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Malin Lager stands next to a portrait of her mother, Gerd.

MONTEREY >> You have to see Malin Lager's artworks to believe and appreciate them.

The diminutive Swedish artist uses neither paint nor brush. Her medium of choice is the sewing machine. But her works are so compelling that your mind assumes they are paintings. Until you look closely.

Her works are labeled fabric art, but that term seems inadequate.

A selection of Lager's work — mostly portraits of family members — is on display at the Monterey Museum of Art on Pacific Street from Friday until Oct. 20. It is her first museum exhibit in California.

Lager, who lives part time in Monterey, says it takes three months or more to complete a piece, using three sewing machines and hundreds of stops to change the color of the silk thread. "I have had deep feelings for sewing since I was a small child," she says.

Although her subjects range from lichen-covered rocks and wet cobblestone streets in Venice to sun-dappled meadows, her Monterey show features portraits of her mother, her two daughters, a granddaughter and two friends.

Like many painters, she often applies an undercoat to her pieces. "When I started this one (a stunning view of a field of rattlesnake grass and wild oats), I sewed on a piece of yellow cloth. Then over here," she gestures, "I added another layer of colorful cloth as an undercoat."

But the layers of cloth are invisible under the intricate, vibrant needlework of her machine. The grasses take on a realistic texture and the long, delicate stems seem to sway in the wind.


Does she ever do any hand sewing? "Absolutely not," she says. "It's all machine." Even her signature is machine sewn.

Lager comes from a long line of artists. Her great-grandfather and grandfather were blacksmiths. Her father was a sculptor and a lithographer. Her grandmother sewed, embroidered and wove, eventually becoming a furniture maker. Her mother, Gerd, whose portrait is exhibited in the show, is an oil painter and fiber artist. "My mother is rebellious," Lager says. "She is very colorful, as you see by her clothes."

Lager began as a sculptor and took to the sewing machine as an art form in 1980. Perhaps that's why much of the details in her work have depth and body. She slowly, stitch by stitch, builds up layers and layers of silk thread. "The texture and the feel have to come together," she notes.

She works from photographs of her subjects, using the photos as a sketchbook, getting to know their faces better and envisioning what she wants to portray.

"First I sew the shape of the face and body in a light-colored thread. I sew on pieces of fabric that I will use as an undercoat for the background," she says. "Then I start with the eyes — it's so important to capture the soul in the eyes."

One portrait of a gray-haired photographer has twinkling eyes and a tight little smile that hints at a humorous nature. Her stray hairs float over a background of black cloth. The work exudes a feeling of a person you would like to know.

Two portraits of her daughter Emelie are striking. In one, she looks at the viewer in front of a red backdrop. The other portrait is more haunting — you get the feeling you have seen it before. That's because it's an homage to Johannes Vermeer's painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Lager is quick to note that in her version, Emelie is facing the other way and wears more than a single pearl.

In a portrait of her other daughter, Maria, Lager includes a white satin blouse that is expertly puckered as if it were real.

The only instance where the viewer can spot a stray piece of fabric is on a portrait of her granddaughter, who is standing in a corner. The added piece of cloth is shown intentionally to portray the corner.

Lager says, "The hardest thing to do is the necks. The neck has no real form, there are wrinkles and problems."

But she handles the problem slowly, one stitch at a time.

Fred Hernandez is a Herald correspondent.

If you go

What: Opening reception for Malin Lager

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Monterey Museum of Art, 559 Pacific St., Monterey

Tickets: Free for museum members, $10 for nonmembers

Information: The exhibit opens to the public at 11 a.m. Friday; museum hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Lager will lecture on her art at 3 p.m. July 26.