making and meaning

She dreams of waves rolling down the railway tracks, filling the subway tunnels underneath before surging out onto the road. Cars flip sideways to float away to who-knows-where. Her faraway friend, R, waves from the other side of the short tunnel, treading water up to her neck in the churning foam of the sea behind her.

She often dreams of being tumbled in deep, black water; suspended in time. Fear and excitement in equal measure.

Waking up from this brief and vivid dream she feels deep loneliness. There’s no meaning there, she thinks, before turning on her side and drifting off to sleep.

Rob Tarr's photo of massive wave at Kalk Bay Harbour

Rob Tarr’s photo of massive wave at Kalk Bay Harbour

Photos of Massive Waves in South Africa – Kalk Bay Harbour – SAPeople – Your Worldwide South African Community

present tense

Such random thoughts and questions today.

I’m trying to understand my compulsion to stitch images onto cloth. Also trying to understand why I’m drawn to certain images and not others … and to find a link, if it exists, between them. I know that I am searching for connections between all living things; connections that speak of some kind of universal unity, or origin. Something simple and complete, like a small dot, the full stop at the end of this sentence.

Willemien de Villiers | Personal Mythology

Willemien de Villiers | Personal Mythology

Repeat patterns console me, maybe because I frequently imagine my body’s molecular functions to play out as a continuous patterned chain of actions: hurt and healing, disease and repair. A chained reaction, like a daisy chain, or a string of paper people holding hands.

Or something like the image below.

Detail from a painting by me that doesn't exist anymore.

Willemien de Villiers | Inside of me, detail | oil on canvas

Often I return to imagery of the female body, and reproductive processes and organs – images of botanical and mammalian wombs that magnetically pull ideas from my mind.

What comes first: meaning or making?

Maybe I am hoping to stitch all my selves together.

Willemien de Villiers | Personal Mythology

Willemien de Villiers | Personal Mythology

What is it I am hoping to find when I trawl images from medieval astronomy or fifteenth century microscopy or seventeenth century cellular biology on the Internet? My mind in an unfocused haze, like the soft gaze of meditation, yet razor sharp when recognising the image I need. What, or who, is behind this knowing? Is the person who knows, separate from the one who seeks?

Willemien de Villiers | detail

Willemien de Villiers | detail

Willemien de Villiers | Get the Fuck out of my House

Willemien de Villiers | Get the Fuck out of my House

I sometimes find it useful to run (more like ducking and diving) with my camera in an attempt to erase the surface meaning of a work. However, these images then reveal hidden layers that (alas) start a new search for meaning.

Willemien de Villiers | stitched canvas

Willemien de Villiers | erasure 1

Willemien de Villiers | erasure 2Willemien de Villiers | erasure 2

Willemien de Villiers | Erasure 3

Willemien de Villiers | Erasure 3

Happy creating, and making sense of it all!

this creative life


Many years have passed since I last visited here. Much has changed, but one thing has remained constant and unwavering: a commitment to living a creative life. For me, that means living with my eyes wide open to the ordinary beauty of everyday life. Shadows on a wall, flattened bottle tops embedded in the tar of shopping malls, faded flowers, snail patterns on leaves, foam lace on the beach. And stains – those visual storytellers that remind us of events and moments where everything did not go according to plan.

Red, red wine

I discovered the inherent beauty of stains many years ago – I’ve never been a purist of any kind, so I suppose it’s not surprising. Stains remind me that life isn’t – shouldn’t be – perfect. When I was approached a few years ago to offer a stitching workshop at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, I knew I would have to incorporate stains – the domestic kind that especially women encounter on a daily basis, and whose job it (still) often is to remove. I’ve had a few in-person workshops since then, with thrilling results; for me, the best part is so see the relief and utter glee on the faces of the participants as they mess about with red wine, tomato sauce, turmeric, coffee.


Words matter

I’ve always messed about with words, even before I could fully understand them. From the very beginning, I loved the patterns they formed on the pages of books, and I loved the loopy shapes of my very first writing exercises at age five or six. And of course I love that so many stories can be told and written, in so many languages, with a finite number of words.

The permutations and possibilities are endless.

I suspect that most people share my fear of the blank page, or canvas and sometimes find it hard to know what to write, say, paint, draw. Word play is used in my workshop to help unearth personal, subconscious content as a tool to find the visual elements of your story.

This year I finally managed to translate my in-person Stained Table Narrative Stitching Workshop into a digital version, which is available here https://willemien-de-villiers-studio.teachable.com

You will have lifetime access and can take as long as you need to complete it. I’ll connect with you in the comments section, available after each module (there are six).

Happy place

I loved every aspect of creating this version of my workshop, but most of all for the opportunity it gave me to revisit my own process. To rediscover the reasons I create, of exactly what excites me to create. Revisiting this very neglected blog is one of the many aspects of my art-making I rediscovered, especially visiting the stored library of images I’ve used in previous blogs.

I chose a random selection to show in the story below – a reminder of the quirks of my mind, as unique as yours.

Happy creating!

Banished – the making of a story 

Because I never start a new work knowing what it is I want to do or say, I was curious to find out more about the process I follow when making one of my narrative textile pieces; about how I get from point A (sourcing/finding the piece of fabric) to B (when I snip off the last thread, knowing it’s done).

To that end, I documented as much as I could, by taking snapshots, and jotting down my thoughts as they shifted and changed throughout each day. Sometimes, when very engrossed, I forgot to do so and will have to fill in the blanks.

The image below shows the underside of the original cloth, which I found in a charity shop, stained by me with black pigment ink. At this point I feel completely neutral about it, except that I like the juxtaposition of the stark, graphic quality of the ink splatters, with the bright stitched lines.

I leave this piece alone for several months, while finishing other projects. When I next look at it, I rummage through my pile of collected bits and bobs, literally feeling for the right shape and colour to present itself. The mood feels playful. I’m aware that two contrasting styles are developing on the left and right side of the cloth. I still think of it as a kind of workshop sampler, to show students, not as a developing story. I decide that it’s a good way to approach every new work – keeps anxiety about content and meaning at bay.

The first shape that caught my eye

Choosing red thread

A line of zigzag seems to belong


The next step is to personalise the stitched red flower.

When I start experimenting with netting overlays, my mind shifts into another gear. I no longer only see shapes and colours, but something deeper emerges. I think of erasure, of what we choose to reveal, and choose to hide.

At this point, I take out my reference files to flip through and find an image, or words, to hang onto a feeling that was beginning to emerge. When I look at these images, culled from the internet and other sources over many years, I do so with  ‘soft’ eyes, without any specific attachement to outcome. Difficult to explain. I know what I need when I see it.

I find a line of type I’ve used before, “Get the fuck out of my house.” I remember when I heard it – listening on the radio to the initial trial of Oscar Pistorious.  At the time, I was busy working on ideas for one of those gorgeous exhibitions curated by Margie Murgatroyd for the Casa Labia; the theme (in a nutshell) was interpretations of Paradise. Oscar allegedly shouted those words to the intruder he thought was in his house, and on that day, the sentence collided with my pondering of the biblical fable of Adam and Eve, and the snake and the tree of knowledge, and their eventual banishment. I heard the god of that story, shouting the same wards, as he chased them from his garden.

I love what happens when you invite the unexpected into your creative process.  When I first looked at this cloth, and splashed it with ink, I had no idea it would lead me here. To a retelling of an old fable; a poweful and cautionary tale of what happens when humans exist separated from nature.

I’m drawn to visual images from the 12th to the 15th century; a certain purity and innocence existed then, combined with a magical understanding of how life and the universe worked. I decide to use this depiction of Adam and Eve to finish my story.

In the end Adam feels superfluous to this tale, and is left out. Because this is also a tale about the right that every woman has to live the life she wants.

All the pieces are coming together. I love how it looks as if Eve is inviting the snake to join her.

All that is  left to do, is to tell the other side of the story.  And to rewind the colours, and find the next cloth.



I have neglected this blog for far too long. It used to serve as my thinking space, where I mostly tried to explain troublesome things to myself. (I’m not even sure how many followers I have, or whether that matters.)

Someone recently asked why I feel drawn to explore the dark topic of domestic violence in my recent stitching work, and this seems like a good place to try and find an answer.



Source: stitch – Willemien de Villiers


“I am a man”

Source: stitch – Willemien de Villiers


Work in progress. “Shallow Grave” | Willemien de Villiers

 Over the years, I’ve worked with many other themes – the interconnection of every living organism on our planet, the beauty of the natural world, especially that which can only be seen on a microscopic level, the never-ending cycle of life and death; renewal and decay. On a simplistic, superficial level,  I’m drawn to the patterns these repetitive cycles produce, but ultimately, I’m hoping to find a safe place of belonging; to return to that brief time after conception, when (I like to imagine) male and female energies are in balance.


Arum lily seeds | harmony


Connection, oil on canvas. 800 x 800mm

‘Connection”, oil on canvas | Willemien de Villiers

I was born in 1957, in Pretoria, South Africa, during the very repressed era of Apartheid. Apartheid was an act of violence on a grand scale that all but severed the roots of both the perpetrators’ and the victims’ humanity. As an introverted middle child of a large family, I sensed an absence … of truth-telling, openness, intimacy … something I couldn’t possibly give voice to at that young age. I tried to fill this emptiness by making dolls from seeds and leaves in the garden. I talked to plants. I told stories to invisible friends.


Eucalyptus leaf | before the beginning



“Mother Cell”, oil on canvas | Willemien de Villiers

Growing up in this completely segregated and separated community, combined with early childhood sexual abuse (maternal grandfather), left me with the gift of hyper vigilance, and a sensitivity to the presence of abuse in others’ lives. Silence is the perpetrators’ best friend, especially in countries where patriarchal systems still rule, as is the case here, in South Africa.

Working with reported details of domestic abuse helps me to cope in our violent society. It helps me to heal. While stitching, I feel close to those who’ve suffered abuse. In return, I hope that the finished work will inspire conversation, or a different way of thinking. Will raise awareness.


An honest and thought-provoking conversation with Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola about her book “Rape: A South African nightmare.”

Source: Prof Pumla Dineo Gqola on rape culture, patriarchy and gender politics in SA

On my trips to charity shops, I look for domestic textiles like tablecloths, doilies and tray cloths that show a lot of wear and tear, and that give me a sense of previous lives, or narratives to work with. I like to imagine the women who embroidered them; their lives. Most of them happy and content, I hope, but sometimes I sense a darkness, a sadness stitched and knotted into the bucolic scene of flowers and happy homes so often found on these small acts of domesticity.


Detail, “Domestic Bliss” | Willemien de Villiers


Detail2, “Domestic Bliss” | Willemien de Villiers

Dietrich and the skill of folding sullied flesh with frank words

A wonderfully written essay on Keith Dietrich’s Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives, exhibition. I can’t wait to see it again.

My View by Robyn Sassen and other writers


Has this broken world in which we live, replete as it is with an anything goes mentality, become numbed by the notion of horror? Have images of atrocity lost their bite? This is a question you might be tempted to ask as you enter the space of Keith Dietrich’s astonishingly beautiful exhibition which focuses on crimes and punishments relating to colonial slavery from the late 1600s until the early 1800s. But as you peruse this body of work, which in its thinking and its execution brings the spectre of slavery to the fore, you will be unnerved and seduced in a way that graphic representations of violence just cannot reach.

In 1985, film director Claude Lanzmann’s monumental work Shoah shook the foundation of what Holocaust documentary film should be. This monster production which is over 10 hours in length and which took some 11 years to create redefined the telling…

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turbine art fair

present tense

Today and tomorrow are the last two days to see my work @ The Turbine Art Fair (Turbine Hall, 65 Ntemi Piliso Street, Newtown, Johannesburg) at Stand TH 14, Carol Lee Fine Art.

Here is a glimpse of my work there:


Before the Beginning 2 | pigment ink on archival paper


Haeckel’s Mistake | pigment ink on archival paper


Prayer for Atoms | pigment ink on archival paper


Cell | pigment ink on archival paper

ArtLab Scan_PO10399

The Memory of All Things | pigment ink on archival paper


After Haeckel | pigment ink on archival paper

Groen Geboorte

Groen Geboorte | oil on canvas, 400 x 400mm

Well-Known Duties, detail

Well-Known Duties, detail | oil on canvas, 800 x 800mm

Happy browsing and creating!

hitting the ground crawling

The sun beats down; beats her behind her neck, the small of her back, the back of her knees. Finally beats her down to the hot sand where she falls, face-down, offering the blistered soles of her feet to a small group of curious seagulls. Something green and sticky, like strands of chlorophyll, swirl behind her eyelids. Bitter spit pools in her mouth before the green turns to black.

Detail of a sunspot

Detail of a sunspot

Galileo, Thomas Heriot, and David Fabricius first observed sunspots with a telescope in 1610 | All About Sunspots – One Minute Astronomer.

(Another dream fragment: One hundred islands spread out from the shoreline into the grey, distant horizon. To her sleeping mind, they seem to be specifically designed to meditate on. She feels excited to tell her Buddhist friend Erika about them. Initially she finds it easy to hop from one to the other, barely pausing to breathe. Soon they are further apart, and the water separating them becomes ever deeper. Unable to reach the last cluster, where she needs to be, she starts treading water.

The Rock Islands of Palau

The Rock Islands of Palau

Ancient Small Humans’ Bones Found on Island

“Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger discovered thousands of bones of small humans in a pair of wave-washed caves while kayaking among the Rock Islands of Palau.”

Waking up, she remembers how her dream from the previous night ended. The blister-hot sun and bitter taste in her mouth. She was walking on Muizenberg beach which was transformed into a nightmarish scene with oil-slicked black sand. Men and women and children, all wearing yellow anoraks, rushed back and forth between the shoreline and a row of large trucks. The beach was strewn with debris of every description: broken cupboards, chests, kelp entangled rags, toasters, chairs. A pink hula hoop.

She was clutching a large handbag against her stomach. It was filled with soil; dark and fragrant. A few seedlings have sprouted here and there. A drunk man passed her, begging.

She ignored him and kept on walking, away from the disaster.

Now staring up at a corner of the ceiling where a spider is spinning a silver double helix. She imagines stroking its grey, pulsing abdomen with her forefinger. She wishes spiders weren’t so soft-bodied; so difficult to pick up and hold.

The genus Argiope includes rather large and spectacular spiders that often have a strikingly coloured abdomen. These spiders are distributed throughout the world. Most countries in tropical or temperate climates host one or more species that are similar in appearance. The etymology of the name is from a Greek name meaning "silver-faced."

“The genus Argiope includes rather large and spectacular spiders that often have a strikingly coloured abdomen. These spiders are distributed throughout the world. Most countries in tropical or temperate climates host one or more species that are similar in appearance. The etymology of the name is from a Greek name meaning “silver-faced.”

Argiope (spider) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

present tense

I’m learning a new visual language; a new way to express my thoughts and feelings. Also a new post-literate language to write in. Fragmented sentences thread my days in the studio. A bit like a broken spiderweb, the sticky strands stick to my mind as I scribble them down. Don’t look for meaning here, the marks seem to say.

The sentences I hear are short and cryptic: How afraid we were. How hard I cried. It is cold. Something mysterious is going on. The parcel arrives.

Don’t look for meaning here.

Mostly my thoughts leak through my pen as asemic writing. Pages of scribbled pattern. I try to capture it in my stitchings; the reverse side of words; of images. Where often, the real meaning lies.

Paradise Reversed | Willemien de Villiers

untitled | willemien de villiers

untitled | willemien de villiers

untitled | willemien de villiers

untitled | willemien de villiers

untitled | willemien de villiers

untitled | willemiendevilliers

untitled | willemiendevilliers

More soon. Who knows where this will lead?

In the meantime, happy creating!

goodbye aloe

present tense

I associate blooming aloes with Nelson Mandela, who was born in the winter month of July in Mvezo, a village on the banks of the Mbashe River, near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape.  July and August are cold months in South Africa, and the spikes of our proud aloes spice our winter landscape with red heat.

Aloe Ferox, via the Albany Museum

Aloe Ferox, via the Albany Museum

Albany Museum: Ikhala: The aloe that serves society.

Please follow the above link to read more about Ikhala; the warrior aloe – a truly magnificent plant with a lot of cultural meaning.


This post is a brief visual sharing of my latest inspiration: winter’s dying bouquet combined with early signs of spring – bits and pieces I found while E was busy pruning the vineyard in preparation for next year’s harvest.

The colours of decay and new life – brown + sap green – are appealing.

no more red | willemien de villiers
no more red | willemien de villiers
goodbye aloe | willemien de villiers
goodbye aloe | willemien de villiers

collection of winter and early spring

collection of winter and early spring | willemien de villiers

detail of aloe candelabra + nasturtium leaves | willemien de villiers

detail of aloe candelabra + nasturtium leaves | willemien de villiers

brittle frond of decaying aloe | willemien de villiers

brittle frond of decaying aloe | willemien de villiers

The secrets of the arum | willemien de villiers
The secrets of the arum | willemien de villiers

I quote the following from Hadeco – The History of Zantedeschia and Propagation by Tissue Culture : “This bulb was highly regarded by the Xhosa for its medicinal and edible qualities. Placing a warm leaf on the forehead is said to aid headaches and the fresh leaf is soothing for insect bites. The leaf and flower stems can be cooked and were often eaten with mealie-meal. Zantedeschia aethiopica is also famous for growing to a monstrous size of 1.8 m in its favoured habitat of wet, marshy ground.”

Click the link to read more about this beautiful lily that grows with such abundance in the Western Cape regions.

pressed flower ring + golden chalice nub | willemien de villiers

pressed flower ring + golden chalice nub | willemien de villiers

new growth | willemien de villiers

new growth | willemien de villiers

Enjoy and happy creating!

new work and process

present tense

a quick post to share new stitching/textile work in progress – happy creating!

Willemien de Villiers | pincushion from my garden + new textile

Willemien de Villiers | pincushion from my garden + new textile

Willemien de Villiers | pincushion from my garden + new textile, 2

Willemien de Villiers | pincushion from my garden + new textile, 2

Willemien de Villiers | imaginary cells | detail

Willemien de Villiers | imaginary cells | detail

Willemien de Villiers | imaginary cells | detail 2

Willemien de Villiers | imaginary cells | detail 2

Willemien de Villiers | virus, virus on the wall | detail

Willemien de Villiers | virus, virus on the wall | detail


Let’s drive somewhere we’ve never been before, Sarah says. I leave our familiar circular route and take one of the many rutted tracks that leads to the Far Beyond. The car bounces over the small and hardened anthills that entirely cover its red clay surface. In the far distance, we can just make out what appears to be a settlement of mud houses – red, like the road.

Ant Hill Hat by Rita Ikonen

Ant Hill Hat by Rita Ikonen

Hat-itecture: Architects, Artists Create Hats Inspired by London | Ecouterre.

“Architect-turned-milliner Gabriela Ligenza has teamed up with the London Festival of Architecture to curate a pop-up exhibition that explores the intersection between hats and architecture. Ligenza and multidisciplinary design duo You&Me commissioned a group of local artists, architects and designers to produce hats inspired by the city of London.”

The settlement looks ancient, but I sense that it was very modern in its time – whenever that was – even ahead of its time. Is this our time? I wonder out loud as we drive past a row of low, sturdy dwellings decorated with many blue hand prints, fanning out like the feathers of strutting birds. We leave the car at the end of the lane and walk to the labyrinthine heart of the village, where the narrow alleys are covered with sheets of hand-blown glass that reflect pools of muted rainbows onto the ochre walls.

Old window containing a single sheet of float glass in the upper left section, Jena, Germany. The remaining sections are possibly not float glass as indicated by the distorted reflections of a tree.

Old window containing a single sheet of float glass in the upper left section, Jena, Germany. The remaining sections are possibly not float glass as indicated by the distorted reflections of a tree.

Float glass – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

I have been in a place like this before, Sarah says, craning her neck to look at the glass ceiling, in a small country that eventually toppled from the top of a large continent and crumbled into the sea. I suppose we’re lucky, she adds, being far away from so much much water.

We are hungry, and begin to look for a place to stop and eat. All the eating halls we find are filthy and full of stale air. We keep on walking until Sarah spots an open field, green and muddy, but festooned with tables and chairs and bright streamers hanging from bare-branched winter trees. The tables still hold the remnants of a recent feast, and noticing us, the waiting men and women quickly start clearing away the debris – I spot an entire cake (small, round, chocolate) being dumped into woven hessian sack. One of the women leads us to our table – a small child-sized one, with its sturdy legs firmly planted in the muddy ground.

Sarah and I shake our heads, simultaneously exclaiming, No, this won’t do.

The woman grins, as if we’ve passed some arcane test. I didn’t really think I could fool you, she says and takes us to a proper table, with proper chairs.

The table is already set, and two men arrive with trays of food, none of which I recognise, and in colours I have never seen before. The waiting men and women don’t seem to understand when I ask if the dishes contain meat. I realise that I’ve not seen any animals – domestic or wild – in the settlement, which is good news, or bad, depending.

copyright: Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz | Pâté of Chicken Livers - Gourmet: September 1965

copyright: Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz | Pâté of Chicken Livers – Gourmet: September 1965

The Way We Ate.

“Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz are photographers and authors in New York City who share a desire to re-create, cook and capture some of the best recipes of the 20th Century that they either missed the first time around, or want to relive in their own kitchens.”

After our meal, we walk back to the heart of the village. On our way we pass a dry moat, its walls and bottom sprouting weeds from a multitude of cracks. We go into several small shops that sell trinkets and intricately embellished fabrics.  In one of them, a slice of the moon is on offer.

Even though I find it hard to believe, my heart aches as we walk – empty-handed – back to find our car; my left hand opens and closes as I try to grasp its chalky smile.

photo of the moon's surface: NASA

photo of the moon’s surface: NASA

London Stereoscopic Company – Official Web Site.

present(ly) tense

Did you know that the moon doesn’t have any ‘weather’? (That’s why items left there by astronauts will remain undisturbed forever.)

I am rediscovering the collages of Katrien de Blauwer at the moment – the one below resonates strongly today. There’s definitely a short story there…

On her website I found this quote – Where must we hide when it comes from inside? by J. Taylor. (James Taylor?)

Another perfect gift.

Katrien De Blauwer

Katrien De Blauwer

Work : Katrien De Blauwer.

Happy creating!