Eye of the needle: Margie Greve’s sewing-inspired art

Margie Greve’s The Dressmaker

Margie Greve’s The Dressmaker

Margie Greve’s show of paintings and woodblock prints at New World Home Cooking depicts famous rock and blues musicians, Kaaterskill Falls, the beach at Montauk viewed down a set of cascading stairs and women at work over sewing machines: an eclecticism that touches on the many phases of her work. Hanging in the bar are her portraits of Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other musicians, which appeared in Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ’n’ Roll, a book authored by her husband, John Milward, published in 2013. They are mainly done in acrylic (the originals used in the book were made digitally), but they have Greve’s signature look of woodblock prints and demonstrate her ability to simplify forms into a few bold, curving lines and beautiful shapes while conveying a distinctive likeness.

The three large landscapes, which are handpainted in an appealing palette of pale earthtones, are tours de force of the expressive power of the jagged black-line patterns of the printed woodblock, which flatten the landscape vista and substitute the sense of space for a jazzy rhythm. But most interesting – to this viewer, at least – are the pieces related to sewing, which Greve has been working on since her recent retirement from the home sewing industry.

The show contains a couple of examples of her acrylic paintings of sewing machines, which are made on old patterns and instruction sheets collaged onto the surface and sometimes incorporate pieces of fabric. A patternmaker at Vogue Patterns for many years, Greve knows the machine well – she once took apart her Singer sewing machine to see how it fit together and was made – which is portrayed not so much as a material device but as a dynamic force, its struts, spool of thread and hand wheel poised for action.

Like the Cubists, Greve portrays her subject from varying perspectives, and each depiction is loaded with personality, transforming the sewing machine into a creative avatar. “Painting sewing machines is never dull, given that it’s like drawing the people who use them,” said Greve, who learned to sew from her grandmother at age 7 and was given her first Singer sewing machine upon high school graduation. “Some look like evil bugs, while others resemble birds flying away.”

Greve is also fascinated by the women who work in the sewing industry, which is by turns liberating (manufacture of the home sewing machine enabled working- and middle-class women to make fabulous clothes that elevated their status) and oppressive (terrible conditions and low pay that continue in today’s sweatshops). One piece depicts three women at work around the pattern table. Two other paintings show a woman hunched over a machine, with a key difference: The Dressmaker – the standout piece is clearly visible in the main restaurant space on the left-hand-side wall when you walk in – depicts a woman in a kerchief sewing a piece of clothing on her machine, illuminated by a lamp. Her shirt is embroidered with a series of actual tiny pink-thread stitches and the image is colored, signaling her status over the more commonplace Seamstress, which is the title of the second piece, depicting a women in loose flowing hair conveyed in plain acrylic black paint. “The seamstress looks like she’s working in a factory and dreaming of something else,” Greve said.

Greve said that she still has trim, notions and fabric that belonged to her grandmother and is incorporating the material, along with her old patterns, into her art; other source material are the photographs she took of dressmakers and other people in the industry. Like her musician portraits, the sewing images commemorate a vanished world: “I would buy a pattern, which came in this paper envelope with the instructions. It was like buying a record album, with the record in the paper sleeve. You opened this paper package and discovered a whole world in there. It’s kind of over, but it’s still special to me: the dreams and things you could make from it. I’m commemorating and processing it.”


Margie Greve solo show, through October 5, Monday-Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m., Friday/Saturday 5-10 p.m., Sunday 4-9 p.m., New World Home Cooking, 1411 Route 212, Saugerties.

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