Indispensable: Liz Harvey

"Indispensable" is a series that asks the de Young’s Artists in Residence to explain a tool that’s essential to their work.

Tell us a little about a little about the tool you chose.

This is my sewing machine—I call her Sadie. She has a name, a gender, and she’s a little futuristic in a 50’s kind of way. She lives in my home studio and is always out, always kind of there, on the table ready to go. I got this in grad school, about a decade ago.

Before then I was using my mom’s machine. She taught me to sew and she wasn’t using her machine anymore so I asked her if I could have it. My nephew had used a marker to draw on it as a toddler, and it seemed very precious in a family way. It was metal and old and amazing—it did everything I needed. It just would never give out. There’s such a gap between the two machines, a lifetime of technology.

How does the machine fit into your work as an artist?

I started to use a sewing machine in my first few years of being a practicing artist, making things that referred to clothing but were really sculptures, not made to be worn. I’ve long been drawn to stitching and sewing and thread as a drawing medium. I feel like sewing is a form of drawing, but the thread and stitches make it very tactile. It’s another part of the language of drawing. Our society is so thoroughly technological, which I think drives some artists like myself to work with craft techniques, making physical objects. The sewing machine blends technology with tactility in such a satisfying way.

I knew I needed a machine that would do embroidery, because embroidery was important to me as a drawing tool and I wanted to see what would happen with different kinds of stitches: straight stitch, zigzag, herringbone and all the variations of them. I love the sort of chaotic ones.

Any details you particularly love about the machine, maybe something that makes you really happy when you work with it?

I love the sound, partly because my mom sewed and so it’s one of those sounds that remind me of her. I love winding bobbins, and it has this magical thing that you can use to wind your own bobbin up here. I really like the foot pedal. It’s very analog; I like that. I miss things about my mom’s machine, but there are things that are there same. I love lifting the foot. Feeding the fabric is really satisfying. It’s all those nerdy things, like matching the right needle and the right fabric, and saying “It’s working!!”

Visit Liz Harvey and see her project golden at the de Young through April 3, 2016.

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