New Hampshire Profiles, January 1979
Elizabeth Gurrier's Artful Sew Biz, by Brenda Joziatis
Like the nursery-rhyme pussycat, Elizabeth Gurrier sews a fine seam. Her work, however, may be the best kept secret in New Hampshire. Asked how her neighbors react to her unconventional soft sculpture, the Hollis woman throws back her head and laughs. “They don’t know! I don’t have an open studio . . . and most of my things are sold outside of New England.” Her production assistant Betty Wood interjects, “Well, they know you do something,” but agrees that most area residents have little idea of the scope of the wry creations she and Elizabeth Gurrier turn out on sewing machines.
It takes a certain personality to carry a Gurrier evening bag named Sadie. Let’s face it, most purses don’t have names, let alone red hair, sunglasses, and bare toes. And it is perhaps predictable that one of the delighted purchasers of the frowsy-faced “Old Bag” carryall was rock star Elton John, whose lifestyle could be summed up as eclectic.
Similarly, although she works in country-style unbleached muslin, Elizabeth Gurrier’s quilts and pillows do not exactly feature traditional patterns such as “Log Cabin” or “Grandmother’s Flower Garden.” It is hard to imagine a sedate canopy bed decorated with her “Women’s Circle” quilt, its irregular circumference of outflung arms and fuzzy heads accented by a lamb’s wool center and additional whimsical faces. Only the “Window” pillows have a faintly New England aura. The little face peering out of each pillow rather resembles the typical small-towner who peeks from behind the kitchen curtain at the visitors next door.
Faces are a Gurrier specialty. Some are medieval in tone, reflective of her strong interest in that period of history. Others are cherubs or angels — timeless, asexual characters that transcend the centuries. Some are weary but humorous visages with prominent noses, faces she may have seen on a New York street corner or in a New Hampshire supermarket. Sometimes, she confesses, she sees people that she’s “done” and feels “almost an apologetic reaction.”
The designer needn’t apologize for the quality of her art though. The Smithsonian owns an example of her work, and several times she has created pieces for shows at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts. In 1977, a small Gurrier angel ornament was chosen for the vice-presidential Christmas tree of American crafts, and earlier that year, at the Wintermarket show in Baltimore, Joan Mondale made sure she met the Granite State craftswoman after viewing Gurrier’s “Soft Gothic.”
This mammoth wall hanging, seven and a-half feet high, is a one-of-a-kind creation, composed of eight linked panels. The motif depicts a microcosm of the Middle Ages, replete with turrets and arches and courtiers, all detailed in an incredible array of stitches. After Wintermarket, “Soft Gothic” served as the focal point of a one-person show that toured Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Four of the panels have since been sold to people in Philadelphia and New York City.
Interestingly, much of Gurrier’s work is done on a machine. “It’s very relaxing to do things by hand,” she notes, “but when you’re working on very, very large pieces, it’s not practical.” Nor is it practical when she and Betty Wood are turning out the limited-edition production items destined for retail stores. Although the women don’t work in gigantic assembly-line quantities, a run of two hundred hand-made vests would still prove infeasible, bringing the Gurrier profit level below what Betty Wood (only half jokingly) says is an average thirty-two cents an hour.
Anyone who has an image of Gurrier the designer making a few quick sketches, then loftily passing them on to an underling who constructs the finished product, is far off the mark. She is as involved in the construction process as Betty Wood is, and finds, “Lots of times it isn’t until the third time [that a particular design is made] that you’ve really got it right . . . you may find new construction techniques as you go along, and you may want to change it altogether.” The two women work together in devising production innovations that will be quicker and more efficient, but as Wood ruefully notes, “Invariably, we come up with the most difficult way first.” Gurrier smiles and concurs, adding that when the quirks are finally straightened out, “We always say, ‘Why didn’t we think of that before?’ ”
Most of the pieces are designed in panels that can be machine-stitched together, with the trapunto details of polyester-fill added by hand later. To insure that each piece is subtly different, the women will produce a half-dozen of a particular pillow for instance, then turn to another design, perhaps a fabric jewel-box or cylindrical floor pillow.
The evolution of Elizabeth Gurrier’s art is an intriguing one. She had studied art history at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and had particularly enjoyed working in traditional hard sculpture until arthritis curtailed that activity. A two-day workshop in creative stitchery piqued her interest in fabrics, and she had created some applique wall hangings, but it was not until her family moved from Connecticut to New Hampshire that she turned seriously to fabric as an art form. Although her early designs used a variety of colors, she now works in a monotone scheme. “I love color,” she says, “but I’ve gotten more involved in the texture, light, and shadows of white.”
Her original interest in hard sculpture is evident. In explaining why many of her “people” have no arms per se, just hands, she says, “I want it as if it were a piece of stone, coming from that stone.” And, in speaking of the design process, her comments are as applicable to granite as to cotton. “Sometimes you just have to let it happen,” she muses. “You have a mental image of the form . . . once you start on the detail, it’s sort of a puzzle or something . . . it’s fun to see how it all gets put together.”
Having put-it-all-together, Elizabeth Gurrier is able to achieve what child psychologists tell us should be every mother’s goal: letting go. Her aim is not to hoard her work, not even the unique show pieces, but to enjoy to the utmost the creative process, then get on to the next phase of life and her craft. She does not collect her own items, preferring to barter for other people’s work, particularly pottery and prints. Her studio — light, spacious, filled with greenery — has soft sculpture on display, but not her own. Asked if she kept her first quilt, “The Couple,” she looks puzzled. “I may still have it; I don’t remember. I think it’s upstairs, but my loft is pure chaos.”
So far the three Gurrier offspring are equally casual about their mother’s craft. They have their own interests, including writing, science, and horses, and while they do have some Gurrier-made pieces, they are content with discards and samples, rather than requesting just-for-them originals. A daughter who took some typical Gurrier pillows to decorate her dormitory room reported a mixed reaction to the work from friends. “Some kids absolutely are intimidated by it,” Gurrier says, noting that it is a reaction she has also seen among adults at the shows and shops where her creations are displayed.
Elizabeth Gurrier has done traditional work; in fact, she designed a strawberries, snowflakes, and apple-orchard quilt for a Hollis fund-raising project. However, she particularly enjoys breaking away from the restrictions of tradition and convention. In the workshops she has conducted here and in Canada, her teaching goal for her students has been “trying to loosen them up . . . trying to break people out of very constrictive attitudes.” She is equally intense about the need for craftspeople to educate the public to demand quality, to upgrade their expectations of the crafts and, in so doing, encourage the artist to reach just a bit further and higher than before.
There are pressures on Elizabeth Gurrier to expand, to broaden her production-line output, but she is resistant to any plan that would make her a manager, and, in her words, “terribly frustrated.” Another possibility is to sell her designs and let someone else worry about the production details, but she is reluctant since “my faces are really my trademark.” Letting another person become involved outside of the studio might dilute the quality people expect of a Gurrier piece. Proud of her work, she presently signs everything she creates.
Another reason she does it herself is that Elizabeth Gurrier finds a session at the sewing machine can be therapeutic. In talking about creativity, she admits that her inspiration comes and goes. “I have terrible throes of drying up,” she says. “When it happens, you ride it out . . . there’s always production work to do.”
The Gurrier portfolio is an impressive one of awards and honors, but unfortunately, although she is a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, her work is not easily available for purchase by fellow Granite Staters. The closest New England store is a seasonal shop in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. The problem is that most New Hampshire crafts shops have a policy of accepting work on consignment only. Since white-on-white fabrics are particularly susceptible to stains and other damage, Gurrier has shied away from this approach. Nor does she want her studio treated as a factory outlet, although vacationers who’ve seen her work in coastal shops sometimes show up on her doorstep hoping (unsuccessfully) that they can “get a better price.” She does, however, do some business by mail order and will send her latest catalog and price list on request.
Area residents will also be able to get a firsthand look at the Gurrier creations next October at a show scheduled for Nashua’s Arts and Science Center. Until then, Elizabeth Gurrier will probably continue to be the Hollis equivalent of the Statue of Liberty: fascinating to outsiders, but only occasionally capturing the awareness of her New Hampshire neighbors.