The first time I saw “Lady Justice,” by Canadian artist Simone Elizabeth Saunders, I couldn’t stop looking. The picture on my phone was Instagram-sized, and the tufted surface of the piece flattened by my screen, but the combination of deeply-felt imagery and technical skill was nonetheless affecting. I zoomed in to study the letters on the crumpled loop-pile bandana, Justice’s traditional blindfold (or face mask?) cast aside. I zoomed out to feel Justice’s all-knowing expression; her demand for accountability, come what may.
“Lady Justice” is part of Protect Black Women (2020 - 2021),a series of machine-tufted and punch-needle wall hangings that combine direct text with visual symbolism to create bold, powerful portraits, not unlike the way a stage performance brings characters to life. Prior to making textiles, Saunders was both an actor and a set designer, and a founding member of the Afrocentric Calgary theater company Ellipsis Tree Collective. “When I envision a textile, storytelling is my foundation,” she says. “My inspiration stems from narratives that amplify Black womanhood, belonging, and ancestorship.”
It wasn’t until her interest in set design led her to pursue fiber art at the Alberta University of the Arts that Saunders discovered tufting when one of her instructors showed an image of an artist with a tufting gun. The fiber department didn’t supply the machines, but Saunders took it upon herself to find one and learn anyway. “The gun itself is quite a powerful tool,” she recently told the Calgary Herald. “Building my relationship with that machine, there was a lot of power within that. Especially fashioning Black women.” The tufting gun opened up a whole new medium—one that Saunders soon mastered, and viewers quickly responded to.
Since graduating in 2020, Saunders’ work has been supported by galleries and institutions both in and beyond Canada. She was the National Winner of the Bank of Montreal’s prestigious 1st Art! award, and just closed out her debut museum show, at Contemporary Calgary, to rave reviews. Given the artist’s busy schedule, we were honored she took the time to give us a glimpse into her process.
First off, any tufter who sees your work can’t help but notice the extreme attention to detail. How do you achieve such precision?
When I tuft, I incorporate symbology and pattern to support the narrative I see in each piece. I tuft the work considering the viewer’s eye, wanting it to travel in and around the work—each thread requires my focus and dedication, which encourages me to achieve a fine level of detail. I draw from contemporary events, literature, music, plays, and my personal experiences and passions. My relationship to the tufting gun has become more and more refined with practice, allowing me the ability to tuft more ornate patterns. I take my time when I tuft. I don’t rush the process, I relish it! There are moments when deciding certain color combinations takes me a very long time. The vibration of color is always challenging and an exploration for me. And for my focus, having an understanding of color theory is key: knowing complementary, secondary and tertiary combinations. Having this foundation gives me room to play and navigate within the complexity of color.
I’m so interested in your evolution from acting and performance-involvement to fiber art and tufting. How does your theater background inform your visual art practice?
My theater background has been immensely advantageous to my textile practice. The art of storytelling drives my tufting, and is how I use my voice. I create a story, I develop my characters, and then I translate these into threads. The dramatics of Shakespeare inspire me, as well as the hauntingly charming Grimm’s fairy tales, and the powerful plays by Black playwrights such as Lynn Nottage or Djanet Sears. I draw from my passions and my past as resources, all to fuel these textile stories. There are no rules when creating, and when I’m tufting I feel free. The movement when tufting and the power of the tool—I feel in sync with it. The skill sets I’ve acquired from theater will support me for the rest of my life. I work at being in touch with my emotions, and that translates into my art. It takes vulnerability and a willingness to speak one's truth.
I love that you think of your portraits as character studies; it suggests you see your representations not just as images, but as living, breathing people. Where do these characters come from?
I start with a gaze. When creating portraits of Black women, I want our power and resilience to shine through. And the eyes are portals. The direction and intent of the gaze will pull in and engage the viewer. The character is developed through a curiosity for connection: What is happening in the world? What is this figure wanting to say? What world is she in? I draw strength from literature: Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Angela Davis . . . or from the lyrics of songs: Alicia Keys, Nina Simone, H.E.R, Queen Latifah. My portraits are created by collaging a figure from a milieu of beautiful and strong Black women. Sometimes I am inspired by a public figure: Serena Williams, Adut Akech, Lizzo, Nina Simone, FKA Twigs. An imagined figure becomes real to me once I draw her—becoming the character in the story I wish to portray.
You’ve cited Art Nouveau, the ornate late-Nineteenth Century style that originated in Belgium, as a big influence on your work. In using such a Eurocentric style to center and celebrate Blackness, you flip the art history script. Can you talk about what you’ve termed "Black Nouveau”?
When I was in art school, I was completely enamored when studying Art Nouveau. The whimsy and grace, with figures adorned in golds and surrounded by intoxicating patterns. And the way in which women were portrayed in Art Nouveau, so sensual and alluring. But I quickly felt like an outsider looking in, as this era depicted exclusively white bodies. So I adopted the techniques and inspiration of the style to create “Black Nouveau”. Art Nouveau artists were often hired to create drawings that advertised a company’s fine wines, liqueurs, cigars, and chocolatiers—I drew from that history of incorporating text in order to tuft works that amplify mantras from the Black Lives Matters Movement, with phrases like Protect Black Women, Black Power, Black Dreams, Black Love and Black Magic emanating from the textiles. “Black Nouveau” is a concept my textiles will continue to explore.
What do you hope a viewer of your newest body of work, Ancestral Bodies, walks away thinking about?
The figures in these pieces are rendered as ethereal and sentient beings. I tuft line-work with beige thread outlining the bodies and then I fill with gold-flecked black thread. The bodies illuminate from the textiles, as though constellations are captured from within. In creating the bodies this way, I am honoring my ancestors, acknowledging that they are with the stars. Everything they have given to this world, all past, present and future, compressed into one. Their struggles, their love, their bodies are now at one with the stars. We are imprints of our ancestors, learning and discovering pieces of ourselves. Through the impact of each of our histories, we are not who we are without those who came before us. We are more than our bodies—we radiate energy tethered to a lineage beyond comprehension. This is the foundation for my series Ancestral Bodies. Each textile captures a different message of light and love and a connection to the stars . . . to our universe.
So much has happened in the world in the last few years, including the beginning of a global health crisis, and a growing public awareness of implicitly racist systems in the U.S. and beyond. I’m wondering how the events of 2020 gave rise to your Portraits series, and the urgent and powerful work in Protect Black Women.
Now is the time, more than ever, for the Black community to be SEEN and to be HEARD. This is a crucial time for artists to capture what is happening within our world, and for Black voices to lift up. For our joys, love, struggles to be acknowledged. And for our global cry for justice to be amplified and to be received. It’s often an emotional process. But I feel so much joy and gratitude to be in my studio, creating these textiles that encompass my truth.
You’ve seen some (highly deserved!) success in the last few years. What has this felt like?
It has been an incredible affirmation knowing that I am on my true path. The recognition I’ve received came at a time when I had just graduated from art school. When I began tufting portraiture, I had no idea how my textiles would be received or perceived. I was creating for me: learning this new technique that interested me, teaching myself how to tuft and exploring this new craft. My art always evokes my search for belonging, and my desire to express my voice. So, when acknowledgement came and continued, it was (and is!) encouragement to keep going! I have endless inspiration and so many ideas I want to execute, so I am grateful each day to be doing what I love. Tufting is a unique medium in the art world, and I am so glad it found me.