Stephanie, you learned the craft of netting from Gram J. Tell us about her and learning this, now, almost lost art.
Gram J (Rena Johnson) was my husband’s great-grandmother who was 92 years old at the time she taught me. She was born and raised on Vinalhaven Island. She learned at 7 and started work at the net factory at age 12. She made horsefly nets. When I met her, she was working for a cottage industry making various bags used in fishing and food processing.
Before we were married, my husband came back to Maine to work for the summer. We were both living in South Carolina, where I’m from. I visited for a couple of weeks and in the afternoon stopped by to see Gram. She was netting then and I said how fun it looked. She asked if I’d like to learn and I said sure. In hindsight, I think it was just a ploy to get me to visit every day. By the end of the week, I had the knot mastered … mostly and she finished off the bag we started. The rest is history. I am the only family member to carry on the tradition.
Any advice from Gram J that has stayed with you?
Pay attention to quality. If it’s not right, pick it out.
Accent aside, any advice from your South Carolina roots that has stayed with you?
Tradition and family are important. It’s the same with netting.
Is netting a series of knots? Are there any tools involved?
Yes, knots are how you know it is traditional knotted netting and not some other technique. I inherited all of Gram J’s antique tools. On Vinalhaven, we have net stands to work from. Her uncle built hers when she was 12. I take it to shows with me. It’s a square wooden stand with a tray in the middle for empty needles, mesh boards, lighters, etc. Each side has a peg for hanging the netting. Then there are hand-carved wooden needles in various sizes. I use tiny metal ones for the sculptures. The twine or thread is loaded on the needle. The mesh board is usually wooden, but my special ones are made of ivory, bone and ebony. The mesh board determines the size of the mesh (hole) in the netting. The needle and mesh board are coordinated in size. If the needle is too large, it won’t go through the hole.
You mentioned that your career has had three lives. What are they?
First life was working for the cottage industry with Gram J. We made six-foot-long pudding bags that fish were processed in. I moved up to dip nets used in deep sea fishing. The industry eventually died out.
Second life, I designed and made wearables out of netting. A lot of experimenting went on at this point. After figuring out how to dye nylon, the shopping bags were the most popular. I still make them. But there were also pocketbooks, scarves and shawls out of various fibers.
Third are the sculptures. I net very small with various fine threads, making the pattern up as I go along. After a certain point I make a mold and shape them into three-dimensional sculptures. Next is stiffening and removing the mold. They are then placed in shadowbox frames on fabric backgrounds or in domes for display.
You started by netting bags and shawls … What inspired you to transition to the 3D sculptures?
I have always thought in 3D, I guess. I had been experimenting off and on with it, but things never clicked until I found the tiny needle in Gram’s stash of tools. It haunted me and I just needed to see what would happen. There were a few “errors” in the trials-and-errors part.
Netting is almost a lost art, so not many people understand the process. Why do you think more people have not pursued it as a craft?
There was a fair amount of “fancywork” in the late 1800s. But fashions change. Netting is utilitarian for most. Today modern netting is machine-made. I don’t think it is on anyone’s radar.
What inspired you to create your Oceania series?
I started with larger-scale jellyfish in nylon and dyed and stuffed it. After discovering I could net in the minute scale, I still had jellyfish on the brain. And living on an island with a variety of sea creatures didn’t hurt. Most are named “the Essence of …” because the sculptures represent what’s left or “the ghost of the creation.”
You mentioned that the Essence of Jellyfish has been the best-selling Oceania creature. Is it the expressive tendrils?
I think so. They are free to move in the “waves.”
You’ve added an Insectia and Flora & Fauna series. What marked the start of each?
I realized not everyone wanted ocean art. I love bugs. So I think the dragonfly followed by the lighting bug kicked off that group. As for plants, I looked in the woods here and found wildflowers. Nature has perfect designs.
You work quite small. Is that your preference or a function of the craft of netting?
I choose to go small. I have always been fascinated with microcosms of mosses. In fantasy, fairies and pixies and again insects. I love the detail and scale of a lot of Japanese art. It is just as hard to make as large. It requires study from the observer.
From all the shows you do each year, what have you learned about the buying habits of women and men?
Surprisingly, women love insects! Men are attracted to the black and white. Colorblindness is more common in men. Other than that, it is hard to predict who is attracted to what. If they pick it up or come back, they have made a connection with it. I like to say it haunts them. Many have childhood memories connected to a piece like dragonflies, lightning bugs, sand dollars and red birds. Others have spent their lives researching a certain creature. I love finding out the motivation behind their choices.
Your first show was at the Smithsonian. What do you remember most about this extraordinary experience?
Being my first national show, I was amazed at how organized it was. Things ran so smoothly for 120 vendors moving in and out of the same one door! It was very professional. And of course, the quality was unsurpassed.
Tell us about meeting Susan Sarandon and the sculpture that she bought.
She attended a show in Bar Harbor with a friend. They came into my booth while I was waiting on a woman buying shopping bags. On the table at the back sat sculpture pieces in domes, cubes, etc. I glanced over to see Susan picking up the lightning bug in a jar. I told her his “butt “ was made of glow-in-the-dark thread. She looked at the lid on the jar and said, “There are holes in it.” I replied, “How else is he going to breathe?!” She laughed and said, “I have to have it.”
Do you love doing the show circuit as much as creating the sculptures?
They are at opposite ends of the scale. One is the art of creating and the other, the art of sales. Most of us, me included, would rather make than sell. Having said that, I do miss the interactions with customers that are amazed by the art. Their questions often spur ideas.
Experimentation on a larger scale … out of the box, literally. Too early to tell if that will lead anywhere. I’d like to do more national shows, pick up more galleries, possibly museums. Beyond that we’ll see where inspiration comes from.
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Out of Africa. What an adventure moving from Denmark to Kenya! That time frame in history where innovations and war changed so many things. The fact that Karen Blixen owned and ran her own business was unheard of. There were so few women entrepreneurs especially in the upper classes. Great scenery and costuming, as well!