Having us in stitches

DEBORAH CROWE:  "I'm interested in the full range of how language can operate in society.''
DEBORAH CROWE: "I'm interested in the full range of how language can operate in society.''

Kim Knight meets an artist who captures the meaning and ambiguity of words In fabric.

Few phrases escape Deborah Crowe's scrutiny.

"Who spat in your coffee and called it cappuccino?" She'll take that, thanks (courtesy of television's Packed to the Rafters).

Swaddle yourself in Crowe's world. This is an artist who seduces, sentence by machine-embroidered sentence.

Crowe collects words. Oxymorons, spoonerisms, snippets of conversation, television scripts and historic facts, which are then embroidered on to fabrics purchased to complement – or contradict – the text.

Think "wicked smile" on a snakeskin print. "Sometimes I wish I could disappear" in white thread, ghosting against white lace. "Brocade whore" is, actually, an anagram of the artist's name. Talk, at Ponsonby Rd's Objectspace in April, featured 456 of the fabric works. She's exhibiting digital prints of selected pieces at Uxbridge Gallery in Auckland's Howick, and has just opened at ROAR! Gallery, Wellington.

Crowe says the use of fine art and metallic papers mean the fabric element of Talk "has become a visual sign, rather than a tactile surface and that probably makes the work slightly more commercial – but still fairly seductive".

"Talk was about nomenclature," says Crowe. "That's a poncy word that I pronounce differently from people here. It talks about how we speak about things. How the way things get written about or categorised can affect their meanings."

A fabric machine-stitched with "this is not a hand job" makes the viewer smile – but for Crowe, it represents the time an injury stopped her making art. "The show is about the coded aspects of language ... when we juggle words around, we get ambiguity and from ambiguity we get multiple meanings."

One word in the show that can't be printed here is, she says, a term of endearment among wharf workers.

"I choose my words carefully most of the time, but I'm interested in the full range of how language can operate in society, and the permission people have to use different words. I've been reading up on the history of swearing – maybe that's a cultural affliction?"

Crowe was born in Scotland, to a working-class family who lived in a council flat, with a dad who worked for the post office for 45 years. The "educated idiot" embroidery is a tribute to his tongue-in-cheek teasing of daughters he pushed to attend university.

"He used to say `if you got a job in television, or a bank, that would be good'. Now, of course, he's as proud as anything."

When Crowe describes herself as a "multi-disciplinary visual arts practitioner" she's not just playing with big art words. Her work is held at Te Papa and the Dowse. Over the past 25 years, the Manukau Institute of Technology lecturer's practice has spanned jewellery, fashion, drawing, sculpture and moving image. She curated the 4th NZ Jewellery Biennale and is a Smokefree (formerly Benson & Hedges) Fashion Design Supreme award-winner with ex-Fraser Crowe business partner Kim Fraser. The pair's high-end fashion collections retailed throughout New Zealand and Australia in the late 1990s.

"I trained at art school at a time in the 1980s when technique was quite important," she says of her "hands on" practice. "And I'm so glad I did, because probably about 10 years ago, tertiary education watered down technique so much it was almost criminal. Today, an interest in developing technical skills is coming back. Quite often driven by the students, which is great."

Talk included references to textile workers – the asbestos they rubbed into their hands to stop embroidery needles rusting, the whisky they poured into their eyes to "quicken their sight".

"Sometimes people who practise textile art take this `poor relation' approach. Talk is the exact opposite. Pointing out little bits of history, where stitch sat, without getting all bleeding heart about it, to celebrate it."

Crowe's grandmother worked in a weaving factory. Her mother was "an incredibly inventive" dressmaker and knitter.

"My sister and I can't help touching fabrics ... I have a memory that I think has affected my work significantly, of my older sister Lesley shutting me in a cupboard and me enjoying it. I was just surrounded by all these garments. I'm really interested in how we experience space. That notion of feeling enclosed can be quite comforting, but also overwhelming, and I enjoy exploring the tension between those physical and psychological responses to space. I would sit in there and make up these stories and dream. It was like being in another world. And quite a lot of my art practice is about creating these other hypothetical worlds. I have recently been building [digitally and as temporary sculptural works] a project called Bit City. A work from that was in the Wallace Art Award."

A much younger Crowe wanted to be a mathematician, a butcher, a lawyer or an artist. "Mostly a lawyer or an artist. I think it was about the detail. Butcher? I don't know – maybe it was a textural thing?"

Crowe's degree is in design, with a post-grad in embroidered and woven textiles, from the Glasgow School of Art. She graduated knowing she wanted to teach at tertiary level.

"And in order to do that I had to move to England, which I didn't want to do, but there are only four Scottish art schools so to get a job there you practically had to wait for someone to die."

At an immigration interview (which was later incorporated into an artwork) Crowe was told there was no racial tension in New Zealand, that she would never know her neighbours because the gardens here were too big, and if she wanted to make friends she'd better join a sports club.

"My art school lecturer was like, `What are you going to that cultural backwater for?' In 1986, New Zealand was probably just somewhere that was mentioned on Coronation Street when people needed to go far away ..."

The reality?

"The arts scene here has allowed me to exhibit and work in different contexts, much more easily than if I'd stayed in Britain. I do have to get off the island every now and then, but I feel privileged to live and practise here. And there are lots of juicy places to collect phrases. I've been thinking recently about `full credit', `hospital pass' and `trophy wife'. But I'm really much more of a rugby league fan."

Crowe's work features in group shows Thou Shalt Not Art on Sunday at the Uxbridge Gallery, Howick, until November 16, and I say I say I say at Wellington's ROAR! Gallery, in Vivian St, until November 19.

Sunday Star Times