Primal Patterns, 3

Embroidery or stitchery is primarily decorative mark making with thread on fabric, paper or any other surface that can be pierced by a needle, awl or even a drill – bread, canvas, flower petals and leaves, leather, wood, and more including intact human skin. Interesting and unusual images appear in a wonderful collection of examples on Jo Smith’s Pinterest page , but one artist she hasn’t yet included is Clyde Olliver, whose bold, simple stitching on slate, stone and wood is very dramatic.

I’ve been stitching in one form or another since I was a young girl. As a pre-teen, many of my school friends enjoyed embroidering over stamped designs on linen for doilies, table mats and cloths, tea towels and duchesse sets. In 1950’s Australia this was called ‘fancy work’, but I haven’t heard that term for decades.

Back and front of a doily I embroidered at around age 11; ruefully stained and much used.

As a teen and uni student, any sewing time I had was used to whip up a new dress to wear out to a party the same night, which was easy in the days of those simple A-line dresses worn by Twiggy, Cilla Black, Jackie Kennedy and everyone else younger than our mothers. In the mid 70s, aged around 30, I found time for hand embroidery again, (see glossary entry titled “Our Tent Period’) Fast forwarding ten years put me and my family living in the USA for a few years. There I became immersed in traditional geometric patchwork and quilting for a time, which led to me designing and making abstract art quilts.

Detail, “Window Onto Bougainville Street” 1993,

Although the techniques, colours and materials I now use in my fibre art have changed over time, I still employ the basic primal shapes – the triangles, squares, circles, dots and lines in various forms and combinations which have always fascinated me. Texture and colour are vitally important, of course, but it is the lines forming shapes that I start with. As I wrote in my previous post , my go-to design framework is a grid, which doesn’t necessarily mean the precise squares of a repeated traditional patchwork blocks quilt, but that experience is certainly an enduring influence on my art.

In my first “Primal Patterns” post, I wrote of an interesting article by Alison George in NewScientist, 2016, about the work of paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, who suggested that such basic symbols in rock art and on cave walls were the precursor to human writing: “There must have been an earlier time when people first started playing with simple abstract signs. For years, von Petzinger has wondered if the circles, triangles and squiggles that humans began leaving on cave walls 40,000 years ago represent that special time in our history – the creation of the first human code.” An exciting notion indeed.

These basic shapes often appear singly or in groups beside simple pictorial representations of human, animal, bird and fish life forms painted and carved on to rocks or cave walls. In this modern era we easily recognise them as man-made dating from distant pre-historic times. Today we lack the precise knowledge to interpret them, and can only surmise that they present information or share data with other people of that era, and it’s reasonable to think some could convey information about beliefs held by the people who made them.

That New Scientist article included the following diagram, reproduced here with permission from the magazine’s art team:

Reproduced with permission of Dave Johnston/New Scientist.  SOURCE:  Genevieve von Petzinger, Andre Leroi-Gourhan, David Lewis-Williams, Natalie Franklin.

These panels present in diagrammatic form the man-made signs and symbols discovered at sites of ancient human activity in every in every major region of the world. Many bear strong similarity with others in widely separated regions, made by groups of people with little if any known contact between them. However, as our knowledge of early Man expands with fresh discoveries, such assumptions may become invalid. Aside from probably being some primitive communication code, undoubtedly these marks eventually developed into patterning appearing on ancient objects, furniture, houses, people’s bodies and their textiles, and as von Petzinger claims, some of them were forerunners to writing.

The most frequently appearing symbols include: spirals, zig-zags, circles, ellipses, wavy lines, signs that look botanical (like a branch or flower stem) dots in groups or lines, crossed straight lines, upturned arcs, things that look like a tussock of grass or bird footprint (I don’t assign any possible meaning to this comment) the hash # or pound sign, and of course the stencilled hand is very common. I refer to such marks as primal, because people everywhere at any time will come up with them as their brains, eyes and hands holding some kind of marking tool coordinate with certain rhythmic arm actions to make a mark on a surface. A toddler with a crayon or pencil in his hand makes scribbly marks, but as he matures he gradually learns to replicate marks he sees around him, and with encouragement and approval from parents, teachers, siblings et al, the child learns to draw things with meaning that others can understand. Mark making is a very powerful means of communication.

If you google something like “mark making by chimpanzees” there’s plenty of material to keep you reading and researching down that rabbit hole for days! I noticed this recent article about studies into the evolution of drawing behaviour in humans/hominids and apes, and another However, as I have an appointment for to take my own art to be photographed today, I’ll save those articles for reading another time.

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