Amid a divisive election, a pandemic and unprecedented weather catastrophes across the country, we could all use a good night’s sleep right about now.
“My Bed: Enchanting Ways to Fall Asleep Around the World” is a picture book for children, but its message of—look, here is something we all have in common—is timely and comforting.
The book’s illustrations created in fabric and found objects are the work of Falmouth artist Salley Mavor, who has illustrated many picture books for children over her long career.
The original artwork for the book, along with other work by Ms. Mavor, is all part of “Bedtime Stitches” on view through December 22 at the Cahoon Museum of American Art in Cotuit.
Ms. Mavor’s art is both breathtaking in its intricacy and wholly accessible for young children. The hand-stitched art has the warm, homey feel of a beloved stuffed animal.
Given that picture books are often a child’s first exposure to art, Ms. Mavor takes her illustration work seriously. In this book, her goal is to create the feeling for children that the world is a safe place. “It’s definitely striking the right notes,” said museum director Sarah Johnson, adding that with things even more digital than usual in this moment, people are appreciating the hand-made quality of Ms. Mavor’s art.
Ms. Mavor’s fabric relief illustrations are entirely hand-stitched with tiny beads, buttons, hook and eyes, and other tiny embellishments worked into the elaborate scenes.
The book explores all the different ways children go to sleep around the world, from sleeping in a houseboat in The Netherlands to sleeping in an outdoor courtyard in Iran. Children sleep in different places and in different incarnations of a bed from futons in Japan to hammocks in Brazil.
Along with her hand-stitched artwork, Ms. Mavor’s research into the different cultures for each illustration was extensive. In addition to studying architecture, furnishings and landscapes, Ms. Mavor includes animals, plants and trees that are specific to each location. After getting the manuscript Ms. Mavor first spent time visualizing the different illustrations.
“She started with the different locations around the world and researched them,” Ms. Johnson said. “Once she created the children she kind of fell in love with them and then wanted to build places for them to live. It’s astonishing how she incorporates beads and fiber and all the hand-stitched detail. It’s very special. We’re lucky to have talented artists like Salley on Cape Cod.”
The whole project, including research, took Ms. Mavor two years to complete, which works out to about two months per scene—a fast pace for artwork so painstakingly detailed. “It’s a combination of craftsmanship and artistic vision,” said Ms. Johnson.
Countries included in the book include Ghana, Mongolia, Russia, India and Afghanistan as well as the United States. Children sleep on rooftops and under mosquito netting in warm climates and by warming stoves and built-in bunk beds in colder environs.
Shelves full of tiny books, stitched smoke swirling from a fabric chimney, tiny slippers, a faithful dog asleep on a rug and clothes hanging on the line are a few of the many details created by Ms. Mavor.
“There’s so much detail in the scenes, people have really been getting immersed in them,” Ms. Johnson said.
Seeing the artwork in person means also seeing the beautiful fabric borders, also embellished with hand-stitching, that surround each scene but are cropped out of the book. Also notable is that the illustrations in the book are enlarged from the smaller, original art works, meaning the artist is working at an even smaller scale than the book suggests.
Nine panels designed by the Cahoon explain the parts of Ms. Mavor’s process using text and visuals. They include sketches, fabrics, figures, wire, found objects, animals, beads and stitching.
The exhibit at the Cahoon also includes some of Ms. Mavor’s earlier work along with some of her sculptural creations.
One case contains a collection of Ms. Mavor’s felt Wee Folk figures. The assemblage includes a skier, a pirate, a fairy, a bride and one of Ms. Mavor’s most recent additions—a tiny Ruth Bader Ginsburg in black robe and iconic lace collar.
The adjacent case contains some of Ms. Mavor’s earliest work, including an essay written in grade school where a young Ms. Mavor professes that she wants to be an artist when she grows up because, she said, “Art is everything. Everything in a house or school is art.”
As if to prove this point the exhibit also includes a dollhouse Ms. Mavor made in 1975 after taking a woodworking class in art school. The artist refurbished it for the show, outfitting it with scenes of children at play in an upstairs bedroom, while a mother and two other children roll out dough in a kitchen scene. The rooms are all elaborately decorated with textured rugs and wallpaper, precursors to the her future interior illustrations.
Created in 2015, “Grate Hall”—a fabric sculpture that uses a cheese grater and other ordinary items including a whisk, a glove and a door handle, joined together with vines and fabric—also hearkens back to Ms. Mavor’s assertion as a 10-year-old that everything is art.
A second large sculpture, “Lichen Lookout,” also incorporates found and natural objects as well as fiber. Created in 2013, it was part of the first fairy-house exhibit at Highfield Hall & Gardens in Falmouth that Ms. Mavor helped organize.
“Self-Portrait,” a piece that will be familiar to patrons of the Woods Hole Library, shows Ms. Mavor’s life as a series of fabric dolls that spiral out, forming a circle that that starts with a tiny baby in 1955, the year she was born, that gradually grows up as the dolls and the years progress. Ms. Mavor includes milestones in her life; for example, she portrays herself in a wedding gown in 1982 and with two young children by her side in 1987. The progression also highlight different fashions including 1970s-inspired ponchos and batiked dresses.
Extensive addition information about the show and Ms. Mavor’s work can be found on the Cahoon’s website including a short video interview from Falmouth Community Television that shows Ms. Mavor at work in her studio.
“We’re trying to supplement our exhibits with a lot of online content for people who might not feel comfortable with coming in to the museum,” said Ms. Johnson, adding that the museum received a grant from the Coby Foundation in New York to help with the exhibit. The group supports projects in the textile and needle arts fields. “It was amazing to get that sponsorship,” Ms. Johnson said.
Despite the limitations of the pandemic, Ms. Johnson is still hoping people can turn out to see the show. “We’re trying to encourage homeschooling groups and pods to come and see the exhibit, and we’re also hoping to schedule a virtual studio tour with Ms. Mavor,” she said.
An open house on Sunday, December 6, from 10 AM to 4 PM will be an opportunity for the community to view the show for free. To keep to capacity limits, preregistration is required to visit the museum, which is open from 10 AM to 4 PM on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays. Call 508-428-7581, or preregister at www.cahoonmuseum.org/visit.