Catherine Mamo: Shirley Nilsson, Fabric Art Pioneer
Okanagan childhood memories.
If you ever walk into Shirley Nilsson's Westbank home, prepare to be startled. An almost lifesized grandma and grandpa doll couple sit smiling in antique rockers in her neat as a pin living room. "I really should warn people about them," says Shirley. These amazingly realistic figures (made by Shirley for Halloween and used to keep her teenaged sons and friends off the delicate rockers) are just one of many surprises waiting to be discovered in the house of this versatile fabric artist.
The next thing you'll likely notice are the incredible fabric paintings hanging all over the walls. Shirley calls them soft pictures and indeed they have much of the depth, colour and presence of oil paintings but composed with the relatively simple materials of fabric and thread.
Shirley has been exploring and developing the technique she calls Stitching Free (aka sewing machine free motion straight stitch art) for about thirty years. A pioneer of the free stitching method to create fabric paintings and quilt blocks, she has written a book (Stitching Free C&T Publishing , Ca.) on the subject and taught workshops on her technique all over the world. Here is her story.
An Okanagan girl, Shirley was born in Penticton to Charles Harvey and Ethel Palmer. Charles, a WW1 airplane mechanic and jack of all trades, was born in Nova Scotia into a ship building family. Her mother came from American stock but was raised in Saskatchewan where she became a school teacher. The couple met in Medicine Hat. After the war ended, they married in Saskatchewan, where the first of four girls was born. The couple soon moved to Alberta, then Penticton where Charles' father (D.L. Harvey) had a carpentry business. The last two sisters were born there, Shirley being the youngest. The family built and operated the service station in Kaledon for many years. One of her father's main jobs was putting the Model-Ts back together as they tended to rattle apart on the rough Okanagan roads. Through the depression, the family survived rather well by raising goats, tending a big garden and their father hunted in the nearby hills. Charles also found work driving a beer truck and, later, on the Hope-Princeton Highway crew as a mechanic and occasional cook.
The Harveys moved to Summerland when Shirley was about 8. They bought a beautiful Victorian down in lower town (what was then Summerland proper). Shirley remembers the bustle of the docks as the fruit barges tugged up and down the lake. The older girls began dating "barge boys," and going to parties and dances. Shirley remembers all the neighbourhood kids playing ball and other games on what was then the highway. When a car appeared someone would yell "car" and they would scatter. She also remembers tootling around the lake in a big old war canoe (it seated about 16 ) that they found in the back room of the furniture store which also doubled as a mortuary. Truly a halcyon Okanagan childhood. Many of these early memories later found their way into Shirley's art.
Shirley graduated from Summerland High with a scholarship to UBC. She decided to take Home Economics as she says "The choices for women were rather limited then." She attended UBC for two years. When her parents decided to move to the U.S. to be nearer relatives, Shirley moved with them and began attending U of Wisconsin. There she met and married George Nilsson, an engineering student. Thus Shirley set out on one of the most itinerant lives imaginable, racking up a long list of addresses across the U.S. and Canada. George worked for the Ford Motor Co. in Detroit and then in the aerospace industry and got transfered hither and yon. She says about these busy, nomadic years: "Each place we lived had its own beauty which I stored in my memory for future pictures."
In the meantime, Shirley pursued her own career in interior design and had three boys to raise. In 1968 she decided to return to university to get her Master's degree in Interior Design and Fabric Art. It was around this time that she began first experimenting with her free stitch technique: "I was patching the boys' jeans on the machine and getting a little too fancy. They would say 'do I have to wear this mom?' and I realized I had to do something with this. That's when I started making fabric pictures. It just took off from there."
She began using her sewing machine as a drawing tool, allowing spontaneous pictures to flow out of her head and onto the fabric. "I try to work without a pre-conceived idea about the picture," she says, although she will often use a photo or another visual for inspiration. "I really felt like I was pioneering in this field. I felt like it was my own invention," she says. Often she finds herself stitching childhood memories or remembered landscapes. One picture shows two children flying kites, another depicts a child laying on a dock dipping her fingers in the lake.
"I tend to be pictoral," she says, but the stitching free method really can be taken in any direction. Shirley's original excitement at discovering this technique remains strong and she always emphasizes the creativity of this method when she does workshops: "I really lay into them about being creative with their machines. I want them to explore." She says that it doesn't take people long to catch on to the method. After an 8 hr class most are busily making pictures: "It's exciting to watch that grow... I think it's just a gradual process of education ... It (fabric) really is a creative medium."
Shirley still mostly uses her original Singer Featherweight, her "good friend: together we've stitched a million miles and created rooms full of fabric art."
In 1987 she began working for Creative Quilting magazine. For twelve years, six times a year, she created a piece of cover art and a set of instructions on how to reproduce it. Her book Stitching Free came out in 1993 and she set off on a whirlwind round of workshops all over North America. She also co-authored (with Kathleen Warnick) a book called The Legacy of Lace, which is still used as a reference book by historians and antique dealers.
Another interesting sideline Shirley developed involved translating children's artwork into stitchery. A beloved picture that would otherwise get tattered and probably thrown away can be preserved forever as fabric art. The joy and spontaneity of her own sons' art still shines out from her walls: a self-portrait, a charming farm scene, a dazzling butterfly. This was a very popular booth at fairs where Shirley would re-create children's pictures right before their very eyes. "They were just amazed ... and flattered to think that you liked their picture enough to do that."
Shirley and George moved to Westbank in 1997. Shirley wanted to be nearer her sisters and the exchange rate was good then. It wasn't long after settling in that her husband became ill with Parkinsons and then cancer. She nursed him for five years. During that time, her main creative outlet was snow sculpting. " It was something I could do to get some fresh air, be creative and still be close by," she says. She still amazes the neighbourhood with delightful snow sculptures when the spirit (and the weather) move her: "I was into penguins last winter." Other creative pursuits include her soft people sculptures, big as well as miniature, clothing design, and over the last few years writing her memoir. Perhaps she should call it Shirley Nilsson: Stitching a Life.
Catherine Mamo is a Peachland based print journalist and poet.
Shirley Nilsson and a few of her creations.
A fanciful picture.
An interpretation of the poem Winkin, Blinkin and Nod.
A close-up of one of Shirley's life-sized dolls.
A remembered scene from the window of one of Shirley's many homes.