Salley Mavor – the artist behind the Wee Folk Studio


Salley Mavor uses all sorts of needle medium to create unique worlds of wonders. Her latest book is now published, and it is about Beds and Sleeping children.
Her website is full of interesting information and beautiful pictures about her art. There were, however, a few more things I wanted to know about her.

Interview by Claire de Pourtalès

How did you find your own voice?
My earliest memories have to do with making things by hand and expressing myself through art. Growing up, my family connected with our community through art, music and dance. At home, there were always art supplies close at hand and a sense that time was available for creative pursuit. Drawing with crayons was never enough for me and I remember feeling that my pictures were not finished until something real was glued, stapled or sewn to it. At a young age, I held an open minded view of what constitutes art, writing in a 1964 school essay at age 9, “Art is everything… records, clocks, blackboards, people, snowflakes and everything. That is why I like art.”

Salley Mavor in her studio © Salley Mavor

As an illustration major at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970’s, I left traditional mediums behind, preferring to communicate my ideas with sculptural needlework. For most of my career, I’ve followed this path, creating narrative scenes in bas-relief, much like miniature, shallow stage sets, with figures imposed on embellished fabric backgrounds.

Animal icon – rabbit © Salley Mavor

What arts or artists influence you?
I am influenced by anonymous folk artists and artists such as Paul Klee and Marc Chagall, as well as the stitched fabric arpilleras and molas from Latin America.

When they asked you for the book, how did you feel?
Before signing on with the publisher to make the artwork for MY BED, I read the manuscript carefully, to see if the words evoked strong imagery in my mind’s eye. I knew from previous experiences illustrating books, that a clear vision was important in sustaining me through the years-long undertaking. When I first read the author’s story, I imagined scenes jam-packed with patterns and textures that created a warm sense of home. I felt excited by the prospect of depicting children from around the world and bringing their living environments to life.

My Bed, cover © Salley Mavor
North Africa – preparations © Salley Mavor

How did you make your research for each picture?
To portray a distinct sense of place for each culture, I researched the different regions, looking at photos of children, architecture, furnishings, and landscapes. I used this information to sketch out the pages of the book. After showing the mockup to my editor and getting the go-ahead, I gathered materials from my extensive supplies and started stitching. First, I made the children and fell in love, which made me want to build places for them to live. It took from 6 weeks to 2 months to complete each scene, which I worked on entirely by hand, one stitch at a time.

When it comes to colour, do you have preferences? Do they have a meaning for you?
For each scene in the My Bed, I took great care in selecting just the right fabrics from my vast supply. I favored naturally dyed wool felt and upholstery fabric because of its sturdiness, versatility and jewel-like colors. When it comes to choosing color combinations, I mostly follow my instincts. With this book, I created distinct color palettes for the different scenes that helped set each region apart. I also picked fabrics that I’ve kept in storage for decades, such as age-stained linen passed down from my grandmother, which I used to replicate the texture of a Japanese tatami mat. When I couldn’t find printed patterns that were tiny enough for some scenes, I embroidered designs on fabric or felt to match the miniature scale.

India © Salley Mavor
Making a child © Salley Mavor

Do you keep on learning new techniques or even creating your own?
I am constantly trying out new ways of working with a needle and thread. Manipulating materials in my hands is the best way I’ve found to translate what I imagine into something real to share. Beyond referring to simple stitch diagrams, I haven’t been taught any other embroidery techniques. It may sound odd, since my processes are so painstaking, but I don’t have the patience to follow someone else’s directions, either written or in person. Basic stitches, such as blanket, chain, daisy, fly and French knots in different combinations are enough for me. I am solely motivated by the desire to express the vision I hold inside and so far, my hands have guided me in a compelling way.

Russia © Salley Mavor
Holland © Salley Mavor

Can you always express your feelings or ideas with the technique and fabric you have?
I hardly ever complete a project the way I first envision it. Each scene takes on a life of its own as I select fabrics and move different pieces around. A kind of magic happens when I engage with my artwork in a playful way. There’s a combination of head, heart and hands at work. I trust my ability to construct whatever I need, even if it’s something I haven’t tried before.

South America – tree © Salley Mavor
Iran © Salley Mavor

Can you express yourself even through a commission work? Do you feel you have enough space and liberty for that?
Yes, I make sure to only take on projects that have room for self-expression. I can’t help but pour my heart and soul into what I make, so it has to be worth the investment of time and energy. Children’s picture books provide a framework, but there is also a lot of freedom in that structure.

How do you feel when you sell one piece?
When I sell my artwork and send it out into the world, I feel that a space has opened up for a new piece of art to fill the void. At this point in my career, I am purposefully holding onto what I make, so that it is available for exhibitions, where people can see my original sculptural embroideries in person.

Would you like to work on another Political piece?
I look at the 1 ½ years that I spent making political art as a unique time, when I felt a strong compulsion to tell the story of this period in history. After the 2016 election in America, I couldn’t sit idly by without speaking out through my art. I found the experience of making the stop-motion animated film “Liberty and Justice” exhilarating, exhausting and totally worth it. The best part was that instead of the usual gushing about my perfect little stitches, people responded to what my art was saying! I’m not sure if I’ll do more political art, though. It all depends on if I have a good idea. Right now, I am content to make art that is comforting and healing.

Iconic animal – The bird © Salley Mavor

What would you like to do now?
I’m limiting my outreach activities these days, in an effort to spend more time making art. The past few years have been very busy with promoting my new book, My Bed and its touring exhibition and I feel the need to get back into making mode. During the cold months ahead, I’ll be working on a new piece with a winter theme. If it goes well, I may do more scenes that reflect the other seasons – spring, summer and autumn. This project isn’t for any purpose other than to celebrate the natural cycles of life on our planet. I’m looking forward to becoming so totally engrossed in the process, that time stands still.

Salley’s Studio

MY BED: Enchanting Ways to Fall Asleep around the World, words by Rebecca Bond, pictures by Salley Mavor. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 978-0-544-94906-5 (also available with an autograph in Salley’s shop)

Inde – details © Salley Mavor

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