When needlepoint artist Natalie Fisher jetted off for a Moroccan holiday in 2002 on a friend’s recommendation, little did she realise the experience would lead to a quantum leap in her practice.
“I’ve been stitching for 40 years, and prior to visiting Morocco, I was making one-metre-square canvases of single flower blooms like gerbera or iris,” Fisher says over tea at her home in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.
That all changed after she’d sampled the colour, design and architecture of Casablanca, Fez and Marrakech.
“I was especially taken by ‘zellige’ mosaic tile work, which is beautiful and labour-intensive, because each tile is hand-chiselled and painted and then configured into the design to create geometric motifs,” she says.
Fisher soon came to appreciate the synchronicities between needlepoint and tilecraft.
“The labour-intensive and handcrafted approach I use provides parallels to the traditional process of Islamic mosaic tile work.
“Each of my pieces takes many months to complete and typically contains tens of thousands of stitches,” she says, adding that she generally stitches with wool in a freestyle technique.
A seed had been planted and Fisher returned to Morocco three years later.
She set about documenting the zellige tiles, carved timber and stucco decorations of well-known buildings throughout the north African country.
These included the Grand Mosque and the Law Courts in Casablanca, along with the Ben Youssef Madrassa and the Saadian Tombs in Marrakech.
“I spent a lot of time hanging around buildings waiting for the sun to be in the right spot for a good photo,” she laughs.
By the time Fisher returned for a third visit, in 2017, she was stitching in situ, which attracted the curiosity of locals.
“To be honest, I was sensitive as to how I would be received by Muslim communities around the world, because I’m taking their culture and interpreting it in my own way,” she says.
“But it’s been received well because for me it’s about appreciating and learning – I’m not pretending to be anyone that I’m not.
“I’ve discovered so much about new places through needlepoint. It’s like a cultural exchange through the art form, which isn’t something I ever expected to happen.”
Fisher includes signs of wear and tear such as chipped or faded tiles in her pieces.
“I do that to acknowledge the heritage and history of the architecture, and because it’s more interesting than simply having flat colour,” she says.
In addition to Morocco, she has undertaken research in the United Arab Emirates, recreating sections of the world’s largest hand-woven Persian carpet, which can be found in Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Fisher was also selected for inclusion in the 2017 Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival in the UAE, for which she expanded her needlepoint practice into three dimensions by creating a life-sized sculptural installation.
“I used a range of stitches, from delicate petit-point to ‘fat’ or ‘extreme’ wool hand-woven through holes in a steel armature,” she explains.
Fisher has continued to experiment with needlepoint installations, stitching a fountain based on a water feature in Meknes, Morocco, and a set of doors that references the Law Courts in Casablanca.
She has also visited the legendary city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
“The style of Islamic architecture there is often referred to as ‘Timurid’, named after military commander Timur, who was a cruel dictator but also a patron of the arts and ruled Central Asia from 1370 to 1405,” she explains.
“Timurid style is characterised by colourful mosaic tile work, religious symbols, abstract geometric patterns and brickwork with mosaic facing that dazzles in the sun.”
Fisher was ready to take part in another festival in Sharjah in early 2020, but COVID-19 put that on hold, so instead she’s published a book, Ghorzah: Islamic Architecture in Needlepoint, to share her passion with a wider audience. ‘Ghorzah’ is Arabic for ‘stitch’.
“There were people from 20 countries at my online book launch and it’s been sold to customers in the Middle East, Europe, the UK and the Americas,” Fisher says proudly.
Now she’s leading a community arts project in Wagga.
“We’re going to produce a whole wall of stitched tiles based on the theme of the Silk Road, the historical trade route between Europe and Asia,” she says.
“Wagga is a refugee settlement city and there are many people there with heritage from countries along the Silk Road such as Iran, Afghanistan, India and China.”
Needlepoint is painstakingly slow. A good thing, then, that Fisher stitches fast. Even so, a 60cm x 60cm panel can take up to two months.
“That depends how busy I am in my other job as an evaluation consultant for the arts and culture sector,” she says.
“Having said that, hardly a day goes by when I don’t stitch.”
Fisher taught herself needlepoint after an aunt gave her a starter kit for her 13th birthday.
“And I’ve been pushing wool through holes ever since,” she quips.
What is it about the craft that keeps her coming back?
“I love the warmth and tactility of wool,” she says.
“It’s also portable, not at all messy and you don’t need much equipment – just some wool, an open-weave canvas and a tapestry needle, which has a blunt end and a big eye.”
For more information, visit artweave.com.au