Featured Artist Interview : Richard Saja

We are very excited to have textile artist Richard Saja as our seventh artist. His work focuses on the ability to change a historical narrative by adding what he terms “interferences” through embellishing found toile and tapestries with hand embroidery to adapt their original meaning, thus rewriting or updating history in a sense.

Scroll down to read the interview, learn about his process and enjoy photos of Richard’s studio.

How did you first get involved in the world of textiles? What drew you to embroidery?

I had been working as an art director in an ad agency and was laid off when the dot.com bubble burst. I was on holiday in San Francisco with a dear friend and we were talking about our mutual love of textiles and I told her of a dream I recently had involving robots embroidered on linen. Out of that meeting Historically Inaccurate Decorative Arts was born: a cushion company of which the embroidered Toile de Jouy was a part. I had imagined the embroidered toile concept while waking from sleep. Originally, I had wanted to embroider Maori face tattoos onto the staid figures present in most prints but soon discovered that scale-wise that wasn’t going to be too effective so I amended the concept to include any embellishment or contextual change made to a toile print through embroidery. The line was originally stitched by a very talented woman I had overheard talking about embroidery on the subway but when the Toile ’n Tats line was launched, I had to teach myself how to stitch in order to keep up with demand. Right out of the gate, the embroidered toile received a lot of press. 

What part of textile/embroidery history interests you the most?

Being self-taught and self-motivated, the traditional world of embroidery doesn’t concern or interest me all that much. I don’t consider myself technically accomplished and don’t wish to adhere to the completely rigid ways of the embroidery guilds…my work is conceptually driven but I have gotten to be pretty good with a needle and thread after 20+ years of stitching. 

In the 1760’s, a French-naturalized German man, Oberkampf developed a commercial process to produce printed fabric using copper plates in the village of Jouy en Josas, next to Versailles…it proved to be both enormously successful and profitable earning him the title Squire from the King. The grounds of the textile factory are now a completely charming neighborhood where I was invited to stay when I had work at the toile de Jouy Museum a few years ago. 

Are there any textile artists that you are influenced by?

I adore Wells Treehillman aka Penny Nickles aka Hagknight for her indomitable spirit of exploration in the textile field. She’s just the best. I wouldn’t say that I am necessarily influenced by her but her approach is similar to mine and her work is impeccable.

Tell us about your process, start to finish how you make your pieces.

1 – Settle on concept I’m currently interested in exploring. 

2 –  Select toile print. 

3 – Select range of color palette to accomplish concept. 

4 – Binge watch trash tv until embroidery is finished. 

Where/what do you look to for inspiration?

I prefer to live in the moment so inspiration is arrived at in that way but over time a personal iconography has made itself evident: monsters (green men, wild men), clowns, ornamental design and bio-hazards seem to be the elements that have stuck around the most consistently.

Has this changed over time or stayed constant?

My imagery has evolved greatly over time but the elements are essentially the same. It all comes from a childhood reared on 1960’s science fiction television and 30s monster movies and the impressions these made on my young mind. I was completely transfixed by the original Batman TV show and Lost in Space. Both shows were suffused with gorgeous candy colors, fantastic costumes and monsters galore. I specifically remember a LIS episode that took place inside the intergalactic workshop of a sinister toymaker. Surrounded by his creations as well as a monster run amok, there was a boarded up window through which the 2 main characters could see a glittering Christmas street scene.  This completely blew my young mind: seeing something so strongly desired like the return to the comfort of home but circumstantially being unable to access it. Existential dread experienced by a 6 year old tends to stick around. 

How does humor play a role in your work?

I’m not sure how to answer this except to say what I think people consider the humor in my work I do not. It’s more empathy or pathos to me: the other existing in a world not of their own creation as best they can. I felt marginalized and different as a child but didn’t have the maturity to understand why this might be so. In order to make the going easier I began to adapt to my surroundings so that I might fit in or, at least, go unnoticed. I specifically remember walking with a limp for a few months in 4th or 5th grade so the kids wouldn’t make fun of my supposedly effeminate gait. In hindsight, my innate sense of self preservation enabled me to adapt to my surroundings mostly successfully but it was a construct  – not who i actually was. My work usually reflects this process….the other coexisting peacefully and matter-of-factly with the status quo.

Are there other mediums that you work in or have explored besides embroidery? If so, how do they inform your work?

In the late 80s I had a brief but very strong love affair with ceramics. A four year classical education got in the way of that and I never returned to the medium but dense, patterned surfaces left a strong impression which I use in my work currently. 

How do you imagine your work evolving in the future?

In the past few years I’ve been embroidering over Chinese Aubusson tapestries and I’m still very excited by the possibilities and the process of exploration still seems fresh.

Considering the larger scale and thicker construction, how have you adapted your practice to this canvas? Do you find any differences in your messaging between the tapestry and the toile work?

The messaging is the same but the technique very different…stitching tapestry is more akin to knot making: the scale of the stitches is magnified and the thread is thick and tough…it’s a good fit for my usual utter lack of delicacy when embroidering.

Do you believe the pandemic has had an impact on your work?

In the first few months I found myself working so much more than usual because there was little else to do. While that was enjoyable, I’d rather be social and venture out into the world and by entering into a covid pod of friends upstate gave me back my usual work regimen.

Do you have any upcoming shows or events you are excited about?

Yes! I’ll be showing 3 pieces at Les Drapiers in Liege, Belgium in September and 9 pieces at Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson NY opening Nov 13th. I’m attempting something different this time: embroidering 12 versions of the same exact toile motif and allowing myself the luxury to experiment while doing so.

Thanks for being part of our Heirloom community and tuning into our seventh edition of Contemporary @ Heirloom.

– Zach, Lynn & Sam

*Illustration and Product Photography by Lynn Hunter

*Studio Photography by Ph. Georgia Kokolis for Upstate Diary

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