Every time Christa Maiwald walks through airport security, she can feel her heart pounding hard against her chest.
She knows they’re going to search her. And she knows what they will find—a needle, tiny scissors and a colorful assortment of skeins.
“I don’t know what it is about me,” the embroidery artist said on Saturday morning during an interview at her home-studio in Springs. “They always go through my bags, the whole bit. It’s so strange. They took me into a room once. But no matter what it is, I’m always worrying, ‘Are they going to confiscate it, or not?’”
For the last two years, every moment spent traveling—be it 30,000 miles in the air or sitting shotgun next to her husband, Mark Segal, during a road trip—has been extremely precious to the artist, who created a new body of work for her first solo show at Guild Hall after winning the 73rd annual Members Exhibition in 2011.
It was a long time coming.
“Twenty-five years I’ve entered that show,” she smiled. “So I was really happy and amazed to win. Finally.”
By age 5, Ms. Maiwald knew that she would be an artist, the native Pennsylvanian said. There was only one problem. She couldn’t draw.
“I don’t have that beautiful hand where you can sketch something and everything looks realistic. My hand can’t do it. It doesn’t have that kind of control,” she said. “And I didn’t know it until I got to art school. There, if you can draw, you’re a really good artist. If you can’t draw, they ignore you.”
Ms. Maiwald wouldn’t settle for that. In the 1970s, she broke onto the video art scene before spontaneously moving across the country with her husband to write screenplays. But during their four-year stint in Los Angeles, she developed anorexia.
“I ended up in the hospital for two weeks with feeding tubes. I almost didn’t make it,” she said, shaking her head. “It was horrible. I cleaned up my act and said, ‘That’s it with L.A.’”
In 1986, the couple moved to the East End—a favorite summer spot of theirs—and raised two children, Kate and Devin, who are now 26 and 24, respectively. Both have made appearances in their mother’s artwork—most recently it’s been embroidery, which Ms. Maiwald discovered only 13 years ago.
The craft was trendy at the time, she said. But the artist made the medium her own.
For each of the pieces—which are primarily portraits, her most recent batch depicting short stories about famous artists, from Michelangelo and Salvador Dalí to René Magritte and Joan Mitchell—Ms. Maiwald begins with a line drawing based on a photograph. She loads it into the computer, alters its size and prints it out. Then, she either works with it alone or on her composition boards before transferring it onto white cotton with a Rapidograph technical pen.
“If I still like it—there’s so many points this can go wrong—then I start stitching,” she said. “I only know three stitches, but I came up with making these little blocks if I decide to fill in. I can gradate and get shadows that way, to make it look not so flat.”
Starting out 13 years ago, the artist would work seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a short lunch break. She called it the Embroidery Factory. Now, she starts at 10:30 a.m. sharp, still every day, and breaks after a few hours to run errands. If she has time in the afternoon, she’ll come back to her work—the only point at which she’ll allow herself to sit.
Over the years, she’s created close to 100 portraits, she said. A career highlight came this past summer at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton during the Great Chefs Dinner when she embroidered a portrait of the event’s honoree, celebrity chef Eric Ripert, that was up for silent auction.
“My friend said, ‘Get over there! He’s making a bid!’” Ms. Maiwald recalled. “So I went over and, oh, my heart.”
She had only just finished swooning when she realized that the famous chef had won the bid.
“I just love him,” said Ms. Maiwald, who also runs a baking business. “I love his food. I love his restaurant. He’s not one of those snobby, impossible French chefs. He’s a really great guy.”
A number of years ago, the artist found herself in Mr. Ripert’s homeland, this time with a different portrait in her hands. She held the iconic face of French actress Leslie Caron, who starred in the 1958 musical “Gigi.”
“Mark and I stayed at her little B&B, and she was actually there,” Ms. Maiwald said. “She was as famous as any of the stars that are out there now, during her heyday. I got to have my picture with her and I gave her the portrait. She liked it. She said, ‘Oh, I’ll hang it at one of my other B&Bs.’ It was cute.”
To and from France, Ms. Maiwald wasn’t lucky enough to be sewing on the flight, she said. But on a recent trip to Portugal, she got through security, she said, and decided to try something new—embroidering an abstract, drips and all, to complement her Joan Mitchell portrait.
“That was really surprising, that they allowed me to bring on my needle and scissors. Sometimes they let me, but that’s usually on the domestic flights,” the artist said, tightening her embroidery hoop. “Going to Europe? Pretty much never. And it gets really boring. So I have to be a little sneaky.”
She laughed to herself, threaded her needle and got to work.
“Christa Maiwald: Short Stories and Other Embroideries” will open with a reception on Saturday, October 26, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. The artist will give a gallery talk on Sunday, November 17, at 2 p.m. and the exhibit will remain on view through January 5. For more information, call 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.