Friday, 26 February 2016

Tom Lundberg – Mentoring Threads

Jab We Met

I met Tom Lundberg in the year 2000, in Fort Collins Colorado, U.SA. He was my Fulbright mentor whom I’d never met before that year in September, when I arrived, via Denver, in the small town of Fort Collins, but we had been in touch via email. It was through Yoshiko Wada, via her friend Jason Pollen, another textile artist teaching at the University of Kansas, that I was introduced to him. Tom had a great fascination for India at the time and I recollect his rather unusual request for gamcha’s   [honeycomb-weave towels he’d once bought from Tamilnadu], when I asked if there was anything I could bring him from India.

I had started my practice as an embroidery artist just a few years prior to this and felt like a bit of an oddity in India, where most of the people who did embroidery were called karigars or artisans and were from quite a different educational and social background. There were but a handful of us textile artists who did embroidery and we met through an exhibition at the British Council in 1999 where it was not us, but our embroideries that entered into a dialogue of sorts as they hung beside each other. So, when I met Tom and entered the portals of the Fibre Studio at Colorado State University, engaging with students who were studying Fibre art under his guidance, I was enchanted. It was enriching to share my work and ideas and engage with these young Americans who were well versed in the notions of thread as art – beyond design. I remember a critique where I was forced to think about things that I had never really considered before – why did I sign my art-works and what prompted the theatrical and contradictory frames etc.

The Textile Community

 And then there was Tom’s work. I was fortunate to see an exhibition of his embroideries right there in the CSU gallery.  Small scale, delicate little pieces that were colourful and filled with memories and associations that were probably not difficult to decode once you understood where he was coming from, but what really gripped me then was the fact that technique was given so much emphasis. Some pieces still had the Indian touch with works such as Jori pocket and one of the works had a chappal in the centre – like it was caught in the vortex of a rather elaborate chakra or wheel of light. There were so many colours in each piece and the colour gradations mind-boggling. I remember Tom sharing his secret for blending from one hue to the next,which was that he kept each length of thread really small. Then, re-threading the needle was not a nuisance or hassle, you just had to do it, so may as well take another colour! I just loved that idea – simple and effective and have often used this technique too.

At that time, around the year 2000, I was just re-learning embroidery after a hiatus of some twenty years and trying to locate my work in the contemporary Indian art scene. I felt restive and was unable to work with focus on technique or dedication to the classic stitches – although I was most interested in them. Tom introduced me to many artists in the Colorado region and beyond, and I discovered a world of embroidery that I cherish to this day. Renie Breskin Adams with her humorous and playful embroidered stories is one of my favourites of all time. In all these years and countless workshops since, Renie’s embroidered pieces have been shown in all my presentations. It was therefore interesting to discover that not only was she one of Tom’s contemporaries, albeit a little senior in her practice, but also one of the many people whose work inspired his own.

Evolving Embroideries

It was through these engagements with other artists, as well as talking to and listening to Tom about his approach to his work which, upon my return, egged me to create a very technique intensive embroidered piece that took five years to complete. When I sent the image to Tom, via email, he remarked that he would have thought ten times before taking on piece of that scale. Needless to say, I did not stick to that code of working and my thread-work started on another journey which is akin to deconstructing the stitch and fabric. 

I have always admired the work done by artists across the world and yet I have found that I wasn’t always comfortable classified as a Fibre artist, that I wanted to bring a different kind of attention to my work. I recollect a discussion with Tom, as he drove me to see some studios in Boulder, where he talked of how they, in the US, had reached a space of not wanting to compete with the Fine artists and had found a comfortable niche that existed separate from the Fine art world. I have often wondered if that would be the way things would evolve for me too, but as yet the Indian community of artists are few, growing but very few, too few to really arrive at a space of their own, extraneous to other prevalent art practices. Actually, I find myself feeding off the Fine Art community as much as I do the traditional crafts of the country. And it has been in my research endeavours of the latter that make me feel rather nostalgic - about not having an inherited past in respect of embroidery traditions that are closer to my own family and its roots. In some ways I think that my desire to know more about indigenous traditions and practices stem from this socio-cultural disconnect from the living traditions around me.

I had kept in touch with Tom over the years and a couple of years ago, he mentioned a book that recently been released  – ‘Hand Stitch Perspectives’ edited by Alice Kettle and Jane Mc Keating, in which he had contributed an article about his own practice. Through this I discovered aspects of Tom and the influences that had led, consciously and subconsciously, to the evolution of his work as an embroidery artist. It’s a fabulous book and one that every embroidery artist would love to browse through but, my knowing Tom, and reading the narration of his childhood years and what fabric meant to them back then – his grandmother “like other village girls….had picked up needles and crochet hooks at an early age – at about the same time that she was shown the ropes of herding geese and cattle”, I was reminded of similarities with the rural artisans even in present day India. In particular, of a visit to Balran in the Sangrur district of Punjab, where I met Rupinder who taught Phulkari at the Building Bridges Centre. She, like  others in the village and also  the generations before her, had to first tend the buffaloes in her home, before  getting down to any stitching work. Karnael Kaur, her grandmother-in-law, had regaled with stories of sitting behind the village doorway – “pind ke gate ke peeche”, where she and her cousins would sit, singing as they embroidered after they had cleaned out the cow-shed and other such chores. This parallel, not so long ago, in a much more progressive nation like the US, was something to think about.

Tom’s Inspiration

Tom’s family had come to the US from Czechoslovakia. He recounts stories about his Moravian grandmother dressed in a babushka, how her father and brother had become tailors and how, like many of her neighbours during and after the Depression, she became adept at patching things. He says: “The oldest cloth we knew had been made into a bag; our grandfather had carried it to America. His name was pencilled inside wooden handles that were attached to scratchy fabric. Inside its dull stripes, someone had stitched a stained green lining into place. In our grandparents’ back room was a white fabric the size of a small flag. It was hemmed with red blanket stitches and embroidered with red lines to make a picture of soldiers…..This, we learned, was a splash cloth made by a neighbour in the old days, to be pinned behind a water pitcher and basin to protect the wallpaper.” He goes onto to tell us that barely anything was thrown away on that farm. “And old feed sack became a curtain to keep the wind out of the dog-house….on the table inside the shed was a basket made of grasses” and they also found heavy shuttles used for weaving rugs. The shuttles were hand-carved and had been used by Tom’s grandfather a long time ago.

In the essay, Tom candidly states that “it never once crossed my mind that my future would be wrapped up in textiles” but is now a teacher of the fibre arts.  As a student he discovered that he liked working with simple tools and for the last several decades he has “embroidered pictures that combine a few easy techniques: long-and-short stitch, split stitch, and couching. His pictures often look like round badges with familiar shapes such as pockets, cuff or the sole of slippers”. Augmenting his learning experience was a short stint with a potter where he heard endless talk about craft and functional forms. As I read through I could not help but make another connection with Tom, because in my early years before I actually started this now forty year long journey with textiles, I too had learned pottery at the Delhi Blue Pottery Studios. I was guided by Minnie Singh who was not too fond of me and my experiments because inevitably when I put one of my pots in the kiln there would be a blast!

Lucky Buttonhole

One of the embroidered pieces by Tom Lundberg - ‘Lucky Buttonhole’, seems to draw from his family’s tradition of not throwing away any fabric. It was done in 2011, is embroidered on cotton and linen fabrics using cotton and silk threads. It is a really small piece measuring 3.5 inches x 4.6 inches and a curious piece which needs multiple readings. I am not sure which part of the thread work is done by needle and which has been woven prior to the embroidery by Tom. In parts I can see some very ordered threads forming a twill-like pattern suggestive of that being the base fabric, but then about an inch above this texture there is another texture which is much bolder, using a pale blue  slubby yarn which, again, must have been woven into the base fabric. The idea of using such a cloth to further embroider upon is intriguing. Does the choice have any significance? Is it of some nostalgic value, what determined the choice of the base fabric? The title doesn’t help much either, because what is a lucky button-hole and what is that eye-like thread-work doing in the midst of it all? But if one looks closely enough, the leaf on the left of the button-hole is a four leaf clover. Now, I know from my childhood years in Shimla, where we have the larger version of this clover which we used to call khat-mith – and it was something us hungry boarders used to often nibble on as we sat and chatted on the khuds, that the four leaf version is almost impossible to find and almost every time you think you have spied one, it turns out to have only three leaves. A very frustrating exercise it was, but to this day, when I see a group of clovers, I instinctively look to see if I can find a four-leaf one because it is deemed to bring good luck. Such is the power of myth and lore and this is what Tom brings into play here.  And in a sense the use of an old cloth, used and worn, which has been through many hands, passed down the generations even, speaks of such myth and lore too, which have been passed down with a lot of embellishment along the way. I am not sure what Tom intended when he worked on this and titled it such, but this is what I read in it.

As I read Tom’s story and re-looked at the images of his embroideries, I realised how it is the little things that go into how we formulate our thinking- sometimes leaning towards ideas that we have heard and sometimes away from them. And he puts it very succinctly when he says in relation to the weavers and embroiderers he has met and been influenced by that “why should it surprise me that there are so many of us who try and connect the big rhythms of life to the smallest marks? Where the effects of “stitching out in all directions”, floating marks like quivering iron filings” that drift through fabric panels and more that combine to have an effect such that remind him of Italian velvets from the Renaissance. For him it is the European historical cultural unfolding that he connects with and I have found that in some way, we are all seeking that historical connect with needle crafting, possibly because it is actually far removed from the kind of daily activity it once may have been and  still remains so, today. Needing to link the threads is not unusual, but quite natural – for it is linked to the proverbial search for identity and belonging.

Summer Vortex

My all time favourite embroidered piece by Tom is called ‘Summer Vortex’. I think it is the single, lost chappal [or maybe not lost], right in the centre of the piece that grips my interest each time. Added to which is the fact that when I quizzed Tom about how he managed to get so many colours working so well and such fine shading, it was this piece that I was pointing too. So when I look at those white, off-white and lemon threads melting effortlessly into the rusts and browns, I am reminded of this valuable lesson – one that I haven’t forgotten and have used to good advantage as well. The blue and white of the proverbial Bumpy Hawai chappal is also imbued with Tom’s irresistible humour, because until the advent of the gaily coloured ‘Crocs’, almost all the hawai chappal’s one did see, on the streets of India, were blue and white. It appears that Tom may be making an observation about the heat in India – therefore the warm yellow tones and the preferred footwear to keep the feet cool that were predictably blue and white. The vortex, at its zenith is the energy vortex of the quantum field – where anything is possible. I like the idea of looking at these miniscule embroideries, using the patterns and marks as cues as if figuring out a mystery or a treasure hunt trail. If you look at them simply for their surface appeal, they may leave you less interested, but if one does play by the ‘clue-do’ rules, a whole world is waiting to be discovered, quite like the vortex, with its limitless possibilities, where the lone chappal has somehow found its way in. I wonder if there is significance in that too – that we enter the vortex as one and never as two?


  1. A very enjoyable and instructive piece. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for reading Moira. I'm glad you found it interesting.

  2. Loved the energy blast of the buttonhole.

  3. Great post Gopika! And thanks for introducing not only Tom Lundberg but Renie Breskin Adams too - have never heard about them.

    I don't quite get it that you say "that eye-like thread-work is doing in the midst of it all" - this is the button hole itself (maybe from some "lucky shirt"?).

    1. You're probably right Boxena! I did consider the work as being done on a found fabric, but didn't think of the button-hole as belonging to the original fabric. Thank you for pointing that out!

  4. I liked it. Liked reading about Tom.
    Rob Watt

    1. Thanks Rob, for reading and leaving your foot print. Its good to know whose read and what they thought. I like it.