The Art of Cute

This post is playing a bit of catch-up, since The Art of Cute exhibition opened in the spring. The good news is that it’ll be at the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, ME for another 6 weeks, so there’s still time to see the show (until Aug. 31st). The exhibit, which is curated by the Illustration Institute, includes a broad spectrum of art and products that could be considered “cute”, from cloying to edgy and from innocent to subversive. My topical and political work is part of the Meta cute or “beyond” cute category.

People ask, “How do you feel about having your work called cute?” In the context of this exhibit, I can happily embrace the label. Otherwise, I find the term cringe-worthy, even though I know it’s a valid description of much that I make. It’s just that the word “cute” can sound belittling and dismissive when characterizing art. But recently, I’ve experienced the power in making art that draws the viewer in, in a non-threatening way, so a message gets through. This show is thoughtful and wide reaching in its interpretation and begins with this premise — “The Art of Cute is an exhibition that takes a serious look at a powerful aesthetic that is often not taken seriously. Our culture has a love/hate relationship with “Cute”.”

The exhibit is spread throughout several adjoining buildings, so that the displays move seamlessly from one theme to another. My work is grouped together on a wall in the Meta Cute room, with a nearby station set up to sit and watch the film Liberty and Justice.

At the opening, I met some wonderful folks, many of whom were seeing my work for the first time.

Cover Up, a bas-relief embroidered piece about women’s head coverings is there…

…as well as Displaced.

The exhibit also includes some of my political satire, which is definitely cute and provocative at the same time. There are photographs from the Wee Folk Players series and a display case with characters and props we used to make the Liberty and Justice film.

Museum goers can sit and watch the film with head phones, so they don’t disturb others. I loved watching people pick out the different characters from the film in the display case.

It has been a pleasure working with the curators of this exhibit, Scott and Nancy Nash of the Illustration Institute. They found out about my work from news stories covering the controversy surrounding my previous exhibit Liberty and Justice: The Sweet to Satirical Art of Salley Mavor. Having my work shown in the context of cute art has been an unexpected delight!

If you’re going to Maine, Kennebunk is right off Rt. 95 in the southern part of the state. The Art of Cute will be at the Brick Store Museum until August 31st.

To keep up with new posts, please subscribe to this blog (top right column on the home page). Your contact info will not be sold or shared. If you’d like to see more frequent photos tracking the projects in my studio, please follow me on Facebook and/or Instagram.

MY BED is made

I am happy to say that the illustrations for MY BED are finished and ready to go to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt! Please also know that I’m not finished sharing posts about the process of making the artwork. Until the book is released in the fall of 2020, I will periodically show details of more scenes and animals.

The project has been a slow and steady 3 year marathon and I haven’t yet adjusted to the idea that it’s really done. Hand stitching is slow and methodical and that’s probably why I’m attached to the process. It forces you to slow down and figure things out as you go, one stitch at a time. That’s where innovation happens and happy surprises show up. I need time to translate what’s in my imagination into something real. Simply put, machines can’t do what I do; their stitches are too regular and they can’t get into the little nooks and crannies. People comment on my perfect stitches, but that isn’t what I’m after. Yes, it’s all neat and tidy, but I know there’s a subtle imperfection that only the human hand can make.

When I began working on the book, I thought my artistic path for the next couple of years was clear. That sense of security was interrupted by the 2016 election. I quickly shifted gears, feeling a pressing need to do and say something about what is happening in our country. I told my editor that the book would have to wait. For 1 1/2 years I was totally immersed in making cartoons and the stop-motion animated film, Liberty and Justice. When the film was finished, I resumed work on MY BED and stitched my little heart out to meet the extended deadline. I’m very pleased with how the book illustrations turned out and think that my detour into real world issues has only made my work stronger, even in a sweet and comforting book like this.

The project is ready to move into its next phase, when lot’s of people will work to make MY BED into a hard cover printed book; photography, editing, book design, printing, marketing, etc. Making a high quality picture book is a long and involved process.

It’s also time to shift gears and clean up 3 years worth of clutter, grime and stray threads in my studio. Oh, I’ve vacuumed occasionally, but the place looks like it’s overgrown with piles of misc. fabric, dusty thread balls and “interesting things” that just might make their way into a piece. Once, I gave a talk where I described what happens to my work space during a years-long project, how it’s like sitting in the middle of a tangled nest, with a narrow path in and out. I’m sure that I exaggerated for effect, which triggered a question from a man in the audience, who wanted to know what my husband thought of all the mess. I answered that it didn’t seem to bother him and that I’d never asked him what he thought about it. — I feel lucky to have a place of my own, where I can freely mess around, with no one looking over my shoulder in judgement.

After the original illustrations are photographed and returned, I will add borders made of upholstery fabric. These are not for the book, but will be part of their 2nd life as a framed piece of art. Each one will have a unique border that compliments the colors in the scene. I had to make the borders now, while I could match the colors, because after the illustrations are delivered to the publisher, it will be months and months before I see them again.

After the original art comes back home, I’ll scramble to get everything ready for a 3 year touring exhibit, which premieres at the Cahoon Museum in the fall of 2020. Like in the past, Rob will help by making his wonderful shadowbox frames. He’s also putting together a video to accompany the exhibit, which documents my working process. The first year (2021) is booked and inquiries from interested museums are welcome – Please  contact me for information about hosting the MY BED exhibit in 20222 -23.

To keep up with new posts, please subscribe to this blog (top right column on the home page). Your contact info will not be sold or shared. If you’d like to see more frequent photos tracking the projects in my studio, please follow me on Facebook and/or Instagram.

bed book peek: Scandinavia – part 4

In this 4th and final post in the series about the Scandinavian scene, I will show extra details, such as the ladder, shoes and rug. Part 1 is about making the framework for the cubby style bunk beds. Part 2 gives a glimpse at what’s outside: the balcony, flowers, mountains, sun and trees. Part 3 focuses on the chair and the children.

This illustration will be included in My Bed, a book about where children sleep around the world, with each spread depicting a different culture and living environment. The story is written by Rebecca Bond and will be published by HoughtonMifflin in the Fall of 2020. Here are links to posts showing other finished illustrations for the book: South America, JapanIndiaAfghanistanRussiaNorth AfricaNorth America, Holland and Iran.


Pocketful of Posies Exhibit at the Upcountry History Museum, Greenville, SC – 2015

The photos I show on this blog and the reproductions printed in my books are a way of sharing my artwork with a large audience. But seeing the actual 3 dimensional hand stitched pieces is a different experience. No matter how good the photography is, there is no substitute for the real thing. When the originals from Pocketful of Posies toured the country (see photo above), the response was terrific. So, I want to do something similar with My Bed. A 3 year tour will premiere at the Cahoon Museum of American Art (Cotuit, MA) in Nov. 2020 and travel on from there. So far, 2 more venues have signed up for the first year: Cedarhurst Center for the Arts (Mt. Vernon, IL) and New England Quilt Museum (Lowell, MA). Openings are available in 2022-23. My goal is to have the show travel to as many different regions of the country as possible. I wish I could wave a magic wand and send the artwork to all of the places you live. I’m doing my best to spread the word about this opportunity and encourage you to talk it up with your local museums. Inquiries from interested venues are welcome. They can contact me via e-mail to find out more about hosting the exhibit.


Back to this scene – The bunk beds needed a ladder, of course. To make it, I began by picking driftwood from my collection. I wanted wood with a bit of curve to it, as a relief from all the straight lines in the design. For some reason, I decided to make the ladder rungs out of wire instead of wood. Maybe I thought it would be less fragile. After attaching the wire through drilled holes, I wrapped it with embroidery floss.

In this book there are several instances where I use the space behind the backdrop layer to create more depth. In this illustration, I put the children inside their cubby beds, in a shallow space framed with a 1/2″ deep box of made of balsa wood covered with felt. I didn’t think to take a picture, but you can see what it looks like in the photo below, which is from the Holland scene.

This is what it looks like before the background fabric is added to the back of the box. You can see my studio wall through the open area behind the child.

I’ve always thought that the area inside the back of the stretched fabric was wasted space. So, I’ve been figuring out ways to use it, with interesting results. I cut a hole in the stretched fabric, inserted the box and secured it in place with stitches.

With this extra layer, the viewer has the experience of looking into the picture and entering the children’s world.

The last touch was a pair of little shoes, which show up in many styles within the illustrations in this book.

And I made a red rug for the floor. The fly stitch is turning out to be one of my favorites.

What can I say about making the hiking boots? I basically copied the structure and stitching details of real shoes, only shrinking the scale to about 3/4″.

I’m happy to say that all the illustrations are finished and will soon be heading over to the photographer and production team at HoughtonMifflin. Leading up to the book’s publication in the Fall of 2020, I will continue to share more peeks behind the scenes about making the spreads and animal icons for MY BED.

For more about making the Scandinavian scene, please look at Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

To keep up with new posts, please subscribe to this blog (top right column on the home page). Your contact info will not be sold or shared. If you’d like to see more frequent photos tracking the projects in my studio, please follow me on Facebook and/or Instagram.

bed book peek: Scandinavia – part 3

In this part 3 of the 4 part series about the Scandinavian scene, the children and the chair are the focus. Part 1 shows parts of the inside, such as making the framework for the cubby style bunk beds. Part 2 gives a glimpse at the what’s outside: the balcony, flowers, mountains, sun and trees.

This illustration will be included in My Bed, a book about where children sleep around the world, with each spread depicting a different culture and living environment. The story is written by Rebecca Bond and will be published by HoughtonMifflin in 2020. Here are links to posts showing other finished illustrations for the book: South America,JapanIndiaAfghanistanRussiaNorth AfricaNorth America and Iran. To see a list of all my books, click here.

As with all of the characters in this book, I paint their features and personalities on 20 millimeter wooden beads with tiny brushes. Then, I make their wigs and bodies, using the same techniques taught in my how-to book, Felt Wee Folk: New Adventures.

This little girl has a custom made nightie, patterned with little embroidered flowers.

Even before threading the first needle to make the finished illustrations, I mapped out the entire book, with sketches of each page. It’s a square book, with artwork covering 3/4 of the double page spread. The remaining 1/4 page will hold the text of the story and the animal icons.

When making the parts of the scenes, I match the layouts pretty closely. Books come with certain constraints: number of pages, dimensions, titles, credits and text. Drawings serve as guides, but there are always little changes here and there to the finished illustrations. Surprises are bound to happen – that’s what keeps it fun! Of course, to do this, your editorial team needs to be supportive. You just have to be mindful of the outside measurements and avoid letting anything important get lost in the center gutter.

I could have made the chair in a lot of different ways, but these cactus thorns called out to me. Please don’t ask where I got them – I’ve lost track, since they’ve been in my stash for decades.

Generally, I use a combination of flat pattern and sculpture in my work, without much regard to formal perspective. In this scene, I felt that the chair seat needed to appear more dimensional than usual, so I tapered the angle, with the yellow stripes accentuating its depth.

I am happy to announce that the original illustrations for the book will tour the country after the book is published in the fall of 2020. The Cahoon Museum in Cotuit, Massachusetts will host the premiere exhibit and other venues will follow. As with Pocketful of Posies, I am scheduling a 3 year traveling exhibit, so that more people can see the “real thing”, which is a totally different experience than looking at reproductions on the printed page. Interested museums and art centers are welcome to contact me for information about hosting the exhibit. You can help bring the show to a place near you by reaching out to your local venues and telling them about this opportunity. It would be wonderful to have the original illustrations make their way across the whole country!   

Stay tuned for Part 4 in this series, which will show more interior details.

To keep up with new posts, please subscribe to this blog (top right column on the home page). Your contact info will not be sold or shared. If you’d like to see more frequent photos tracking the projects in my studio, please follow me on Facebook and/or Instagram.

bed book peek: Scandinavia – part 2

Let’s continue with the Scandinavian scene. Part 1 showed parts of the inside, such as making the framework for the cubby style bunk beds. This post will give a glimpse at the what’s outside: the balcony, flowers, mountains, sun and trees.

This illustration will be included in My Bed, a book about where children sleep around the world, with each spread depicting a different culture and living environment. The story is written by Rebecca Bond and will be published by HoughtonMifflin in 2020. Here are links to posts showing other finished illustrations for the book: South America, JapanIndiaAfghanistanRussia, North Africa, North America and Iran. To see a list of all my books, click here.

To make the balcony, I cut out holes in a piece of felt and edged everything with blanket stitch. I finish every raw edge this way to help contain the object I’m making, so that it’s less obviously made of felt. I want the viewer to take in the whole scene and be immersed in the subject, before noticing what materials I use.

For the flowering plant, I tried something new for the leaves; silk ribbon. I will now attempt to describe how this works in steps. Keep in mind that you use one long length of ribbon to make multiple leaves. 1. Twist wire to form stems. 2. Starting at the tip, loop a silk ribbon leaf. 3. Cover wire stem and ribbon by wrapping with embroidery floss. 4. Loop more leaves down the stem, covering the ribbon and wire with floss. Yikes, this is hard to explain! I hope that you can understand the process somewhat.

The flowers are clumps of French knots stitched with pima cotton thread.

I made stylized fir trees with covered wire trunks and branches. The branches and pine needles are stitched with variegated pima cotton made by Caron.

I’ve been using wire more and more to create a raised edge or outline, like on the sun and mountain below.

And the chain stitch is becoming a favorite way of forming lines.

I sewed curtains from blue felt, chain stitching lines to look like folds and decorating with white French knots.

The whole time I’m working, I refer to the drawing, making sure that the scene will fit into the page dimensions, without anything important getting lost in the book gutter.

To make the window, I edged a piece of felt with blanket stitches and wire. Even with photos documenting the process, I wasn’t immediately sure how I made the window grilles shown below. I remember looping lines of thread on wire, which was similar to casting on a knitting needle. Then, I joined 2 lengths by stitching them together down the middle. The wire gives the grilles enough firmness to hold their shape after being sewn in place inside the window frame.

Stay tuned for Part 3 in this series, which will show the children and more of the interior. To see Part 1, click here.
To keep up with new posts, please subscribe to this blog (top right column on the home page). Your contact info will not be sold or shared. If you’d like to see more frequent photos tracking the projects in my studio, please follow me on Facebook and/or Instagram.

I am happy to announce that the original illustrations for the book will tour the country after the book is published in the fall of 2020. The Cahoon Museum in Cotuit, Massachusetts will host the premiere exhibit and other venues will follow. As with Pocketful of Posies, I am scheduling a 3 year traveling exhibit, so that more people can see the “real thing”, which is a totally different experience than looking at reproductions on the printed page. Interested museums and art centers are welcome to contact me for information about hosting the exhibit. You can help bring the show to a place near you by reaching out to your local venues and telling them about this opportunity. It would be wonderful to have the original illustrations make their way across the whole country!   

bed book peek: Scandinavia – part 1

It feels like time to share another illustration from the bed book. This one is set in Scandinavia, with children sleeping in a cubby style bunk bed. I must have made it last summer, from the look of the green leaves outside the window in the photo above, It’s hard to keep track of time because I’ve been working 7 days a week for about 2 1/2 years straight. Between the Wee Folk Players series, the animated film and this book project, it’s been a stitching marathon around here. Hey, I’m not complaining – this is what I love to do and it’s a handy excuse for getting out of social obligations. But, I’m almost finished, with just the cover to do this month. And then, I’m going to switch gears to the garden, which has 2 years worth of overgrowth!

This scene will be included in My Bed, a book about where children sleep around the world, with each spread depicting a different culture and living environment. The story is written by Rebecca Bond and will be published by HoughtonMifflin in 2020. Here are links to posts showing other finished illustrations for the book: 
Holland,South America,JapanIndiaAfghanistanRussia, North AmericaNorth Africa and Iran. To see a list of all my books, click here

I am happy to announce that the original illustrations for the book will tour the country after the book is published in the fall of 2020. The Cahoon Museum in Cotuit, Massachusetts will host the premiere exhibit and other venues will follow. As with Pocketful of Posies, I am scheduling a 3 year traveling exhibit, so that more people can see the “real thing”, which is a totally different experience than looking at reproductions on the printed page. Interested museums and art centers are welcome to contact me for information about hosting the exhibit. You can help bring the show to a place near you by reaching out to your local venues and telling them about this opportunity. It would be wonderful to have the original illustrations make their way across the whole country!   

To make this double page spread, I started with the roof, which has a string of felt shingles folded over, accordion style. Then, I got to work on the walls and bed frame in the interior.

I cut out little tree shapes and edged them with blanket stitch.

There was enough variety in the brown hues to make the shapes stand out on top of the background strip. So, you may ask, “Where do you get your felt?” The stuff I use is a plant dyed, thick wool/rayon mix, that I hoarded a few years ago. Unfortunately, the business seems to be on hiatus. You can get some nice plant dyed and commercially dyed wool felt from A Child’s Dream, though.

I sewed Soft Flex beading wire along the edges of the architectural details in this illustration. It adds a firmness that helps keep the felt pieces from flopping over.

Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover the exterior scenery.

To keep up with new posts, please subscribe to this blog (top right column on the home page). Your contact info will not be sold or shared. If you’d like to see more frequent photos tracking the projects in my studio, please follow me on Facebook and/or Instagram.

finding my voice

On April 13th, I had the pleasure of speaking about my work to an audience at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. I’ve given many talks, but this one was different. The arch of the story has shifted from a straight forward account of my development as an artist to one of personal transformation. Sure, I still gave a glimpse at my process and showed early work, but this time it was presented as a journey of discovery, with twists and turns that guided me to a place where I’m ready to take risks and be more outspoken with my art. I talked about how I found my voice and described what it’s like to go from the land of innocence into the real world. Not too long ago, it seemed like all anyone could talk about were my techniques and workmanship, but now people are commenting on the content, which is what I’ve always wanted. The audience was wonderful – they even laughed at my jokes! People who were there described the presentation as enjoyable and inspirational, with just the right amount of edge to keep things interesting.

My talk was not videotaped, but Rob and I are thinking about putting together a encapsulated version to share. As always, the challenge is to find the time to do it. Until then, I thought I’d offer the following excerpt of my opening remarks and a few slides from the beginning and end of my presentation. In my introduction, I refer to my exhibit, Liberty and Justice: The Sweet to Satirical Art of Salley Mavor, which just came to a close. I’m excited to say that a select group of pieces from the show, including the film and display case full of characters and movie props will be going to the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, ME for The Art of Cute exhibit (May 1 – Aug. 31, 2019). Two other pieces of mine, Displaced and Cover Up will also be shown. The large exhibition, which is curated by the Illustration Institute, takes a serious look at a powerful aesthetic that is often not taken seriously. From the little bit I’ve seen, it promises to be one of the most unusual art exhibitions you are likely to see this year. I hope to meet some of you at the opening reception on Friday, May 10, 5 – 8 PM.

Opening remarks before “Once Upon a Thread” by Salley Mavor
April 13, 2019 at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.

Before launching into my slide presentation, I’d like to share some thoughts about the Liberty and Justice exhibit that’s upstairs. Truth be told, I hate talking about politics. At a dinner party, I’m the silent one, watching and listening to the sometimes heated debate swirling around me. But when political forces invaded my safe little existence, I felt compelled to act. In the first days after the 2016 election, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before artists, writers, comedians, playwrights, filmmakers and musicians began using stories, irony and metaphor to help America and the world cope with what is happening. I think that all sides can agree that we’re in deep doo doo. My art may not help make sense of it, or offer solutions, but it exposes the elephant in the room.

2 years ago, when I posted scenes from the Wee Folk Players series on my blog and Facebook, there was a lot of reaction, both positive and negative. One person was so mad that I was making fun of the president, they threw my books in the recycling. Another told me that I’d ruined her hobby. My favorite was from someone who said I was not qualified to have a political opinion. But for every criticism, came many, many more saying things like, “You go, girl!” and “You made me laugh so hard, I peed in my pants.”

My fans have come to rely on my art as a safe haven from the viciousness of the world. I don’t blame them for wanting to stay in the land of innocence. My dolls may be revealing a darker political reality, but you’ve got to admit, they’re still adorable. I just don’t do ugly or grotesque. For me, it’s about finding the sweet spot, even in the scary places we don’t want to go.

People wonder how I can speak out this way, considering the potential for backlash. I can take a risk, because at this stage in my life, I don’t need the approval of others in the same way that I used to, nor am I invested in a certain outcome. I realize that this is a luxury that many people do not have. And that adds to my sense of urgency. I feel a responsibility to document and reflect what I see happening around us and to bear witness, like artists have always done.

I’ve learned that my art helps people process what is going on at a deep and emotional level. What started as my own outlet for managing the barrage of news, has turned into a way for others to experience their own catharsis. Someone recently wrote to tell me, that after seeing this show, she burst into tears, realizing that my art helped her deal with her distress and dismay over the state of the country. She said that she felt uplifted for the first time in three years. When I hear this kind of reaction, I know it’s been worth it.

Having my work deemed too divisive and labeled as controversial has led to a chain of events that brought it to the attention of many more people. The episode has opened up conversations within our community about the purpose of art, which isn’t exactly an everyday topic of discussion. And I can’t help thinking that it has revealed an undercurrent of fear that we all have. Fear of upsetting people, fear of other points of view, fear of losing a way of life and most of all, fear of what is happening to our country. This experience has taught me that art can be a powerful way to face fear. It can be seductive, unsettling, stunning and confronting, which spark conversations about what it means to be living in this beautiful and terrifying world.

I have worked hard to get to where I am and this latest chapter is the strongest and most satisfying so far. Stretching myself artistically makes me realize that I am not what I thought I was. I am transformed, and everything I make from now on, whether it’s political or not, will be influenced in some way, by this adventure into forbidden territory.

What I make and how I do it didn’t just come out of the blue. It’s been a slow and steady process, from early childhood to today. I come from a long line of quiet, but determined people. My late parents, Mary and Jim Mavor were my role models. They created an environment where art mattered, a lot. It was not an extra. Dancing, playing music and making art was our family’s way of feeling human and connected to our Woods Hole community. My mother was an artist and business woman who left me with the belief that making art is the reason to get up in the morning. My father was an engineer with a visionary streak, who followed his ideas, no matter how esoteric. I am grateful to my family, including my husband Rob, for helping clear a path and never standing in the way, as I pursue my passion.

Before I continue, I want to squelch a rumor. Some people have been overheard saying that I must use a sewing machine. That is not true. OK, I use one to make clothes and pot holders and that kind of thing, but my artwork is all stitched by hand. Period. Even in this day and age, machines just can’t do what I do. Now that that’s cleared up, let’s move on to “Once Upon a Thread.”

At this point, I spent 45 minutes going through my whole life up until now with photos and commentary, showing work and talking about the experiences that helped form who I am as an artist.

In the section about making our animated film, I showed the following time lapse.

With the slide below projected on the screen I said, “I will end by showing you what my work table looks like now. You can be assured that its surface will never be completely clear of thread. At a time when most of my friends are retiring, I’m just gearing up. For as long as I can, I will keep making art that reflects both the lightness and the darkness of the world, in my quiet, but determined way.”

To keep up with new posts, please subscribe to this blog (top right column on the home page). Your contact info will not be sold or shared. If you’d like to see more frequent photos tracking the projects in my studio, please follow me on Facebook and/orInstagram.