Maggie Hensel-Brown brings modern touch to ancient artform

RARITY: Maggie Hensel-Brown's skill has introduced her to a global community dedicated to needle lace. Pictures: Simone De Peak
RARITY: Maggie Hensel-Brown's skill has introduced her to a global community dedicated to needle lace. Pictures: Simone De Peak

Art is in Maggie Hensel-Brown’s blood. Born to visual artist Nicola Hensel and performance artist/mask-maker Ross Brown, Maggie was also raised in a house with her step-father sculptor John Turier and her brood of five brothers. As if testament to their creative upbringing, all six siblings now occupy space within the film, music, art, and even gaming industries.

“It just kind of happened. Art school was sort of like finishing school for us,” she says.

While her relationship to her practice has been episodic, Maggie says it has given her a constant lens with which to view the world.

“Everything always ends up feeding back to art and looking at things through that context,” she says.

In her latest experimentation with art making, Maggie has found herself as one of the youngest members of a virtually unknown international community dedicated to the dying art of needle lace.  

Maggie first came into contact with needle lace at the National Lacemakers Conference in Melbourne after being awarded a professional development grant by Renew Newcastle.

“The first technique I learnt was reticella. It uses a solid piece of linen, which you remove individually counted threads from, before weaving in your own. It’s the most intense and insane process. Every tiny bit takes hours and hours,” Maggie says.

Every tiny bit takes hours and hours.

Maggie Hensel-Brown talking about her lacework

“I learnt there are pieces of this particular type of needle lace that have been found in Egyptian tombs, then it pops up all around Europe in all these really amazing varied ways from 1200 onwards.

HER STORY: Maggie uses traditional and modern symbols in her work.

HER STORY: Maggie uses traditional and modern symbols in her work.

“It was discovering the intense weird long history, that now just manifests itself in really smart tiny women’s groups [that hooked me in]”

Maggie is one of only three people in NSW to have mastered this technique. She went on to study three other types of needle lace; punto in aria, a technique from Burano originating the 1500s; aemilia ars which evolved from punto in aria around the 1600s; and Venetian gros point, a 3D style of lace from 1700s in Venice.

Maggie combines all four techniques to create work that is almost exclusively autobiographical; using the iconographic lace imagery to depict moments of frustration or joy in her everyday life.

“There is a long history of pictorial lace commissioned by the gentry to tell biblical tales or grand stories. But I have no interest in those stories so I just decided to tell my own,” she says.

In these works, nestled among the traditional symbols of fruits, lions and snakes, you’ll find modern imagery such as sunglasses or cars portraying the messiness of life as a woman in her late-20s.  

Commissioned by The Lock Up to develop work for their upcoming exhibition inspired by protest and activism HUNTER RED: SEEING RED; Maggie has used the delicate poised patterns to communicate her quiet resistance to patriarchy. Each of the pieces highlighting moments of everyday feminist rage, existential exhaustion, humanist despair and joy.

“They are acknowledgements of things that every woman is going through all the time. I was thinking of protest banners when I made them.”

Maggie’s commitment to needle lace has seen her travel to England, Italy, New York; seeking out tiny pockets of lacemakers.

“I did a live-in course with a woman called Doreen in Somerset for a couple of weeks. She has this tiny 16th Century cottage nestled in rolling green hills ... there were seven of us,” she says.

Social media plays a significant role in connecting this otherwise dispersed community.

“The [lacemaker community on instagram] is so deep. There are these old women in Italy and France who post one image a day of whatever they are working on.”

Maggie will travel this year to the Netherlands for the International Lacemakers Conference and will show her work as part of a contemporary lacemakers exhibition at Hunterdon Art Museum, New Jersey.  

“I’ve scratched the surface of four different, very specific, techniques out of literally thousands. I genuinely think there is enough in this that I could do it for the rest of my life,” Maggie says.

Find Maggie’s work on instagram at @maggiehenselbrown

HUNTER RED: SEEING RED opens at The Lock Up on May 26 and runs until July 1.