Bay Nature magazineSpring 2024

Art and Design

Stitching Nature Together

The project, says artist Liz Harvey, “draws on the past to navigate toward an uncertain but yet hopeful future.”

April 2, 2024

Liz Harvey’s “the lost ones” is on view at the New Museum Los Gatos, as part of the exhibition the lost ones: iterations and murmurs, through April 14, 2024.

A long linen dress with exaggerated arms inspired by late-19th-century wedding gowns is adorned with more than three dozen embroidery hoops. Stitched on each circle of beige cloth is  a California plant in flower. Sewn with light blue petals and brilliant yellow stamen, there’s the normally white and delicate Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum), endemic to the state and found almost exclusively in the Bay Area. The unusual dark blue Baker’s larkspur (Delphinium bakeri), also endemic and nearly extinct in the wild, is outlined with blue and a few purple threads. The colorful stitchings portray a lively panoply of vegetal life. 

The dress is the culmination of an eight-year-long project, titled “the lost ones,” by Bay Area textile artist Liz Harvey. She held public performances and what she calls “social stitching circles,” inviting the public to work on the dress and begin a relationship with an embattled species. The project, she says, “draws on the past to navigate toward an uncertain but yet hopeful future,” highlighting “overlooked species, untold histories, and little-acknowledged art practices.” Describing feelings of “unspoken anguish” about climate change and species loss, Harvey wants to open “a portal to people having a connection.” 

Bay Nature’s email newsletter delivers local nature stories, hikes, and events to your inbox each week.

The dress functioned as both the focal point and the outcome of 26 performances, held almost entirely in the Bay Area and staged over many years. At these events, while performers donned the dress—sitting, singing, and even dancing—passersby were invited to stop and stitch one of the plants selected by Harvey, often picking up where some unknown embroiderer left off. Harvey says that the unsuspecting participants “weren’t quite sure what they were in for.” And since no prior embroidering experience was necessary, Harvey couldn’t know what to expect either. Though she created initial line drawings on the linen to guide participants, she says that “people were free to elaborate and wander.”

Embroidery floss, linen, thread and notions make up the dress. (Sibila SavageArt)

“If a scientist were here,” Harvey acknowledges, “they might say, ‘I don’t think this is right.’” But botanical accuracy was not the point. Harvey recalls a tween, during the project’s first performance, who was “very attached” to their work and concerned about having enough time to complete it. It is as if they entered through the kind of portal Harvey hoped to create, one that builds feelings of connection. 

Harvey describes each of these performances as a “devotional ritual,” with the participants’ focus and care creating a ceremonial environment. “You have to slow down,” she says of embroidery. “It’s like the slowest drawing you could do.” In these moments, the dress enabled individuals to have a close, if momentary, relationship with an endangered plant.

The one extinct species represented on the dress, the Santa Barbara morning glory (Calystegia sepium ssp. binghamiae), was declared extinct, believed to be rediscovered, and then determined gone again. Another species depicted, Furbish’s lousewort (Pedicularis furbishiae), was just downlisted from endangered to threatened in 2023.Both species reflect how Harvey’s dress is a snapshot of endangered plants in an ever-changing world. The dress is a time capsule of endangerment—both hope and loss hang in the balance at the moment of its making.

Playing with time is central to the project. For example, Harvey chose the dress’s 1800s-inspired design as a reference to the century in which the current exponential rise in species extinction began. The dress presents a metaphorical collapsing of time in which we see a symbol of the beginning of the sixth mass extinction, along with images of what is at stake today. The dress reminds us that endangerment has a history.

A need to forge a personal connection with climate change may sound obsolete now that extreme weather events touch nearly everyone. Harvey even laughed when describing that initial impetus for the project, a reflection of how much has changed so quickly. But the connections that might be made with plants through methodical, even ritualistic, attention can be enduring. As Harvey brings this project to an end, she’s moving from the past to what may lie ahead. For her next project, she is “thinking about a future world where plants and humans are connected in ways that might be more fanciful than they already are.” Perhaps she has grieved the loss of these plants and is choosing to embrace hope for their future and for our future with them.

About the Author

Matthew Harrison Tedford is an arts writer focused on ecology, history, and politics. Based in San Francisco, his work has appeared on KQED, Hyperallergic, SF Weekly, Art Practical, and elsewhere.