Picking up the thread

Embroidery as a treatment, an expression both of the soul and of a contemporary language. Carolina Mazzolari has turned the study of fabrics into the raw material of her contemporary art. Today on display in London

Dark Blooms is a performance with an individual female aesthetic by Carolina Mazzolari. She aims to metaphorically depict cultural values and social circumstances that impose self-awareness and insecurity. Photographer Matteo Bertolio, sound designer Lorenzo Brusci. Royal Academy, London 2018.

A fabric can be painted, sewn, dyed, cut and rebuilt. Although it is flexible and lends itself to endless manipulations, a few rules have to be respected even at the cost of limiting creativity. My goal is not only to use different techniques, but to be able to transform an artisanal product into a work of contemporary art even if produced according to ancient methods ". The speaker is Carolina Mazzolari, Italian by birth, but English by adoption. She studied in Milan at the Academy of Fine Arts first, then in London at the Chelsea College of Art and at the University of The Arts, where she specialized in fabric design, screen-printing and dyeing. Her training was combined and enriched with psychoanalysis, since she took up cognitive studies that view the mind as an intermediary element between behaviour and purely neurophysiological brain activity. The operating model has been metaphorically compared to that of a software processing information from the outside, returning it in the form of a representation of knowledge, organized in semantic and cognitive networks. "The more you study psychoanalysis, the more it helps you to use an inner language and extend to broader thoughts". We reached her by phone in her home-studio in London where she lives with her sculptor husband in two connected housing units that are basically a large creative laboratory.

A portrait of the artist in front of the video installation Emosphere on the occasion of the Emotional Fields exhibition at the Tristan Hoare Gallery in London.

How did your passion for fabrics start?

Actually, fabrics have grown with me. I grew up in a family that taught me the pursuit of quality and at school I further expanded my knowledge of textiles. It is imperative to have a thorough understanding of the different types of fabrics and the constraints that some of them require when manipulated. I also developed a passion for the history of costumes, which tells a lot in terms of raw materials, thanks to Lliuba Popova, one of my teachers at NABA. Later, as co-manager and textile designer of Verger Milano, I worked in knitwear factories. There I learnt, with difficulty, how industrial machines operate and managed to understand how knitted jacquards work. I had the chance to acquire a certain experience dealing with different kinds of yarns and ended up making a precise scale of preferences on the top of which I put hand-made fabrics, mainly linen and hemp, with the aim to create works of art. Although they are much less linear materials and involve a series of problems, their aesthetics is unbeatable and thoroughly absorb the colour.

Above, left. Island II, 2020 from the Emotional Fields series. Printed linen hand embroidered with cotton, wool and silk. Hand embrodery, cotton, wool and silk, onto unprinted linen. Above, right. Emotional Fields, is a series of tapestries inspired by Kurt Lewin's spatial diagrams and Carl Gustav Jung's theories on the collective unconscious. As emotional maps they tell states of mind through herringbone stitch embroidery made with cotton, silk and wool threads. In the picture Island A, 2020.

Tell us about these jobs.

They are called Emotional Fields and I presented them at the Tristan Hoare Gallery in London. They are an uninterrupted series of works embroidered with silver grey herringbone stitch. They are hand drawn and dyed linen whose motif is activated with the orientation of the light. They are like mandalas, abstract maps, hence the name: emotional maps. They represent moods or mental states. I was inspired by the spatial diagrams of psychologist Kurt Lewin and Carl Jung's theories on the collective unconscious that includes archetypes, that is, the forms and symbols that manifest themselves in all peoples and cultures.

Carolina Mazzolari in her studio in London.

The repetitive and rhythmic movements of embroidering not only offer gratification but also require a certain degree of concentration

What is your relationship with textile manipulation and your artistic work in general?

I try to accompany the viewers in my journey so that they understand both how I got there and the works of art I produced. I like the idea that the viewers reflect themselves and enter another world. For this reason, at each exhibition

I present a video projected on extra-large screen to prepare the viewers for this transition. I experienced and learned this process firsthand. In April 2000 when I visited the exhibition Stanze & Segreti curated by Denis Santachiara at the Rotonda della Besana, one of the most beautiful historic buildings in Milan. The exhibitionperformance showcased the works of 18 worldrenowned contemporary artists and directors. Each participant was assigned a defined space, a room to be filled freely in order to represent their own world. Even the smells had been accurately recreated. That visit changed my life: before then I had never felt such strong emotions visiting an exhibition. It opened up a brand new world to me.

How did philosophy, cognitive processes and psychoanalysis come to be part of your work?

I followed an analytical therapy based on cognitive studies, which also helped me a lot to better understand how the mind works and to understand philosophy, more than I could do based on academic teaching or simply reading about this topic. I like the idea that my work uses a deeper kind of language not visible to everyone. I certainly use symbols, but in an abstract form, it is more an idea than a psychoanalytic approach. I started to create great archetypal figures, but now they have turned into emotional maps, I extracted the essence of those images.

Above. Figure I (ISIS), 2018 from the Emotional Fields series. Printed linen hand embroidered with cotton, silk and pigments. Hand embroidered cotton, silk and pigments onto unprimed linen

What are your next projects?

My next solo show, opening late 2021 or early 2022, will be called Prayer Wheels. I will show a new set of works, wall sculptures, a video and a new series of tapestries. They feature the silent conversations, the ones that we have with the universe or with ourselves. These days I am absorbed in the creation of a video to be projected during the new exhibition. I will work with an important composer, Mira Calix. The choreography will be curated by Kristen McNally of The Royal Ballet. It will be set, in an abstract way, in the old laundries that in some countries were along the riverbanks. I hope that the characters that populate the movie can come to life in a live performance.

You have long collaborated with a charity that works with inmates to make large embroidered works. What is the connection between the act of embroidering and the physical and mental well-being it provides?

The institution is called Fine Cell Work and is managed by a truly invaluable group of women. It brings together highly skilled craftswomen, famous above all for embroidered cushions and decorative works, but actually, they also carry out special projects with contemporary artists. In February 2020, Sotheby's London set up an important exhibition whose proceeds went to this foundation. Ai Weiwei, Cornelia Parker, Idris Khan, Wolfgang Tillmans, Annie Morris, Bob & Roberta Smith, Francis Upritchart joined the project. The link between mental health and sewing is not a new thing.

Touching, modelling, embroidering, painting are all manual activities good for the brain because they stimulate the production of endorphins and reduce cortisol, the stress and anxiety hormone. Historically, the act of sewing has helped to change demographics in a variety of circumstances and to overcome, or alleviate, psychological trauma. World War I veterans from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, for example, used to practice embroidery as a form of therapy to overcome combat shock. It is like drawing, but with a thread. There are several uniforms with embroideries or embroidered lettering.

Carolina and The Bubble Maker, 2016, tapestry in silk, cotton and wool thread shown in Venice in 2019 at the exhibition From Kandinsky to Botero.

The repetitive and rhythmic movements of embroidering not only offer fulfilment, but also demands a certain degree of concentration. Concentration is in fact a very important action because it keeps the mind busy and distracts it from negative thoughts, typical of anxious or depressed personalities. So, by remaining engaged, the mind cannot get out of control. In addition, embroidery, as well as other needlework, restores a sense of community, even for those who live alone, in remote or isolated areas within the four walls of a prison. For those suffering from depression, the creative side of embroidery offers a sense of accomplishment. Even a few stitches a day is progress. Progress is also synonymous with growth: when you create something - no matter how slowly - and no matter at what level, there is always a sense of development and movement. Embroidery channels negative energy, converting it into something positive. It is soothing and gives serenity.

The artist portrayed with a work of hers in the making.