Featured image above: The Lapidarist, 2019, Hand embroidery on found photograph, © Julie Cockburn (left) and Ta Da 4, 2020, Hand embroidery on found photograph, © Julie Cockburn (right)
The blank canvas can be a daunting concept for even the most seasoned artists— there’s a weight to creating something from nothing and a paralysis that can come from limitless possibilities. It can be much more psychologically welcoming to start, instead, with an existing object or artwork to then reimagine. Fine artist Julie Cockburn embraces this concept in her design practice, delicately embroidering brightly colored geometric patterns into found images.
“I’m entering into a pre-existing conversation, rather than working with the proverbial blank canvas,” Cockburn tells me of her experience working with salvaged postcards, yearbook photos, studio portraits, and more. “It’s that journey of balancing an action and response that I find so interesting. My interventions are my way of making visible an emotional response to an image.”
The British artist originally studied sculpture at Central Saint Martins in London in the 1990s, where she first became enamored with the physical and multidimensional. “We were taught to use everything and anything as our materials,” she says. “Our limited budgets meant we found things in skips or charity shops, and I think it is that grounding that led me to experiment with combining different materials. Since college, I have consistently manipulated found images in my work, using photographs, postcards, bookplates, and my own childhood drawings.”
This schooling along with handcraft skills she learned from her grandmother set Cockburn on the path to her unique style. “My grandmother was a proficient seamstress— she was part of that make-do-and-mend generation,” says Cockburn. “She taught me needlework when I was very young.” Due in part to this influence, Cockburn’s predilection for aesthetics was honed early on. “I have always been interested in the image,” she says. “When I was a child, I much preferred picture books and magazines like National Geographic to reading a story, and I would often make up my own narrative.”
Cockburn has nurtured this mindset over the years, cultivating a masterful grasp of color, shape, and their interplay on a sepia-toned postcard of a landscape or antique portrait. “I use embroidery in a painterly way, blocking color and shape, or outlining the images in the photos I find,” she explains. “The many hours that it takes to make a piece enable me to really connect with the work and get lost in the rhythm of the stitching. It’s laborious and boring at times, but I listen to radio plays and audiobooks while I sew. There is something in the intricacy of the labor that sits paradoxically alongside the old, discarded, and often damaged photos that I work with.”
While jumble shops and antique stores originally served as the treasure troves for Cockburn’s found materials, she now primarily scours eBay, among other online platforms. “eBay has an enormous selection of mid-20th century photographs from estate sales and people’s collections,” she says. “I like this era of studio photography and large format prints. There is an integrity to the printing processes, color tinting, and archetypal ‘portrait,’ ‘landscape,’ or ‘still life’ imagery. I choose these slightly staid images over more experimental ones, as it leaves me room to add my own creativity, using a personal visual language that I have developed over the years.”
I am far from alone in my infatuation with Cockburn’s work. She’s had solo shows in New York and Brussels, and her hometown of London has honored her with exhibitions at The Photographers’ Gallery, the Flowers Gallery, and elsewhere. Her art has struck a chord with online audiences as well, and some of her pieces are actively being auctioned off on Artsy.
“I think that people respect and enjoy the crafted nature of my work and appreciate the discernible time that it has taken me to make them— in particular, the cut geometric collages and embroideries,” Cockburn says of her work’s popularity. “I don’t intend that response to be didactic, and I hope that by opening up a discourse of interpretation I am, in some way, inviting the viewer to do the same, and to look inside themselves for what they can see beneath the surface of an image.”