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Last look: Mindy Harris

Halifax fabric artist Mindy Harris embroiders acclaimed women

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Teen activist Greta Thunberg by Mindy Harris.

After a major surgery left her on bedrest, Mindy Harris traded in her paintbrush for a needle. She found inspiration in Frida Kahlo, who painted from bed in her final years. “It’s actually a lot more messy than it sounds,” Harris laughs. “It’s just not practical.”

Harris studied painting and sculpture at NSCAD University in Halifax, graduating in 2006. “I had no exposure to fibre arts in school,” she says. “The crafts were in a totally different building from fine arts, it was something you never even crossed paths with.”

She finds many similarities between her familiar practice of painting and her new outlet, embroidery.

“I draw in the sketch with thin black thread, the same way I would if I was going to start a painting,” Harris says. “It’s all the same colour theory, and composition, and proportions, all of the same drawing and painting principles, just transcribed in a different way.”

Since taking up embroidery in 2018, Harris sewed portraits of historical and contemporary feminist figures. “I was thinking a lot about gender disparity in the art world, specifically the hierarchy of painting and sculpture over things like craftwork,” she says.

Her debut series Women’s Work depicted “women who excelled in male-dominated professions.” The series is comprised of 14” x 11” portraits featuring primatologist Jane Goodall, singer-songwriter Björk, teen activists Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, and software engineer, Margaret Hamilton, and of course, Wonder Woman. It took Harris 50 hours to make each one.

Her latest exhibition, Girls Rule, was part of Argyle Fine Art’s annual Pre-Shrunk show. It featured six queens including Marie Antoinette and both Elizabeths. “I usually try and pick subjects that speak to something that’s current, whether they are a current person or not,” she says.

She points at the portrait of entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker, mid-pose in her flapper’s skirt, playful and strong. “One of the reasons I picked her was because of the work she did with racial segregation, that’s an issue that is still a hot topic,” Harris says. “I hope when people look at that and think about her life and what she did, they realize, ‘Hey, this was a while ago and we’re still trying to sort this out now.’”

Through her art, and especially with her embroidery, Harris comments on the place of women in history and in culture, hoping to educate while entertaining.

“One of the things I like about embroidery is the accessibility of it,” she says. “There’s obviously a socio-economic divide in the art world, where there’s a lot of art people don’t feel they can relate to, and I think with the embroidery it’s a medium a lot more people can be comfortable with. Trying to present that in a new way in a gallery context, I hope will help bridge that divide.”

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