Rocco Verso Painting is based on the back of an embroidery that I made of my son last year. Now that I am more aware of the development of this reverse image, I find myself taking photos of the back and documenting it as the piece progresses in different stages. I loved the Rocco Verso painting, because it shows just my son’s eyes, head and shirt. The face is void. For me, it is about the fact that he is not a fully formed adult yet. The “other side” of him is still developing. As a mom, I partner with my son to focus on the development of this other side. It will be messy and knotted, but I think it has the potential to be as beautiful as the front.

NK: What would you say your work is about?

CZ: The work in this exhibition highlights the two sides we each possess and the turning of our attention to the “hidden” side. There is the front side that everyone sees that is ageing, and then there is this other side that no one, or very few, people see. The other side is messy, tangled and knotted, and has lots of loose ends. It is my hope that by focusing on the reverse side and using it to inspire my paintings, I would initiate a conversation about the divergence between our public and private selves.

• Cayce Zavaglia: About-Face is at Lyons Wier Gallery, New York City, until 12 December 2015.


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