Artist sews, reaps rewards

Intricate floral scenes earn acclaim, prizes


When Columbia artist Susan Levi-Goerlich sees someone studying one of her embroidered silk garden scenes, nose within an inch of the brilliantly hued threads, she knows the inevitable question will come soon enough:

"You did this with a sewing machine?!"

Yes, the artist creates her distinctive brand of fiber artwork with a 25-year-old Sears Kenmore sewing machine, which sits on a large, neat table in Levi-Goerlich's spacious basement studio.

A graduate of George Washington University's law school, Levi-Goerlich, 40, has been working with embroidery and hand-painted silks since 1986. She exhibits her work at craft shows and in galleries around the country, but has passed on practicing law.

Levi-Goerlich lives with her German-born husband, Uli Levi-Goerlich, a foreign language teacher at a Washington junior high school, and their two children, Julia, 8, and Kevin, 5.

A Pikesville native, she received her undergraduate degree in studio art from the University of Maryland, College Park and lived in Munich, Germany, for two years after law school.

She has won numerous awards at regional crafts festivals. Prize ribbons are kept in the laundry room.

"I hate doing the wash, so I may as well have something nice to look at while I'm in there," she says.

Standing close to a Levi-Goerlich piece, it is easy to see why so many people mistake it for a delicate watercolor painting. Levi-Goerlich uses traditional silk-painting techniques to apply dyes to weaves of pure silk and organza.

Using her sewing machine as a drawing tool, she blends and mixes colors by layering thousands of stitches onto the delicate silk "canvas." The movement of the fabric under the needle gives each piece a painterly effect. Each tapestry becomes a striking mix of texture, color and imagery.

"It's kind of amazing to think that I start off with a beautiful piece of fabric and then I cover it with thousands and thousands of stitches," she says with a laugh. "It's very detailed work, but the sewing process goes quickly because I use the sewing machine with a sort of free motion.

"If I were doing this kind of work by hand," she says, "it'd be more meditative and slow. This way, it's not so anal."

She says her old sewing machine has "served me well. It does a straight or zigzag stitch. I don't need a machine that thinks more than I do."

Each piece -- even the smaller works -- takes several weeks to complete.

Levi-Goerlich spends hours bent over her sewing machine, the buzzing of the stitching and the sounds of National Public Radio keeping her company.

She begins each series of works by hand-painting large sheets of white silk, which she buys wholesale. The silk arrives at her house rolled in large bundles.

Silk, says Levi-Goerlich, "is wonderful to work with and isn't as expensive as most people think." After being painted, the silk is double layered and stretched tight for embroidering.

She says she can work for weeks on a large piece and then move quickly to work (and complete) a smaller piece "just so that I have a sense of closure," she says. Small pieces are usually 8 by 8 inches in a frame and are priced at about $80.

Larger pieces (usually 32 by 38 inches) constitute a good chunk of her business.

"I first did large pieces just to draw people over to my booth at crafts shows," she says. "They're more expensive, but people really seem to respond to them."

Though she has done a few abstract pieces, most notably featuring letters of the alphabet, Levi-Goerlich's true love is reproducing garden scenes from hundreds of photographs she has taken in arboretums and gardens around the world.

She might use a photograph more than once, sometimes modeling her embroidery on a tiny portion of the picture.

Usually, three types of people are drawn to her work, Levi-Goerlich says. "There are people who like the imagery and like the landscape, then there are gardeners and sewers," she says. "You can always see them coming because they've got this intense look."

Like French Impressionist painter Claude Monet, beautiful gardens have always fascinated Levi-Goerlich. They are featured prominently in her work, and she has become an avid amateur gardener.

"I'd be a lot more successful at the gardening thing if it weren't for the deer," she says. "I'm trying to figure out which flowers to plant that they won't like."

The Maryland State Arts Council recently awarded Levi-Goerlich a $1,000 grant. Though she hasn't figured out how she'll spend the money, "it's really wonderful to have some money that's earmarked for `artistic growth,' " she says. "I'm not going to use it for supplies, that's for sure."

Pub Date: 4/20/99

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