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How to Become an Embroidery Artist with Cindy Dach

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New year, new you — new hobbies. In the 2016 edition of Project PHX, our annual how-to guide, we're here to help with DIY projects that range from doable to dreamy. Learn how to build a tiny house and make your own chocolate. Become an embroidery artist, publish your first novel, and maybe dye your hair gray (or not).

At a recent dinner party, talk turned to the downtown art scene. When one guest referred to Cindy Dach as an artist, the hostess interrupted him. "She's not an artist," her guest was told. "She cofounded one of the downtown arts districts, sure, but she runs a bookstore. She owns a boutique. Not an artist."

Dach, hearing that story a few weeks later, chuckles quietly. "I'm known in the community as a bookseller," she says, "and for community development on Roosevelt Row. Or people know me from MADE. But all my life, even as a child, I always wanted to make things. I never really had a strong talent. I wasn't the best artist in school, but making art was important to me."

Lately, Dach is making a new name for herself as an embroidery artist. One can occasionally find her, between sales at MADE or during an especially long shift at her bookshop, poking a needle into a hunk of canvas and yanking through a length of brightly colored thread. She began embroidering about seven years ago, mostly using cotton thread on smaller canvases. In one piece, a pair of aerialists in simple black thread swing through the air of a cream-colored canvas; in another, a multi-hued cactus garden blooms. A diptych, recalling the work of textile artist Debbie Smyth, depicts a playful tug of war between tiny figures, their wee rope connecting the two canvases.

She had planned to be an author. "I figured I'd be a novelist," she says. "What I discovered about myself is I like the community that exists around books, rather than being in a room by myself, writing." She got into making hand-bound books for a time, but found that she didn't like having a separate workspace and the expense of costly materials. Meanwhile, her career in marketing and selling books took off, leading to the achievements that have obscured her burgeoning art career: She's co-owner and general manager of Changing Hands Bookstore, a local indie institution, and of MADE art boutique, purveyor of local handmade wares and smaller art exhibitions. She co-founded a pair of art galleries, eye lounge and Sixth Street Studios, as well as Roosevelt Row CDC, where she and other like-minded souls have stamped out a community of creatives.

"I come from a business-oriented family with a strong work ethic," she says. "My father worked in the steel industry, and supporting yourself was considered important. I figured out pretty early that my desire to make things wouldn't support me, so I learned to separate the two."

Dach says she "stumbled" into embroidery. She'd fallen in love with fabric and thread during a short stint in the garment industry in New York, where she would talk to chemists about dyeing thread and how to express oneself with fabric. After taking an embroidery class about seven years ago, she says, "I found a way to make art that fits into my lifestyle."

Her father was ill, and for several years she found herself flying back and forth between Phoenix and New York. "That's where I really honed my embroidery skills. I could sit with my dad and have a conversation with him while making something. Embroidery grew out of my time with my father at the end of his life, which gives it a whole other meaning."

Today, embroidery also is curative, Dach says. "I can work a 12-hour day and come home and do embroidery and it's like therapy. It's also incredibly inexpensive, and with social media, there are so many opportunities to show your work, look at others' work, and get better at it."

She never thought of selling her work, but the first couple of pieces Dach showed sold immediately. Featured at MADE and in group shows, her small stitched canvases remain popular with art collectors and twee crafters alike. Dach's piece in Chaos Theory, an annual invitational exhibit at Legend City Studios, was warmly received last year. "Someone said to me, 'Oh, you finally moved from small A to large A with the Chaos piece.' I was flattered, but I didn't mean to make a move. I thought I was just using a larger canvas."

A larger canvas would mean a bigger workspace, and one of the things Dach loves about embroidery is how portable it is. You can, she says, cram pretty much all of your embroidery tools into a single bag and haul it around with you everywhere. 

Lately, she's been doing more figurative work, trying to capture people, their actions, and emotions. Her newer portraits — more trapeze artists, an argument between a pair of imaginary creatures — are colorful, more intense. Dach finds herself lately drawing bits of Central Park, which she calls her favorite place on Earth. "I don't know how I'll interpret the park on canvas yet. But what I'm really illustrating is a sense of place. I aspire to more narrative work, but my craft isn't there yet."

Dach is mostly self-taught; the single embroidery class she took was taught by an instructor who's left town. She tells would-be embroiderers to look for Sara Shoemaker, "the Kitschy Stitcher," who teaches stitch craft from time to time, most recently at Frances boutique. YouTube videos are a great way to study basic stitches, says Dach, who watches and learns from them herself.

She's inspired, no surprise, by writers and by other embroidery artists, particularly Canada's Sophie Calle. She also likes the figurative compositions of Michelle Kingdom, the portraiture of Cayce Zavaglia, and the work of thread artist Debbie Smyth, whose wall-size installations involve thread wrapped around nails and brads. Although she often mentions that she never studied art techniques, her sketchbook is never far from her side, and she adds to it often. She transfers her sketches to canvas with tracing paper.

"The funny thing about it," Dach says of embroidery, long thought of as the pastime of grannies, "is that it is very much improved by youth. As you get older, your hands don't function as well, and you really use your hands with this craft." She's happy that young people are taking up embroidery and happier still that people who used to say, 'I can't draw, so I can't do art' are opening up their own Etsy and pop-up boutiques, where they can get feedback from the public. 

She finds herself stealing bits of time to work on new projects. "This morning at about 8 a.m., I had to download an upgrade on my computer," she says. "And I thought, 'Okay, I have six extra minutes. Where's my canvas?'"

In order to have enough time to really focus on art, she'd have to retire, Dach says. (She's in an enviable position — as a bookstore co-owner, she loves her job way too much to seriously consider quitting.) "I'd love to have all those hours in the day. I aspire to bigger projects more often, and work that captures more universal feelings."

And then Cindy Dach — bookstore owner, art gallery founder, embroidery artist — lets go with a laugh. "But that's what every artist says."

This post has been edited from its original version. 

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