Every year, I ask the students in my graduate proseminar on Media Theory and Methods to interview a media maker and to try to get a sense of the theoretical assumptions underlying their work. In part, this exercise is designed to give students some experience in conducting and interpreting interviews. In part, it is intended to get them out of the classroom and testing how the ideas we've been exploring in academic terms throughout the course relate to what's happening on the ground. Every year, I am astounded by what students come up with -- especially the diversity of media represented in an average cohort in our program. And so, off and on, I am going to be sharing with you a few of the essays I received which I felt would be of particular interest to regular readers of this blog. This first deals with the relationship between art, craft, and popular culture, a recurring theme in this class, brought home by Whitney Trettien's interview with Jenny Hart, an artist who works in embroidery. Enjoy.
"This Ain't Your Gramma's Embroidery!": An Interview with Jenny Hart
by Whitney Trettien
Jenny Hart is, first and foremost, an artist. Her work has been shown in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, London; she has been featured in the magazines Spin, Rolling Stone and Bust, to name a few. Many of her pieces are in the private collections of celebrities, including Carrie Fisher, Ben Harper, Tracey Ullman, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor.
Yet most would dismiss her medium as mere hobby-craft, a distraction for middle-aged housewives. Hart paints with embroidery thread on cloth canvasses.
"I work with embroidery in multiple ways," Hart told me; "as fine art, as illustration, as a hobby-craft." Although she dropped out of art school to study French, Hart now shows her work in galleries and frequently collaborates with contemporary artists, such as Kevin Scalzo and Jon Langford.
"Aw Nutts" by Jenny Hart and Kevin Scalzo. 2002. Hand-embroidery on satin and felt.
One of her recent pieces, "Oh Unicorn," invites the viewer to break down the arts/crafts dichotomy through its tender treatment of its subject and its "non-traditional media" - deerskin embroidered with her own hair, a process she has described as "embroidering with air".
. "Oh Unicorn." 2005. Hair embroidered on leather.
When the swatch of deerskin makes up the back of a jacket or purse, the needlework is mere embellishment; when pinned to a gallery wall, though, the delicacy of the lines illuminates the artistry in hobby-craft, and the craftwork required to make art. Says Hart, "I introduce themes in patterns that typically are not used but have an obvious (at least to me) relationship to needlearts," both underscoring and obscuring her relationship to contemporary embroidery aesthetics.
It's clear in Hart's work that her artistic predecessors are not the darlings of the modern art world, but comic artists and illustrators like Moebius and George Herriman. "I grew up reading my older brothers' stash of independent comics," Hart admits. "Zap, Weirdo, Neat Stuff, Heavy Metal, Love and Rockets, Ranzerox - I love illustration and great comics. They also are a great inspiration to me for embroidery." One of her most recent works, "Girl with Japanese Clouds," uses the iconography of manga to express quiet grief, while much of her portraiture draws upon the conventions of classic illustration.
"Girl with Japanese Clouds." 2006. Hand embroidery on denim
"I'm working on an embroidered comic series this upcoming year," Hart says, adding that she has collaborated with comic artists in the past.
Hart, though, is quick to note that unlike comics, her work is not narrative. "I see my work as having a memorializing quality," she says. "This has to do with the medium - embroidery, often used on quilts and for heirlooms - and the format, portraiture." Despite needlework's long history in both art and storytelling - the Bayeux Tapestry is a typical example - today, embroidery is seen as a decorative craft, a means of ornamenting a useful object. Hart's portraits, however, allow embroidery to stand on its own, freeing her work to play with the concept of ornamentation. She often does so by ironically "decorating" not an object, but her subject. In "Jim Goad," for instance, the notorious author's head floats above the phrase "Nolite me culpare," while flames, a dying snake and revolvers adorn the edges of the fabric.
Jim Goad." 2002. Hand-embroidery and sequins on cotton
In a more flattering portrait, Hart embroiders "Ars longa, vita brevis est" under the ruggedly handsome head of Bill Hicks. Hart admits, "I tend to idealize people in my portraits."
Bill Hicks." 2003. Hand-embroidery and sequins on cotton and satin.
Hart also shies away from describing her work as "feminist." "Well, I'm quick to explain that my work was never intended as a feminist statement, or a comment on domestic handcrafts," she tells me. "But, once I began the work I came to respect that connection, I became aware of it - the time, the care and skill that goes into embroidering is overlooked and undervalued as 'women's work.'" Although none of her work is overtly feminist, iconic and bold women, such as Dolly Parton and the burlesque dancer Irma the Body, play prominently in her portraiture.
Blue Dolly." 2003. Hand-embroidery and sequins on cotton.
If Hart has not been shy to challenge the boundary between art and craft or high art and popular art, it should come as no surprise that she has used her artistic success to venture into business. Through Sublime Stitching, Hart sells embroidery patterns which center on a single theme that is often retro or camp, such as "Roller Derby" or wrestling ("Â¡Lucha Libre!"). "I saw no new 'mix' happening with embroidery," Hart says. "It was either flowers, or teddy bears or traditional themes worked over and over again with no new themes being introduced." The patterns may include a phrase or font, some icons related to the theme and a few more complex designs which the buyer can then mix and remix to create her own work.
Embroidered figures from Sublime Stitching's "Roller Derby" kit
Recently, Hart has used her business as a platform to disseminate the work of artists within the d.i.y. crafts world. She says, "I have started engaging the work of well-known illustrators (Kurt Halsey, Mitch O'Connell, Julie West) to design embroidery sheets for my company, that are sold to hobbyists." Illustrator Kurt Halsey's kit, for example, features needlework-friendly iterations of his twee pop illustrations, while tattoo and comics artist Mitch O'Connell's kit includes his trademark busty "bad gals." Hart has also collaborated with artists in other media, including indie pop bands The Decemberists and The Flaming Lips. These collaborations serve to collapse the distinction not only between artist and hobbyist, but between untouchable gallery work and reproduced, commodified craft. "Never before were the works of artists or illustrators sold as the craft platform for hobbyists," Hart explains, "unless they were doing so anonymously as a commercial and financial necessity. I'm deliberately combining the two to bring their fine art to craft, and the attention of crafters to their art."
By now, it should be clear that Hart's work draws from models typically thought of in relation to "new media": transmedia storytelling, media remix and mash-ups, internet entrepreneurship, participatory culture, social networking. Yet when asked to apply these concepts to her own work, Hart hesitates. "I guess I was working in 'new media' without realizing it," she tells me. "I'm definitely aware of working with an old medium and moving forward an old handcraft with emerging technology. The internet made it possible for me to launch my company." In many ways, Hart's work invites us to see digital technology not only in the context of the new, but in the context of the old, the nostalgic, or the residual - to explore, as Will Straw puts it, "the internet's relationship to a cultural past that it reinvigorates and invests with value."
Whitney Anne Trettien is a first year Master's Student in the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. She holds a B.A. in both English and Philosophy from Hood College (2007), spent her time as an undergraduate studying early English literature, continental and post-modern philosophy, as well as Latin, Old English, and Ancient Greek. Outside the classroom, she wrote extensively for online indie rock publications, edited webzines, and designed clothing for her internet company Moonslush. Unexpected commonalities between her academic research and the online communities she was involved with sparked her ongoing interest in the relationship between early oral narratives and the so-called "secondary orality" produced in digital culture.
Trettien is also a Truman Scholar and a political activist, having worked with the Green Party, Amnesty International, Women in Black, ACORN, and the Pro-Literacy Council, among other groups. She recently edited an anthology of stories, poems, photography, and artwork from the American peace movement entitled Cost of Freedom, which was published by Howling Dog Press in 2007.