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The Embroidery is on the Wall

By Jennifer E. Salahub

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2022

Sandra Sawatzky, Climate, 2021. All photos by: John Dean.

When Marshall McLuhan conceptualized the broad effects of the media explosion in the 1960s, he helped a generation understand the impact of media on daily living—a lesson that appears even more relevant today as we experience the effects of new media at unprecedented speeds. McLuhan warned, “Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of technological and cultural transitions.”

In his prophetic 1967 text, The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan unknowingly set the stage for my reading of The Age of Uncertainty, an embroidered art installation by Calgary artist Sandra Sawatzky. This is a complex work using text and image to illuminate our shared concerns about progress, but it does so using a slow medium: embroidery. The twelve embroidered panels that make up the Age of Uncertainty took Sawatzky four years to complete.

But if, as McLuhan claims, the medium is indeed the message, what is Sandra Sawatzky saying? Why is she using a medium still often dismissed as domestic, feminine, and mindless to strategically probe (needle?) some of the most pressing issues of our time?

When I asked her about her use of embroidery, Sawatzky explained, “I think my cool McLuhan medium pulls the viewer in to participate, read the story, interpret, engage the mind, elicit a desire to touch it—experience it with the senses.” She further confided, “I like that embroidery is not a medium one normally connects with world affairs, so there is an element of surprise.”[1] In fact, she regards the deliberate use of such an early technology (the needle) as “a playful way to illustrate this ‘age of uncertainty’ that has so much to do with our exceptional reliance on the networked, digitized, energized, electrified, mechanized, prefabricated, and manufactured world.”

Sandra Sawatzky, detail from Debt.

Sawatzky is by nature a communicator. She was a successful filmmaker and is active on social media; textiles, decoration, and detail inform her life today. Always intrigued by historic forms of art that utilise a combination of text and image to communicate complicated narratives, she is particularly drawn to the Middle Ages—an era that saw communication technologies move from the scriptoriums and courts into the streets.

Thus, when she decided to take up embroidery as a serious art medium, it was as if the anonymous embroiderers of the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry had thrown down the gauntlet. These artists chose to use needles and thread, rather than quill and ink, to document the historic Norman Conquest of England in 1066. They worked on a huge scale, but the borders’ embroidered details are the equivalent of a colour commentary. The Bayeux Tapestry reads like a storyboard with some seventy scenes, each carefully edited for dramatic effect, moving the viewer through history linearly along the length of the work. The exaggerated poses and gestures of the myriad protagonists and animals animate the narrative; the lack of literacy may account for the prominent gestures and symbols.[2]

From the outset, Sawatzky was determined to craft equally epic narratives, but ones that would speak to and engage a contemporary audience. Her first venture, The Black Gold Tapestry, chronicles the impact of fossil fuels over five millennia. The finished work measures over 67 metres and took a staggering nine years (17,000 hours) to complete. When I interviewed her in 2014, she was quick to acknowledge, “[T]he story I am telling is biased, filled with my interests, my conjecture, my idiosyncratic intertwining of storylines. Ultimately the tapestry is meant to be a work of art and craftsmanship and the images I’ve put together signify a jumping off point for discussion.”

Somewhat ironically, the years Sawatzky spent stitching Black Gold served as the jumping off point for her next project, The Age of Uncertainty. The subject matter, presented on twelve embroidered panels, is, she says, “what keeps us up at night. . . . It is my response to these times. They are works of visual narrative, satiric commentary, to probe into the madness of the modern world.”[3] Everyone with access to modern media is a likely, if unwilling, participant in the present age of uncertainty.

And what keeps us up at night? For answers, she turned to literature, science, art, and the media. An embroidered quotation identifies each panel’s focus: the environment, debt, inequality, work, artificial intelligence, surveillance, science/technology, war, overpopulation, resource scarcity, corruption, and nuclear threat.[4] There is no hierarchy or ranking and the themes interconnect. Some problems are as old as time, others are more recent, although the imagery reveals that most have historical roots.

For inspiration, Sawatzky once again turned to art history. From medieval manuscripts she appropriated the marginalia and bestiaries, while the bravado, spectacle, and scale of her panels comes from the attention-grabbing public broadsides that plastered the streets of fifteenth century Europe. She explains,

I use quotes to provide a jumping off point for ideas I want to illustrate. The human drama takes place in the central fields. The beleaguered natural world fills the marginal plane with animals, plants, inanimate objects, tormenting humanity in the cruel, capricious, disrespectful ways we do them. The embroidered area of each panel is 1200 square inches of which the border area makes up nearly half. I did this to symbolize the evidence that nature needs half of all the land and air and water to be protected from all human activity, so that it can do what it needs to do for survival.

Sawatzky knows the value of humour in making the unbearable bearable: a gun-toting rabbit has tiny humans slung over his shoulder (Population); smug foxes munch on hunters in pinks (Inequality); armed soldier fish patrol the perimeter (War); and personable robots replace worker bees (Work). However, as one engages with these delightful details, the level of anxiety mounts. McLuhan observed, “Humor as a system of communications, and as a probe of our environment—of what’s really going on—affords us our most appealing anti-environmental tool. It does not deal in theory, but in immediate experience, and is often the best guide to changing perceptions.”

Sandra Sawatzky, Resources, 2021. Hand Embroidery: wool/silk thread on linen.

Although Sawatzky does not cite McLuhan in the work, The Age of Uncertainty exemplifies some of his ideas, such as the global village. In 1970, the popular press warned of the psychological consequences of a world brought together by new technologies and knowing no boundaries: “All problems will become so intimate as to be one’s own.” The Age of Uncertainty shows that future to be our present.

The Debt panel reveals the unsustainability of the current model of over-consumption and feelings of entitlement. A quote attributed to e. e. cummings anchors the embroidery with words both prescient and amusing: “I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.”

The three horizontal narratives illustrate the ease with which debt accrues, with rows of tiny credit cards and one of “winged” cash separating these vignettes. On the upper level, a table of friends gather for “happy hour” at the Last Supper Diner, although most are on their phones rather than conversing. Peer pressure and social media tell us we deserve novelty, adventure, beauty, status—not the modest bungalow being demolished in the central section, but rather a McMansion and luxury car. Beneath this image of waste is a scene of holiday shoppers with phones and packages, including a mask-wearing woman defying medical advice to stay home. In 2021 Canadians racked up more than two trillion dollars in personal debt, with mortgages accounting for the lion’s share.

With The Age of Uncertainty, Sandra Sawatzky issues a warning: it is time for us to take responsibility. For without a doubt, “the writing embroidery is on the wall.”

Jennifer E. Salahub, PhD is Professor Emerita of Art and Craft History at the Alberta University of the Arts. Her interest in decoration and ornament is long standing–her first contract to write about art was for Marion Bradshaw and Canadian Collector–today she sits on the Editorial Advisory Committee of Ornamentum.


[1] Email correspondence with artist, February 18, 2022. Marshall McLuhan categorizes media as either hot or cool, based on the degree of participation demanded from the viewer. Media with high definition, like film and photography, he categorized as “hot media” because they carry a high sensory load. “Cool media,” with low sensory data, involve the viewer. They demand engagement or completion.

[2] Jean-Claude Schmitt, “The Rationale of Gestures in the West: Third to Thirteenth Centuries,” in A Cultural History of Gesture, eds. Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[3] Artist’s notes of November 25, 2021, shared with the author.

[4] The pandemic was not on the radar when she undertook the research and created the cartoons.


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