Manoela Grigorova is an animal charity fundraiser by day and a mixed media artist by night. Under the name Mojo & Muse, Manoela and and her muse explore bold colours and contradicting textures through mixed media art, jewellery and sustainable adornment.
Using the meditative and repetitive process of embroidery and mixed media has been a way of dealing with current events and emotions around those; her works are thought provoking pieces that blur the lines between art and craft. Using inspiration from the natural world and movements such as Surrealism, Pointillism and Abstract Expressionism, she creates wondrous textures and embellished abstract worlds that are colourful, playful and deliciously touch-worthy.
Photos – © Manoela Grigorova – photos protected by copyrights – Thank you
Interview – Claire de Pourtalès
Viola Odorata (details) – alcohol ink, embroidery, beading on canvas 25 x 25 x 4cm © Manoela Grigorova
What sort of place, landscapes saw you grow?
I was born in Varna, Bulgaria in 1983, under the Communist regime to a Geologist father and Meteorologist mother. As a child, if I wasn’t outside playing, I was inside drawing, painting and exploring all things creative. In those days, kids had to be creative with entertaining themselves. In our household, we had a black and white TV with just two channels – one was in Russian, which I could barely understand! So, you can forget about plonking your children in front of the TV. We were closed off from the West, which meant we didn’t get things such as Western music, Western TV programmes, brands of products, particular toys, bananas, Coca Cola etc. to name but a few for context purposes. Cliché but true, it was a simpler time. It didn’t feel strange because it was the same for our neighbours, and their neighbours and everyone in the country. You don’t miss what you don’t know. I mean, we didn’t even have a house phone! We either played outside or got creative at home. I remember both grandmas sharing their knitting and tapestry skills. I watched my mother create beautiful crochet, knits, and macramé, not just because of her love of making, but because certain things just weren’t available to us, so both of my parents made a lot of things themselves, from decoration to furniture. In 1991, with the end of Communism and an unknown future, my parents made the very difficult decision to leave Bulgaria and seek a better life for us. As the regime came crashing down with the Berlin wall, my family fled to London, UK. As dramatic as that sounds, it’s true, it was against the law to defect. My parents didn’t tell anyone of their real plans, all we knew was that we were going on holiday!
Tell us about your creative background? Where does it stem from and what made you decide to become an artist?
I’ve always been pretty creative and expressed and processed the world through various visual mediums. However, after I left university, it’s kind of hid in the background like a shy child, hiding behind her mother’s skirt. During every low point in life, every gap between jobs, the only way to fulfill that void was through creating, whether it be fibre art, jewellery, or simply learning to use new mediums. Creating has been a sanctuary for me at many crossroads in my life.
The path definitely wasn’t straightforward. As a kid, I loved making things with my hands, drawing, creating my own worlds. When I was around 8, I wanted to be an animator for Disney. Later on, when I was around 11 years old, I started designing clothes and drawing fashion illustrations. They were terrible but my passion for fashion design only grew and my skills improved.
After high school, I completed a two-year BTEC in Fashion Design, followed by a BA degree in Fashion Design at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication.
However, in my first year of university, I became disillusioned by the fickle reality of the industry itself and quit my degree. For more than half of my life, I was convinced that I would one day be a fashion designer but now I wasn’t so sure this was for me. I went through moments of feeling shame and failure, feeling like a quitter. It was a real dark time for me.
‘Whilst deciding what I wanted to do’ I took a job in the only other industry I knew – hairdressing. I’d worked in salons as a part time assistant for years, I loved working with people and with my hands, so it was an obvious choice. This time though, it was hairdressing with a difference! It was magical work, rewarding and life-changing because for it did so much for women with severe hair loss. It gave me the creativity I craved and I helped people at the same time. Building a head of hair is time consuming, meticulous and meditative; sound familiar?! In fact, wig making is very similar to weaving and embroidery, especially working with mesh as well as similar to stitches such as the turkey stitch! Funnily, even now, I use my hairdressing scissors and comb when trimming and cleaning up the turkey stitch!
Hair stitching © Manoela Grigorova
10 years in the industry and with the big 30 (birthday) looming, I took what I call a life break and spent time travelling in Asia. I fell in love with the colours of different cultures, beautiful artisanal works, textures and textiles. Equally my passion for the natural world grew tenfold and so did my distain for fast fashion! And cheap labour!
I knew now that my next professional challenge would be to find a job which involved nature somehow, eventually becoming a fundraiser in an animal charity, something that is amazingly rewarding. But the artist in me is always there, in the background, in between the ‘real jobs’ and whenever I had an infusion of extra time.
What influence does your upbringing and background have on your work today?
Despite the stereotypical grey landscape of Communism, I have nothing but colourful and joyful memories of my childhood. I learned to value my belongings, to make and mend as much as I can myself. I think my background taught me to be more self-sufficient, a bit DIY and to really value the resources which we have.
My works are heavily influenced by the idea of contradiction itself; the contrasts of my childhood in Bulgaria and the UK, my love for fashion design (more so the creativity and physical work of the artisans behind the clothes), versus my despise of fast fashion, waste from the clothing industry and my love for preserving nature. It’s those kinds of contradictions in life that I find fascinating. I think my work mirrors this in different ways; for example, the fast processes of mark making with alcohol ink compared to the slow process of stitching with fibre, the smooth nature of Yupo paper and defining lines of alcohol inks, versus the soft and tactile feel of the fibre. The use of bright colours will always be there, influenced by the pure joy and escapism and the colourful cultures I’ve witnessed on my travels.
Nature and our environment as inspiration is perhaps intrinsically linked to my family’s professional backgrounds with the natural world; geology, meteorology and oceanography (my brother) which has always been a point of discussion and observation in our household.
When / where did you learn embroidery? What is your story with it?
I had done a little bit of embroidery for college projects but am mostly self-taught. I always wanted to get into it more but made excuses that I didn’t have the time with a full-time job. In early 2019, I started embroidering on hoops with fabric but I wasn’t really sure if I liked it, particularly the loose fabric and how the stitches look.
One day, I took one of my alcohol ink pieces and just started poking holes straight through the canvas, using the alcohol ink artwork to guide me. It was a lightbulb moment really! Embroidery is a slow process, especially on canvas. Every hole made has to be considered, intentional, committed. It’s not like fabric, if you make a mistake, it won’t just stretch out and disappear. It’s laborious and meticulous but I really fell in love with the slow, meditative process.
Where do we go from here, Part 1 -alcohol ink, yupo, beading, embroidery on canvas 20 cm x 20 cm x 1.5 cm © Manoela Grigorova
Fast forward to March 2020, this is when embroidery came to the forefront and became a lifeline. My father was taken ill with Covid 19, ending up in hospital on oxygen. A few days later, it was clear my mother had succumbed to it too. She refused for me to go and help her, with the fear that I would catch it, so she went through it alone. We were in lockdown, during a pandemic. One parent in hospital, the other suffering alone. I was put on furlough (scheme where the government pays your salary but you don’t go to work) and suddenly I had all the time in the world! The stress and fear were unimaginable, the hospitals were full and in complete chaos, no one knew what was what and we barely heard any news from my dad, until he felt well enough to text us. My mum, though with milder symptoms, couldn’t get up off the bed and I could only help her through video call. We weren’t sure if she was next to go into hospital and weren’t sure which way it was going to go with my dad. A total of 4 weeks of hell which felt more like 4,000 years!
With all that time and desperate for distraction, I sat in front of the TV, watched the news, waited for information from my parents and stitched obsessively. This is what I did day in, day out. The process of embroidery was repetitive, relaxing, meditative and I would as far as to say it was healing. It was a way of processing my emotions, staying present in the moment and creating a sanctuary for myself. Both of my parents did come out on the other side though and recovered (I dare not say fully, as we don’t know yet)!
Turkish Delight – alcohol ink, yupo, embroidery, recycled beading and jewellery findings 20 cm x 20 cm x 1.5 cm © Manoela Grigorova
What gave you the idea to mix embroidery with different mediums?
Experimentation really! I was furloughed for 8 months. This unusual gift of time gave me a chance to create and experiment. I was consumed with worry, so that didn’t leave space for self-doubt or personal judgement of my work, I was free to play and process my emotions through the different mediums.
I had used alcohol inks for a couple of years and really enjoyed the process and hypnotic flow of the inks. I had so many alcohol ink works and unhappy with stitching on fabric, I just started poking holes!
How do ideas come to you and what are some of your inspirations / What is your creative process?
Nature is a big part of my life, probably because of my parents and brother’s involvement with the natural sciences. It’s almost an inevitable arrival that I had come to and something I always look to for inspiration. My abstracts have been influenced by things such as micro-organisms, close ups of natural patterns and textures, earth’s geological layering, our dwindling natural world and all of the emotions that go with that. The materials themselves have a part to play in the narrative, layering and creating something with contrasting textures.
I think this makes my process quite organic, I almost never plan my works unless I am working on a commission or for a specific exhibition or competition. The story unfolds itself through the materials and I let my hands and feelings lead the way.
What material do you use?
I use a variety of materials, from regular embroidery threads, yarns to handmade sequins, paper, card, any leftover materials. I am a proper hoarder! To my partners’ annoyance, I literally keep everything. I’ve got threads inherited from my grandma and my mother, materials left over from college days, jewellery, findings, materials and fabrics.
Sustainability is an important aspect of each piece and so I always seek materials which are pre-loved first, before choosing to purchase from new. Because let’s face it, art is not very eco. You are simply making more stuff that doesn’t degrade! I do often scald myself internally, it’s difficult to be an artist and care for the environment simultaneously. The more I can save from landfill and incorporate into my art, the better. This limitation also brings another layer of challenge which in itself sparks creativity!
Do you feel that you start with one emotions / idea and the piece works itself out to offer another one? If it happens, how do you feel about it?
I don’t think really think about the end result too much, perhaps because I never really start with a plan. I generally start with a feeling, a colour combination, a visual reference, a texture sample or an alcohol ink test and follow intuitively. But really it goes the way it goes. Sometimes it’s how I thought it would turn out and other times not. That’s OK. I do sometimes yoyo through feelings of like and dislike for a piece! Its more about the physical process of creating it, processing my feelings through it and giving joy to its new owner.
Little World – alcohol ink, yupo, beading, embroidery on canvas 20 cm x 20 cm x 1.5 cm © Manoela Grigorova
Complete Infiltration – alcohol ink, embroidery, recycled beading, recycled materials, recycled metallic mesh, clay beads on canvas 30 x 30 x 1.5 cm © Manoela Grigorova
For example, tell us about one of your pieces…
This piece (Complete Infiltration) was initially inspired from a gold metallic mesh that came from a champagne bottle. As I looked at the mesh and my beads, I thought about the jewels of the ocean (corals are a running theme throughout my work) and our ever-growing challenge of the rubbish that chokes our planet. The materials used are mostly found or thrifted. The frilly circular white sections are bits of paper left over from another canvas, the beads from broken jewellery. Even some of the threads are more than 30 years old, passed down to me or scoured in charity shops. I use a lot of colourful beads, representing the coral reefs of our seas, the golden mesh and gold thread (which I commonly use) is the plastic that surrounds our everyday life. It infiltrates every part of our lives and our reliance on it is insatiable. From our kitchens and homes, our mineral water, in the food that we eat, in the food that the animals eat, in the minuscule microbes and tiniest of plankton and in the air that we breathe, it, like the gold thread; strong, sparkling, impossible to degrade but infiltrating everything and everywhere.
Do you think about the next work while working? Do you have one or many pieces at once?
I usually never just work on one piece at a time, it’s usually at least 2 or 3 at any one time. Sometimes it’s quite noisy and chaotic in my head, I find relief in releasing the thoughts and energy down onto the canvas in a colourful, visual and touch-worthy way. In fact, I would call my artistic vision “Poised Chaos”. The contrast of the intricate and repetitive with the noise of chaos is something I really enjoy!
Once I’ve completed a piece, and I’m certain it’s done, I don’t think about it too much. I put it away. With some, there is a bittersweet feeling when it’s sold. It’s a weird feeling, quite personal, it’s like these little abstract worlds become precious to me because they’ve helped me through something, been a little world of escape for the period of time I’ve worked on them. But in the end, I do hope that they will bring a little bit of joy and wonder, and perhaps some escapism to their new owners.
Is there one piece that you just cannot be parted from? Why?
Viola was one piece that I was really sad to part with. It was a piece that was made while my dad was sick with Covid so it has the strongest connection. Viola has also been extremely popular on my Instagram, I have to say, it got a lot of love. I sold it around Christmas time, sent it away across the pond to the States but it ended up in customs for 10 days. At the same time, postal services were losing packages left, right and centre. I was on tender hooks and would have literally cried if it had got lost. Thankfully, all was fine and it was received and loved by its new owner just as much. I am slowly learning to let go of the attachment to my pieces, in the same way I let go of the emotions that came with making them.
What is it that you wish to give us with your art?
First and foremost, I want my works to bring joy and wonder. A sort of innocent wonderment that children have when they first come across a butterfly or a flower or any other first encounter with nature. I also hope it conveys emotions of contradiction, curiosity, colour but also challenge the typical use of fibre and embellishment in craft and modernise this idea as an art form. But mostly I want you to want to touch it and feel a sort of immersive escapism.
VViola Odorata – alcohol ink, embroidery, beading on canvas 25 x 25 x 4 cm © Manoela Grigorova
Where do we go from here? Part 3, Chaos and Purpose – alcohol ink, yupo, beading, hand-cut paper sequins, embroidery on canvas 25 cm x 20 cm x 1.5 cm © Manoela Grigorova
Why Mojo & Muse?
Mojo & Muse is a fun and playful way to describe my work – I am Mojo and here is my Muse. Mojo is very similar sounding to a nickname I had as a kid for my close friends and family. Muse is my inspiration, that which guides the direction of my work, whether its nature, emotion or the materials themselves!
In 2003 when my grandma passed away, I inherited a very large bag of embroidery threads that she had used to make tapestries. A few years later, I had found this bag of threads and during a break between jobs, I began making jewellery and particularly fibre wrapped necklaces. I used a lot of salvaged materials, breathing new life into preloved jewellery and completely transforming a piece so that it lives again for hopefully another few years. Mojo & Muse was born. Mixed media and embroidery art, I feel, was the next natural progression.
Do you exhibit your work?
Mostly on Instagram but of course would love to feature in a gallery. That’s just not possible at the moment.
Last year I had an amazing opportunity to exhibit but like a lot of things, this too was unfortunately thwarted by the pandemic.
Explorers Against Extinction, the species conservation charity, held a competition ‘Sketch for Survival’ to create a piece about an animal or wild space under threat of extinction. I created an embroidered piece inspired by corals (Glowing, Going, Gone) and was ecstatic when it got to top 10 in the ‘Wild Spaces’ category. There were hundreds of people who applied with their artworks but what was so amazing was that my piece was not a traditional sketch or painting, but created with fibre and accepted an ‘Art’ piece. It was chosen to be part of an exhibition and auction for the charity, which would have taken place in the Oxo Tower in London. Unfortunately, this didn’t transpire, I’m happy it sold and raised vital funds for the charity but a virtual exhibition just wasn’t the same.
Glowing, Going, Gone – alcohol ink, embroidery on canvas 28 x 42 cm x 1.5 cm © Manoela Grigorova
Bloom & Burst – alcohol ink, embroidery, beading on canvas 30 x 30 x 1.5 cm © Manoela Grigorova
Who are the other embroiderer artists you admire? Anyone you could recommend we get to know?
I’ve been blown away by the creativity and sense of community spirit on Instagram. Here are just some of the amazing artists I follow on Instagram, not just within the embroidery community but wider; artists doing amazing things with fibre, embroidery, embellishment and/or mixed media.
Stacey Jones ; Imogen Melissa ; Sarah Gwyer ; Madiha Siraj ; Michael-Birch Pierce ; Breeyn McCarney ; Jennifer Christie ; Amandine Bouet ; Katja Main ; Sophie Standing ; Kathrin Marchenko ; Rasa Vil ; Sam Owen Hull ; William KW ; Sophie Reynolds ; Liz Payne.
What’s next with your projects?
What’s next for me and my muse? Although embroidery is a slow process, I want to go bigger in scale! I want to do more collage! I want to do a tambour course! I would like to make more jewellery, something I haven’t done in a while. I want to use my art to promote conservation more! I want to keep challenging myself in sourcing more recycled and sustainable embellishments to work with! There are so many things. I want to exhibit with SEW and to continue to reinforce the idea that stitched art is art! I want to keep learning! We never stop learning. The future is exciting. I feel art and embroidery in particular has freed me in a sense.
Untamed Blooms – Encres, perles, broderie sur toile, 20 cm x 20 cm x 1,5cm © Manoela Grigorova
Viola jacket © Manoela Grigorova
So, you mentioned SEW – Society for Embroidered Works. How do you feel being a member?
It’s important for me to fly the flag for art created with stitch and to help the society dispel the myth that anything created with fibre is just ‘women’s crafts’. I’m interested in modernising the idea of embroidery, in fact there are plenty of men that embroider! So that’s just one myth busted! But more intentionally, I want it to be recognised as an art form!
Art is something that evokes feeling, that conveys and communicates ideas whether it’s a blob of paint, a marking on paper, a sculpture or a stitch. Dots of paint created a whole movement called Pointillism. What’s the difference if it’s dots of paint or French knots? Why can’t it be beautiful, decorative and still evoke reaction? It can also be ugly and that’s fine. But it tells a story, evokes reaction…
If an artist creates a piece with blobs of paint on a shirt and its exhibited in a gallery, it is instantly deemed ‘conceptual’ art or even installation art… but let’s say fibre was used to create something pronounced or stitched on that shirt, its simply dumped in to craft section instantaneously loses value? Why? This is what I want to challenge.
Stitched art is art!
The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire