Leslee Nelson uses perhaps the most intimate art medium of all: Cloth.
Quilts that hug us. Napkins that dab our lips. Handkerchiefs that collect our tears.
Textiles with memories serve as the canvas for Madison artist Nelson, who is displaying 30 years’ worth of work during her solo show “Retrospective: 1983-2013,” running through Oct. 12 at the Common Wealth Gallery.
Many times this fall, Nelson also will sit down at a public table and invite anyone to make a “memory cloth” — a piece of handiwork that, through the meditative process of embroidery, helps stitch together the past.
“Whenever I have an exhibit and I’m there, people start telling me their stories and saying, ‘I wish I could do that.’ And I say, ‘Well, of course you can. Go ahead,’” Nelson said of her memory cloths.
Nelson’s retrospective at Common Wealth includes a broad range of work, from pieces incorporating hand-me-down quilt squares to multi-layered charm dolls and large, complex hangings made from Japanese Gampi paper.
But the conversation pieces, literally, are her memory cloths, sparked by an exhibit she saw in 2005 titled “The Art of War.” Featured were memory cloths from South Africa: brightly colored fabrics embroidered with images from the maker’s memory. Next to them hung the text of the stories behind the memories — experiences left out of the official record of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Nelson took the concept and began using memory cloths as a way to look at her own life, family relationships, travels and political views. The repetitive, intimate task of embroidery helped her discover new truths in her own stories.
“I was telling people these stories over and over, and I realized I needed a way to put these stories down,” she said. “I’m never going to write an autobiography, because I’m not a writer. But this was something I could do.”
Nelson has memory cloths inspired by her childhood summers in Door County. Memory cloths about her first “magical” weeks in Madison in 1975. Memory cloths that helped her come to terms with her mother’s serious illness and, later, her mother’s death.
About a year ago, Nelson traveled to South Africa to visit the people who first sparked the idea.
“I felt a little guilty about stealing this idea from these women who have these incredible traumas (in their past) — people being murdered, their houses being burnt down,” she said. “I told them how I’d come to this healing place and asked if that had happened to them. And they said yes, basically, that is the whole point.
“They talked about how part of (the process of memory cloths) was the making of it, and part of it was putting it on the wall until it no longer triggered a response,” she said. “They were so delighted that I had fallen in love with their process and was doing it here, too.”
During her retrospective at Common Wealth, Nelson invites anyone to stop by between 1-3 p.m. (through Oct. 11) to make their own memory cloth. She will have supplies available, but participants can choose to bring their own memory-imbued cloth, such as a table napkin or handkerchief.
Nelson is also participating in the months-long performance art piece “Café Allongé,” held at coffee shops throughout Madison. Produced by the artistic collaboration Spatula&Barcode, Café Allongé is part of the Wisconsin Triennial show taking place this fall at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
In her Café Allongé role, Nelson will be seated at a large table at Lakeside Street Coffee House each Wednesday through Dec. 18 to make memory cloths. Those who want to join her can sign up for a spot at her table on the website cafeallonge.net
Each week she’ll explore a different memory theme: Travel, mantras, politics, forgiveness, children, teachers, discoveries, mom, dad, blessings.
Nelson first learned to sew on her Aunt Mae’s old treadle sewing machine, and even today relies on a straight-stitch Singer from the 1950s.
For her memory cloths, she does not use an embroidery hoop, but irons on some backing fabric to provide body. Then “I fold them up and carry them in a little baggie with some embroidery thread and needles, and wherever I am, I work on it,” she said.
One of her “rules” for her own memory cloths is to start stitching images without a design in mind. Lettering is the only thing she might sketch out beforehand to make sure a word will fit.
“So it ends up with this sort of faux-outsider look, because sometimes you lose perspective and things look crookedy,” she said, “but I find that the interesting part.”
In January, Nelson, 65, retired from her dual role in art at UW-Madison, where she both taught in the art department and did outreach, partly as director of the Wisconsin Regional Art Program for nonprofessional artists. The mother of two adult daughters, Nelson also became chairwoman of the Madison Arts Commission this year.
Her husband, UW-Madison Afro-American Studies department director Craig Werner, urged her to do a retrospective exhibit. Nelson balked, she said, because she was afraid all the work she’d done over the years was too disparate. When she put it all together, however, she realized “I really did have an aesthetic that came through all of these different media,” she said.
“Part of it is inner life and spirituality. And part is this kind of heart-centered, joy-filled experience of the world,” she said. “And part is these memories of the experiences that I’ve had that are in the quilts and the Gampi paper.”
Though she’d put in 32 years at UW-Madison, Nelson actually retired because of a doctor’s orders: Stop embroidering.
“I have arthritis in my fingers,” she explained. But not making art was out of the question.
“I said, ‘Oh, no. I’ll stop sitting at the computer every day at work.’ If I have my choice of what I can use my fingers for for the rest of my life, I would rather embroider than do computer work,” she said. “That meant the job had to go.”
Still, the many years she spent with the Wisconsin Regional Art Project, advocating for nonprofessional artists, remains an integral part of Nelson’s work.
“I’ve always had this appreciation and care for — how do I say this — ‘regular people’ who are expressing themselves in whatever form, making what matters to them,” she said. With memory cloths, “I hope that’s what I’m doing.”