Stitches In Time -Spring 2015

Embroidered narratives recreate scenes from Melville’s classic for “The Mighty, Misty Monster,” a new exhibit at the NHA

by: Marianne R. Stanton

photography by: Terry Pommett

Susie Boardman sits on her couch, her caramel-colored Norwich terrier Sukey curled up beside her while she listens to the crisp British voice of actress Tilda Swinton reading those familiar words, “Call me Ishmael.”

“In all of my work, I am always rooting for the whale.”
Thus begins “Moby-Dick,” and Boardman’s multi-year project to create embroidered narratives of 17 scenes from Herman Melville’s iconic piece of American literature. They will be on view to the public this year when The Nantucket Historical Association features them in an exhibit entitled “The Mighty, Misty Monster: Moby-Dick Embroidered Narratives.” It opens April 11 in the gallery of the Whaling Museum.

When Boardman began the project several years ago, she elected to listen to the audio recording of Melville’s tome online at rather than simply read the book. The sentences are dense, and Boardman found an ease in listening to the story unfold as spoken words. All the chapters are available online thanks to a collaboration in 2011 between writers and artists that coalesced around a whale symposium held at Peninsula Arts, the contemporary-arts space at Plymouth University in England. The Moby-Dick Big Read was born out of that and features recordings of all 135 chapters read by as many voices, some famous such as Swinton, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, and our own author Nathaniel Philbrick, who reads Chapter 14, “Nantucket.”

The words are the inspiration for Boardman.

“I would listen to the audio, while I looked at the words in the text. When I started seeing images, then I would start sketching,” said Boardman, who started off in college as an art major at the University of Massachusetts before switching over to education.

Boardman used a paperback text so the vision of what she would eventually embroider would not be compromised by another artist’s illustrations in a manuscript. It took a while before she began to visualize scenes.

“There were no images that came to me in the beginning, not until I got to ‘The First Lowering’,” Boardman said. That was chapter 48, more than a third of the way through the book.

From there, the sequence of narratives evolved.

Boardman has been creating her exquisite embroidered narratives, using fine cloth, thread, paint, gold leaf and appliqués for more than 20 years now, ever since she became inspired after reading the journals of Susan Veeder, wife of whaling captain Charles Veeder of the Nauticon.

Boardman and her husband Bill, a lawyer, moved to the island full-time in 1994 and began volunteering at the Nantucket Historical Association. Eventually in her work there she encountered Veeder’s journal and became fascinated with the character of this strong, independent mid-19th-century woman who thrust herself into a man’s world by electing to travel with her husband on one of his whaling voyages. One of Boardman’s early embroidered narratives, which hangs inside the entrance to her home, is of Nantucket Harbor during the era of the Nauticon, mid 1860s.

“I had given myself a year to find a job when we first moved here – something to do with art – and after that I figured that this would be my job,” Boardman said.

About half of her work comes from commissions. The rest has been museum and exhibition work.

Boardman’s process is definitive. First come the words, which inspire the images. Next, she makes a rough sketch that is subsequently refined and rendered into a final drawing on tracing paper, which becomes the pattern she transfers onto fabric – fine cotton muslin backed with organdy, which gives heft to the muslin so it doesn’t shred from the many stitches used in the creation of the narrative. She uses a lightbox in the transfer process so she can clearly see the pattern through the fabric.

Then, color is applied to certain areas of the fabric. Look closely at a finished narrative and you will see different hues of blue for sea and sky, and other colors as well. Here the fabric is dye-painted by Boardman to bring an added dimension to her work. Some time ago she took a week-long class from a dye manufacturer in Somerset, Mass. where she learned to mix her own dyes. A thick binder with scores of pages and hundreds of combinations of colors, all from three primary colors, allows her a wide range of colors in her work.

Gold leaf is applied next with archival glue. This precious material is a signature element of illuminated manuscripts, which inform some of Boardman’s work. It’s often incorporated into borders. She has books and books of the great illuminated manuscripts, including a copy of “The Book of Kells,” Ireland’s great national treasure.

The embroidery comes last. Boardman has distilled her designs down to using just three stitches: French knots, split stitch and needle-lace.

“I never wanted it to be about the embroidery, but about the stories,” Boardman said of her narratives. “I didn’t want people to be looking at the pieces and wondering what stitch I used here or there.”

Each piece takes about 200 hours to complete, and Boardman works diligently every day. She sticks to a routine which includes an eight-plus-hour day working on her narratives, broken up by a long walk with Sukey, working out in her basement gym, and lunch every day with Bill, who also works from his home office, down the hall from hers.

Boardman’s interest in embroidery began as a child, when she was 5 years old, working at her mother’s knee. She took it up in a serious fashion after college. She was working as a teacher and putting Bill through law school, but found she needed something to do in the evenings while he was studying.

“That first year of law school, you never see each other, and I needed something to do,” Boardman said.

That interest became embroidery – big time – and she enrolled in a home-extension course offered by the Nantucket School for Needlery after seeing an ad in The Boston Globe. She went on to earn a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on textile arts and later received a certificate in advanced study from the American Institute for Textile Arts at Pine Manor Junior College.

Her love of the needle arts eventually brought her to Nantucket.

In 1974 she came to the island for a week-long course in embroidery taught by the great Erica Wilson, who has been called the Julia Child of embroidery, for introducing the country to embroidery in a very accessible way. Boardman joined a group of other women interested in the needle arts at The Barnacle Inn on Fair Street, and for a week they learned intricate stitches, while Erica’s husband, Vladi Kagan, entertained their husbands, gallivanting around the island, and even working on his old Model T Ford. Everyone had a ball. That was the genesis of her love affair with Nantucket.

In 1989 the Boardmans purchased an historic home on Ash Street and restored it to a beautiful yet comfortable standard of living. It is where they have lived year-round since 1994, and where she creates her embroidered narratives today.

Boardman works in a cozy second-story studio, where a handsome wooden table takes center stage in the workspace. A large magnifying glass for use with her embroidery frames is at the ready. In fact at all of her exhibits, and she’s had several, one can expect to see magnifiers available to view the intricate stitches.

A packed bookshelf filled with well over 100 volumes she uses in her research lines one wall. There are dozens of books on whales and fish and birds.

“I love birds and whales. I want to know what something really looks like before I start to interpret it myself,” Boardman said.

Tropical birds, evident in one of the “Moby-Dick”

narratives, have a wispy, angel-like quality. Before giving them their other-worldly dimensions, Boardman wanted to study the actual physiology of the birds. Then came her artist’s variation on a theme.

The whales, always embroidered in needle-lace, are mystical creatures for Boardman. Born of the sea, spouting rainbows of foam, and fighting for survival against their hunters, they are the heroic figures in her narratives.

“In all of my work, I am always rooting for the whale,” she said. ///

Marianne Stanton, editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror and Nantucket Today, writes frequently about food, travel and island life. She is a 13th-generation Nantucketer.

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