Leaves embellished with embroidery, mosaics made by arranging materials from the forest floor, deconstructed feathers arranged into new forms, these are just a few of the unique styles of art created by Hillary Waters Fayle.
Assistant professor and head of the fibre area in the department of Craft/Materials Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Hillary Waters Fayle uses nature and fibre as her canvas and paint. She combines techniques and materials in ways that others have never thought to explore, such as using intricate paper-cutting techniques on leaves to reveal the beautiful structure of their natural design. Her “blueprints” are like mandalas showing the sacred geometry of the world, not only in their composition but also in the individual elements of flora within the work.
The work of Hillary Waters Fayle can be seen in galleries, private collections, and public spaces around the world, and we were fortunate enough to ask the artist a few questions about the relationship between nature and art, her unique creative process, and how she came to love botanicals.
When did you start using leaves, feathers, and other natural elements in your art? Has it always been part of your work, or did you come to it over time?
I’ve always been interested in nature and natural materials. I could sit and look at shells or rocks for hours as a child, and I always wanted to know more about what was around me. As I grew older and began making art, I didn’t always use natural materials. It sounds silly, perhaps, but I didn’t really know that I could, or how to make the use of those materials feel right.
I studied textiles as an exchange student in Manchester, UK, and when the term ended, I returned to rural NY state. I had a summer job at a children’s summer camp that focused on learning about nature and environmental stewardship—the same camp I had gone to as a child. I kept looking up at an oak tree above me, wondering if I might be able to use my needle skills with the leaves. I tried it, and it worked! Not incredibly well, at first, but it worked. When I thought a bit more deeply about what I was doing, I realized this was a way of connecting humanity and the natural world.
I love the significance of implementing these age-old hand techniques with unassuming natural materials. I feel as though what I’m doing with my art is a comparison to the way I feel about human interaction with the natural world; working within the constraints of the natural world is completely possible and can yield beautiful results, but there needs to be an awareness and a sense of respect and understanding.
It must be difficult to work with materials as delicate as flower petals and leaves. What state of mind does it take to do such intricate work without damaging them?
Leaves are ephemeral, but they’re more resilient than they might appear. There’s some magic in pushing a material past our expectation of its physical limitations, and I love being able to play with this in my work. That being said, patience is certainly necessary. I remember a friend in college telling me once that to make something well, you need to just slow down. I hear his voice in my head sometimes when I’m working on these pieces, telling me to just slow down. I like to move quickly, so it’s not always easy for me to do.
Having very gentle hands and knowing just how much pressure or tension is appropriate but won’t tear the leaf or petal is also important, and that’s just something you get a sense of after doing it for a long time. I really try to concentrate on what I’m doing, but I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts while I work, which helps me to stay put for hours at a time while I work on a piece.
Comparing your botanical work and your paper-cutting, what is the design process like? Do leaf designs, for instance, arise out of the natural shape and lines of the material while the paper cuts have more of a predetermined concept?
Certainly, the paper cutting is much freer—the paper is a blank slate on which I can make anything happen. But the leaves are unique, and there are certain constraints to take into account, like how thinly a line can be cut, how many holes can be punched, the vein structure, etc. I begin by collecting material—I go outside and take a walk through my yard or the neighbourhood or wherever I am. I collect leaves from trees and plants—never too many from one plant. I see them as gifts, and I feel the need to accept and collect them respectfully. I then take them back to my studio and determine what I’ll do. Each leaf is different, and I react to them individually. I generally map out what I’m planning on the back of the leaf before I begin to stitch. I work with both fresh and pressed leaves, depending on the species or just how quickly I can get to them. After they’re stitched, I press them again to let them release moisture evenly, which helps to preserve them.
Your art has such beautiful texture to it. Generally, when we think of texture, we think of touch, but given how delicate your pieces are, it seems we can only appreciate it visually. Can you tell us a bit about how texture affects the visual nature of art?
I can certainly say, as someone who has a deep understanding and appreciation for fibre arts, that texture is incredibly important to how we experience an object, especially textiles. Adding texture to something or just elevating its natural texture really shifts how we see it. Texture can change the way light interacts with a surface, it can make an object seductive or repulsive, it can make something feel familiar or foreign. Texture isn’t something I think about very much with my work, but working with textile processes, texture is hard to avoid.
Please tell us a little about sacred geometry. Where do we find these patterns in nature, and why do we find such similar compositions across different cultures?
I need to preface this by saying that I’m not an expert in this subject, but for me, the concepts of sacred geometry are about an inherent and profound structuring that connects everything—all living beings—to the earth and one another. I think of the underlying geometric structures found in nearly everything (if you look closely enough) almost as a blueprint for the essence of existence.
There are endless shapes and patterns, but their slight variation allows for the incredible variety of life here as we know it. For me, thinking about this starts to build a bridge between science and spirituality.
Spirituality for me right now is a feeling of connection and a recognition of interconnectedness, not necessarily grounded in any specific religion or practice. I’ve really enjoyed exploring and thinking about the meaning and symbolism of specific shapes and the way they fit together. It makes sense to me that these ideas would permeate human consciousness and appear in art and design—sacred or not—all over the world.
What is the impact on you as the artist in working with natural design elements? Is the impact on the viewer of the art similar?
I work with these materials because I have a deep respect and reverence for them, but I also find them so interesting and unique—full of their own beauty. Leaves are icons for the idea of “nature” and something infinitely replenishable, but they’re taken for granted to the point that we now have the term “plant blindness.”
Leaves are absolutely incredible, yet unremarkable in their perceived ubiquity, and I strive to flip that with what I do. I want this work to ask people to slow down and think about this leaf: what it can do, what it might represent, what beauty can be achieved when we work in balance with the land. There’s power in using simple materials and tools as raw and unrefined as possible.
I would hope that what I offer through my work is wonder and beauty—a moment of lifting the spirit and perhaps a pause for reconsideration on what’s possible when we slow down, act with care, and open our eyes to all that’s around us.