Hillary Waters: Crafting with Nature

©Hillary Waters

ABOUT Hillary waters

Hillary Waters Fayle is an artist from Elma, New York.  Fayle received an MFA in Craft/Material Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a BFA at Buffalo State College. She now lives and works in Richmond, VA where she continues her work establishing connections between nature and the human touch.  Fayle’s work speaks to her love for nature and the beauty in details often overlooked, but also of a concern for the fragility of the ecosystem and the necessity for intervention. Fayle also works as an artist assistant, and an instructor and program coordinator at VCU.  In addition to being featured widely online and in print, Her work will be shown over the next year at Millersville University, PA; Knitting and Stitching Show, London and Harrogate, UK; the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington; CURRENT in Richmond, VA; The Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY; The Slovak Arts Union Gallery in Bratislava, SK and Contemporary Craft in Philadelphia, PA.

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Hello Hillary! Where are you writing from? What are your plans today?

Hello! I’m writing from a cafe in Richmond, VA where I love to work on my computer. I’m moving from Virginia to North Carolina tomorrow, so my apartment is full of stacks of boxes and nowhere to sit or work. I wish I was telling you that I was sitting outside on my back porch, surrounded by all my plants and my cat, about to head into the studio, but that’s just not how it is right now!

Could you start off by telling us a little bit about your background? Did you always want to be involved in art?

I was always interested in making things, even from a very young age. I loved to draw, but I also loved to sew and embroider, and I was always looking for different ways to make small objects.  My family was really supportive of that and I had the chance to go to art lessons and sewing lessons, all of which I immensely enjoyed. I didn’t really know that I would be an artist, but I guess in some unconscious way I always put myself on that track. By the time I was a teenager I was really interested in natural science too, and conflicted in my desire to study science or art. I actually struggled with this until I was almost finished with college, and I realized that I could combine my love for both.

What inspired you to use leaves as a basis for your projects?

Since I was a teenager I have been really interested in the way we treat the environment. I remember always being incredibly sensitive- to the point to crying- to trees being cut down or land being clear cut, although I know now how necessary it sometimes is, I still feel that there is something so violent about the act of cutting down a tree.  I have a deep respect and admiration for the natural world and I want to do all I can to live my life in a way that is in balance with the natural world. My work at the heart is really about using traditional craft and making techniques to create a symbolic connection between nature and the human hand.

“My work at the heart is really about using traditional craft and making techniques to create a symbolic connection between nature and the human hand.”

Hillary Waters



©Hillary Waters

Some of your art includes embroidery on leaves, how did you develop this unique style?

In addition to my interest in art, I was always in love with nature and the outdoors- learning the names of animals, plants and birds and all about the ecosystem. I attended a summer camp when I was 14  which concentrated on learning about nature and environmental conservation. I didn’t realize it then, but that was a pivotal experience for me, and I kept returning to that camp, to volunteer and work there for the next 13 summers. It was after spending time in Manchester, UK learning embroidery techniques that I returned to this summer camp to work. I didn’t have much fabric with me, but I still wanted to stitch something…so I tested out using leaves. When it worked I had this realization that I could combine all the things I really cared about. By using leaves or other natural found objects, I could allow for nature and the material to speak for itself and create a space for connection through my interventions.

You must get this question all the time, but how do you select the perfect leaf? Do you have a favourite type?

I don’t have a favorite type, and my preference has changed over the years. The longer I work with leaves, the more I learn about how to use them. Some are better used fresh, some dried, some picked the height of the season others after they’ve fallen, etc. I also tend now to choose leaves that are interesting to me, either have a hole chewed through them by an insect or have grown in an abnormal way- every leaf is different, even on the same tree there are massive differences, and it’s the differences that speak out to me. From a practical standpoint, I try to choose a leaf that will be able to hold the stitching/cutting well, but the more fragile and difficult they are to work with, the more I enjoy working with them- I almost feel dared to try, just to see if I can.

What challenges do you face using natural materials?

Something that I get asked about all the time is how long my art will last, and it’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t know how long anything will be around on this planet, myself included. What I’m doing has never been tested for longevity, but there are botanical samples that have been preserved for hundreds of years, so I look to those when I tell people that it will most likely be around for several generations…a long time to us, but quite ephemeral in the grander scope of time. There is something beautiful to me in knowing that what I make will most likely outlast me, but it too, like all organic matter, will one day return to the dust. That is natural, and there is a balance in that that I enjoy. Some of my work, the bruised petals in particular is incredibly fleeting, gone in a few hours, with only a photograph to prove it’s existence. My pieces made from feathers and snake scales are different-fauna instead of flora, protein instead of plant-will be much more archival.

“There is something beautiful to me in knowing that what I make will most likely outlast me, but it too, like all organic matter, will one day return to the dust.”

©Hillary Waters

Sustainability seems to play a huge role in your life. Could you talk more about that?

As I mentioned before, I care deeply about nature, and I want to do as much as I can to promote consciousness in the way we treat the natural world. I feel that we’re at a turning point, we’ve done a lot of damage and that needs to stop if we want nature in the way that we know it to exist for our children and grandchildren, and furthermore; for the survival of a healthy and balanced planet. In addition to trying to make the most responsible personal choices I can, my work is my way of communication about something that matters a great deal.

Has anyone inspired you? If so, who and how have they inspired you?

There are so many people who inspire me- too many to mention here. There are some artists that I have the honor of knowing personally, and I find certain elements of their practice to be particularly intriguing, their discipline, motivation, the way they think about and maintain their studio, etc.  I also really respect artists who embrace their studio practice the way they live their lives, with all the same values and considerations. I love the drawings of Nancy Blum and Jack Wax, Piper Shephard’s cutwork, the salt drawings by Motoi Yamamoto, the wood block prints of Kawasi Hasui, the sensitivity towards nature expressed by Andy Goldsworthy. There are really so many, that is the beginning of a very long list of artists and people whose work I respect and art I love.

What is the one message you’d like people to take away from your art?

I want people to feel lifted. I know that beauty is a big part of my work and beauty is the thing that lifts us. It is my hope to inspire a shifted perspective on the way we view the natural world; to explore and appreciate what is so often overlooked and to realize the potential for existence in balance with nature.

What are your plans for the future? Are you working on any new projects?

I am working on a few things right now, some new pieces with feathers and snake scales, as I’ve mentioned, but my studio is mostly in boxes right now until later this month. I’m teaching at Penland School of Crafts in the mountains of North Carolina for most of the fall, and I’ll be working on new pieces for some upcoming exhibitions after that.