Artwork of Cedar Rapids woman part of national embroidery exhibit in Marion

Fiber artist Sally Olsen draws inspiration from math, science, music

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MARION — A local embroidery artist finally has a chance to show off her artwork and appreciate pieces from across the country as part of an exhibit at the Marion Heritage Center and Museum.

“Through the Needles’ Eye,” a national traveling exhibit from the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, is on display at the center through Oct. 8. This is the first time the exhibit has been in the state of Iowa, and it has been a long time coming, said Sally Olsen, 67, of Cedar Rapids, who has three pieces on display, including two sewn by hand.

Olsen, who began embroidering in 1985, said the Cedar Valley chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America has tried for years to have one of the guild’s exhibits displayed in a local museum. In 2014, when “Through the Needles’ Eye” was launched, the local chapter approached Lynette Brenzel, executive director of the Marion Heritage Center, who said she understood that embroidery pieces express as many emotions as any other art form.

“When I met Sally, I was thrilled,” Brenzel said. “I would love to have something like this in my gallery. It’s more than just art, there’s story and craft, history. There’s all sorts of things that can be done with embroidery.”

Many of the pieces are so intricate, Olsen said, it could take more than an hour to embroider one square inch of cloth.

Many of the more than 70 pieces on display show the different methods of embroidery that have developed over time, such as stumpwork, shown through embroidered jewelry boxes and figurines in a glass case in the exhibit. Stumpwork is a centuries-old way of adding dimension to embroidered works by embroidering over small pieces of wood on an object.

Olsen, who has been a member of the Cedar Valley chapter of the EGA for 30 years, said she has traveled across the world — recently to Slovenia — to take classes on embroidering techniques and the history behind them.

“There’s a whole lot of history involved in this,” Olsen said. “You learn a lot of world history in the process.”

She also said many of the pieces have personal meaning, including one of her works that was adapted from a piece of her mother’s needlework completed in the 1960s. She calls the piece “Recomposition.”

“This was kind of a way of repurposing a scrap that didn’t really have any kind of value,” Olsen said. “There’s some things you can’t stand to throw out.”

Another of Olsen’s pieces is titled “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It features a loop of material depicting sheet music of the well-known patriotic song.

Olsen designed the piece to mimic a Mobius strip — a mathematical concept where a structure only has one side and has no end point. Embroidered blue stars make up the trills and sixteenth notes and red stripes display the longer notes. Olsen, who has degrees in mathematics and computer science, said she got the idea from marching bands that play “Stars and Stripes” continuously in a parade.

Olsen’s final piece in the exhibit is an award-winning work titled “Celebrate Spring.” Inspiration for the piece came from a tree in Olsen’s yard that grows red flower blossoms in spring.

Olsen made the artwork, which has no cloth background, by stitching gauzy flowers together with seed beads and a bobbin lace butterfly in between two layers of water-soluble fabric. When all the pieces were stitched together, Olsen ran the completed work under water, and the water-soluble fabric washed away. The piece won the Embroiderers’ Guild of America’s Virginia Miller Memorial Award for using new materials and techniques.

Olsen said the different styles of embroidery and the meaning behind the artwork keeps her needle in motion.

“It’s an outlet for creativity. It can be very meditative.”

If you go

— What: “Through the Needles’ Eye,” an exhibit of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America.

— Where: Marion Heritage Center and Museum, 590 10th St., Marion.

— When: Museum is open from 1-4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Call the museum at (319) 447-6376 to make visiting arrangements outside of scheduled hours.

— Admission: $5 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-18, free for kids 5 and younger.

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