Exceptional Embroidery

Armidale-based Judy Wilford stitches 3D artworks inspired by nature.

Judy Wilford is an embroidery artist who has dramatically shifted the perception of her medium. Starting with a background of fine fabric layers, she embroiders minute stitches to create vibrant works of art to give a 3D effect. The size of these creations ranges from large murals to tiny gems that fit on top of small wooden boxes. All of Judy’s work is inspired by nature, with landscapes and birds featuring predominately in her works. To say her CV is impressive is rather an understatement; it is filled with awards, exhibitions and publications. Judy’s output is prodigious and it all flows from a house in suburban Armidale.

Born and raised in Western Australia, Judy had a great appreciation of art and nature from a very young age. “I always wanted to be an artist but in those days it wasn’t acceptable. It was either teaching or nursing, so I became a nurse.” One of her high school reports stated, “Judy will never make a good wife – she can’t stitch, she can’t cook and she can’t mend.”

Judy worked at the Wyndham Hospital in the East Kimberley Region of Western Australia, and then went overseas for several years. Qualifying as a midwife, she returned to Wyndham Hospital and, while nursing there, met her future husband, Chris. They moved to a small farm lot on the banks of the Ord River close to Kununurra and established two firsts in the community: the first white couple to get married in Kununurra and the first white woman to have a baby at the Kununurra Hospital. Their daughter Naomi was born there first, followed by Megan a couple of years later.

Judy and Chris, an agricultural engineer, established a banana farm, the first in the Kimberley, and Chris was later recognised with an OAM for starting and developing the banana industry in this part of Australia.

Judy had briefly studied pottery in the UK during her overseas trip, and continued to work with clay while also becoming involved in textiles as a community arts project in Kununurra. She was nominated for Citizen of the Year for services to community arts in the East Kimberley, the first award of many to come in the following years.

In 1981, Judy enrolled in a creative embroidery correspondence course with the NSW Embroiderer’s Guild for three years, later crediting the late Pat Langford for taking on “a stitch-raw student from the Kimberley”. Pat’s support certainly bore fruit, as Judy gained her proficiency certificate and then a tutor accreditation with the Guild and with TAFE. This set Judy on the next stage of her art journey as well as proving that high school report wrong. She has tutored ever since at over 40 workshops around Australia and New Zealand. “I love tutoring – it’s giving back. If you can’t give back to the community at the end, what’s the point of it all?” says Judy.

In the late 1980s, the Wilfords moved to Armidale, determined to be self-sufficient as artists. Chris enrolled at the Sturt Fine Woodwork School, Mittagong and started to make wooden boxes and frames to display Judy’s work, as well as crafting wooden furniture on commission using Australian timber.

The pair exhibited at the Bungendore Woodworks Gallery in NSW for eight years during the 1980s, and in 1994 and 1995 were both artists in residence at the Mulgara Gallery at the Sails of the Desert Hotel, Uluru. Judy has held over 25 exhibitions, sometimes as many as four a year, and her works have been acquired by galleries across Australia. One triptych is now in an American fine arts collection at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. In 1999 she won a Churchill Fellowship “to study and compare ancient and contemporary narrative embroideries in the UK”. She has also won several national awards, published books and written many articles for textile magazines.

Despite all this success, Judy remains extremely understated and down to earth. “Living in the country, in particular remote or outback country areas, had and probably still has many advantages. It is this isolation or aloneness, combined with the lack of direct influences and rules, that allows you to develop over time a style of work that is essentially and recognisably yours.” Certainly, Judy has an undeniably extraordinary style, but she neglects to mention that talent also has an important part to play, preferring to credit nature as her reference and inspiration saying, “I cannot see a time when the land will not influence my work.”

Total dedication is also a contributing factor to her success; she works up to ten hours a day, averaging over 14 days to complete her ‘simpler’ works. Occasionally she will work from photographs, but prefers to work from sketches made on her travels and her memory, beginning with simple line drawings before starting on the layers of fabric. After applying the organza overlay, she is sometimes stitching through 14 layers at a time, which she admits is hard work on the neck and hands. It is all a necessary part of the artwork, though, and Judy describes the layering of the fabric as the creative side and the stitching as “pure pleasure and enjoyment”. Judy adds, “The range line is the defining point, then get the season right and you’ve got it.” She makes it all sound so simple, but goes nowhere near to explaining the stunning results she achieves.

In typically generous style, Judy has published a tell-all book, explaining exactly how she does it. Embroidered Landscapes: Hand Embroidery, Layering & Surface Stitching, published in 2015, is an artwork in itself, which appeals not only to artists but also to needle incompetents because of its stunning illustrations, photographs and Judy’s almost lyrical and highly informative text.

“What’s the point of keeping secrets? The processes I use can be adapted and used by embroiderers from any country in the world to produce works that represent their own regions.”

As for the future, Judy concludes, “I have spent much of the last 35 years refining techniques and I know I will continue to make subtle changes into the future.” A second book on birds and their habitats is another of Judy’s works in progress. Her next exhibition opens at the New England Regional Art Museum in September and coincides with the Wilfords’ 50th wedding anniversary – again proving that school report incorrect.

Exhibition Details:

‘Of the Land – from the Sea to the Desert’, 29  September until 5 November 2017

Judy’s book Embroidered Landscapes: Hand Embroidery, Layering & Surface Stitching, available at New England Regional Art Museum and good bookshops, $45.


Story Lynne Walker   Photos David Elkins

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