Sewing Story

Deborah Slabeck Baker’s Narrative Art

Before she learned to write her own name, Deborah Slabeck Baker learned to sew. Her paternal grandfather, a tailor, taught Baker her first stitches using a button and piece of fabric. She remembers the box of scraps left over from alterations that sat in the corner of her grandparents’ dry cleaning business in Detroit, Baker’s hometown. “My older sister, Barbara, and I made doll clothes for our Barbies. I also learned to knit and crochet at an early age. My grandfather fashioned a knitting device from an empty spool with four finishing nails at the top, and we made cattails. My mother’s mother taught me to crochet. All the women in our family worked with textiles – knitting, crocheting, quilting.”

Baker always identified as an artist. Growing up, she liked to draw in art classes and, as a student at Cranbrook Kingswood high school, was encouraged by a teacher to apply to art school. Baker earned a BFA in Ceramics at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, and an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she majored in Ceramics and Drawing. When she married and had two children, she stopped making serious art, and, instead, began taking and later taught ballet classes.

After 25 years, when her children were grown, Baker was ready to return to art making and chose a familiar form: textile art. She recalls: “I didn’t have a studio, or any place to set up tools or store materials, and no place to leave drawings. Sewing requires the simplest materials: fabric, thread, and needles. I worked on projects while sitting on the sofa in my living room. Any piece I was working on easily fit into a bag and I could take it wherever I went.”  

The inspiration and themes for her work come mostly from personal experience. Baker sees her art as a way of processing events in her life; working through them and coming to a conclusion. She begins with a word or title, and images she can use to present or evoke that theme. “I use word play or free association to create a narrative or visual poem, similar to concrete poetry, where the message is embedded in a visual. And though they might appear lighthearted and humorous; the messages are sometimes darker and deeper.”

When she first started making embroidery art 10 years ago, Baker established a few rules for herself: never draw on fabric in advance and don’t rip out stitches. In other words, no tracing and no erasing! Sewing is more laborious than drawing, and she wanted to make the process as spontaneous as possible. In the past couple of years, Baker has modified her approach, and does, sometimes, take out stitches. But she keeps to her rules of using natural linen, black embroidery thread, and only two stitches: satin stitch and running stitch.

The result is a modern day sampler: the decorative art practiced by young women in the US colonies beginning in the 17th century to display their handiwork, talent, and status. Historically, samplers have ranged from somewhat crude or naïve depictions, to detailed, sophisticated representations of everyday objects and scenes of everyday life – a kind of social commentary.

Baker’s narrative art brings this tradition to a contemporary audience for the pleasure of evoking and the surprise of reexamining the personal and familiar. What do these simple objects and representations tell us about who we are, what we think and feel, and what we value? What lies at the intersection between what is known, even comforting, and the mysterious ever-unfolding and always shifting manifestation of the known world?

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