A Stitch in Time

Scott Ellegood's career switch from music to fiber art is paying off

In the mid-'90s, Scott Ellegood was putting in long hours playing viola and viola da gamba in the intensive music program at Indiana University. He decided he needed a break.

"I was tired of being in the practice room," says the transplanted Tucsonan, sitting in the living room of his Armory Park home. "So I started doing art classes."

He worked through beginning classes in painting and clay, and then dipped casually into "Intro to Fibers."

"It was totally not what I was expecting. I thought it would be, 'Let's knit a sweater.' Instead it was totally creative."

Before long, the classical musician burrowed into fabrics and fibers and colors, crafting freewheeling abstracted quilts out of his own dyed fabrics, using techniques picked up from his studies of African art. From the quilts he moved on to his "crazy" dolls, small male figures crafted in a fiber technique called knotless netting, and onto his more recent embroidered portraits on linen. Meticulously crafted over 40 or 50 hours, the intense portraits read as photorealist from a distance and abstract up close.

Ellegood didn't abandon his first art completely--he has two degrees in music from Indiana--but his third and final degree is an MFA in fiber. Now 42, the artist says he felt comfortable in his new medium from the start, in part because he grew up in a New England family of quilters and knitters.

"I knew how to do stitching stuff from growing up, from being around material. My mother always made her own clothes and my sister's clothes. She taught me how to knit when I had the measles. She took up quilting when I was in high school; my grandmother was a quilter and so was my great-grandmother. We have a couple of my great-grandmother's quilts. I'd been exposed to it."

Ellegood's career switch has lately been paying off. Already in 2007 his embroidered portraits have made it into two significant fiber shows, Fiberart International, opening this month in Pittsburgh, and Materials: Hard & Soft in Denton, Texas, which gave him a juror's award. He's shown in multiple venues in Tucson, including Platform, Dinnerware and the Temple Gallery, and he's included in a new group exhibition that will open at Obsidian, his new gallery, later this month.

"He's an exceptional fiber artist," says Elouise Rusk, proprietor of Obsidian. "His execution is fabulous, but he's very free."

Rusk will show not only Ellegood's quilts ("They're wonderful, not traditional, not so precise") but the dolls and embroidered portraits as well. "The work will range from the 2-D to the 3-D, from the whimsical to the abstract."

Perhaps best of all, in February Ellegood won a fat grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, one of just 11 doled out this year to artists and writers around the state. Ellegood, who moved to Tucson with partner Charles Overmyer just three years ago, is the only Old Pueblo artist to win one of the $5,000 Artists Projects grants this round.

"It will get me out of my comfort zone," he says of the windfall. He's already bought some new equipment, including a loom and metal tables for dyeing fabric. A new-to-him 962 Singer 503A sewing machine, a sturdy all-metal model, is "just like the one I used all through grad school."

The new "toys," as he calls them, will help him take his work bigger and allow him to delve into new materials.

"I want to make my own fabric on the loom, but weave with unusual materials, stainless steel or paper."

The small scale of the embroidery portraits has been dictated in part by space constraints. He headed to San Francisco after grad school, and worked as an IT specialist for a dot-com until it went under in the technology bust. Unemployed, he turned his serious attention to art once more, and living in a relatively small urban apartment, began embroidering portraits about the size of a real-life face.

They were originally inspired by the unending stream of faces he'd see on BART, the San Francisco subway. The portraits start as photographs, either found images or pictures he takes himself, but they undergo a digital transformation.

"I manipulate the photos to the point where they no longer look like the person. They become Everyman."

He feeds the photos into a computer and breaks them down into abstracted pixels, which translate into his broad swathes of stitched color on linen. He constructs the faces by hand, with a painstaking buttonhole stitch; the backgrounds are embroidered too, but in relatively plain tones of white or blue-black.

With his new equipment--the vintage Singer has already arrived--he hopes to venture into larger-scale machine pieces "without losing the physicality" of the handmade works, perhaps combining a machine-embroidered background with a hand-embroidered image. And a new studio set up in the garage will give him the space he needs to make the bigger combo works.

He intends to energize the backgrounds, too, jazzing them up with dyes or printing. The portraits have already started to become more three-dimensional--one face has a gash in the forehead--and more of a media mix. A series of sharp nails outline the visage in "Personal Space," pearls are stitched into a self-portrait, and tiny rocks rise up from a number of works.

"I'm trying to get out of the mode that textiles have to be pretty," he says, and away from the idea that fiber--a traditional female medium--should be the exclusive province of women artists.

"There are a surprising number of men who embroider," he says. "A lot of people are looking at embroidery and pushing the boundaries.

And he loathes the conventional distinction between "fine art" and "craft."

"I hate that war between the two. I don't like being pegged as a craft artist. I'm a contemporary artist.

Last year, for instance, he was accepted into shows that were not about craft, including an exhibition of all media in Spencertown, N.Y., on the theme of the Self, and another in San Diego of digitally based art. He doesn't especially identify with fiber artists.

"I have more affinity with the mixed-media folks, with people pushing boundaries."

Ellegood has no plans to quit his day job, as a curriculum administrator in the UA School of Art, a position he says he loves. Just as he once leapt easily from music to art, he readily jumps the barrier between office and studio. The job is 8 to 5, and he stitches in the wee hours from 3 to 7 a.m.

"I'm enjoying it," he says. "I'm used to throwing myself in. If I don't have outside structure I don't get anything done."

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