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Artistic reflections: Catherine Hicks embroiders portraits on mirrors — without glue or magic

Catherine Hicks

Artist Catherine Hicks of Marble Falls in her downtown studio, where she embroideries portraits on mirrors. Her work has been shown in numerous galleries in the United States and abroad. In 2022, her work was part of shows at the Dougherty Arts Center in Austin and the Contemporary Craft center in Pittsburgh. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Marble Falls artist Catherine Hicks paints portraits with a needle and thread on antique mirrors, a technique she has worked out over her 11 years as an artist. She began what she calls the transition from her mothering years into becoming an artist with a deep dive into art history, traditional painting techniques, and Vincent Van Gogh.

Over the past decade, her work has been shown in galleries and museums around the world, including the The Gallery Clerkenwell in London; Woodlawn & Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia; d’Art Center of Norfolk in Virginia; and the Tubac Center of the Arts in Arizona. 

“I was spending 25 hours a week driving kids to choir events, bringing food to theater rehearsals, just keeping up with my youngest son’s busy choir schedule,” Hicks said. “He goes off to college, so now what am I going to do with that time?”

She decided to become an artist.

Van Gogh embroidery
An embroidered portrait of Vincent van Gogh on cloth by Catherine Hicks. Courtesy photo

On June 11, 2012, Hicks embarked on a very public learning process. As she studied Van Gogh and art history, she committed to re-creating one (and sometimes more) of the 19th-century Dutch artist’s works each week for 52 weeks. To keep herself honest and on task, she posted her results on a weekly blog titled “The Vincent Project.”

“My name is Catherine and I am trying to become an artist,” she began in her first blog post. 

She kept to the daunting task, blogging her work whether good or bad.

“It was a very challenging year,” she said of the process. “It was an act of extreme bravery.” 

When that project ended, she began taking art classes in Austin, including a life drawing class in which half of her grade depended on a self-portrait in pastels. 

“Pastels were not meant for my hands,” she said. “I just couldn’t get it.” 

After crumpling up about 30 different attempts — and with a deadline looming — she looked to the detritus of her studio for inspiration.

“I found my dead needlepoint basket,” she remembered. “I had done needlepoint kits, probably my biggest artist’s expression before I started studying. I thought, there are some colors that look like my face. Those colors look like my hair.” 

They were pastel in color, so she started stitching. The professor was stunned by the results and gave her an immediate A, not just on the project but on the whole class. 

Frida Kahlo embroidery
An embroidered portrait of Frida Kahlo by Catherine Hicks. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Her second portrait was of Frida Kahlo on black velvet. It became part of “The World of Frida,” a traveling, three-year national show out of the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California.

At a solo show of her work at the Pope-Leighey House, Hicks saw something that would take her art to the next level. An embroidered portrait of a growling wolf hung at the top of a dark stairway. It stopped her in her tracks.

“It was on a mirror, so when you got to the top of the stairs, you were greeted by this wolf,” she said. “You got to see your own face register shock at this animal in this mirror.” 

She studied the piece, trying to decipher how the artist, whose name she has since forgotten, attached her threadwork to the slick, silver surface. 

“On the plane home, I kept thinking about how she did that,” Hicks said. “That is the job of the artist, to solve the problem.”

Her solution is her “secret sauce,” she said, but then went on to explain the process, which is difficult and includes much precision measuring, stitching, and clipping of edges. It does not include any kind of adhesive. Basically, the artwork is fitted to the mirror like a corset, with a set of strings carefully strung and tightened behind the mirror. None of the strings can be seen front-facing.

“I grit my teeth, I pray a little,” Hicks said when asked how she does it. “The mirror is floating in the textile, well, not really floating. It’s in there quite snuggly.” 

She works with very thin fabrics, layering them with more and interfacing fabric for color. She uses a light box to position her drawing on the cloth and puts the whole thing in a hoop for stitching. 

“What I do is really painting,” she said. “When I stitch, I do a double-hand technique, which is very much like a sewing machine. It’s an unfussy style of needlework.” 

Catherine Hicks embroidery
These three pieces of embroidery on mirrors depict actresses Elsa Lanchester in ‘The Bride of Frankenstein,’ Tippi Hedrin in ‘The Birds,’ and Ingrid Bergman in ‘Gaslight.’ Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The results are stunning. Her subjects are easily recognizable movie, TV, and cultural icons. The women gaze at themselves, trying to find the courage to face a turning point in their lives, Hicks said. What makes her work different is how it incorporates the viewer into the piece. 

“The subject of the painting is looking, searching, and thinking, just like the observer of the work,” she wrote on her webpage,

Hicks has not stopped exploring and expanding boundaries. During the pandemic, she and husband Bryan took up golf to get out of the house and be active. She has since grown to love the sport and plays weekly with friends in Meadowlakes. Golf also helps her shoulders relax from the tension of hunching over a hoop, stitching.

She is also working on a novel. Typing loosens kinks in her fingers, and stitching time is now spent meditating on the next steps in the novel’s plot. 

Catherine and Bryan have lived in Marble Falls for 30 years. Bryan is an attorney, and when Catherine is not working on her art, she answers phones for his law practice. Before taking on the mothering phase of her life, she was a reporter and a teacher. The couple has two grown sons. 

Through all that, she said, creativity “was leaking out of me.”

Hicks has turned that into art, what she terms a creative practice, much like her husband’s law practice. 

“It implies a discipline,” she said. “It’s a job. You get up, wash your hands, and pick up a needle every day because that’s the job. It’s like declaring myself an artist. With a creative practice, it’s not a hobby. It’s a professional practice.” 

And for that, she thanks Vincent Van Gogh. In her final entry on “The Vincent Project,” she noted that, while she was done with the blog, she was not done living a creative life. 

“I am ready to stop learning how to be an artist and start just being one,” she wrote. “I am very grateful to Vincent for that.” 

She did just that. What a way to Gogh.