Meticulously hand-embroidering layers of thread wind into childhood memories from her family’s old VHS tapes, and powerful but vulnerable close-ups of female faces in her latest collection Portraits of a Constant Dream. Cécile Davidovici has created a space in the art world for the soft and intricate medium of thread. We talk to her about her drastic change in career from filmmaking to embroidery, the significance of her intimate collections, and the obvious question – why thread?
Hi Cécile, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi! Sure. So my name is Cécile, I’m 34 years old. I was born and raised in Paris and I am a self-taught artist working with the medium of textiles.
In your own words, you are a “thread visual artist from Paris,” and this simple sentence does somehow manage to describe your intricate work very well. You focus on embroidery and the use of thread – alongside the occasional splash of paint in the background or wool felting – to create deeply detailed portraits in woven layers of flowing colour. How would you describe the style of your art?
I like to think I give birth through needle and thread to a world and characters, that are kindly nostalgic. My style is intricately linked to the exploration of the technique, and I believe that’s a big part of what makes it different.
Before you were an artist, you were actually an acclaimed filmmaker, best known for your short films Le Grand Bain (2014) and Rag Doll (2008). What made you switch between creating something on-screen to creating something physical?
After my mother passed away a few years ago I felt I needed a change in my artistic journey. It took me some time to realise it, but I was missing the tangible aspect of things. Making art pieces I can actually touch was a game changer.
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Why did you choose to work with thread?
I started working with threads for fun, as a hobby and before I even realised it, it became the only thing I wanted to spend my day doing. I've never been the best with words and this specific medium allowed me to express myself more freely.
I can imagine that even one piece of artwork uses an abundance of thread, considering the detail in your work. How much thread do you think you go through, roughly? And do you consider this to be more sustainable and economical than other methods of producing art?
That’s a really interesting question. My technique forces me to have a strong consciousness of what materials I use, which sometimes leads me to find clever ways to save. I find it to be a very important problem nowadays and I do feel more connected because of it.
Your 2019 series of artworks titled <<1988 was inspired by VHS footage of your old family home videos, and centres around the nostalgic feel of snippets of your past, some of the artworks even having a camera screen overlay threaded into the picture. Why did you decide to make this topic into a collection of your work? Is it a representation of memory in a physical form, as something you can now hold?
Absolutely! That is exactly the point of this series. My partner David Ctiborsky (who I actually co-created a series called Fire Season with) whispered the idea to me one day. He saw me watching and rewatching those VHS childhood films, maybe looking for forgotten moments spent with my mother. This series was very special to me, giving life to memories in a new personal way was an incredible healing moment. A way to pay a tribute to my mother and what she passed down to me.
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I wonder, as well, if thread accentuates this idea of nostalgia, as all of your work is hand-made, and these VHS images have a home-made and cosy quality. Is this something you considered with your trademark use of thread tying into homely memories?
I think so, yes. Threads and fabric in general brings most of us back to our first days of life, when we’re muffled in a cosy blanket. And it’s then a part of our daily life. You know, I’ve realised this quite recently but my great grandmother was a seamstress, her son (my grandfather) built a fake fur coat business and my grandmother was the one that taught me to use a needle. I found it fascinating how family history lives through what I do and how it brings me back to the past with warmness and nostalgia.
<<1988 was displayed from last year in Mi* Gallery, Paris. How did it feel to see your work (and memories) on show, and be viewed by others?
It was very special. One of the reasons I make art is to be able to communicate emotions and seeing strangers react to it and be moved by it was the best gift.
Your current collection, titled Portraits of a Constant Dream, features the extreme close-up of women’s faces, the flow of their variety of lush skin tones through thread, and the harsh stares they have to the viewer, as if they know something the viewer does not, or have something to say. What is this unspoken sentence?
I like to think they’re on an inner journey which somehow led the audience to see a part of themselves in them but I don’t like to distract people with my analysis. To me, the beauty of art is that everyone can see something different and personal in a piece. That’s why I love to ask what people see or feel while looking at a piece because it’s almost never the same!
I noticed that this collection only features women. Is this because they have more, or different, experiences behind their eyes as opposed to men?
I don’t like to oppose men and women, I just know I always want to instinctively embroider women’s faces. Maybe because that’s what I know best or because I feel they need more visibility. I’m not sure.
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Each piece features two faces, which stretch out to the edges of the artwork, absolutely dominating the canvas. At a first glance, I thought the two faces on each piece were slightly different, but on closer inspection I realised that in every piece, the two faces on the canvas are of the same woman – one slightly drowned out by the other, but both staring at the viewer. What does this face behind the first signify, and why is it slightly obscured? Is it a commentary on parts of themselves they are less eager to share?
I found very interesting the idea that we never completely know someone or even ourselves. Playing with what hides beneath the surface, consciously choosing to show or hide things and how this tells something about you anyhow.
I read that you layer threads in these pieces, to create that flow of skin without it seeming blocky, and to put some life into these faces. How long does it take to create one of these? How many layers does it take to make something this lifelike?
Depending on the size, a portrait could take between 2 weeks and a month to complete. Skin is so fascinating to me because it contains so many colours and what I like best is seeing it reveal itself little by little.
What do you think is the next direction for your work? What could a future project possibly look like?
I’ve been wanting to try a bigger size piece for a long time and I’m finally doing it. I’ve already quit and started from scratch 3 times so I hope I’ll manage to finish it and be happy with it. But I have to say, I’m always very critical of my work and that’s probably what makes me grow as an artist.
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