‘Galli Pari’ by Susie Vickery

Rich tapestry: The work of textile artist Susie Vickery

In August costumier Susie Vickery delivered an artist lecture at the VCA, as part of the Master Teacher Program. In the free talk, she spoke in detail about her career, art practice and extraordinary development work.

Textile artist Susie Vickery’s core skills were developed over 20 years as a costumier in theatre and film, working for the prestigious likes of the English National Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has since evolved this skill set over the years to include textile art, development work, and graphic animation.

Vickery’s big career change came in 1998 when she moved with her husband to Nepal. Unknown to Vickery at the time, this move would herald the start of over a decade of rural and refugee projects with developing communities.

In Nepal, Vickery’s costume making skills weren’t required — there simply was no film and TV industry to employ her. Resolute to keep her sewing skills, she enrolled in an embroidery course via distance learning and decided to get involved in some local community projects.

While she was studying, she took it upon herself to also train in traditional Tibetan tailoring so that she could volunteer her time to train other women in the local Tibetan refugee camp. Here, began her first foray in development work.

Susie working with Tibetan women in the Shangri La in Yunnan province, China.
Susie working with Tibetan women in the Shangri La in Yunnan province, China.

Later, she went to work in Janakpur, designing and helping out on women’s empowerment projects. She was fascinated by the role of women in Nepal and wanted to use her sewing and embroidery skills to explore their status in society.

“I’ve became interested in signifiers of marriage status and ethnicity in Nepal,” Vickery explains. “For instance, the lost of those signifiers with widowhood…what happens when a woman becomes a widow?”

These anthropological investigations and many others inspired Vickery to create embroidered textile pieces, which explores issues of iconography, identity, gender and Asian art. These portrait works, rather painterly in style, weave a rich story of each individual and their life as told to Vickery.

Similarly in Mumbai, Vickery was intrigued by India’s caste system. Struck by the staggering divide between the rich and the poor, she wanted to elevate the status of everyday people by holding an exhibition for them, called Everydeities. The work showcased were a series of panels, like a graphic book, which told the stories of these ‘everyday’ lives.

And for the last five years she has been designing and developing toys, dolls and other handicrafts for a Tibetan income generation project in China. She is currently working on a Welcome Trust funded art project on art and health with women in the slums of Mumbai.

Alongside this remarkable development work, Vickery has also achieved much in the academic realm. Her dissertation on the different working practices of tailors in various countries is a comprehensive and engaging history of tailoring. As part of this academic investigation, she interviewed tailors in India, Nepal, Tibet and London, and illustrated these interviews in a book, using embroidery and fabric collage.

In her research, she met the English costume maker Alan Selzer who spoke about the term ‘cabbage’, used to describe the leftover fabric after cutting. The term was first used by Charles Lamb, who wrote a satirical essay called ‘On the Melancholy of Tailors’ who were obsessed with ‘cabbaging.’

Her academic work has culminated into ‘It’s Not the Job, It’s the Cabbage: The Lives of Tailors, a series of works that ‘tells the stories of tailors working in disparate cultures’ and ‘create further links between media — embroidery, ethnography, graphic novels and stop-motion animations.’

Today Vickery continues to centre her work on embroidery and textiles, challenging the perception of costume concept design and making. She currently divides her time between Mumbai, London and China balancing her artistic and academic pursuits with her extraordinary development work.

During her time at the VCA, Susie Vickery was hosted by the Production department in the School of Performing Arts. The VCA Master Teacher Program is made possible with the support of the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria.

 A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.