Joan is a fascinating multi artist with a Sri Lankan burgher heritage. She lives in Denmark now, but returns to Sri Lanka every year to her family estate in North-West of the island. When she commissioned us to write a piece about her life and work, I went and met her at that beautiful old estate. We spoke about her exquisite embroidery work, and her love for painting. Joan’s life was a fascinating viewpoint into lives lived in Colombo over fifty years ago.
Hidden amidst the foliage of the outskirts of Wennappuwa, there is a coconut estate that is a breathtaking composition of human and nature. Coming in, you will be pleasantly warmed in the sunlight pouring through the cane palms standing guard along its impressive driveway. It nestles a charming planters’ bungalow with arched windows opening into sun spangled verandahs. Further in, a beautifully dimmed living space and cool sleeping chambers await. Between the fun play of the vintage furniture, rare heirloom treasures and a twist of Scandi-inspired postmodernism, there is an obvious air of creativity floating through the bungalow.
When you meet its hostess—you instantly know her as the source of that creativity. Joan Leth Pedersen is in the autumn of her years, and radiantly beautiful with a sense of style that could only speak for an intensely creative being. She’s the kind of hostess who excites you with her meticulous devotion to fine hospitality—you just know it’s going to be a good day.
Joan was born in Sri Lanka to Burgher parents who moved to the UK to educate their children. They also travelled between their island home and Malaysia for work in the plantations business. She met her husband, Jens Leth Pedersen in Malaysia fifty eight years ago, at a New Year’s Eve dance, ten minutes to midnight—he has remained smitten since. An accomplished hand embroidery artist with truly remarkable artistry, Joan practices in Denmark where she lives with Jens. But, for eight sunlit weeks a year, the family estate in Sri Lanka remains her home in paradise.
This year, Joan has brought down a large portion of her archive of handmade embroidery based wearable art. This is for a rare media exposure of her works. “It’s impossible for me to put a price on my work”, Joan declares, “because they are my babies,” she laughs. “But, seriously, it’s because my art has never equated to money. It’s not about that for me, it’s never been,” she explains. Joan believes that artistry does not always have to have a commercial element to it—in a sense, an artist does not have to cater to the incessant needs of a society. Art can simply exist—much like beauty or nature, without having to fulfil the human desire to own, to consume. Her work has an ethereal charm about it and draws inspiration from flora and fauna, abstract shapes and colour-play. Stylistically, she finds kinship with Chinese, Danish and Venetian embroidery techniques. But, the most impressive is her own style—an embroidery technique that Joan invented fusing patchwork and threadwork to bring about an unusual effect. Here, cut out fabric pieces are ironed on to ‘glue paper’ and pieced together with embroidered thread work to finally reveal one mosaic-like image held together with perfect thread work. “I don’t know how long it takes to do one piece—it takes hours and hours and hours. But, I love it, and I can immerse in it completely.”
Something striking about Joan’s work is its unapologetic femininity. Her work bears unrestrained female charm with soft colour palettes, dainty motifs and intricate filigrees. But, it’s anything but ordinary. The embroidery itself is unusual in its exotic mix of styles and technique while Joan’s decisive direction in their placement on the garment, and how they work with the female body also add to the unicity. “I always think of where this embroidery will go on a body, and I tend to embellish the unusual corners or the unnoticed curves…it does not always have to be on your upper chest tucked away to a side.”
Her process is fluid and natural, much like her work. “When I get an idea, I just have to do it,” she says echoing all impassioned artists. Her inspirations flood in through nature. In Denmark, the contained cool of Scandinavian landscapes influence her abstract oil painting and designed knitwear. While in Sri Lanka, the island’s paradisiacal abundance seems to translate to Joan’s vivid watercolours—often florals—and finally, to her intricate embroidery.
“Embroidery was always in our family,” she recalls the beginnings into her most accomplished form of artistry. Joan remembers being captivated by her mother’s hand drawn book documenting the baby clothes that she embroidered. She also remembers how she first fell in love with that incredible feeling of being enveloped in an exquisitely made outfit, through the finely embroidered dresses handmade by her mother. Later, she went to complete an embroidery and knitting course at the Denmark College of Handicrafts where she scored full marks, before plunging into the arts in full vigour. She went on to exhibit in unusual locations around Europe, such as the abandoned church in Aalborg commune, and the court house turned museum Tinghuset in Nibe. Beyond embroidery and knitting, Joan also began to see her art within the context of fashion. It came naturally to her, because style was simply in her.
“I always think that clothing should be a complete expression. Personally, I like to make underwear to match my work in order to avoid store-bought pieces that peek outside an otherwise perfect outfit!” she exclaims echoing a practice that still forces her to custom make intimatewear for every wearable item that displays her embroidery or knitting. In her heyday in Colombo, Joan was featured in the fashion and lifestyle pages of the local dailies for her bold sense of style and fashion. Her wedding gown with a spectacular floor-gracing train with hundreds of hand made flowers pressed out in silk in three layers, made fashion headlines and was borrowed by news pages. Style was definitely her thing.
With Joan seated on the verandah of her family bungalow, it is almost visibly evident in the background, how her mind has flown free through the space, touching it with her devotion to beauty; The fiery heliconias set off against the earthly terracotta of the vase, the perfect geometry in the arrangement of hand-painted porcelain…they all vouch for her. As her life approaches a tranquil sunset, Joan has developed a yearning to share her art as a teacher and a mentor. “I have taught several times in my life, and it has always been rewarding. I still keep in touch with some of my students.” She hopes to share her expertise and extraordinary techniques with young fashion designers, textile artists, embroiderers and entities in textile related arts, crafts and design—those who would appreciate it and hopefully, reinvent it in their own way. But, there’s more to it than that too. Joan sees that mastering your creativity as a way to live a wonderful life. “Creativity has helped me to live life on an even keel…being immersed in creativity means that troubles can’t trouble you. So, I’d like to share that.” And with that, Joan offers the greatest gift a creator could leave behind in this world.
This story was published in The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka, which you can still find online here.