How to Carve Out a Creative Niche

I have had two career paths, three really if I count the one I did to supplement the other two. Making a living as a painter has been practically impossible. I sold work from my studio on Waiheke Island, and from exhibitions in New Zealand and overseas, but income was minimal.

I worked as a fashion designer in Los Angeles and New York before my children were born and since moving to New Zealand work in that field was scarce. I did however have jobs that I loved, teaching drawing, design and painting. These jobs paid for basic living costs.

The two career paths, painting and stitching became intrinsically linked about twenty years ago when i started stitching my painted canvases.

I was travelling to Auckland three days a week from Waiheke Island and started drawing people that I saw on the crack-of-dawn ferry. Faces were stressed and tired and when I tried to translate drawings into paintings it was difficult to capture the nervous tension.

One day, I got out my trusty Janome sewing machine and started drawing with it. I stitched into paintings and the embedded stitches gave a twitchy line that evoked tension while the embedded rows of colour created a wonderful textured surface.


These small portraits sold well and inspired me to develop stitched techniques. I pierced large canvases with a stiletto and pushed threads through the holes with a large eyed needle. I stitched my painting with red threads and string to evoke blood, veins, a life line.

Textiles have always fascinated me and cloth that I collected during my time as a fashion designer was cut into garment shapes, painted and stitched.

A raincoat was made from layered newspaper, imported from the north of England where I grew up and pages of the New Zealand Herald were treated in the same way and transformed into a sun dress.

Small cardigans and jumpers with mismatched buttons reminded me of my boys’ little clothes that were always in the wash, shrunk and tatty.

A later collection of work is full of joy. Called Dream Dresses these works on paper are pierced and punched with garment pattern-making tools. They are machine stitched and dance across the page.

Good Girl Dresses are reminiscent of the Viyella dresses my mother made for my sister and I before we went to school. The dresses were smoked and had contrasting Peter Pan collars. I cut the tiny dresses, hand-stitched and painted them and then stitched them onto small canvases.

One never knows in life how things will change. Skills developed at one time and forgotten will suddenly surface and be remembered and used again. I was taught to darn socks at school and last week my partner asked what I could do about a hole in the knee of his jeans. I darned it. Evoked from muscle memory, the knowledge came down through my fingers and off I went.

It is difficult to make a living as a painter. But to have the desire to put paint and colour onto a canvas is something that will never fade. Just do it, when you can. Practice drawing. There is nothing more satisfying than making marks on a clean sheet of paper.

Everything that we see and do in life stays with us. As we age we remember and at the end of life we can utilise skills and have fun with them.

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