Changing the perception of insects through quilting

Bree Thomas holding her work. Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS.

By Shamsiya Hussainpoor

Menzies Creek crafter Bree Thomas has been an “artsy” person for as long as she can remember.

Growing up she watched her mother knit, crochet and sew, as well as both her paternal and maternal grandmothers.

“I knew from a very young age that I could take fabric or yarn and turn it into something, just as my mother and grandmothers did,” she said.

“In my mind I definitely knew we were makers – make things with our hands.”

She was always interested in art and sewing; hence she started a degree in fine arts, majoring in painting at RMIT in the city campus, back in the late ’90s.

Apart from coming from generations of crafting and simultaneously studying art, she found the book about the art of Annemieke Mein and from there, her perceptions in art changed – that textile is art too.

“I had the pleasure of getting to know Annemieke when I painted and sewed her portrait as my entry to the Archibald prize competition a few years ago,” she said.

She started a family and as a result didn’t finish her course.

By the age of 20, Ms Thomas’s focus shifted from painting to making clothes and toys for her young family, including her first early attempt at self-taught crazy quilting.

After her children became adults, she decided to come back to arts and quilting.

She has been crafting her brain back together, after surviving a brain tumour in 2015.

“A major significant shift in my creative process was 20 years later, with an upgrade in my tools – in 2017, my grandmother left me some money and after some research, I purchased a quality Bernina sewing machine which allowed me to explore free motion sewing,” she said.

“I have been putting myself out there entering quilting events at Quilt and Craft Fairs since 2017 but prior to that, I tried a few hand quilts.”

“I did a self-portrait which was in a little mini quilt competition held by Australasian Quilt Convention Buy into craft or expertise events.”

According to the VicHealth data, a groundbreaking number of adults found that reading, playing board games, crafting, playing musical instruments, and dancing were associated with a lower risk of dementia.

In a busy world where mental health and well-being is often ignored, Ms Thomas ensures she stays present and finds the time for herself.

“I have been a maker all my life, the beauty of a tactile art form, where texture and touch allow you to be transported and completely involved in your creation, leaving behind any of life’s day-to-day worries is ideal,” she said.

“I use a lot of muted colours, my work is all about mycelium and fungus and mushrooms and I used fabrics that I had dyed using plants – stained with Eucalyptus.“

Every artist has their unique style, for Ms Thomas it’s all about the natural world and local wildlife, which she describes as a nourishment for the soul.

“When I’m crafting I look at the things around me – I’m particularly attracted by the small things that other people may miss and that’s why I focus a lot on insects, because insects are everywhere and so many people either don’t see them or are scared of them and don’t appreciate how beautiful they are,” she said.

“Some of it [artwork] might be cultural, where most of what I do is Australian wildlife, unless I make up just out of my head like moths and butterflies,” she said.

“But just every now and then I’m very attracted to things like hummingbirds, my father is from the Caribbean and of course I’ve never been there but little stories of Trinidad where my father is from is often called the land of the hummingbird.”

Growing up, hummingbirds have been a recurring image throughout her life.

“I’m yet to make a hummingbird but that will be something that I definitely would do,” she said.

Ms Thomas’s love for insects and Australian wildlife can be seen all over her body through her tattoos.

“I have a hummingbird tattoo and I also have a lot of insects all over me,” she said.

Ms Thomas is a member of an artists collective in Kallista.

She’s encouraging people who are thinking of starting their journey in arts and crafts to just go for it.

She said it’s important that textilers invest in quality tools, especially those starting out as it will give them more confidence to continue making.

“Just play, experiment, experience, just do it, through the years of crafting, I learned to ask myself, what’s the very worst thing that can happen? Everything can be fixed, sewn over, chopped up and remade,” she said.

“When it comes to being an artist, all you actually require is the courage to call yourself an artist, because I can’t just call myself a doctor, a teacher or a lawyer without the qualification…being an artist, all you have to do is believe in yourself as an artist and start making art.”

The Australasian Quilting Conventions (AQC) theme for this year is, ‘oh my stars.’

The theme immediately had Ms Thomas picturing a night sky and she’ll be displaying one of her quilts in the AQC competition.

“I gathered and dyed materials, then began hand stitching ’stars’ – but I was at first unsure what subject would become a focal point,” she said.

At the start of this year, while holidaying in Tasmania, she visited the museum in Launceston to see their botanical art exhibition.

Among the new and old artworks, were specimens of insects and birds, with explanations and statistics on their part in pollinating our flowering plants.

“This led me to further research, finding statistics across the whole of Australia, the stars of pollination became apparent,” Ms Thomas said.

“The moths are my favourite, but it’s hard to pick my favourite art.”

Since she’s been doing this style of art, she enjoys working with fibre.

“I’m a very tactile person, I like to touch it. I like to feel it,” she said.

“My favourite art in general would be my textile art and though it’s difficult for me to pick a favourite artwork, I’m very proud of my portrait of Annemieke Mein.”