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Gwen Samuels: Visual Seamstress

You know that saying ‘Tugs at your heart strings’?  ‘Heart Strings’ that’s what Gwen Samuels is doing.  The strings are literal.  The foundation is her vision the manifestation is her heart.

The love she has for her craft is woven with the needle and thread she uses to sew her pieces together.  She is careful to pre-puncture each element that makes up a dress, an animal, and a sculpture.  Her habits are of a process-based artist with an obsession to zoom in so that we as viewers inspect her pieces more closely than simple forms but visual stories stitched together.

From far away one sees a dress and the closer one gets the more recognizable the structure becomes.  The structure looks like a dress but is much more. The collar could be an archway the hem could be steps the waistline could be a skyscraper, all characteristics of architecture that invigorate Samuels into creating.

To see more of her enchanting work visit her at 

Each piece of Gwen Samuels' work is stitched together with string to form dresses and animals.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You take a photo of an architectural detail and repeat it in a pattern to create a printed transparency.  The transparency then is cut into sections you then stitch.  Do you feel the closer a viewer steps towards your pieces they see one story then another story and possibly another story?

Yes.  The work looks different close up and far away.   Close up you can identify the architectural elements and far away the eye merges the patterns and colors to create the illusion of something else.

I believe our lives are made up of patterns with beginnings and endings keeping us connected to the whole that is constantly reconfiguring allowing us to live and see in new ways by observing one thing in relation to another.

Before stitching pieces together Samuels meticulously pokes holes to prevent any tearing along the seams.  Photo © Aimee Santos

With technology becoming more advanced, in photography especially, how has this accelerated your process?

My learning curve has taught me I learn best when it’s need based.  In fact recently the program I was using to format my images ceased to exist.  So the need forced me to create another way into my process.  I was using a small digital camera to record my imagery. With the improvements of the camera on the iPhone (more memory, better close-up ability and more pixels) and its portability that is my camera of choice now.

Including as much of her hand in the process as possible is one of Samuels' loves of her craft.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Is there a part of you that wants to sew real dresses and make textile clothes?

Let’s say I would love to collaborate with a clothing designer and see if my work translates.  Don’t think I would want to sew wearables.  I also enjoy the element of transparency and how light interacts casting interesting shadows and am not sure how that would work with a garment.  The clothing designers I most admire use textile in alternative ways. 

Samuels creates an armature before sewing pieces together, a process she learned on her own through trail and error.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Can you speak more towards the string in your work?  Could it be a textile representation of the foundation of a building?

From the beginning, sewing seemed like a natural way to assemble the parts adding a meditative element of time, craft and intimacy while melding the techno to the process.

The hand-stitches are like a building foundation that is strong and consistent piecing the work together also like a well-constructed garment with loose strings indicating a work in progress.

Every thread stitched by her hand.  Photo © Aimee Santos

'Matching Dresses' by Gwen Samuels.  Photo courtesy of Gwen Samuels.

A storage box full of yarn overflows in Gwen Samuels' studio at the Santa Monica Art Studios in Santa Monica, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

How has moving from New York to Santa Monica changed your outlook on your art?  How has your art changed?

When I moved from New York I made the decision to do my artwork full time.   I had to build a resume, make connections and find artist friends.  Finding a studio space seemed like the best place to begin the process.   At that time my work was very different.  I was “felting” and the process was very labor intensive, very wet and I couldn’t work in my apartment.

The big shift from felting occurred when I bought some antique lace at a flea market and placed it on the xerox machine to create multiples on a single page.   These patterned sheets led me to creating a series of dresses using the antique lace imagery.

With this experience in my mind, shortly after I had a few years of international travel and began using a digital camera to record my travels and I began formatting the imagery in my brain in repeat patterns.  The patterned sheets were now made of architectural imagery from my travels sewn together in square shapes and dresses.

Technology changed and so did my interests and now I am using my I-phone to record my visual compositions and making sculptural 3-dimensional armatures for my imagery.

Samuels works on a piece in progress sewing images of architecture onto a dress-like structure in her studio at the Santa Monica Art Studios in Santa Monica, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You operate as a process based artist, but do the dresses you create represent something more to you?  Is it a manifestation of emotional armor, having started a new chapter in your life?

The dresses are my signature works and my interest is memory based.  Those memories of being dressed-up as a child are still with me today.  My main connection to my mother was through shopping and clothing and although my work is not wearable the silhouettes are symbolic. 

So sure, emotional armor would be a perfect way to describe my work. I’m combining Fashion and Architecture (thru imagery), both protect and shelter, both refer to the body while providing a means to express identity.

Samuels prints a repeated pattern of her images onto transparency that she then cuts up like a dress pattern.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Is there an element of architecture that excites you visually?  Such as archways, rooftops or stairways, etc.

The architectural element I am most often drawn to is stairways.  I love the movement created thru repetition of lines and patterns.  I am also drawn to windows on tall buildings offering unexpected reflections merging inside and out when viewed thru the camera.

Hanging on the walls in her Santa Monica studio are evolutions of her art practice from animals to dresses.  Photo © Aimee Santos

How has the Santa Monica Art Studios helped you as an artist?  Creative habits, professional habits?

When I moved from New York to Los Angeles I wanted to be part of an artist community to network and find creative opportunities.  Having a studio at Santa Monica Art Studios has helped me develop my practice as an artist away from my home environment with many opportunities for sales and showing my work.  

An option to frame her 3D pieces came about during a show that inspired her to think outside the 'frame' by using tape instead of a traditional frame. Photo © Aimee Santos

Your studio has a wall of animal busts that you created and during my visit you mentioned you are a grandmother.  Is it possible that these animals represent a whimsical element derived from experiences with your grandchild (re)?  How did the Animals come about?

My life as an artist seems to be, “a whole life” so to speak.  Anything and everything influences me in some way.  The “Head Shots” animal series has been percolating for a while.  In fact a friend recently pointed out to me that I have several bird sculptures in my house that I never realized are of interest to me.  All the pieces are there and then one day something tips the balance like becoming a grandparent and a new series materializes.  Once the first piece is created the path is set and the interest grows.

An animal bust profile hanging in Samuel's studio in Santa Monica, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Any events to look forward to in the coming months?

I have an earlier piece in a traveling exhibition called “California Dreaming” that just returned from Italy and is now at the Oceanside Museum of Art and is then traveling to the Riverside Museum of Art with a closing date in July, 2015.

I have 2 invitational shows coming up:  Incognito at the Santa Monica Art Museum on May 2nd  and The Venice Silent Auction on May 17th.

'Family Secrets' Scanned images of antique paper doll and crochet remnants, printed on transparency, hand-stitched.  Photo courtesy of Gwen Samuels