This Calgary artist found a global audience with the 'soft power' of her textile portraits of Black women

In two short years, Simone Elizabeth Saunders has built an international following with vibrant portraits that celebrate Black joy. See that work at the Textile Museum of Canada through Jan. 29.

Simone Elizabeth Saunders shares the story of the portrait that started it all

Dark-walled gallery filled with visitors who look at colourful art rugs on the walls.
Installation view of Simone Elizabeth Saunders: u.n.i.t.y. (Darren Rigo)

In the spring of 2020, Simone Elizabeth Saunders was in her final year at the Alberta University of the Arts, and it was shaping up to be an anticlimactic milestone. Saunders, then 37, was facing the same situation as art students around the world. Grad exhibitions everywhere had been scuttled, lost to the limbo of COVID-19 lockdowns. She'd already made a gamble on her career, returning to school — and Calgary — after more than a decade pursuing a life onstage, and the future was uncertain. And yet, Saunders was on the cusp of reaching a global audience, all from her home studio — a place where she'd been experimenting with a rug-tufting gun, a popular crafting tool that's since become her medium of choice.

Saunders's textile portraits gained traction on Instagram that summer, and in a scant two years, her artwork has made her something of a hometown hero. The Calgary Herald put her on their list of "Compelling Calgarians" at the beginning of 2022, and she made Avenue Magazine's Top 40 Under 40 rankings in October, celebrated for "making waves in the international art world." Beyond private collections, American institutions including the Mint Museum (Charlotte, N.C.) and Minneapolis Institute of Art have acquired her portraits.

At the moment, you can find a survey of her work in Toronto, where her solo exhibition (u.n.i.t.y.) will be appearing at the Textile Museum of Canada through Jan. 29. The show features a collection of large woven wall hangings that Saunders created between the early days of the pandemic and 2022. There's a soft power to all of them. Most of the works depict Black women in poses of strength and joy, figures who are quite literally woven together in solidarity. In person, there's a richness to the textures (materials include yarn, velvet and gold thread) — details that would be lost to Saunders's 18.6K Instagram followers.

A larger version of the exhibition opened at Contemporary Calgary in November 2021, but the show appearing in Toronto includes one work of special significance to the artist. Titled It Matters, it's a piece that changed everything, she says, and she told us that story — plus how she makes art like an actor. We reached her by phone in Calgary, where she's busy developing a series of tapestries that will be revealed at Claire Oliver Gallery in New York City come March.

Square art rug. At centre is a figure, rendered with gold thread. Their arm is outstretched towards a burst of pattern and colour and they appear to materialize out of a dark starry sky swirling with cosmic patterns of pink and blue.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders. Cosmos: Creation, 2021. Hand-tufted velvet, acrylic and wool yarn on rug warp. 163 x 163 x 3 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery. (Darren Rigo)

CBC Arts: Did you make it out for the opening? What was that experience like, seeing everything up at the Textile Museum?

I mean, it was incredible. I lived in Toronto about six years ago, but I wasn't doing art at all while I was there. I was in the theatre world still. 

What was most special about going back was seeing the community that I had built there — industry workers and theatre people — and to have them there celebrating with me. Some of them, you know, didn't know that I had nurtured this [art practice]. It was my first time back to Toronto since I moved and to bring the gift of my textiles with me was a really beautiful moment. 

What led you to art school? Like you mentioned, you were working in theatre. You had a whole other career before starting at the Alberta University of the Arts.

Acting will always be a love of mine, but there were too many variables that were determining my career: auditions and locations and the timing of it all.

When I was in Toronto, I was shadowing with Obsidian Theatre there, the Black theatre company. I was interested in being an actor and a producer at that point, but then I really became interested in set design and more of the working gears of the theatre. And so I started to do set design and I was really enraptured with that. 

I applied to AU Arts, but the moment that I started my program, I fell in love with the fibre department and quickly switched gears.

Art rug portrait of a female figure wearing a yellow "Black Lives Matter" tank top and long flowing skirt. The skirt fills the bottom of the composition. A colourful circular motif in the background recalls the Art Nouveau work of Alphonse Mucha.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders. Star Gaze, 2022. Tufted wool fibres. 166 x 79 x 3 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery. (Darren Rigo)

The tufting gun is something I saw in one of my courses in a slideshow presentation and I taught myself to use it over the summer. It's kind of a happy coincidence that just synchronized with my going back to school and being open to trying new things. 

I think it's incredible to see my trajectory through the arts, and then to realize now how it is all influencing my textiles. Especially having a theatre background, I'm able to build on narratives and character development.

Could you tell me more about that? Help me understand how your theatre experience influences the art you're making now?

Absolutely. So, before I start a work, I spend a lot of time researching Black history and our histories as a nation. I'm also researching the contemporary landscape of things. In the meantime, I'm also reading a lot. I read a lot of Roxane Gay and Angela Davis and Morgan Jenkins. And so the things that I'm reading help me to create a story that I want to tell in my textiles. 

That research you're talking about, is it the same process you'd go through if you were developing a character for the stage?

Yes, it's very similar to that.

Art rug in the Art Nouveau style of Alphone Mucha. Depicts a Black woman in glasses seated and relaxed, resting her chin on the head of a green and yellow cobra. Text reads: "Black Power."
Simone Elizabeth Saunders. Queen of Diamonds, 2020. One of 4 in the series. Hand-tufted velvet and acrylic yarn on rug warp. 165 x 76 x 3 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery. (Darren Rigo)

And so from there, I start with a figure. I think: what is their story? What are they trying to portray? They are always tethered to me because it's my voice that's blowing life into these figures. And with all my research, I'll create the landscape and the backgrounds and all the different animals that usually appear within my textiles, and even the colour palette.

All of that — honestly, it comes from my theatre background. Improvisation and all of those skill sets that I have.

Walking through the exhibition, it felt a bit like a survey of everything you've done over the last two years. But what story do you hope people come away with? 

Most simply, it's a collection about uplifting Black womanhood in our joy and our resilience. The title, u.n.i.t.y., is essentially that. It's the coming together of a sisterhood.

The works are hung a little higher than what is conventional. I want the viewers to be looking up into these women's eyes, into these ancestors' eyes, rather than confronting them at eye level. I just want that respect and that acknowledgement of Black lives.

Circular art rug hanging on a charcoal-coloured wall. Depicts a close-up portrait of a young Black girl who gazes intently at the viewer. The background is dense with colour and pattern, predominantly the bright features of a peacock, which also gazes at the viewers. In peach letters against a gold backdrop, the word "Excellence" can be faintly made out.
Simone Elizabeth Saunders. Excellence, 2021. Velvet, acrylic and wool yarn on rug warp. 152 x 152 x 4 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery. (Darren Rigo)

It's the same show that was here at Contemporary Calgary. A few of the works have been swapped out for smaller ones, like It Matters and the portrait of Alicia Keys.

I really felt sentimental about the It Matters piece. I hadn't seen that work since I created it. 

That work is in the private collection of a family in Western Canada; it's a piece that was collected right away, and I just haven't seen it since. I wanted to have it involved. 

Yeah, let's talk about It Matters for a second. I thought it was interesting that it's the first piece you see upon entering. I'm pretty sure it was the first thing of yours I would have seen online on Instagram. Why did you open the exhibition with it?

Photo of a gallery empty of visitors (The Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto). A far wall is printed with text. The wall closer to the viewer is painted charcoal. A portrait rug hangs on it, depicting a masked figure in medium closeup. The work is titled It Matters and is by the artist Simone Elizabeth Saunders.
Installation view of Simone Elizabeth Saunders: u.n.i.t.y. (Darren Rigo)

That work means so much to me personally for my career. You know, I was graduating from the Alberta University of the Arts when I made it, and I submitted it to the Bank of Montreal 1st Art! competition and it was the national winner that year

It was basically the piece that launched my career. It got swept into the zeitgeist at the time within the Black Lives Matter movement. Instagram reposted that work. Even building a relationship with my gallerist in New York — like, I think that that piece really had people gravitating toward me and my work. It was getting eyes on what I was creating. That's why I wanted to start with that piece.

What was happening when you made it? What's the story behind it?

That work was made in the initial climax of the pandemic, and I was doing a collaboration with a woman named Tekikki Walker. She lives in the States, and we met through the Social Distancing Festival, which was a global online platform for artists of all disciplines.

I wasn't going to have a graduating show. All the exhibitions were cancelled. And so I joined that online platform.

Through our collaboration, we built our own respective works, but we were discussing a Washington Post article about the unfair treatment of Black and brown individuals, especially in the States, because the mask mandate had just been issued. Black men who were wearing masks were being stopped by security guards, were being questioned, all because they were protecting themselves and their community. That, to me, illuminated the inequity of how the pandemic was further dividing communities, and so that is where that piece started. 

Textile wall hanging portrait of a masked figure with dreadlocks wearing a hoodie. Appearing in medium-closeup, they gaze calmly at the viewer, partly obscuring a text phrase that is nevertheless plainly understood in block letters: "Black Lives Matter."
Simone Elizabeth Saunders. It Matters, 2020. Hand-tufted velvet and acrylic yarn on rug warp. 81 x 58 x 1.5cm. Courtesy of Dawn van de Schoot. (Darren Rigo)

It's been such a short period of time. It's incredible to think that you were still in school when you made It Happens.

That's right.

Back then, where did you think you'd be in 2022?

Oh my gosh, I had no idea I'd be here. I'll say that outright. 

I was always searching for a sense of belonging and identity within the canon of art history, you know, as a biracial Black woman — not really identifying with all these eras we were studying. And so portraiture was always something that I did throughout school — creating narratives of Black womanhood.

When I started creating portraiture with the tufting gun and punch needle, I had no idea it would catch on the way it did. It's something that is highly unique, I think, and it's such a tactile medium. Like, people see it from afar and it looks like a painting, but then you get up close and you can see the fibres and the textures and the metallic threads and the velvet threads.

Yeah, it's interesting that your work has had such traction online. It's where so many people would have seen it for the first time, so to have the chance to see it in person …

Oh my gosh, yeah. That's why I'm so grateful that things are normalizing a little bit. That's what I'm most grateful for — for the work to be seen. You look at your screen and you can see it two inches by two inches. It's pixelated. And still, it draws people in with dynamic colour and the narrative. To see it in person, at 70 inches square, it's a lot different as an experience.

Photo of textile wall-hanging portrait of a Black woman in the Art Nouveau style of Alphonse Mucha. She is seated, her face in her hands and looks beyond the viewer. Serif type reads: "Black Dreams."
Simone Elizabeth Saunders. Queen of Clubs, 2020. Two of 4 in the series. Hand-tufted velvet, acrylic and wool yarn on rug warp. 165 x 76 x 3 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Claire Oliver Gallery. (Darren Rigo)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Simone Elizabeth Saunders. U.n.i.t.y. Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto. To Jan. 29, 2023.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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