Scientists may debate how numerous the kingdoms of life are, but there's one of the inner life—Michelle Kingdom, whose radical embroideries limn the unspoken through the organic beauty of the handmade, a poetic beauty amplified by the thoughtful titles. Whether densely layered stitches or a loose tangle of thread nesting atop the canvas, her work is richly textural—impasto painting with embroidery floss. The pre-schoolteacher and self-taught artist/practitioner of the slow craft of hand embroidery spoke with Complete Unknown about exalting needlecraft, her low-environmental impact process, and the inspiration behind the figurative narratives she creates with needle and thread.
1. Though fragmentary in nature and intimately scaled, your embroideries resound with broader concepts of the psychological landscape. Is this juxtaposition intentional?
It is intentional though not an attempt to be contrary. Rather it is because the smaller, intimate scale naturally seems to reflect my perception of our inner realms. Though the personal narratives are really about our infinite depths, the privacy and secrecy of those thoughts feel more like whispers.
2. You’ve said that you use “thread as a sketching tool to simultaneously honor and undermine” the tradition of needlework. As your work often explores the interiority of women, do you feel it important first to exalt then subvert the realm of “woman’s work”?
Growing up in a family of women that worked with textiles, its [needlework] language and fluency as a valid medium was never in question to me. The exaltation and respect for it remain a constant. Where I choose to challenge the tradition is in both the subject matter and technique of embroidery.
3. Your embroideries delve into the metaphysical world, how does your work impact the physical world; is sustainability integral to your art practice?
Working on a relatively small scale automatically leaves a smaller footprint, which best suits my personal physical limitations. At this point, I use new but consciously minimal materials - simply creating tiny worlds in thread on linen fabric.
4. Can you envision your artworks adapted to clothing or accessories? Are you partial to any sustainable fashion brands?
I’ve been approached many times to adapt my artwork for commercial purposes but have resisted thus far. My work is still made solely as a personal, fine art form of expression and it is important to me that it remains pure to its vision.
5. What, in your opinion, are the hallmarks of good design?
In my opinion, it is all subjective. Of course, some elements of design create a more pleasing or palatable effect, but that isn’t the same as being genuinely and uniquely meaningful to someone.
6. What is the optimal environment for creating your work? The stillness of night? The brightness of day? Do you enjoy silence? Or music? Or even podcasts?
By far I prefer the fresh, optimistic light of morning and tend to keep working continuously while it remains. Artificial light is just not the same, particularly as tones are often important in my work. Occasionally I will listen to podcasts or music, but mostly I work in silence.
7. Your work is very evocative of stories and poems. Which books influence your work most?
Many books and authors influence me, and my favorites are Virginia Woolf, Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Tolstoy, Carson McCullers, and Emily Dickinson.
8. How does the sense of place inform your work? What are the top five destinations on your to-visit list and why?
The place that most informs my work doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the places in our past that we’ve lost along the way. As far as places on my list to visit, I’d say:
New Zealand - my in-laws, forests, and hiking
Japan - textiles, indigo, sushi, and ramen
Northern Europe - I live in Los Angeles with relentless heat and sunshine and could use an antidote.
Iceland - pristine wilderness
Italy - art