Vanessa Filley Interview

Vanessa Filley Interview 

By Jean Cunningham

Vanessa Filley has a broad repertoire. Peruse her website, and you’ll see just a few examples of her wide-ranging mixed media art forms. As noted on her website, her work ranges from large scale sculptural installations to tiny embroidery pieces to poems and photographs.

The simple line is essential to much of her art, and it is often represented by thread, Filley’s primary medium. After learning to sew as a child, she continues to return to the thread whether for recycled clothing fashion, props in images she’ll photograph, or her current geometric abstraction project.

Filley’s studio is in the former dining room of her 1894 Victorian home. The room has a tall ceiling and good light augmented with artificial lighting. It includes a large drafting table, a long desk with sewing machines, a flat file cabinet to store fabric pieces, and a built-in cabinet that holds art books and her threads. 

Her thread supply has grown over many years. Vogue Fabrics in Evanston is an excellent resource where she currently sources cotton and silk natural fiber thread. The threads in her studio are stored on a thread rack by color, texture, and spool size. For paper she uses hot press for watercolor images and cold press for colored pencil images. 

All her work starts with an inspiration, often from a dream or a concept that she wants to visually express. The concept evaluation for a new project might include months of rumination, mental composition, and/or rough drafts before she lays hands on paper to start creating the artwork.

Her current project, “Homing Maps”, is a series created on watercolor paper with self-created pricked holes. To create the images, Filley uses watercolors, colored pencils, and thread. In this series she pulls energy, curiosity, feeling, and visual ideas from maps and quilts by watching for “…things that stick out.” 

To start the artwork once she is satisfied with her mental composition, Filley determines the colors and color matches needed threads, watercolor paints, and/or colored pencils. She gathers all these in a large bowl on her work surface so that she has the entire color palette before her in one place.

Next, she chooses the paper and sketches the structure with pencil starting with the lines used to position the thread elements. After she lays those out, she uses a pin to prick holes where the thread will go through. Her pricking tools include a round headed fabric pin, a leather thimble, and a piece of muslin to cover her hand. Her experience enables her to no longer measure the distance between the pricks, but when viewing one of Filley’s finished pieces, the spacing seems perfect. 

After pricking the holes, she erases the sketched structure. Then she adds the watercolor and/or colored pencil elements. Lastly, she installs the thread through the pricked holes.

Filley works on one piece at a time. Only infrequently will she repeat an image. She prefers the unique, creative aspect of art rather than repeating a predetermined production process. Even with commissions, they have only been successful when she can bring her own inspiration to the work in synergy with the client request. 

To learn more about Vannesa Filley’s work, access her website at There you can see examples of her work, find a list of her many studio shows around the country, see biographical information, or contact her including scheduling a studio visit.

Jean Cunningham is retired after a career in business management and finance. She has written three books and authored many articles in her field, was a speaker at conferences, and taught at the university level. While traveling for business she began painting and drawing for relaxation and collecting art. She and her husband have lived in Evanston for 11 years and are avid walkers of the town and lakeside. She has a BS from Indiana University and an MBA from Northeastern University. 

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