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.”

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29 thoughts on “finding my voice

  1. You have always inspired me in so many ways. Your art, your work ethics, your creative views, your opinions, your passion for what you do in your everydays. Thank you!

  2. Thank you, Salley, for your art and brave heart. We need individuals of your talent, sensitivity and intelligence to call out the hate that is around us. There are people who are still not able to acknowledge the dishonesty in this current administration. Bravo for continuing to be a clear voice of reason.

  3. Brava, Salley! Brava! Your words are as inspiring as your work.  I have been an admirer of your art since my cousin Terrell Strassel first recommended Pocketful of Posies to me. Then,  Julie Allen, my college roommate, proudly showed me a few of your pieces that she owns. Seeing your work up close is a joy! Wow! I am a children’s author. I only began seriously honing my craft after retiring from the classroom.  I have manuscripts out on submission, nothing published…yet. I am turning 67 on Monday, but as a writer, I am excited and encouraged by hearing your journey.  Keep growing as an artist. Keep sharing your wit and your wisdom with us through your art!  In gratitude,Carmela Simmons

  4. “Wow! Both personal and professional transformation indeed! Seeing these photos of you on a stage with a large audience reminds me of when I asked if you would be one of the speakers for our annual Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE) conference around 10 years ago. I had discovered your “Pocketful of Posies” book at NEIBA and exhibit in Framingham. I believed your work as an illustrator in the medium of fabric collage was so unusual that others needed to know of your work. You declined saying that you really weren’t a speaker and that you were more comfortable just working in your studio. BRAVO to you for stepping out of your ‘comfort zone’, taking risks, and moving forward into new territory. May you continue speaking —art schools, women’s institutes, and yes, book publishing conferences Thank you for educating and inspiring so many of us. Lastly, whether you realize it or not, you also have developed writing skills— your journey ought to become your next book, not just a video.”

    • Thank you for your encouragement Pam. Yes, I remember when you extended the invitation to speak at your conference. I guess that I just wasn’t ready, or in the right frame of mind. Since then, I’ve talked to lots of different kinds of groups, from quilters to illustrators to the general public. It is hard to switch from making mode to talking about making mode. Keeping a regular narrative going on this blog has helped me put into words the what, why and how of my art, so it’s easier to make the transition between being alone in my studio and out there talking about it.

  5. “Speak your truth Salley…….if we don’t have that, we have nothing. Much success is wished for you. Hugs Sweetie.” Colleen (in Nova Scotia, Canada)

  6. I absolutely love your work!! It runs the gamut of human and personal expression. I’m grateful for your sharing your journey…it enriches us all as you’ve carried us with you thru story. The First Peoples, who I admire, believe strongly with Story…we need more. I believe every life is worth a novel. Thank you, Sally.

  7. Dear Salley, I absolutely loved reading this and have been an admirer of your works for years, I appreciate knowing of your growth and braveness to speak of what the world is today, it takes courage and like you, I am almost 73 and the need for approval of others has lessened greatly. And like you, I still sew on, it is so much a part of my life that I can see myself doing it into my 90s!!! Sending love, Jeanette

  8. Salley, you are amazingly talented in so many ways! Keep doing what you’re doing! I’m happy to know you and Rob! 👍🏼💜👍🏼

  9. Hi Salley, great blog post. Thanks for sharing! I too felt you helped me with “Liberty And Justice”. It made me understand what happened from really a child-like perspective. It hit me on a deep level. Also, Thank you for letting my friend and I visit you, I found it inspirational on many levels. My the way, I’m writing ( well illustrating really as I still don’t have the words) a book about painting the border wall from the perspective of a little girl. I’m really liking this idea of children’s book that have deeper meaning and social relevance. My first foray into children’s books. Thank you for inspiring me and so many others! With love, Gretchen


  10. Thank you, for today’s post. It was the next best thing to being there in person for me. I am thrilled to learn of your show in Kennebunk! It will give me a chance to see it in real life! You are an inspiration from both your art and your philosophy. Congratulations on the “going public”. Love, a fan in Maine, Mary

  11. Hi Salley,

    I finally had time to read your remarks. Fabulous. You have found your voice and then some. I couldn’t be prouder of you, not that it matters if I’m proud of you or not. You are proud of you and should be.

    I’m so glad to know you and your art.



  12. Bravo!!!!!! This has to be the strongest and most poignant of your posts… I cannot begin to tell you the amount of respect and awe you inspire in me…so all the way from India, with folded hands, I bow my head to you.

    More power to you, Salley!!!

  13. You are so incredibly inspiring. I’m living with a chronic illness that just zaps me but when I look at your work it makes me dream of creating. I’m not sure what I can do yet, but your artistry just has given me hope for finding the artist within me. Thank you!

  14. Dear Salley. Thank you for the work you do and for sharing your work with others. My sister Jan Schubert has been following you for a while and introduced your work to me. I am a fiber artist who also studied at RISD, although I was a textiles major. I live in Carbondale, Colorado a mountain town in the Roaring Fork Valley, about 30 miles west of Aspen. Our town is a designated Colorado Creative District with a lot of art happening here, in various forms. I am putting in a proposal for a exhibition at The Launchpad, the gallery run by our arts council. The show would take place in 2020 if my proposal is accepted. I am proposing to have a show focused on Contemporary fiber with the theme of crossing thresh-holds. I am wondering if you would be interested in being a part of it. I would love to have you participate. I have curated 2 shows for the The Launchpad in the last 4 years but this would be the first show devoted to fiber. They are reluctant to grant exhibitions to people who have recently had a show. I am hoping that it will be different enough to pique their interest. Coincidentally, my sister Jan, who introduced me to your work is visiting family on the East Coast and plans to attend your opening next week. She also is a lover and maker of fiber art. Good luck with the show! I am sure it will be well received. Jill Scher You can also check out Carbondale Arts.

    • Thank you for the invitation to be a part of your proposed show. Let’s continue our conversation in email form. I look forward to meeting your sister Jan at the opening in Maine.

  15. You are a pioneer, Salley, and I am so grateful for your art. It has brought beauty to this world, and I do believe that bringing beauty to this world is an awesome mission. You´ve taught me so much, not only about felt crafts, but also about bringing out the beauty in me and making art with it. God bless you.

  16. I love all your work. I love the activism you share in your work. You are a very talented and inspiring person and I am always thrilled to see one of your posts show up online. Thank you for sharing your talent, ideas, and your thoughts.

  17. Hurrah for you, Sally Mavor! You are brave, willing to step into a new arena of your craft. I have been on this journey with you for many years – from fairies and fairy tales to stop action films. I have been to your exhibits in Maine, Cape Cod, New Bedford and Salem as well as having the opportunity to see your studio almost 3 years ago. I continue to admire you and your work. I hope you do put something together on film similar to your presentation at the Cotuit Arts Center for all to see and hear. How very fortunate the world is to have Sally Mavor! Thank you!

  18. Thank you for this post Salley. I was sad to have to miss your talk in Cotuit, which was on my calendar for months. I have always been inspired by your creativity and skill, and your devotion and commitment to your work, but now I am inspired in a new way. I admire your courage to step away from what has been successful and beloved towards what is dark and risky. I too have shied away from politics and controversy yet feel compelled to raise my voice. As older women, we now must. I admire the way you have managed to do this in your own style and your own voice, which, despite its sweetness, reveals strength and a true moral core. Congratulations on being true to yourself and persisting. I WILL make it to Kennebunk, although not to the opening, alas. All best to you. Elizabeth

  19. Salley,

    So sorry to have missed your talk, but the recap is great. I did make it to Warren, RI to see your pieces in the Migration show – so beautifully done and expressed – a pleasure to visit. And Warren was kind of cute too.

    Congrats on a wonderful show and the upcoming exhibits. Keep stitching! Nicole

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