Susan Moxley First Storm textile, thread 68 x 205 cm


Text by Jenny Blyth©June2024

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Growing up in South Africa, Susan Moxley achieved the highest results in the country for a Degree in Fine Art from Natal College of Art. She travelled to London for a Post Grad in Printmaking and Illustration graduating with Distinction before returning to South Africa for twelve months where she joined a political group, was blacklisted, and determined to make a life as an artist in Europe.

Working with mixed media, SM is a printmaker supreme, creating exquisite prints, collages, sculpture and jewellery. Although her work is based in figuration, it is largely abstracted. Concepts and politics remain important to her. Her new body of work focuses particularly on ‘textile paintings’ with sculpture that celebrates music and the beauty of the female form.

Splitting their time between UK and Greece, SM and her husband Korky Paul, have maintained a home together as artists on Kythera, home to Aphrodite - one of seven Ionian islands, for more than 40 years. On the outskirts of the village where they live, is a municipal dump picked over by cats where SM has sourced discarded homemade cloth and blankets. Goats’ hair and flax was spun into coarse wool that was traditionally woven on home looms into hardwearing blankets. Laid out beneath the olive trees, they were used to collect the olives harvested from the branches overhead. Felt for blankets and clothing was made from sheep’s wool by rubbing the wool with salt water at the sea’s edge to create a thick matted material. Traditional methods have long since been lost. Islanders often winter in Athens. The women no longer sit out beneath the trees talking and stitching. They no longer weave, and the skills are not passed down to younger women. Hand-woven blankets handed down over generations as family heirlooms have been thrown out. For artists, what we discard often affords a treasure trove, and for SM the cloth remnants that she finds amongst the rubbish are indeed treasure, infused with the essence of the islanders and their land.

The felted wools and woven fabrics were coloured with natural pigments and minerals from earth and rock, plants and animals, infused with the family song of hard manual work and thrift that underpinned traditional life on the island. SM’s mementi represent the women, working a fine balance of austerity and creativity - an apron marked with cooking oil, a fragment of blanket darned, and over-darned… Some of the fabrics, heavy with flax like fine chainmail, are over 100 years old. As Sufi food is made with love, so too were the handmade fabrics that brought warmth and joy beyond the practical, a binding together of generations and community.

From her carefully selected remnants, SM creates abstracted landscapes, vignettes of a beloved Greek Isle, that despite modernity in a fast-changing world remains beautiful, captivating and the source of her inspiration. Living six months a year for more than four decades on Kythera, she has observed first-hand how traditions have been displaced by modernity as we know it today, albeit slower in the relative quiet of the islands. She has raised her children, as neighbour and friend to the grandmothers of today and yesteryear who were at the heart of the culture that colours her compositions. Figures depicted in her sculpture series are inspired by the women that she has observed over decades whether collecting and carrying wood, felting, sewing – a harsh life but in harmony with land, creating that family song and pride in the community.

Although she acknowledges Greece to be a matriarchal society at heart, she describes the women as ‘vessels’ whilst simultaneously ‘contained’ within their homes, as much by tradition as by the physicality of the tasks that that coloured their lives. Contemporary life has liberated the younger generation, yet with that freedom so much that has characterized the island and their lives has been lost, and SM sees the narrative unfolding in Kythera as a microcosm of what is happening globally as we advance technologically marching ever faster towards an AI world.

Long Storm is a four metre landscape that follows the gathering storm. SM’s stitching captures the movement of the wind increasing in intensity as it spins and dances a path between the houses, across the sky. The geometry of her chosen fabrics speaks of the distinctive architecture of houses that we see in her paintings, coloured by minerals and plants indigenous to the island. The tones echo the sun-bleached whites of the buildings, rust-red earth, and the azure blue of sea and sky. Storms are an increasing phenomenon on Kythera where despite being surrounded by sea, they are short of water.

Tripping over a violin case on the street close to home in Oxford, a quiet mecca for world class music, triggered a series of beautiful sculptures that follow on from earlier paintings of the female form. Opening out the case, SM has lined the inside with remnants of handwoven blankets overlaid with hand-stitched wool that delineate the female body - a mellifluous mix of music and form. They are playful, with a distinctly auditory sensibility. Excited by her find, she sourced further casings online.

Long has the hour-glass shape of the violin been associated with the female form, as celebrated by Man Ray’s iconic photograph of the naked woman from behind in Violin d’Ingres. The very naming of parts of the instrument echo female body parts – the cinch of the waist, the neck, rib and belly… Whereas today women and men violinists are celebrated side by side, the playing of the violin has in the past often been considered the domain of men. Although Mozart, celebrated Regina Sacchi commending her highly for her virtuosity, Yehudi Menuhin said thatThe handling and playing of the violin is a process of caress and evocation, of drawing out a sound that awaits the hands of a master”. Women, particularly in Victorian times, were vilified for playing an instrument that ‘polite society’ thought should be ‘caressed’ by male violinists. (Note: 1)

Doubly enchanting then to see SM’s ceramic nude with notes of Cycladic figurines, in 3D white slab with edges pinched, bisque fired, the ivory-coloured horse hair of the bow running from clavicle to pubic bone. Matisse-like in their simplicity, her sculptures convey the aesthetics of music and beauty, whilst giving voice also to elements of the animal spirits infused into the making of the instruments – cat and sheep gut, horse hair and elephant tusk for the box, the bow strings, and ivory decoration. With goods bound and balanced above, Susan reminds us of the working lives of women of Africa, land of her birth, that celebrate culture whilst reminding us of the basics of subsistence farming and life where the duress of gathering wood and water daily is a reality.

Note 1 : Emily Hogstad : Madame Norman-Neruda and a short history of women violinists, Part 1