The present learns from the past

Richard Saja

Art or craft? This is a question that can be applied to so many of the objects in the collections at the Shelburne Museum: cigar store figures, decoys, mocha ware, carved wooden food molds, quilts, stenciled walls, whirligigs, and weather vanes. It is an issue that also comes up when looking at the work of Richard Saja, whose singular take on the textile arts most familiarly reveals itself in hand-embroidered embellishments on traditional toile fabrics. They are certainly art by most contemporary definitions, and they are clearly also craft, to judge by the warm reception Saja received when, just before the trip to Shelburne, he showed his work for the first time at the American Craft Council's annual exhibition in Baltimore. (The Craft Council, by the way, was founded by Aileen Osborn Webb, Electra Webb's sister-in-law.)

A child of the 1960s and 1970s, Saja grew up amid the vivid pop-art fabrics of the age. "I was mesmerized by all the color, pattern, and texture evident in the fashions of the early seventies worn by my stylish mother," he remarks. After high school he took classes in "surface design" (an all encompassing term for any process that changes the surface of a fiber: silk screen, embroidery, shibori, painting, distressing of any kind) at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. But he realized that he did not know exactly where he wanted to go from there and decided he needed an education not to be found at art school. Rather than a traditional college curriculum, however, he enrolled at Saint John's College in Santa Fe, which offers only one course of study—the Great Books of the West program, in which, according to the school's Web site, students read, discuss, and write about the seminal works "that have shaped the world in which we live....Their authors speak to us as freshly as when they first spoke. They change our minds, move our hearts, and touch our spirits."

In many ways Saja's needlework does the same. In 2005 he founded Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts with the aim of finding new ways of presenting old textiles, most particularly French printed toiles, while also carrying forward the tradition of hand-embroidery. Onto the monochromatic toiles he embroiders in vividly colored threads all manner of amusing, often irreverent, details, transforming pastoral figures into wild-haired clowns or bird-faced suitors. Each design is different, even if he uses the same pattern repeat; mostly his creations are used on pillows, but he also stitches large swaths for chairs and even sofas. His imagination takes him in other directions as well, but always with echoes of earlier practices: sometimes he makes patchworks of toiles in different colorways or cuts out and appliqués elements from one onto another; on one silk bengaline wall hanging he used polyester glow-in-the-dark thread to form, in tiny French knots, lines from Paradise Lost spelled out in Braille.

Paradise Lost is, of course, one of the Great Books (actually Saja says it was his favorite). So is the Bible. Both figure in the wall piece shown here, which resulted from his contemplation of Shelburne's Garden of Eden by American folk artist Erastus Salisbury Field. Field's evocation of the peace and beauty before the fall moved Saja. "Rather than just being cheeky, I wanted to create a more serious piece," he says. He chose the Quatre Parties du Monde, a toile designed by Jean-Baptiste Huët (1745-1811) in 1785, and transformed the Europe motif into a Temptation scene, in which the main figure is intended to represent Eve, and Milton's Satan inspired the figure bearing a treasure box of apples on the right.

Next: Elizabeth Berdann

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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