Like most people, I have a long list of projects begun but never quite finished. These incomplete starts are psychologically burdensome – stirring up feelings of guilt, self-doubt and a general sense of wasted time and labor. I am not alone in this – but the lengthily named Society for the Prevention of Unfinished Needlework is here to help. Abbreviated SPUN, the Society was founded by artist, Mary Smull in 2009. After inheriting an unfinished needlepoint from her grandmother, Smull began the process of acquiring and rescuing other embroideries in need. Culled from ebay and other secondary markets, Mary Smull and SPUN set forward on their mission of rescuing needlepoint from “the purgatory of a perennially incomplete state.”
In April of this year, SPUN set up a kiosk at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, as a part of ‘Interlace: Weaving Communities,’ an event curated by Kelly Cobb. There, visitors could learn more about the society, become members, and have hands-on experience in the preservation process. The technique is straight-forward but time-consuming, simply complete the missing stitches with the yarn provided. The process is more telling than you would imagine, as you find yourself getting to know a little more about the original maker through their missteps and omissions. There is also a shared lack of commitment to the relic; most volunteers wandered away after twenty minutes, hours away from completion. They left no doubt that the bulk of the preservation work would be done by SPUN founder, Mary Smull.
By filling in the ‘unfinished’ areas with only white, Smull retains the progress of the original maker. The achromatic embroidery gives physical stability to the fragmented beginnings; each stitch works towards completing the textile. The work is akin to masonry patchwork, preserving the underlying structural integrity and arresting future decay. The finished work documents a state of incompletion, fixed in time. Mary Smull regards the process as ‘reclaiming’ the original labor.
The idea of labor in terms of time and economy is ever-present in the discussion of the role of a contemporary artist. In Smull’s project, one ‘worker’ takes over for another with no inherent hierarchy. The concept of artist as ‘maker’ is broadened to include non-studio practitioners — bringing up important questions about individual and collective identities. Forming a cross-generational collaboration, SPUN connects unknown artists through considerable distance and time.
The completed artworks are often eerie. Through the white stitches, faint color from the underlying pattern shows through, a hint of the image that might have been. We are left to question what happened to the original maker – did they simply give up, change projects, or did something else intervene? Mary Smull’s project has an underlying human gravity that is impossible to avoid; she reminds us that “the work of our lives will never be done, but it will end.”