Saving Grace

How paint and thread coexist
I am an artist and writer working from my studio in Muizenberg, a small seaside village in Cape Town, South Africa. 
 
Over the last ten years or so, I started incorporating my love of textiles, needle and thread into my painting practice. At first I stitched on top of my paintings, creating textural topographies that invited a more tactile way of interacting with the work. I feel that the repetitive nature of stitching, and the time it takes to cover even a small surface, reflect our bodies’ continuous internal cellular process of decay and renewal, visible on a microscopic level. The cellular patterning on that level astounds me, and I find it deeply satisfying to try and tap into, and capture, that interconnection of all living things.
 
I now work directly onto previously owned, heavily stained domestic fabric: tea tray cloths, tablecloths, napkins, etc. To me, these domestic stains become a metaphor for the burden that so many women, the world over, still carry in society today. From the moment a girl has her first (always unexpected) period, “getting out stains” becomes a background worry, and most of us soon morph into fixers, the cleaners of others’ messes, the sanitizers. 
 
I start a new project by adding stains to the base cloth, using everyday items like tea, coffee, red wine, flower pollen, turmeric and other spices. It can take a long time to get the desired result, and I usually pre-stain several pieces at the same time. This initial, almost meditative, handling of the fabric gives me a chance to discover the story I want to tell. I’m an intuitive worker, and do very little other preparation, except for free-writing practice, and keeping a dream diary. Before starting the process of slow hand stitching, I draw directly onto the fabric, or transfer visual images and words, using carbon paper. Once I’m done stitching, I dip the work into a heavy, homemade starch, mixed with borax. After ironing, the work presents as something other than just ‘a stitched piece of cloth’ – I love the strong parchment texture it gets, similar to a thin sheet of porcelain.
 
The themes of my stitched works evolve continuously; a constant element is feminism and raising awareness about domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. South African society is still by and large patriarchal: a woman’s place is in the home, and she should keep her opinions to herself. We have the highest rape statistics in the world – as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, these themes remain the stubborn monkey on my back. Reflecting on these issues, while stitching, helps remove that “stain” from my psyche.
 
The beauty of the natural world offers a counterpoint to these dark themes. The bucolic scenes traditionally found on embroidered tray cloths and other domestic textiles form the perfect background to the dark stories I choose to tell. I’m also drawn to images of rescue at sea, an intuitive need, I imagine, to feel supported – carried – to a safe shore. 
 
Doing the work I do, saves me daily.
 
For more information, visit http://www.willemiendevilliers.co.za/
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