British artist Christabel MacGreevy’s work weaves together tactile manipulations of texture, colour and fabrication and an anthropological study of a century’s worth of women’s contributions to art. “Embroidered pieces from the last three-hundred years all over the world are what has remained of women’s place in history. There is very little writing or painting by female artists - stitched items remain.”
Christabel is distinguishing what accepted modes of femininity look like and how to champion their inherent power, which have been so often buried beneath stereotypical labels through the ages. This historical approach to self-discovery serves to strengthen her own perceptions and trajectory as both an artist and a woman: “It’s like not trying to compete with the machismo of the art world. [I’ve taken] things back into my own hands and I do things that are considered feminine, but embrace [those skills] rather than feeling like that must mean that they’re lower down on the pecking order.”
Gaining much of her formal training at the highly respected Royal Drawing School and Central Saint Martins, Christabel is unencumbered by the pressure to pursue her peers’ interests. “When I was at college lots of people made big metal structures in the workshop and I thought I’m going to stitch… It was quite unfashionable.” As a multidisciplinary artist, Christabel’s skill set encompasses working with thread, papier-mâché, pastels and paint to manipulate and imbue ideas of femininity. “I really like traditional crafts like basket weaving. I just find it so beautiful and not many people do those kinds of things anymore.”
Christabel can often be thrown into a trance-like state when applying her concentrated, repetitive techniques. She admits that a portion of her process is allowing the work to reveal its meaning as it moves towards completion. “It’s about trying to leave your mind and getting to an autopilot space without the thoughts of, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Philip Guston has a quote about it, ‘Studio Ghosts… One by one if you’re really painting they walk out. And if you’re really painting you walk out.’”
Christabel keys into the significant cultural histories explored throughout women’s art practices by following the path of women centuries before her, and recontextualising their crafts(wo)manship in a contemporary framework. “I really like the idea that remnants of women’s place in history is through stitched items, like the Bayeux tapestry, which doesn’t feature a single woman but was made 100% by women. Not one man’s hand touched that.”
Moving forward, Christabel is focussing on the “inheritance of identity and whether we feel that it’s something that is acquired or inherited.” Intent on dismantling tightly held definitions of familiar social constructs like gender, Christabel acknowledges that first she must absorb them. “You have to have certain accepted ideals of what femininity —quote, unquote is to then subvert it from the expected. Once you understand these you can then play with them,” she confidently summarises.