I was reacquainted with the work of Sarah K. Benning a while back through Instagram, and I was floored. And you can see why. The subject matter at hand combined my two interests – gardening and craft in the beautiful, intricate embroideries that remind me a little bit of 8-bit pixel art (also my favourite). All three of my favourite things all rolled into one? Yowza.
It’s easy to think (and I can almost hear gasps going) – wow – her work is amazing. Her skill is amazing. OMG plants. I have plants. Why didn’t I think of that before?! And yet, hers is a journey that is familiar to a lot of artists out there. She didn’t start out doing the kind of embroideries that you now recognise as her handiwork, plastered all over blogs and magazines. Like everyone else, she started out by experimenting and taking small steps.
I first knew about her work when she hand embroidered greeting cards and art cards and sold them on Etsy back in 2013:
Her work evolved to include embroideries in hoops in 2014, and as you can see from her pictures below, her embroideries also started to evolve in intricacy:
Towards the end of 2015, she started to experiment with more complex patterns in her embroidery, using her plants and cactuses as the main subject of her work:
While Sarah is trained in fine arts, she is self-taught in the art of embroidery.
From her About page:
Originally from Baltimore, she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received her BFA in Fiber and Material Studies. Shortly after graduating in 2013, Sarah discovered her love for embroidery, a relaxing hobby she could enjoy while working as a full-time nanny. She approaches each piece as an illustration rather than a textile, often abandoning traditional stitches and techniques in favor of bold shapes, playful patterns, and contemporary subject matter.
Sarah’s embroideries often depict potted plants and her newest works position these potted gardens in interior spaces and pairs them with other textiles. She approaches these pieces as illustrations, creating drawings in pencil directly onto the fabric before filling the image in with thread. In this way, the thread becomes more like ink or paint than traditional embroidery, which accentuates the bold shapes, patterns, and color in the compositions.
While her earlier works (2013-2014) already showed a love of plants, cacti, and landscapes, her continuous experimentation in embroidery has allowed her to be able to execute more intricate and detailed compositions, such as more recent ones below:
It was gradual, and organic – as laid out in her FAQ page:
Where do you get your patterns and how do you transfer them to fabric?
I invent them! Drawing is a major part of my practice, so I keep sketchbooks of ideas, composition thumbnails, plant details, and textile diagrams to aid in the creating of my stitched works. These sketches then come together as final designs by re-drawing them directly onto my fabric with pencil. The underdrawing gets completely covered up with the stitching. This process allows for a lot of revision and experimentation before I get down to sewing.
What stitches do you use and how can I learn how to do this?
I don’t always adhere traditional embroidery stitches and techniques, thinking of the thread more like ink or paint and inventing or adapting stitches as I go. The one common embroidery stitch I do use is the satin stitch, which is how I achieve the fields of color that create the foundation of each element in my compositions. The final and most fun stage to every piece is the surface pattern that creates all the detail in the plants, textiles, and pots.
My advice to anyone wanting to learn is to go get the basic materials (hoop, fabric, thread, needle, scissors) and just start experimenting! My work has evolved over the past 3 years and is my full-time job. Believe me, I didn’t start out sewing complicated things. Be patient with yourself and have fun!
It’s easy to look at an artist’s success and think that they knew what they were doing right from the start. Looking through Sarah’s work, I’m not sure if she had any inkling that her work would evolve to be where it is right now. But what I see is persistence, evolution and a constant challenging of her craft. Her love of subject is already apparent even in the beginning, and they run like threads interwoven in the fabric of her progression. They’ve always been there, and it’s exciting to see where her experimentation will take her.
Amy Ng blogs at Pikaland, a popular stop for illustration lovers, students, and artists who are looking for answers on how to find a balance between art, creativity, and commerce.
Posted by Thomas James on 06/18/16 under artists
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Illustration by Matteo Berton
I recently went to Amsterdam and Berlin. The trip was mainly to attend Pictoplasma 2016 in Berlin, which I have heard so many good things about for the past few years. It was my first time in Europe. It was also the first time I sat in an airplane for 14 hours. It was exciting.
It was also scary.
Prior to my decision to attend Pictoplasma, I thought of attending the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore – AFCC (an event that I’ve been attending for the past 3 years, invited both as a moderator and speaker). But when I realised that I didn’t have to go this time round, I asked myself – where should I go instead? Maybe it’s time for a change, I thought. I’ve always wanted to go to Europe to see what it’s like. Pictoplasma is two months away, and by a stroke of pure luck, there was an ongoing promotion of cheap flights to Europe at the time. Fifty percent off the normal ticket price was a pretty good deal, I thought!
Once I started thinking, I then asked myself – what’s stopping me from considering other events? So I turned my focus on another event – the ICON 9 Conference in Austin, Texas. Both were within mere months from each other. I had to decide: Europe or the US. I could only pick just one.
I calculated the cost of accommodation, flight and meals for both to see if I would be able to afford the trip – and it turns the Europe trip was the one that I could afford. Tickets to the US were expensive (50% more), and to cut a long story short, I was able to take advantage of more cost savings that Europe had to offer – including a standing invitation from a lovely friend to stay at her apartment throughout the duration of my trip.
So Europe it was.
To be honest, I never thought that I’d be able to set foot in Europe so soon. For those who traveled often, it might not seem like a big deal but it was always something that I had dreamed of doing, but was something that I waved away as pure indulgence and was out of reach for me. Because it was so far away (14 hours by flight!) Maybe when I had more money. Maybe it’s a trip I should go with my husband. Maybe I should stick to Asian countries first – there’s quite a few that I haven’t been to. I’ve set up so many imagined roadblocks for myself that I hadn’t realised that I was holding myself back.
But you know what? Screw it. There’s only so much time I could waffle on about this, so I booked a flight, and bought a ticket to Pictoplasma two months before the event. I was really lucky because the stars all aligned for me in terms of budgeting. If you’re wondering how I did it – there’s no magic here. I’m as boring as can be:I took on more projects to defray costs. I saved up. I’m a very frugal person, plus I don’t have other responsibilities beyond my mortgage and miscellaneous living expenses, so I am lucky to have been able to save up a fair bit for stuff like this. And if you’re a scrooge like me, you’ll know that it’s hard to let go, especially when things like this are right in front of you – even though you saved up just for it. It’s a complex, I know.
What if you’re thinking of going to an event? How would you decide if it was worth your time and money? I’ve been to my share of events – both in and out of the country to further my skills and open up my horizons. I’ve also learnt when to say no to opportunities that I felt were not the best use of my time. But like the above, I’ve also learnt to take risks and to just say a big huge yes. I used to get big pangs of FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out when I was first starting out. Having to say no would make me hyperventilate with fear at the thought of losing out on experiences, contacts and networking opportunities. These days however, I’m weighing the pros and cons of every invitations I get carefully before deciding if I should go. My heart doesn’t give off a weird, awkward twang anymore when I have to write an email to decline an invitation. Instead it’s more of a relief, I’d say.
So if you’re curious on how I’ve managed to stave off the ugly FOMO monster, here’s my personal checklist of considerations that I run in my head before I say yes to an engagement or event:
1. Return on Investment (ROI)
In a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to think about ROIs for when you’re attending events. In a perfect world, I’d love to say yes to everything and every event I’m invited to. But I have only one body, one mind (which I’d like to keep sane) and a pair of hands and legs that can only be at one place at any given time. You know how people make a list of pros and cons and then weigh it against each other? This is no different. What would you get out of the event? Are there other events that would be able to provide you with the same opportunities? Who would you like to meet? Could you email or phone them instead? Could you watch the rerun online later? Factoring the practical side of the equation will help you make a more informed decision.
2. Can I afford it?
Budgeting is a real concern when it comes to traveling; particularly when the event takes you out of the country. Would I have enough funds to get there and back? What about food, living and traveling expenses? What if I run into problems over there? Money, however, is an issue that can be settled if you have enough time. Most of the time, planning well ahead will afford you cheaper tickets (much like accommodations, where you can find better rates and locations to cut down on the need for commuting). Not enough funds? If you plan ahead, you can factor in your planning to get some extra money. Take on extra freelance work, or set up a stall or online shop. Hustle, hustle and hustle some more. Get a sponsor. Talk to people who might be able to benefit from your opportunity. Get creative – there’s only so much you can save, but your earning potential is limitless, especially if you do it thoughtfully and purposefully. Stay local – I usually opt to stay at an Airbnb or a local bed and breakfast whenever I traveled so that I had someone to consult when I was there – this time I picked Airbnb as it was on a short notice and having hosts who could give you tips on transportation and general tips is tremendously helpful especially when you need to orientate yourself quickly. When you’re there, pack your own lunch too to save money and time. Discover the local markets/grocery store – this makes me giddy with joy because I enjoy learning how to live and eat like a local.
3. Am I going for someone, or for myself?
I’ve been invited to events where I’d turn up as a favour to the host or invitee. And while some of these events have been great and I’ve come away from it inspired and energised; there have been a few that has made me regret wasting my time because I was trying to be polite. If you’re a freelancer or if you’re self-employed, you might get this guilt more often than not: should I go, or should I not? If I don’t go, maybe my client won’t give me more jobs. If I do go, there’s also the possibility that I might enjoy myself and learn something new. It was mostly the latter for me, luckily, when I was first starting out. I approached a lot of these events with an open mind and was ale to learn lots of cool things, form friendships as well as collaborations that has lasted until today. Remembering this point can sometimes bring up the FOMO monster again, but I’ve since learned to make better decisions.
5. Can you get your things in order before you go away?
Can your business still run while you are away? Can you get time off from work? Can you relax for a bit and not have to think about work while you’re somewhere else? Could you work while traveling? Do you want to? Or would you prefer to line things up so that you can clear your desk and pile ahead of time before you disappear for a few days (or weeks – it’s up to you!)
6. Can I also explore other things and places, and meet other people within the vicinity?
I love to kill two birds with one stone. For me to travel to Europe, I’d really like to max out my time there since it takes about 14 hours (not including layovers) to get there. Being the sort of person who likes to soak in a particular place for a few days (to get better acquainted, and fall in love with it) instead of being the harried traveler, the maximum number of big cities/countries I’d like to cover is no more than 2-3 at one time. I took 17 days to cover 2 countries, which has been a really nice pace – your mileage will vary though! In between, I made sure I had time to meet up and visit lovely friends who I’ve only spoken to via emails, which is a real treat! I also was fortunate to have a roof over my head to call home, hence I was able to stay longer without denting my budget. Recently, I time and plan my travels to also coincide with flea markets happening in the area – I love finding gems that won’t break the bank, while buying directly from local residents.
7. How much do you need/want it?
Sometimes things don’t make sense. You might not get everything you want from that just one event. Maybe it’s just a small chunk of knowledge that you’re itching to get. Maybe you’d really like to say hello to that hero of yours that flew in all the way from someplace far that would be see hell freezing over before you could get there (talk about meeting halfway, eh?) Life can be irrational sometimes. People can be irrational sometimes. And it’s okay. If you think that going to this event would or could change the course of your career or even life (hey, it happens!) then by all means, you don’t need people telling you what you should or should not do.
I won’t be the first to admit that when I want to travel, it’s not just because of work. Like the above considerations, there’s lots of things that go into a decision to get on an airplane, but one of the biggest deciding factor for me is also one that’s very subjective, and sometimes a little selfish. Very often, when I decide to go away by myself, it’s for me to clear my head or for when something bad has happened and I would need some time to process things through. I liken it to having new memories to replace the not-so-good ones!
Whether it’s to get away after watching my first dog die of cancer, or because I felt stuck; traveling – going away and then coming back – keeps me sane. The line “I need to go away” is one that I’ve used a few times when life knocks the wind out of me, and I’m very lucky that my husband and family understands my need to do so. Experiencing different sensory inputs and being in a new place, meeting new people and trying out things I don’t normally get to do – it refreshes and rejuvenates the way I can’t describe it. Yes, I do come back to the same situation at the end of it. My dog is still dead. My teeth issues are still there, waiting for me. I have work that’s piled up sky high. But I come back a different person, with new eyes. I’m itching to get back to work, sleeves rolled up and ready to go. And this alone makes going away worthwhile (in addition to all of the above reasons that I’ve mentioned).
And so I’m back from Europe. And you know what? I’ve built up the idea of visiting Europe so much that when I was in Amsterdam I kept touching the many bridges there while I was crossing the canals to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I thought to myself: hey, it wasn’t that difficult to get here. It was doable. Yes, it took many years to save up for it, but it also took me the same amount of time to get over my money issues – let’s just say that I am so thrifty that Asian parents everywhere would be proud of me.
As for Pictoplasma? While it was a fun event, I doubt that I would go again in the future as an attendee. First, the good stuff: I learned a lot of new things, met some fantastic artists and made new friends. The bad? I thought the organizers could do better with the opening party and hosting better programmes in the evenings after the conference, so that everyone could maximise their time there, as there were quite a few people who flew in from around the world just to attend (eg. the ability to procure drinks at a bar does not make it a programme for me, really). I say this after having been to a few conferences that was managed a whole lot better in terms of giving attendees value for their money. But because I managed to cover most of the items on my checklist above in addition to the conference, I had a brilliant trip that’s worth so much more than attending that just one event.
So if you’re ever wondering about whether going to an event would be worth it, I hope the above checklist is helpful! For me, this trip isn’t just about Pictoplasma, or about going to Europe for the first time in my life; it’s also learning that nothing is out of reach. Yes, I consider myself very fortunate to be able to travel as it’s never lost on me that not many have the opportunity as I did. It might take you months, or even years (like me), but with the right planning, budget and timing, traveling outside your comfort zone is highly recommended to expand your horizons – physically, mentally and emotionally.
Just don’t do it because you have FOMO.
Amy Ng blogs at Pikaland, a popular stop for illustration lovers, students and artists who are looking for answers on how to find a balance between art, creativity and commerce.