A visit to Lizzy Carlson’s Broadmoor residence can create the illusion of leaving city life far behind and landing instead at a country home surrounded by gardens, filled with artwork, and abuzz with family activity.
Carlson, her husband, Clyde, and their children, Emma, Harry and George, have made the sunny raised basement Craftsman their home for about five years. There has been a changing cast of dogs (and other pets, including chickens) but now Nola, Oscar and Douglas rule the household. With the exception of the gardens on the exterior, the house is little changed since the family moved in five years ago.
“We really had very little to do inside because it was already renovated and in good condition,” said Carlson, the embroidery artist whose work is now on display at RHINO Contemporary Crafts. “We have plenty of wall space for artwork I love, and it inspires me when I am making my embroidered portraits. I make everything sitting in a comfortable chair in my living room, so you could say that my studio is very small.”
Small, perhaps, but the site of fantastic creations. From likenesses of blues artists and circus oddities to witty images of American presidents over-stitched with bunny ears and teeth, all of Carlson’s painstaking needlework takes place in the living room chair. But the embroidery — mostly split-stitch and French knots — is only the endpoint of a process that starts long before.
“I’ll get an idea for a portrait I want to do, then I research it until I have tons of images to tell me what I want to express,” Carlson explained. “I sketch it out on paper until I’m happy with it, then I use a light box to transfer the image to the fabric. Most pieces are small – they fit inside of an 8-inch embroidery hoop — but I’ve done some large ones in the past.”
Once the image has been transferred to fabric, Carlson stretches the fabric on a hoop, then starts painting with needle and thread.
“I always start with the eyes and work from there, because I find the eyes are critically important to the likeness. If I can’t get the eyes right after trying and trying, I’ll give up and move on to another portrait. Somewhere I have a pile of fabric with just one or two eyes on each,” Carlson said. “But when the eyes are right, they are what I look at the whole time I am stitching the rest of the face.”
If the approach sounds unusual, it could be because Carlson is a self-taught artist who took up her craft less than 10 years ago, a little after Hurricane Katrina.
“My twin sons had started pre-K, and I wanted a new challenge,” Carlson said. “I feel like Katrina sort of gave people the motivation to start something new.”
Carlson had little experience with needle arts before she picked up an embroidery hoop and taught herself a few stitches, but she took to it right away.
“Before that, the only needlework I had done was when I was a kid and had made some crewelwork pictures from a kit for my mother to hang in the bathroom,” she said. “I like embroidery because it’s like painting with thread. I guess what I’d really wanted to be was a painter, but I’m skilled enough with paint to know I’ll never be really good at it. So I invented my own thing, and now I know it’s going to look like what I want it to.”
For those who ask how long it takes to create a portrait (as many do), she has developed a little tag that goes on the back of every work she creates. “This took forever,” it reads.
“Depending on the size, it can take 40 to 60 hours or more of stitching before the work is complete,” she said. “Sometimes, especially if I feel like the eyes aren’t exactly right, I’ll go back and add something. Sometimes just one stitch is all it takes to change the image.”
It’s tough to picture Carlson peacefully stitching away in her favorite chair as three dogs stare at her for attention, 13-year-old twin boys are looking for this or that, her 18-year-old daughter is busily crossing things off her New Orleans bucket list before leaving for college in a matter weeks and her retired engineer husband is toiling away in the basement on the 25 bikes he owns. But somehow Carlson has managed to make her chair an oasis of calm.
“I stitch when the kids are at school or after dinner. But when I am preparing for my Jazz Fest application, I use my work as an excuse to fob off all the chaos onto my husband,” Carlson confessed. “Last year in the month leading up to Jazz Fest, I was stitching 12 to 14 hours per day, so you can only imagine the state of my house and the state of my family’s diet.”