The coffee table in Elena Caron’s Raleigh living room is half covered with embroidery hoops both big and small.
There are ones — the size of dinner plates —with finished designs, each of a serene-looking young woman sprouting flowers from her hair. There are tinier ones of torsos wearing sewn-on shirts topped with pencil-drawn cat heads wearing flower crowns, just waiting to be stitched.
The colors are reminiscent of children’s books, bright and happy, popping sunnily against one another. Upon close inspection, the completed ones are heavily dotted with French knot stitches, a stitch which people seem to either love or hate given the exactness of its technique. Most of the flowers are done using the satin stitch, wide stitches that line up like pencils all in a row and stretch out to the full width of each petal.
She learned these stitches from her late grandmother growing up in Ukraine. The stitched flowers also remind her of her late grandfather, a horticulturist, who taught her both the English language and gardening. Her grandparents raised her from the age of 9 after her mother moved to Moscow and never returned. Her artwork become more poignant since it captures bits of both of them.
Caron, now 32, lives in Raleigh with her husband and three daughters in a brightly-colored house that evokes warmth as much as happiness. There’s a painting by her husband over the sofa, photographs of the children on the wall and a tiny handwritten note filled with X’s and O’s on a side table; little signs of care dotted around amongst the everyday necessities and collections of life.
Despite her talent, Caron hasn’t always seen herself as an artist. Seven years ago, she found herself alone with her husband’s acrylic paints one day and began to use them, re-discovering her creative side. However, becoming an artist, was less simple. She recently finished the year-long Launch Program at Visual Art Exchange, which works with artists and makers to strengthen their professional skills. The program’s coordinator, Shannon Newby, who initially met Caron three years ago, said, “When I first met her she was very quick to say that she was not an artist, and that she felt like she was creative, but didn’t know what she would make.”
Caron worked with acrylics and watercolor and encaustic for awhile, but then returned to expressing herself with needle and thread. In speaking about her past work, she said, “I think all of those things were building blocks for what I’m doing right now.”
For Caron, embroidering makes time stop and everything else disappear. “I think of embroidery as my life. Often we just see one little piece and that’s how I work,” Caron explained. “Let me just work on this flower and then at the end everything comes together and you can see the whole picture.”
Along with selling work that comes ready to hang in embroidery hoops, Caron will have tea towels and pillows coming out later this year, and currently sells cards along with fabric dolls. The latter includes Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou and Lucille Ball dolls. Caron sees the women as role models for their strength, perseverance and joy. Kahlo has a special place in Caron’s heart for the painter’s hard work despite being in physical pain for much of her life.
Caron also views her work as a chance to give back, donating 10 percent of her sales to the International Justice Mission, a group of lawyers that helps women and children stuck in sexual slavery. Coming from a country where sex trafficking is rampant, Caron feels it is important to help women from her homeland, the spirit of whom often inspires her portraits. “All the ladies they seem kind of serene,” Caron said. “They came through the pain and they’re beautiful.”
Betsy Greer writes about craft and activism at craftivism.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org